Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters - John Steinbeck
On every working day between 29 January and 1 November 1951, John Steinbeck wrote a letter to his close friend and editor at Viking Press, Pat Covici, before he began his work for the day on the manuscript of [b:East of Eden|4406|East of Eden|John Steinbeck||2574991]. The letters were written on the left-hand pages of the large notebook in which Steinbeck wrote - by hand, in pencil - the novel which meant most to him. Steinbeck told Covici that writing the letters was his way of "getting [his] mental arm in shape to pitch a good game".

Steinbeck's daily letters to Covici touch on a range of subjects. They describe what he intended to achieve on the day in question. They refer to his personal circumstances, in particular to his love for his third wife Elaine and his concerns regarding his young sons. The letters also describe Steinbeck's other projects: the gadgets he liked to invent, his woodwork projects (in particular a carved box he was making for Covici and in which he would ultimately give Covici the manuscript of the novel). However, the most signficant aspect of the work is the light that the letters throw on the process through which East of Eden was written, on Steinbeck's passionate devotion to the writing of the novel and on his own psychological make-up. As is fitting for a writer who was skilled at describing people and their environment, Steinbeck had insight into his thought processes and emotions. He unflinchingly described his bouts of depression and self-doubt, his periods of manic activity, the days when everything went well and the days when he had difficulty motivating himself to work.

While there is some repetition in the letters - there were days which were a lot like other days - the work is also full of insights into how Steinbeck felt, not just about the book, but about writing. For example, on 3 September 1951 he wrote:
Writing is a very silly business at best. There is a certain ridiculousness about putting down a picture of life. And to add to the joke - one must withdraw from life in order to set down that picture. And third one must distort one's own way of life in order in some sense to simulate the normal in other lives. Having gone through all this nonsense, what emerges may well be the palest of reflections.... And the greatest foolishness of all lies in the fact that to do it at all, the writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true. If he does not, the work is not worth even what it might otherwise have been.

Steinbeck was not fond of professional literary critics, but he was aware that he could not control how readers would react to East of Eden, the novel which meant more to him that anything else he had written. On 10 October 1951, three weeks before he finished the manuscript, he wrote:
In a short time [it] will be done and it will not be mine any more. Other people will take it over and own it and it will drift away from me as though I had never been a part of it. I dread that time because one can never pull back. [It's] like shouting good-bye to someone going off on a bus and no one can hear because of the roar of the motor.

I wish I had read this book around the same time as I listened to the audiobook of East of Eden last year, so that the details of the novel were clearer in my head. As I read, I occasionally re-read particular chapters of the novel in order to refresh my memory. However, I know that reading the novel and this book in conjunction with each other would have enriched my experience of both works. That said, I very much enjoyed the book. It is highly recommended for admirers of Steinbeck's writing in general and East of Eden in particular.