John Steinbeck was a compulsive writer. In a letter to his editor and friend Pat Covici in 1960, he recorded his excitement about a planned trip by campervan around the United States.* Steinbeck wrote: "I nearly always write - just as I nearly always breathe". The association of writing with life itself defines Steinbeck. He wrote novels, plays, screenplays, opinion pieces, political speeches, travel journalism and war reportage. And, of course, letters.
From his days as a struggling writer in the 1920s until his death in 1968, Steinbeck wrote letters almost daily: to friends and family, to his literary agent, to his editor and to the political leaders with whom he associated when he became well-known. When Steinbeck was writing a novel, letter-writing was his way of warming up for a day's work. At other times he wrote letters because this was just what he did. Steinbeck was a shy man who hated speaking on the phone and letters often took the place of conversation with the people he cared about. In addition, he didn't write an autobiography, avoided giving interviews and was terrified of public speaking, so the letters form an important record of Steinbeck's life.
Reading this book was quite a project. Its 906 pages include letters written over a period of more than forty years. The first letter in the volume was written in 1926 to a college friend while Steinbeck was working as a caretaker on an estate at Lake Tahoe while writing his first novel. The last letter is incomplete: a letter to his literary agent probably begun shortly before he died in 1968. I found the book a fascinating read. The letters in it have been chosen because they have something to say. Mere letters of obligation or letters which are simply answers to other letters were not included in the collection.
Steinbeck had plenty to say in his letters. The picture of him which emerges from them is of an intelligent and thoughtful man who had insight into his own failings, who was generous and compassionate and who had a genuine interest in people, in society and in the natural environment. He writes with enthusiasm about topics as diverse as gardening, dogs, boats and gadgets he has invented or things he believes should be invented. In addition, the letters deal with his debilitating bouts of depression, the despair he felt as his first two marriages failed, his deep and enduring love for his third wife, his concerns about his sons and his recurring feeling that his writing was inadequate. Steinbeck also writes a lot about writing, both reflecting on his own practice and giving encouragement and advice to other writers.
I've read the collected letters of other writers in the past: Jane Austen's letters and those of Dorothy L Sayers are the ones which immediately come to mind. However, I've not found myself marking so many pages of a book with sticky notes before. This volume positively bristles with colourful plastic tabs. There are gems of wisdom and insight in it which I want to be able to read again. At the same time, part of me feels slightly uncomfortable at having read this lifetime of correspondence. Steinbeck did not write to his wife, to his sons or to his friends with an eye to publication. He was a private man and these letters reveal his private thoughts. While I'm not sure that he would have liked the idea of the general public reading his letters, I'm still very glad that the editors - Steinbeck's wife Elaine and his friend Robert Wallsten - thought that putting together the volume was a worthwhile endeavour.
This is highly recommended for writers and for anyone who appreciates Steinbeck's writing, wants more insight into Steinbeck the man and has plenty of time to read a doorstopper of a book.
*The record of this trip became [b:Travels with Charley: In Search of America|5306|Travels with Charley In Search of America|John Steinbeck|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347394032s/5306.jpg|1024827].