John Steinbeck, 1945 (ARCHIVIO GBB/Alamy Stock Photo)

My first introduction to literary letters was Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being. I had never been a big fan of O’Connor’s fiction, but her letters were riveting—theologically challenging, intellectually stimulating, and often hilarious. I devoured them, and have returned to them often for inspiration and ideas. I had a similar experience with Virginia Woolf: again, I wasn’t crazy about her fiction, but her letters (and diaries) were a treat. Sometimes letters can be the gateway to a writer’s more substantial work—that was how I read William Maxwell, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Hara, E. B. White, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth Bishop—but if one has to choose, for me it’s always the letters that win out.

I just finished reading John Steinbeck’s A Life in Letters, a massive nine-hundred-page treasure covering nearly fifty years (from 1926 to 1968). In that period, Steinbeck lived through two difficult marriages and one of enormous happiness; he went from poverty and obscurity to wealth and world fame. The collection includes Steinbeck’s correspondence with childhood friends with whom he stayed in touch, along with letters to and from presidents, artists, and international celebrities.

I read it while recovering from chikungunya, a mysterious and very painful viral disease whose only cure is rest, and Steinbeck’s voice was so hypnotic it entered my dreams and colored my own letter writing. I loved his letters so much I want others to know about them too, for they recall an era when literature stood on its own, without hype or promotions or an Instagram account, and when political discourse was conducted with dignity and respect, even when people disagreed.

Of course, Steinbeck’s time had its own share of conflict. Several of his books were banned and he experienced threats, violence, and frequent intimidation. His hometown library refused to carry his books, and The Grapes of Wrath created such a furor among farm owners that a friend in the sheriff’s department in Santa Clara, California, gave him a long string of warnings, including one that he should never go into a hotel alone: “The boys got a rape case set up for you. You get alone in a hotel and a dame will come in, tear off her clothes, scratch her face and scream and you try and talk yourself out of that one. They won’t touch your book but there’s easier ways.”

Steinbeck just kept working. As desperate as he often was for money (he was on welfare during the Depression, and his first wife took jobs under the WPA so that he could keep writing), he wouldn’t compromise. When doing a story for Life magazine on the conditions of migrant workers who were living in tents in flooded fields, he told his agent that Fortune magazine had also asked for an article: “But I won’t [do it]. I don’t like the audience…. I’m sorry but I simply can’t make money on these people. The suffering is too great for me to cash in on it.” Where artistic standards were concerned, he was similarly intransigent. When Reader’s Digest wanted to do its version of The Grapes of Wrath, his response was: “I don’t like digests. If I could have written it shorter I would have.”

Steinbeck’s voice was so hypnotic it entered my dreams and colored my own letter writing.

His commitment to farmworkers in particular and to the poor in general is a theme running throughout his fiction and journalism. For him, it was a fundamental function of the artist: “I am a very dangerous revolutionary,” he said. “Herein is my revolt: I will fight for the right of the individual to function as an individual without pressure from any direction. I am unalterably opposed to any interference with the creative mind. It may be wrong, but out of it come the only rights we know. I place myself at the service of this revolutionary cause. The minds and spirits of men can and will be free.”

As Steinbeck became more aware of the injustices done to migrant workers, the immigration issues in Mexico, and the growing control of the economy by fewer and fewer powerful companies, he took it upon himself to write to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt directly and was given a personal meeting with him. Later, Adlai Stevenson became a close friend. President John F. Kennedy asked him to go to the Soviet Union to promote a dialogue between Russian writers and artists and their American counterparts. (“From the President, I take a request as an order,” he wrote to friends.) It was while Steinbeck was in Russia with his wife Elaine that JFK was assassinated. He wrote to his agent about their shock and grief: “We are lonesome and homesick. Yesterday a woman came up to Elaine and said, ‘I have to talk to an American. I am an American.’ They fell into each other’s arms and wept. I knew it, but you can’t tell anyone—it isn’t possible.” Steinbeck was the one person Jackie Kennedy wanted to write a book about her husband after his death. Although nothing ever came of the project, she later referred to the letters (included in this collection) she and Steinbeck exchanged as enormously important to her during that terrible time.

Steinbeck was moved deeply by Lyndon B. Johnson’s commitment to eliminating poverty and to the Civil Rights struggle. After his “We Shall Overcome” speech to Congress in 1965, Steinbeck wrote him a stirring letter of gratitude and praise, to which LBJ responded: “Thousands of letters have come to me since my speech to the Congress. But none touched me or affected me to the degree yours did. Thank you, my dear friend. Thank you for your trust and your affection.”

Although many derided Steinbeck in the 1960s for his support for the Vietnam war, some believe he may have been significantly influenced by his younger son’s conversion to the cause of nonviolence after a tour of duty there. In spite of that son’s association with disreputable “hippies” and his arrest for possession of marijuana, Steinbeck stood by him loyally. Certainly, in these letters he not only never disparages his son for his views, but also stands up for his right to express them.

The understated way in which Steinbeck learned about his Nobel Prize is perhaps my favorite part of this volume. It was at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis and he and his wife were at their holiday home in Sag Harbor. They turned on the television to hear how close the world was to nuclear annihilation and heard instead: “John Steinbeck has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

Without having been forced to rest because of chikungunya, I don’t know when I would have had the opportunity to be so totally immersed in these letters of a lifetime. I can’t recommend the disease, but if you have a chance to read Steinbeck’s letters, the experience will be both rich and rewarding.

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the February 2023 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.