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.”