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Entries in john steinbeck (3)

Thursday
Jan062011

In Which When Pilot Fish Fasten On Shark They Contribute Only Drag

You can find the first part of this series here.

The Fireplace Still Burns

After his divorce from Gwyn, John Steinbeck settled into a bit of a rut. He questioned almost everything about the way he lived his life, and fell into something of a writer's block. In his personal affairs he was clearly a lonely man who was not exactly a pleasure to be around, and his prolific letter-writing took over as his major connection with others. The explosion of energy we find in these letters to his editor Pascal "Pat" Covici, constitutes the journal he felt he had to keep while working through the pain of losing his family.

with his two kids, john and thom

To Pascal Covici
September 1948

Dear Pat —

The thing makes a full circle with 20 years inside of it. Amazing, isn't it? And what wonderful years and sad ending ones. I am back in the little house. It hasn't changed and I wonder how much I have. For two days I have been cutting the lower limbs off the pine trees to let some light into the garden so that I can raise some flowers. Lots of red geraniums and fuchsias. The fireplace still burns. I will be painting the house for a long time I guess. And all of it seems good.

There are moments of panic but those are natural I suppose. And then sometimes it seems to me that nothing whatever has happened. As though it was the time even before Carol. Tonight the damp fog is down and you can feel it on your face. I can hear the bell buoy off the point. The only proof of course will be whether I can work — whether there is any life in me. I think there is but that doesn't mean anything until it gets rolling. Women I will have to have of course, only I wonder if I have learned to keep them in their place. They have a way of sprawling all over and that I can't have any more. I haven't enough time and I couldn't take another sequence like the last two.

Anyway this is just a note to tell you I'm in a new shell or an old one, like a hermit crab and the ink is now out of two of my pens and this is the last one. I have no more ink in the house tonight. I'll keep you posted.

Affectionately
(and write to me)

John

To Pascal Covici
September 19, 1948

Dear Pat:

You are right — I do get the horrors every now and then. Comes on like a cold wind. There it is, just a matter of weathering it. Alcohol doesn't help that a bit. I usually go into the garden and work hard.

At that moment Ritch and Tal Lovejoy came in for a cup of coffee and then I watered the garden and here it is dusk. A very quiet Sunday and I've enjoyed it. My hands are literally tired from moving rocks. And it is a fine feeling.

It has been one of the dark days that I like very well — overcast and almost cold except that flowers like it and seem to be on fire in such a light. I think flowers' colors are brighter here than any place on earth and I don't know whether it is the light that makes them seem so or whether they really are.

I debated strongly about whether to dress and go out to dinner or whether to cook something and stay home in quiet and determined on the latter.

So I'll close and send you more reports.

October 18

Dear Pat:

I got to reading Auden's introduction to the Greek portable and it is very fine. He is such a good writer. Have you read Lady Godiva and Master Tom by Raoul Faure? A really blistering study of a woman.

I shall be going to Los Angeles with Kazan about the first of November and to Mexico soon after. Probably be gone for about a month. I have not worked on The Salinas Valley. I don't want to now until everything is clear because I think I am about ready for it and I'm letting it stew. It would be bad if the whole conception turned out no good. But I'll do it anyway. I am really looking forward to the doing of it, good or bad.

I miss Ed and I don't all at the same time. It is a thing that is closed — that might possibly have been closing anyway. Who can tell? Great changes everywhere and every which way. I still get the panic aloneness but I can work that out by thinking of what it is. And it is simply the breaking of a habit which was painful in itself but we hold onto habits even when we don't like them. A very senseless species. There is no future in us I'm afraid. I can hear the music beginning to turn in my head. And by the time the spring comes I hope I will be turning with it like a slow and sluggish dervish or some mushroom Simon Stylites, a fungus on a stone pillar.

Friday

Dear Pat:

The week I've put in planting — things I'll probably never see flower - either because I won't be here or I won't be looking. I have no sense of permanence. This is way stopping-place, I think, as every other place is. I've made my tries at "places" and they don't work. But this is a good way stopping-place and a good one to come back to — often.

I awakened the other night with a great sense of change happening somewhere. Could not sleep anymore and all night the sense of change, neither pleasant nor unpleasant but happening. It hung on for several days. Gradually my energy is coming back a little at a time. It is so strange that I could lose it so completely. One never knows what he will do ever.

Just now the rain started, very gentle and good. I hope it rains a long time. There has not been enough.

I'm sorry I was so closed in, in New York. But I realized more than any time in my whole life that there is nothing anyone can do. It's something that has to be done alone. Even with women, and that's good, there is largely no companionship except for a very little while.

This has been a long bleak day.

Saturday

Curious sleepless night after a long time of oversleeping. There was a great thunder and lightning storm in the night and rain fell. Maybe the changing pressure kept me awake. I know I'm very sensitive to changing pressures.

Beth [his sister] is supposed to come down today. I hope she does. It is a long time since I have seen her. We have a lot to talk over. And she is usually so surrounded that there is no chance to see her alone.

with bob hope on a USO tour of Southeast Asia in 1966

Monday

This is turning into a diary. Beth did come down and I got to see her alone for the first time in a long time. She is well but of course is working too hard as always.

This time I am going to send this

love,

John

To Pascal Covici
November 1, 1948

Dear Pat:

Well that is over. Thanks for your letters. They helped. I'm leaving for Hollywood tomorrow and for Mexico on Friday. I'm pretty much relaxed, I think, things have been about as disgusting and nasty as they can get and they didn't kill me. I wish I could thoroughly believe that this is to be a new leaf. I wish I could be sure I have learned something. I am not sure of either. But I can try. At least if I try it again there will be a shudder of apprehension.

Gwyn once told me that she could do anything and I would come crawling back. At the time I was very much in love with her but even then I told her not to depend on it. A woman holds dreadful power over a man who is in love with her but she should realize that the quality and force of his love is the index of his potential contempt and hatred. And nearly no women or men realize that. We will not mention this again in a post-mortem sense. Only if it becomes active will it be necessary. I think I am getting strength back — perhaps more than I have had in 17 years and perhaps more than I have ever had. I want the hot words to come out again and hiss on the paper and I think they may. My needs are filled.

I hope you will write to me. I thank you for the fine bale of yellow pads. I shall make good use of them, I hope. And on your next trip out here I will get you drunk on red wine and music and the old ghosts we have neglected will walk again and wail on the wet rocks. This is a time of change and maybe of destruction, but the waves and the tide will not change, no matter how much we blast or are blasted. The black roots of the little species may put own new leaves. It is about time. There has been nothing erected for a long time. Matter is creative, that we have known and studied, but we have forgotten that the grey lobes in the head are creative too — the only and unique creative thing in the whole world of our seeing and hearing and touching.

A lot of high flown language but let it flow. Never again does it have to stoop to critics, or friends or lovers. It can be as good or as silly as it can be, not wise and smart and little.

And that's all for now. I will write to you from Mexico. I'm working on the life of a very great man but primarily a man. It would be good to study him closely. His life had a rare series — beginning, middle and end, and most lives dribble away like piss in the dust.

I'll be talking to you soon.

John

Many of his friends became worried about him. Mildred Lyman, of the McIntosh and Otis office visited him before he left for Mexico and wrote to Annie Laurie Williams:

"He is deeply disturbed and frightened about his work. If it doesn't go well in Mexico I honestly don't know what will happen. The fact that so much time has elapsed without his accomplishing anything to speak of worries him a great deal. He has a defense mechanism which is constantly in action and it is hard to get behind that. What John needs more than anything right now is discipline. I'm afraid that he wanted to get to Mexico for reasons other than writing. I heard quite a bit while I was with him about the gal, and I don't think that bodes any good. She's a tramp. He writes tons and tons of letters late at night. He is in a strange mood and has a very peculiar ideas of women these days. He eats at odd hours and not properly, stays up late and sleeps late and tries so hard to convince himself that he likes it."

By the end of November of that year, he had written to Covici to say, "I did Thanksgiving very well but Xmas I will not try. I will get a gallon of wine and the prettiest girl I can find and I will forget Christmas this year." By the following summer, he was feeling at least a little more energized, writing to the novelist John O'Hara, whose Appointment in Samarra had been a literary sensation.

To John O'Hara
June 8, 1949

Dear John:

Your letter made me very happy. This is a time of most profound readjustments, emotional as well as in other directions and the reassurance of a letter like yours cannot be overestimated. Everything dried up as it is bound to, and got out of drawing and with three more mixed metaphors I will have a literary bouillabaisse, or how do you spell it.

I am extremely anxious to read your new book. There are lots of reasons for this. I believe that your hatreds are distilling off and that your work is all ahead of you. Maybe the training in hatred in all of us is necessary. For hate is a completely self-conscious and personalized emotion and a deterrent to a clear view but it may be as necessary to developing ability as the adjectives we later learn to eliminate. But we must first use the adjectives before we can know how to leave them out.

I've had seven months of quiet out here to try to reduce the maelstrom to tea kettle size. For myself there are two things I cannot do without. Crudely stated they are work and women, and more gently — creative effort in all directions. Effort and love. Everything else I can do without but if those were effectively removed I would take a powder instantly.

Being alone here has allowed me to think out lots of things. There is so much yapping in the world. The coyotes are at us all the time telling us what we are, what we should do and believe. The stinking little parasitic minds that fasten screaming on us like pilot fish that fasten on a shark, they contribute only drag. I think I believe one thing powerfully — that the only creative thing our species has is the individual, lonely mind. Two people can create a child but I know of no other thing created by a group. The group ungoverned by individual thinking is a horrible destructive principle. The great change in the last 2,000 years was the Christian idea that the individual soul was very precious. Unless we can preserve and foster the principle of the preciousness of the individual mind, the world of men will either disintegrate into a screaming chaos or will go into a grey slavery. And that fostering and preservation seem to me our greatest job.

This will probably be a long and boring letter, but I need some one to talk to and good or bad for you, you are tagged.

You see I worked last year but it was all experiment and notes. I've been practicing for a book for 35 years and this is it. I don't see how it can be popular because I am inventing method and form and tone and context. And of course I am scared of it. It's cold lonely profession and this is the coldest and loneliest because this is all I can do, and when it is done I've either done or I never had it to do.

Ernest Hemingway, Sherman Billingsley and John O'Hara

I've reread your letter and this is another day. You know I was born without any sense of competition. Consequently I have never even wondered about the comparative standing of writes. I don't understand that. Writing to me is a deeply personal, even a secret function and when the product is turned loose it is cut off from me and I have no sense of its being mine. It is like a woman trying to remember what child birth is like. She never can.

Again I have re-read your letter. And you are quite right. A man is always married. I wonder though whether he can be married to idea — with different people carrying the ball (oh Jesus!). I will know sometime maybe. Being married to me is a very hard thing. I am kind and loving and generous but there is always the rival (work) and to most women that is worse than another woman. They can kill or eliminate another woman but that rival they cannot even get close to no matter how you try to make them a part of it. And there's the necessity for being alone — that must be dreadful to a wife.

This maundering will probably go on for some time.

Now it is even more days later. I thought, after I stopped writing the other day, regarding your words about a wife. And do you remember in the Mabinogion, the ancient Welsh story of a man who made a wife entirely of flowers?

My boys will be with me in another two weeks and I will be glad. I deeply resent their growing and me not there to see. that is the only thing I resent now. The rest is all gone. But imagine if you couldn't see your daughter for months at a time when every day is a change and growth and fascination. I saw my oldest boy turn over on his back and discover the sky and in his look of wonderment I remembered when it happened to me and exactly how it was.

That's all now. But I would like and need to keep in touch.

John

You can read the first part of this series here.

meeting lyndon johnson with his son in 1963

"Convict Lake" - John Vanderslice (mp3)

"White Wilderness" - John Vanderslice (mp3)

"The Piano Lesson" - John Vanderslice (mp3)

with third wife Elaine Scott

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If You Feel Something, Might As Well Write It Down And Mail It To Someone

The astonishing letter writing of Vladimir Nabokov...

The deep waters of Ernest Hemingway...

Elaine de Kooning's memories of Mark Rothko...

Gustave Flaubert and George Sand's squabbles...

Gertrude Stein knows more about these things than most...

Let's face it, Anne Sexton was one hell of a woman...

James Agee's magical Plans for Work...

The last letter of John Cowper Powys to Henry Miller...

The autobiography of Robert Creeley...

The cagey love affair of William Faulkner...

Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett lie for fun and profit...

Elizabeth Gumport and Dawn Powell...

John Ashbery explains Fairfield Porter through his letters...

Jessica Ferri on Sylvia Plath...

Georgia O'Keeffe's journal and letter writing has no equal...

The stormy relationship of Rimbaud and Verlaine...

The brilliance of William Gass' letters....

...nothing could have survived their life.

Tuesday
Dec282010

In Which John Steinbeck Spends His Life Trying To Be Less Lonesome

Alone In His Wrongness

Time interval is a strange and contradictory manner in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.

In both his private correspondence and his fiction writing, the prose of John Steinbeck was clear in its minute details but murkier once you stood back to appraise the whole. As the following letters to his friends and agents Mavis McIntosh and Elizabeth Otis prove, John was an exacting and demanding artist who struggled with the impositions that fame placed on his life. These letters take us up to the publication of his novel Cannery Row; his masterpieces The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men had already made him a number of friends and enemies. Above all, they had turned him into what he most resented: a literary phenomenon. The tumult destroyed his first marriage to his wife Carol, and threatened to do the same with his second wife Gwyn in the excerpts that follow.

To Mavis McIntosh
Montrose, January 1933

Dear Miss McIntosh,

We live in the hills back of Los Angeles now and there are few people around. One of our neighbors loaned me three hundred detective magazines, and I have read a large part of them out of pure boredom. They are so utterly lousy that I wonder whether you have tried to peddle that thing I dashed off to any of them. It might mean a few dollars. Could be very much cut to fit, you know. Will you think about it? It would be better than letting it lie around, don't you think?

I think that, when this is sent off (this new novel) I shall do some more short stories. I always think I will and they invariably grow into novels, but I'll try anyway. There are some fine little things that happened in a big sugar mill where I was assistant chief chemist and majordomo of about sixty Mexicans and Yuakis taken from the jails of northern Mexico. There was the Gutierrez family that spent its accumulated money for a Ford and started from Mexico never thinking they might need gasoline. There was the ex-corporal of Mexican cavalry, whose wife had been stolen by a captain and who was training his baby to be a general so he could get even better women. There was the Lazarus who drank factory acid and sat down to die. The lime in his mouth neutralized the acid but he could never go back to his old life because he had been spiritually dead for a moment. His will to live never came back.

There was the Indian who, after a terrific struggle to learn to tell time by a clock, invented a clock of his own that he could understand. There is the saga of the Carriaga family. Son hanged himself for the love of a chippy and was cut down and married the girl. His father aged sixty-five fell in love with the fourteen-year-old girl and tried the same thing, but a door with a spring lock fell shut and he didn't get cut down. There is Ida Laguna who fell violently in love with the image of St. Joseph and stole it from the church and slept with it and they both went to hell. These are a few as they really happened. I could make some little stories of them I think.

I notice that a number of reviewers (what lice they are) complain that I deal particularly in the subnormal and the psychopathic. If said critics would inspect their neighbors within one block, they would find that I deal with the normal and the ordinary.

The manuscript called "Dissonant Symphony" I wish you would withdraw. I looked at it not long ago and I don't want it out. I may rewrite it sometime, but I certainly do not want that mess published under any circumstances, revised or not.

Sincerely,

John Steinbeck

An old friend's backbiting was the genesis of this spirited rebuke.

To George Albee
Los Gatos, 1938

Dear George,

The reason for your suspicion is well founded. This has been a difficult and unpleasant time. There has been nothing good about it. In this time my friends have rallied around, all except you. Every time there has been a possibility of putting a bad construction on anything I have done, you have put such a construction.

Some kind friend has told me about it every time you have stabbed me in the back and that whether I wanted to know it or not. I didn't want to know it really. If such things had been reported as coming from more than one person it would be easy to discount the whole thing but there has been only one source. Now I know that such things grow out of an unhappiness in you and for a long time I was able to reason so and to keep on terms of some kind of amicability. But gradually I found I didn't trust you at all, and when I knew that then I couldn't be around you any more. It became obvious that anything I said or did in your presence or wrote to you would be warped viciously and repeated and then the repetition was repeated to me and the thing was just too damned painful. I tried to sidestep, just to fade out of your picture. But that doesn't work, either.

I'd like to be friends with you, George, but I can't if I have to wear a mail shirt the whole time. I wish to God your unhappiness could find some other outlet. But I can't consider you a friend when out of every contact there comes some intentionally wounding thing. This has been the most difficult time in my life.

I've needed help and trust and the benefit of the doubt, because I've tried to beat the system which destroys every writer, and from you have come only wounds and kicks in the face. And that is the reason and I think you always knew it was the reason.

john

And now if you want to quarrel, it will at least be an honest quarrel and not boudoir pin pricking.

After the stage version of Of Mice and Men received the Critics' Circle award, Steinbeck sent a telegram to the group.

Los Gatos, April 1938

CRITICS CIRCLE, CARE ANNIE LAURIE WILLIAMS 18 EAST 41ST ST NYC

GENTLEMEN: I HAVE ALWAYS CONSIDERED CRITICS AS AUTHORS NATURAL ENEMIES NOW I FEEL VERY MILLENIAL BUT A LITTLE TIMID TO BE LYING DOWN WITH THE LION THIS DISTURBANCE OF THE NATURAL BALANCE MIGHT CAUSE A PLAGUE OF PLAYWRIGHTS I AM HIGHLY HONORED BY YOUR GOOD OPINION BUT MY EGOTISTICAL GRATIFICATION IS RUINED BY A SNEAKING SUSPICION THAT GEORGE KAUFMAN AND THE CAST DESERVE THEM MORE THAN I. I DO HOWEVER TAKE THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THANKING YOU.

JOHN STEINBECK

After Steinbeck submitted The Grapes of Wrath, his editor Pascal Covici wrote to say they loved the book. "It seemed like a kind of sacrilege to suggest revisions in so grand a book," the Romanian Jew wrote, but "we felt we would not be good publishers if we failed to point out to you any weaknesses or faults that struck us. One of these is the ending.

"Your idea is to end the book on a great symbolic note, that life must go on and will go on with a greater love and sympathy and understanding for our fellowmen. Nobody could fail to be moved by the incident of Rose of Sharon giving her breast to the starving man, yet, taken as the finale of such a book with all its vastness and surge, it struck us on reflection as being all too abrupt. It seems to us that the last few pages need building up. The incident needs leading up to, so that the meeting with the starving man is not so much an accident or a chance encounter, but more an integral part of the saga."

In a postscript, Covici added, "Marshall has just called my attention to the fact that de maupassant in one of his short stories 'Mid-Summer Idyll' has a woman give her breast to a starving man in a railway train. Is it important?"

Steinbeck wrote back with the following volley:

To Pascal Covici
Los Gatos, January 16, 1939

Dear Pat:

I have your letter today. And I am sorry but I cannot change that ending. It is casual   there is no fruity climax, it is not more important than any other part of the book   if there is a symbol, it is a survival symbol not a love symbol, it must be an accident, it must be a stranger, and it must be quick. To build this stranger into the structure of the book would be to warp the whole meaning of the book. The fact that the Joads don't know him, don't care about him, have no ties to him that is the emphasis. The giving of the breast has no more sentiment than the giving of a piece of bread.

I'm sorry if that doesn't get over. It will maybe. I've been on this design and balance for a long time and I think I know how I want it. And if I'm wrong, I'm alone in my wrongness. As for the Maupassant story, I've never read it but I can't see that it makes much difference. There are no new stories and I wouldn't like them if there were. The incident of the earth mother feeding by the breast is older than literature. You know that I have never been touchy about changes, but I have too many thousands of hours on this book, every incident has been too carefully chosen and its weight judged and fitted. The balance is there. One other thing I am not writing a satisfying story. I've done my damnedest to rip a reader's nerves to rags, I don't want him satisfied.

And still one more thing I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written.

This letter sounds angry. I don't mean it to be. I know that books lead to a strong deep climax. This one doesn't except by implication and the reader must bring the implication to it. If he doesn't, it wasn't a book for him to read. Throughout I've tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness. There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won't find more than he has in himself.

I seem to be getting well slowly. The pain is going away. Nerves still pretty tattered but rest will stop that before too long. I fret pretty much at having to stay in bed. Guess I was pretty close to a collapse when I finally went to bed. I feel the result of it now.

Love to you all,

John

Steinbeck's attitude towards his notoriety was particularly troubled because he was an incredibly sensitive person. Any misrepresentation of his work drew out his ire, and he struggled to tune out the noise.

To Elizabeth Otis
Los Gatos, June 22, 1939

Dear Elizabeth:

This whole thing is getting me down and I don't know what to do about it. The telephone never stops ringing, telegrams all the time, fifty to seventy-five letters a day all wanting something. People who won't take no for an answer sending books to be signed. I don't know what to do. Would you mind phoning Viking and telling them not to forward any more letters but to send them to your office? I'll willingly pay for the work to be done but even to handle part of the letters now would take a full time secretary and I will not get one if it is the last thing I do. Something has to be worked out or I am finished writing. I went south to work and I came back to find Carol just about hysterical. She had just been pushed beyond endurance. There is one possibility and that is that I go out of the country. I thought this thing would die down but it is only getting worse day by day.

I hope to be home for about five weeks now but I doubt it. I brought Solow and Milestone home with me and we are working on a final script of Mice and it sounds very good to me.

About the Digest thing, I really would be happier if it weren't done. I don't like digests. If I could have written it shorter I would have, and even a chunk wouldn't be good particularly since Pat refused to give material to anybody else but Saturday Review of Literature and thereby made a hell of a lot of people mad at me.

I saw Johnson in Hollywood and he is going well and apparently they intend to make the picture straight, at least so far, and they sent a producer into the field with Tom Collins and he got sick at what he saw and they offered Tom a job as technical assistant which is swell because he'll howl his head off if they get out of hand.

See you all soon, I hope.

Love,

John

His paranoia intensified in later years. He wrote to a friend: "Let me tell you a story. When The Grapes of Wrath got loose, a lot of people were pretty mad at me. The undersheriff of Santa Clara County was a friend of mine and he told me as follows 'Don't you go into any hotel room alone. Keep records of every minute and when you are off the ranch travel with one or two friends but particularly, don't stay in a hotel and a dame will come in, tear off her clothes, scratch her face and scream and you try to talk yourself out of that one. They won't touch your book but there's easier ways."

To Carlton A. Sheffield
Los Gatos, November 13, 1939

Dear Dook:

It's pretty early in the morning. I got up to milk the cow.

I'm finishing off a complete revolution. It's amazing how every one piled in to regiment me, to make a symbol of me, to regulate my life and work. I've just tossed the whole thing overboard. I never let anyone interfere before and I can't see why I should now. This ultimate freedom receded. I'm keeping more of it than I need or even want, like a reservoir. The two most important, I suppose at least they seem so to me are freedom from respectability and most important freedom from the necessity of being consistent. Lack of those two can really tie you down. Of course all this publicity has been bad if I tried to move about but here on the ranch it has no emphasis. People up here the few we see don't read much and don't remember what they read, and my projected work is not likely to create any hysteria.

It's funny, Dook. I know what in a vague way this work is about. I mean I know its tone and texture and to an extent its field and I find that I have no education. I have to go back to school in a way. I'm completely without mathematics and I have to learn something about abstract mathematics. I have some biology but must have much more and the twins biophysics and bio-chemistry are closed to me. So I have to go back and start over. I bought half the stock in Ed's lab which gives me equipment, a teacher, a library to work in.

I'm going on about myself but in a sense it's more than me it's you and everyone else. The world is sick now. There are things in the tide pools easier to understand than Stalinist, Hitlerite, Democrat, capitalist confusion and voodoo. So I'm going to those things which are relatively more lasting to find a new basic picture. I have too a conviction that the new world is growing under the old, the way a new finger nail grows under a bruised one. I think all the economists and sociologists will be surprised one day to find that they did not foresee or understand it. Just as the politicos of Rome could not have foreseen that the socio-political-ethical world for two thousand years would grow out of the metaphysical gropings of a few quiet poets. I think the same thing is happening now. Communist, Fascist, Democrat may find that the real origin of the future lies on the microscope plates of obscure young men, who, puzzled with order and disorder in quantum and neutron, build gradually a picture which will seep down until it is the fibre of the future.

The point of all this is that I must make a new start. I've worked the novel I know it as far as I can take it. I never did think much of it a clumsy vehicle at best. And I don't know the form of the new but I know there is a new which will be adequate and shaped by the new thinking. Anyway, there is a picture of my confusion. How is yours?

There is so much confusion now emotional hysteria which passes for thought and blind faith which passes for analysis.

I suspect you are ready for a change. How would you escape the general picture? We're catching the waves of nerves from Europe and making a few of our own.

Write when you can.

John

After finalizing his divorce from his wife Carol, Steinbeck married Gwyndolyn Conger. Eventually they had two children together, Thom in 1944 and John in 1946. He wrote to her often during the forties, especially during his time as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune.

July 6 1943

Darling, you want to know what I want of you. Many things of course but chiefly these. I want you to keep this thing we have inviolate and waiting the person who is neither I nor you but us. It's a hard thing this separation but it is one of the millions of separations at home and many more millions here. It is one hunger in a great starvation but because it is ours it overshadows all the rest, if we let it. But keep waiting and don't let it be hurt by anything because it is the one really precious thing we have. Later we may have others but so far it is a single unit and you have the keeping of it for a little while. You say I am busy, as though that wiped out my end, but it doesn't. You can be just as homesick and lost when you are busy. I love you beyond words, beyond containing. Remember that always when the distance seems so great and the time so long. It will not be so long, my dear.

July 12 1943

My darling.

I wish I could go with this letter. To see you and to hold you would be so good. I know it will seem a very short time when it is over but now it seems interminable like an illness. I have small magic that I practice. When I go to bed, I build up what you look like and how you speak and some times I can almost feel you curling around my back and your breath on my neck. And sometimes it is so real that I am shocked it isn't so. It is raining today and coming onto the time when it will rain nearly all the time. And this morning which is Monday it fills me with gloom. I'm writing the gloom out on you and am loving it. This letter seems much closer than the others.

I love you very deeply and completely that goes through everything and in everything. Every day I hope I will hear from you at night I haven't. Maybe today. Some of the mail must come through. Perhaps they have held it up, needing the space. I don't know.

Good bye my darling wife. Keep writing.

I love you.

August 19 1943

I wonder what this being apart has done for us. To you, for instance, has it made you think our thing was good or do you suspect it? It has made me think it is exceptionally good and desirable. You said in one letter that you would probably have changed your whole way of life. I hope not so radically that we cannot get back to the good thing it seemed to me. The good nights with the fire going. This winter I must have the little fairy stove connected so that when we go to bed the coals can be glowing. I wonder whether you found a maid at all. I think you will agree with me from now on that we need one. I hate to wash dishes and always will. And I don't like to sleep and all stuff like that. But we will try to get someone who comes in for the day rather than an in-sleeper, that is of course as long as we have an apartment.

Goodbye my darling. I would give something very large to be able to hear from you, but I don't know any way to accomplish it.

Keep good and patient for just a little while now.

To Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
January 10, 1944

Dear Sirs:

I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true that I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro there was a Negro of dignity, purpose and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.

John Steinbeck

A telegram from Steinbeck in Mexico City from the next month:

PLEASE CONVEY THE FOLLOWING TO 20TH CENTURY FOX IN VIEW OF THE FACT THAT MY SCRIPT FOR THE PICTURE LIFE BOAT WAS DISTORTED IN PRODUCTION SO THAT ITS LINE AND INTENTION HAS BEEN CHANGED AND BECAUSE THE PICTURE SEEMS TO ME TO BE DANGEROUS TO THE AMERICAN WAR EFFORT I REQUEST MY NAME BE REMOVED FROM ANY CONNECTION WITH ANY SHOWING OF THIS FILM

JOHN STEINBECK

In another letter, he wrote "It does not seem right that knowing the effect of the picture on many people, the studio still lets it go. as for Hitchcock, I think his reasons are very simple. I. He has been doing stories of international spies and master minds for so long that it has become a habit. And second, he is one of those incredible English middle class snobs who really and truly despise working people. As you know, there were other things that bothered me technical things. I know that one man can't row a boat of that size and in my story, no one touched an oar except to steer."

with thom and gwyn

To Bo Beskow
New York
August 16, 1948

Dear Bo:

After over four years of bitter unhappiness, Gwyn has decided that she wants a divorce, so that is that. It is an old story of female frustration. She wants something I can't give her so she must go on looking. And maybe she will never find out that no one can give it to her. But that is her business now. She has cut me off completely. She feels much relieved that she has done it and may even be a good friend to me. She will take the children, at least for the time being. And I will go back to Monterey to try to get rested and to get the smell of my own country again. She did one kind thing. She killed my love of her with little cruelties so there is not much shock in all of this. And I will come back. I'm pretty sure I have some material left. But I have to rest like an old dog fox panting beside a stream. I have great sadness but no anger. In Pacific Grove I have the little cottage my father built and I will live and work in it for a while. Maybe I'll come to see you next winter and we'll "sing sad stories of the death of kings" with herring.

This is the first of a two part series featuring the letters of John Steinbeck. You can purchase the letters of John Steinbeck here.

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Daughter of migrant Tennessee coal miner, 1936 by Dorothea Lange

Wednesday
Jul292009

In Which Our 100 Greatest Writers Of All Time List Rolls Ever Closer To The Titans

You can find the first quarter of our 100 Greatest Writers of All Time list here.

Ezra Pound photographed by Richard AvedonThe 100 Greatest Writers of All Time: 75-51

by WILL HUBBARD AND ALEX CARNEVALE

The list rolls on, and we get more excited about these masters. Other lists of this kind have been attempted, none very successfully. We would like to stress that there is a crucial difference between "an important writer" and "a great writer"; the latter is at this time our sole interest. We will account for some of the names that did not make this list in a later dispatch. There is nothing bad to say about anyone we list here, except in some cases that they were anti-Semitic or racist, hated women or hated men. Literary crimes are usually relative, the caveats of which we shall enumerate:

75. Ezra Pound

Somewhere between the worst person who was a great poet and the greatest poet who was an asshole sits Pound. After living with Yeats in Stone Cottage, Ezra Pound married an artist named Dorothy Shakespear. Previously, he had been engaged to Hilda Doolittle. In Paris, Hemingway taught him to box, but he decided to become a composer instead. He fell in love with the only violinist who could make sense of his compositions. Later, in Italy, the two would try (and fail) to write a detective novel in the manner of Agatha Chrystie. He then spent 25 days in a cage outside Pisa for hating the country of his birth. His poetic innovations and sense of the lyric are actually somewhat underrated, and The Cantos must be the great long poem of the 20th century. It will never be in Oprah's Book Club, but then again neither will any book of serious poetry. The first 50 copies were printed on lambskin.

74. Philip K. Dick

Oh Philip was the conjurer, the mad genius. The completely humane. In The Man in the High Castle he dismissed fascism with the cautious wave of a hand. Was he the greatest prose stylist on two feet? No, but he had his pathos—the lost, last moments of A Scanner Darkly, the incredible pull of Ubik. He was like a free object spinning in zero gravity: Radio Free Albemuth; his stories are so endlessly inventive it is like he was starting them from scratch. Paranoid fuck.

73. Percy Shelley

Attended Oxford; read sixteen hours a day. It worked—he would write lively novels, and poems that were representative of the time and the place, and went beyond it. Seems to have survived his Wordsworth obsession, as many after him would not. He wasn't that popular during his lifetime, but his reputation lived on, and his work would remain a touchstone for poets and fiction writers in the two centuries after his death. Recommended reading: of the lyrics, we prefer "Ozymandias" and "Ode to the West Wind"; the long-form and dramatic verse reached their apices with Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci; the early Gothic novels, most notably, Zastrozzi, are a good companion on a stormy autumn night, but you'll never find a copy.


72. James Agee

The foremost journalist of his era, he also wrote a tremendous novel, A Death in the Family, and the bible of creative nonfiction, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Had an important side career as a screenwriter; but in the main he wrote many of Life magazine's most enduring pieces with Whittaker Chambers. One of those sad, great-looking literary demigods who died in a taxi cab before his 50th birthday.

71. Stanley Elkin

The greatest American comic novelist, Elkin was one of the smartest people ever to live. His stories are a blossoming achievement, a dramatic victory of non-realism in the dreary bog of American fiction. He is incredibly underappreciated and all of his novels deserve revisiting. It was in the stories that he really shined, always avoiding the easy resolution, always being more moral with other people than he would be with himself. He was a master critic, a polished prose stylist. Recommended reading: Mrs. Ted Bliss, Searches and Seizures, The Franchiser, A Bad Man.

70. Walter Benjamin

A German Jew who redefined how the essay should operate. Was killed by Germans in a hotel room running from the Nazis, or he could have just committed suicide. Translated Proust and Baudelaire. His ideas about art pretty much all came true, eventually. Skilled consumer of hashish, of bearing down on some truth you did not know was there but would have come to the surface eventually, probably, without him.

 

69. Harold Pinter

The greatest English dramatist of his time, we have taken so much from his clipped ways of saying, his extraordinary grasp of how the theater operates and how it ought to operate. His ideas have been stolen by Larry David and Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, a testament to their timeliness. Married to Antonia Fraser, his political views weren't always to my taste, but he was a fierce proponent of freedom at home and abroad, and helped many writers on that account. Recommended reading: The Dumb Waiter, The Homecoming, The Birthday Party, his novel The Dwarfs.

68. John Berryman

The Dream Songs is one of the top 5 poetry manuscripts ever written, bringing character and voice to new hights in American verse. He was born in 1914, he committed suicide in 1972. The between years were drunk and hard, but the poetry came easy. His father killed himself when he was 12, from that he basically never recovered. Recommended reading: Dream Song 34.

67. James Baldwin

Born in Harlem, he was gay, black and brilliant. His novel Go Tell It On The Mountain is a work of incredible depth and sensitivity, probably the second-best novel of the 1950s and one of the ten greatest novels of all time. His short story "Sonny's Blues" might be best remembered. It holds up better than any short story you'll find in a rag like The New Yorker. He needs a renaissance more badly than most.

66. Tu Fu

The greatest of the Chinese poets, he is a master in any time. Chinese schoolchildren still recite his verses, as do their businessmen. Claimed to have lived in a "straw hut," but really it was just another one of those upper-middle class two story affairs on a whispering brook like they had in those days. Kenneth Rexroth's 100 Poems From the Chinese is pitch-perfect, and includes all of the memorable Tu Fu.

65. Jorge Luis Borges

A blind, deep thinker. His stories are endlessly rewarding and entertaining. The genre of science fiction virtually does not exist without him. Astounding how often a gunshot or a stab wound ends these tales, but still, Comp Lit programs across the Northeast would be a lot poorer, and certainly a lot less sexy, were it not for this man.

64. Malcolm Lowry

He was a crazy and he was a drunk, but he managed to outwrite most of the non-crazies and non-drunks despite spending his days chronicly impoverished. Under the Volcano is up there with Ulysses, with Molloy, with Light in August. Its narration is unchallenged for veracity of human feeling and expression. He was never much good at living, but through his work he'll live on for centuries.

63. Willa Cather

An American lesbian. She was Episcopal, an American original. The glories can be found in The Song of the Lark, O Pioneers!, The Professor's House. Her ways were sometimes new, sometimes old. She wrote about the people that existed, that she knew, that had never before made it to these pages. Recommended reading: Death Comes For the Archbishop, My Antonia.

62. Edgar Allan Poe

Horror we needed, craved. The short story was brought to entertain in his mode, the beating heart someplace you weren't sure was there, his inventiveness and sense of menace. An American simultaneously at its most base and most necessary. The poetry is repetitive but sublime, largely centered upon his 13 year old cousin, whom he married. Our kingdom by the sea, indeed.

61. Henrik Ibsen

Torvald! He was a master of character, of menace. His drama was challenging, exciting, and his outlook was more shits and giggles than devotion and God. Extremely prolific, he managed so many excellent dramas, slamming Victorian morality, forging his own. Recommended reading: Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Master Builder.

60. W.H. Auden

He was the most acclaimed poet in the world while he lived. He seems sort of old-fashioned now, but that doesn't dim his impossibly wide view of human existence, his innate knowledge of history, his incredible sense of the possibilities of the lyric. It is now assumed that he was gay, but how, really, could a poet of his time not be. Students of verse should be forced to transcribe, memorize, and possible have tatooed on their rib cage Mr. Auden's September 1, 1939. Just a tremendous poem, a model of unacknowledged legislation.


59. Thomas Pynchon

An enterprising American fabulist whose self-imposed retreat from the public sphere probably venerates him more than it should. Mason & Dixon could be praised or reviled; it was a massively courageous undertaking, a screaming across the sky. Worked at Boeing for a time. After publishing V. the greatest first novel ever by a human, he wrote to his agent. "If they come out on paper anything like they are inside my head then it will be the literary event of the millennium."

58. Emily Brontë/Charlotte Brontë

The first wrote Wuthering Heights, which has survived more splendidly than any story we can think of. She barely lived long enough to write anything else, but what else exactly did she need to write? She'd written Wuthering Heights: that was enough. The second discovered her sister's talents, and became the more prolific of the two.


57. Flannery O'Connor

She was a faithful practitioner of an emerging style, a slyness, an understanding, that exposed the depth of human character in her moral gaze. Redefined the American short story, repudiated the saccharrine elements that had defined it and gave fiction a seriousness of purpose that resonates decades after her passing. Recommended reading: "Everything That Rises Must Converge", Wise Blood, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"

56. Leo Tolstoy

Born to the aristocracy of Russia. His cousin was Alexander Pushkin. Managed to pen Anna Karenina, the greatest novel ever written in Russian. Flaubert said, "What an artist and what a psychologist!" His endings were legend, his characterizations revolutionary. He was an accomplished political writer, and espoused nonviolent resistance. His autobiographers are very dated, but his correspondence has held up far better. Maxim Gorky's "Reminiscences of Tolstoy" is the only way to know this talented, magical novelist, this anchor for Russian literature as the world knows it.

55. Tennessee Williams

The nature of his art was evident from the very first. You could walk into a performance of one of his plays and you would know instantly that it belonged to him. His characters were darts of light, flickering across the stage, surprising even themselves. His sister was a schizophrenic, his lover was a Sicilian navy man. He brought his tendrils of genius to wherever and whenever he was. He choked on cap from a bottle and perished in 1983, the year we were born. His short stories are surprisingly revealing, like a Rosetta Stone for the sheer madness of his plays. Love the one-acts.

54. Nathaniel Hawthorne

Why did America become the finest country the world had seen to that point? Its artists played a crucial role. In his incredibly perceptive stories and novels, Hawthorne achieved heights that were reserved for the European masters before he brought his insight to bear on them. We'll never forgive him for how he treated Melville late in their lives, but the penning of phantasmagorias like "Young Goodman Brown" are enough to forgive most of his other personal failings. We've always though that the crimson A in The Scarlet Letter stood not for Adultery but for American, and it makes sense—we would be living in a different country were it not for this book.


53. T.S. Eliot

Terrible playwright. Also, it's probably about time for everybody to admit that The Waste Land is totally boring. Four Quartets, on the other hand, is enduring poetry. As are a handful of his other shorter lyrics, and probably the one about J. A. Prufrock. The twentieth century would have been more beautiful had he not lived, but still, the twentieth century happened the way it did, largely because of him. Oh wait, that was Hitler. Same difference.

52. Sophocles

Born a few years before the battle of Marathon, he would be the second of three playwrights to rock the ancient world to its core. Banged many young boys in his times, the greatest writer-pedophile who ever lived. The magic of the Theban plays; the lyricism of Oedipus, psychology's first tragic hero. In even dealing with myth strived towards naturalism, beginning the slow march towards the reality of things. Recommended reading: Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus.

51. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

His drama Faust begins in Heaven, has a poodle turning into the devil. He was born in Frankfurt in 1749, and he'd live long, to the age of 82. He became an international celebrity at the age of 24 with the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther, a fact he would live the rest of his life regretting.

Will Hubbard is the executive editor of This Recording. Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. You can visit the This Recording tumblr here. Tune in tomorrow for the penultimate 25 entries in our list.

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