It is over 10 years since I read the brilliant ‘John Steinbeck, Writer’ by Jackson J Benson and another dip into Steinbeck’s life felt long overdue. This book is a beautiful thing – you get an overwhelming sense of Steinbeck’s humanity and thoughtfulness through his letters. He has an amazing ability to perfectly articulate everything from the grand to the mundane. Sad to finish it.

Your reading activity
Dates 06 March 2013 – 21 April 2013
Time spent reading 20 hours, 55 minutes
Highlights 98
Comments 19
Used app Readmill
Friends who read
  • Nicholas Van Exan Nicholas Van Exan

He once congratulated himself on having squeezed more than five hundred words on a postcard.

I love this person so much that I would cut your charming throat should you interfere seriously with his happiness or his manifest future.

I think I shall write some very good books indeed. The next one won’t be good nor the next one, but about the fifth, I think will be above the average.

Eventually I shall be so good that I cannot be ignored. These years are disciplinary for me.

A man’s best work is done when he is fighting to make himself heard, not when swooning audiences wait for his paragraphs.

I learn that all of my manuscripts have been rejected three or four times since I last heard. It is a nice thing to know that so many people are reading my books. That is one way of getting an audience.

Yesterday we indulged in the only luxury in months. We bought and charged a chess board and pieces. Two dollars. It will eat up the winter evenings.

I don’t know why the publication of a book should impress you. I’ve met a number of people who publish books and judging from most of them, the fact of publication seems to make a horse’s ass of a man.

As for the picture—I hate cameras. They are so much more sure than I am about everything.

We know that with certain arrangements of atoms we might have what we would call a bar of iron. Certain other arrangements of atoms plus a mysterious principle make a living cell. Now the living cell is very sensitive to outside stimuli or tropisms. A further arrangement of cells and a very complex one may make a unit which we call a man. That has been our final unit. But there have been mysterious things which could not be explained if man is the final unit. He also arranges himself into larger units, which I have called the phalanx.

I work because I know it gives me pleasure to work. It is as simple as that and I don’t require any other reasons.

And as long as we can eat and write more books, that’s really all I require.

Carol’s mother sent her an insurance policy to bury Carol in case of her death. It has brightened our whole day. Had been intended as a Christmas present but got delayed. It would have made a nice Christmas present, don’t you think?

I have been in jail once for a night a long time ago, a result of a combination of circumstance, exuberance and a reasonable opinion that I could lick a policeman.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

Had to re-read that before I realised what ‘lick’ means in this context!

I feel very badly, not about his death, but about his life, for he told me only a few months ago that he had never done anything he wanted to do. Worst of all he hadn’t done the work he wanted to do.

wurra wurra.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

Seen this twice now. What does it mean?

Wurra! Wurra!

My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my ms. book [Of Mice and Men]. Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically.

To say thank you is ridiculous for you can’t thank a man for good work any more than you can thank him for being himself.

In addition to buying several stories that Esquire had previously rejected, Arnold Gingrich, its editor, sent Steinbeck a gift of a watch.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

This may be the best ‘thank you’ letter I have ever read.

The death of children by starvation in our valleys is simply staggering. I’ve got to do it. If I can sell the articles I’ll use the proceeds for serum and such. Codliver oil would give the live kids a better chance. Of course no individual effort will help. Ten thousand people are affected in one area. Anyway, I’ll do what I can.

I do remember a speech of appreciation made by a rider at a dinner where he had received a pair of silver spurs for a championship in ear notching and castrating calves. Cheered to his feet, the winner stood up blushing violently and made the following speech—“Aw shit, boys—Jesus Christ—why—goddam it—oh! the hell with it,” and sat down to tremendous applause.

It’s like all the beautiful ladies. I remember wishing so much I could just associate with them. And now they bore me so completely, because they aren’t really beautiful at all. I know one or two who make me feel full and warm and excited and happy and they aren’t the really beautiful ones at all, I mean the accepted beautiful ones.

Pat writes that advance sales on Cannery Row are beyond his expectations—60% beyond, he says. But you know Pat. Perhaps his enthusiasm exceeds his figures.

Living is people, not places.

I hope you do get to work. The getting to work is a purely mechanical thing as you well know—a conscious and self-imposed schoolroom. After that, other things happen, but the beginning is straight pushing.

The matter of death is very personal—almost like an idea—and it has to be discovered and accepted over and over again no matter what the age or the condition of the dying. And there is nothing for the outsider to do except to stand by and maybe to indicate that the person involved is not so alone as the death always makes him think he is.

That is one of the comforting things about the middle age I am in. Always before I could promise to reform and now I know I’m just never going to do it so I don’t bother.

We had a very large Christmas and the kids got too many toys, most of which were put away for a little slower issue. There were so many things given them that they were only confused. I don’t like this lushness.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

I know exactly how he feels.

I would like to write parts of my book out there if I could, though it doesn’t matter at all where I write it. Down in a manhole if necessary.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

Reminds me of what @hotdogsladies said on Back to Work. Work anywhere.

most lives dribble away like piss in the dust.

An odd thing is that sadness does not necessarily become greater with age.

You can’t want more than that—a cold night and a warm girl.

Effort and love. Everything else I can do without but if those were effectively removed I would take a powder instantly.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

Have never heard that phrase before.

It’s a 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 it or I never had it to do.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

On writing.

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.

I used to go to the Metropolitan Museum to see that fantastic little Greek horse and the Cellini cup, but I never wanted to own them. I was always glad they were there for me to see and not to have to protect them, guard them, insure them, will them.

One fault of such closeness is that words no longer convey much. Before—words can stimulate the senses and the understanding but after—they are pretty weak vehicles. Where-for words are properly the tools of loneliness and rarely of fulfillment—the conveying of loss and frustration but no triumph like the closing of fingers on fingers or the pressure of knee on knee or the secret touching of feet under a table.

I suppose that one of the troubles with having money is that beautiful things are available without effort and so the things have not the same value.

There are bad times when I can’t tell them anything and still am not willing to lie to them, and they are not old enough for the truth because it wouldn’t make any more sense to them than it does to me.

I think I have no “place” home. Home is people and where you work well. I have homes everywhere and many I have not even seen yet. That is perhaps why I am restless. I haven’t seen all of my homes.

Did you like it? Did you find you could stand leisure? I can’t very well. I go into a restless unhappy coma. It isn’t that I want to work but that I don’t want to not work.

Barbara Bel Geddes

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

Later of ‘Dallas’ fame!

I had always thought that a man should handle his own problems and take his own punishments but there are some things you can’t handle yourself. I know that now. One might as truly say he could remove his own appendix.

There is one other thing besides love which can tie two people together and that is guilt. There are so many destructive relationships—or perhaps more, than there are creative ones.

I am trying to say that the most precious thing in the world is your self—your individual, lonely self and that you can only find it after you have given it up.

Some people write and some don’t. Most people have two balls, but there are a few who have one and even fewer who have three.

One of the most dangerous things of all is the suggestion that something or other is not in good taste. Now good taste is a codification of manners and attitudes of the past. The very fact of originality is per se bad taste. I might even go so far as to believe that any writer who produced a book of unquestioned good taste has written a tasteless book, a flavorless book, a book of no excitement and surely of no originality.

But the name is a good name. It is particularly valuable in school first because there is no rhyme for it and second because at that period when you are desperately trying to disappear into the group, John has no more emphasis than a number. It is not a name to embarrass you when you are little.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran


When you really live in New York, it is more rural than country. Your district is a village and you go to Times Square as once you went to San Francisco.

Remembering the book now is like remembering Ed Ricketts. I remember nice things about both but a finished book and a dead man can never surprise you nor delight you any more. They aren’t going any place.

It’s much quieter than living in a small town. Very strange but true. People in the city never drop in. They always call first—a manners pattern small towns could well learn.

I don’t have any money problems any more. After living and taxes and alimony, there isn’t any left so my problem is solved.

There is a vast difference between writing letters and answering letters.

A new dicho or at least one I had never heard regarding drinking strong liquor. “El primero con agua, la segunda sin agua, el tercero como agua.” The first with water, the second without water, the third like water. And it’s true.

E. has stuck to her bed today. She says it started out as a hangover and then she got to liking it.

I once had a beard—but shaved it off when I found I was trying to live up to it.

You can never talk people out of fighting. Every new generation has to know by trying.

A man who writes a story is forced to put into it the best of his knowledge and the best of his feeling. The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty. A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator. Of course there are dishonest writers who go on for a little while, but not for long—not for long.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

This letter is incredible.

The Imperial Palace is lovely. It is surrounded by a moat. I asked a Japanese how deep it was and he said deeper than a cab. He knew because he saw one taxi go in and it disappeared.

“Under Capitalism man exploits man, whereas under Communism it is just the reverse.”

A novelist is a kind of flypaper to which everything adheres. His job then is to try to reassemble life into some kind of order.

And maybe we play into each other’s hands. If I didn’t get mad, Elaine would have to keep trying until I did. Maybe it’s better just to blow up.

Do you and Mollie ever come to open fighting? We wouldn’t without drink. Maybe it’s better than leaving things bottled. I don’t know.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

I can relate to this.

There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistic thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness, and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

I think it won’t be very long before I shall get down to work.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

Steinbeck seems to spend a lot of time getting ready to work – weeks and months. Is there a lesson here? Do most people who create things spend tons of time thinking about them beforehand and getting in the right frame of mind?

I ate too much rhubarb last night, forgetting its secondary properties which promptly became primary and it is keeping me jumping today.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran


Luckily there is a hedge between our two gardens because Elaine would not tell her grandmother how to suck eggs; she would be too busy telling the hen how to lay them. She has stage-managed too many shows to allow me to plant a cabbage without direction. Right now she is at church and God is getting his instructions for the coming week.

Sanskrit has a root mei, pronounced may—which means change or changed. From it we get make and the past tense made.

We couldn’t resist sending the wire from Usk [“Happy Birthday to Yousk from Usk”]

Then consider Guinevere. No one has ever made the point that you had to like a guy pretty much to be unfaithful with him because if you got caught, you got burnt and you knew it. The danger wasn’t getting divorced or pregnant, it was getting up on a bonfire. It took some courage, did infidelity.

It is the duty of a host to make a guest feel at home. It is the duty of a guest not to.

If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.

It is very hard to raise boys to love and respect virtue and learning when the tools of success are chicanery, treachery, self-interest, laziness and cynicism or when charity is deductible, the courts venal, the highest public official placid, vain, slothful and illiterate. How can I teach my boys the value and beauty of language and thus communication when the President himself reads westerns exclusively and cannot put together a simple English sentence?

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

Written in 1959 but could have been any time in the early 2000s.

This is a kind of pass-the-time-of-day letter, not to be taken too seriously if you are wise, and you are. I shall enquire about your health later in the letter. That proves that I don’t want anything. If I did, there would be a note of solicitousness for your well-being in the first paragraph.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

Who wouldn't want to receive a letter like this?

But honorary degrees are even worse. They mean nobody’s scared of you any more. You can’t bite the hand that sets a mortarboard on your head.

The fair Elaine is fairer and Elainer than ever. What a dame. When I’m counting my blessings I can stop right there with a profit.

I haven’t written because I have been writing. Now there’s a sentence that could only be said in English.

He can hardly talk for unmelted butter in his mouth.

Over and over I thought we lack the pressures that make men strong and the anguish that makes men great. The pressures are debts, the desires are for more material toys and the anguish is boredom. Through time, the nation has become a discontented land.

I regret my stupidities but only as I might regret my big ears and shapeless nose. They are all a part of me and I could no more cut off my stupidities than my nose to spite my face.

The times of the most agonizing need for communication are those when there is nothing that can be said in words.

Their interests are wide and healthy. They like girls and music and Leonardo and girls and automobiles and girls and all machines and girls.

“This is no letter. It never intended to be. It’s just mist on a mirror.”

Damien Ryan Damien Ryan

Tears in the rain.

To shake hands with him is like touching the teats of an old cow.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

I have shaken hands with men like this! (I think?!)

You have been so wonderful about the boys. If I don’t say it often, I think it often. And this present is in no sense a reward. Rather it is a celebration. Happy Birthday—darling, and many of them. You make a good life for everyone around you.

Steffens came home after the October Revolution of 1917 and his headline was “I have seen the future and it works.”

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

This has given me an earworm of Prince’s ‘Batdance’.

Lastly, I ask you to believe that when I disagreed, I did it there with you and faced your answers. For I do despise a guest who flatters his host and goes away to attack him.

When we are very young, we have the feeling that we can aim and position our lives. But looking backwards, I at least seem to see that it was all a series of unforseeable accidents and that nothing we could have done would have made any difference.

Theoretically if you play enough times there will be an equal number of reds and blacks. But in the events of a human life, there aren’t enough spins to make it balance.

But there is a hazard which you will recognize. Starting to look something up, I get stopped ahead of the place and quite often never get to the thing I started for.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

What would Steinbeck have thought of Wikipedia and the rest of the Internet?

More and more, young people look at me in amazement because they had thought I was dead. Among writers it is becoming very fashionable to be dead.

Aer Lingus was four hours lingering before taking off so that we did have a good experience in Dublin Airport.

There is no way to make the Vietnamese war decent. There is no way of justifying sending troops to another man’s country. And there is no way to do anything but praise the man who defends his own land.

Once I said to her, “I don’t want the barbarity of a funeral for myself.” And she said, “Don’t be silly. A funeral isn’t for the dead. You’ll simply be a stage set for a kind of festival maybe. And besides, you won’t even be there.” Now this makes so much sense to me that I have never mentioned it again.

Then—what is fiction? Is it a true thing that didn’t happen as opposed to a false thing that did?

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day here in Jakarta, so right now today the glory and the earnest sleaze of the New York Irish are forming in the back streets to boast about and to be homesick for a place that never existed.

I would rather live more fully and for a shorter time.