Steinbeck and the Difficult Art of the Friend Breakup
By Maria Popova
“A friend,” wrote the poet and philosopher John O’Donohue in his beautiful meditation on the Ancient Celtic notion of anam cara, “awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.” But what happens when a friendship ceases to magnify your spirit and instead demands that you be a smaller version of yourself? While David Whyte is absolutely right in that “all friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness,” there comes a point past which granting forgiveness yet again for the same hurtful behavior becomes not an act of moral strength but one of moral weakness — an exercise in self-mutilation in the unwillingness to relinquish what has metastasized into a draining or even abusive relationship.
That’s what John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) confronted in his mid-thirties as his friendship with George Albee, another young writer, grew increasingly strained by Albee’s professional jealousy. Things came to a head in early 1938 when a young woman Steinbeck had known since childhood accused him of getting her pregnant; although the accusation appears false by biographical accounts, Steinbeck found himself in the midst of a maelstrom he described as one of the most trying times of his life.
When he was most in need of support from his loved ones, he learned that Albee had been speaking ill of him instead of sticking up for him. The disloyalty wounded Steinbeck deeply and he distanced himself from his former friend. Albee eventually sensed the cooling of the relationship and pressed for an answer.
In a masterwork of the friend breakup, found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) — which also gave us the Nobel laureate’s terrific advice on falling in love in a missive to his teenage son — Steinbeck finally confronts Albee:
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.
Apparently unsatisfied with having made the point too implicitly, Steinbeck sums it up in an explicit postscript:
And now if you want to quarrel, it will at least be an honest quarrel and not boudoir pin pricking.
Some days later, still stewing over the situation, Steinbeck writes to his literary agent and lifelong friend Elizabeth Otis:
Unpleasant thing. I finally broke open the thing with George. At least now if he wants to quarrel it won’t be lady quarreling. I feel better about that, but I don’t like such things at all.
A few weeks later, Steinbeck writes in his diary in lamenting the dark side of his success:
People I liked have changed… I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me.
When asked about the fallout, Richard Albee, George’s brother, reflects:
You may be sure that the basic cause was artistic jealousy, and of course it was on the part of George, not John.
Indeed, few things erode the mutual dignity of a friendship more effectively than the petty jealousies of competitiveness. But just a few weeks later, in a testament to Kierkegaard’s observation that creative work is the only antidote to the embitterment of such petty jealousies, Steinbeck embarked upon the greatest creative labor of his life, the fruits of which earned him his first Pulitzer Prize the following year and became the cornerstone of his Nobel Prize two decades later.
Complement Steinbeck: A Life in Letters — which is thoroughly satisfying in its totality, full of the beloved writer’s wisdom on literature and life — with Steinbeck on creative integrity, discipline and self-doubt, the joy of writing by hand, and his prophetic dream about how the commercial media machine is killing creative culture, then revisit Andrew Sullivan on why true friendship can be a greater gift than romantic love.
Published March 18, 2016