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Computer Crashes Before Computers: When John Steinbeck’s Dog Ate His Manuscript

“Two months work to do over again… I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”

To write in the twenty-first century is to benefit from a number of labor- and sanity-saving conveniences we’ve come to take for granted — spellcheck, find-and-replace, the undo button. But the greatest saving grace of the digital writer is the backup. We often come to appreciate its glory the hard way — anyone who has ever lost hours or days or weeks of work to a computer crash knows intimately the anguishing interpolation between self-pity and self-blame.

Before computers, backups were both harder and less necessary — copies were laborious to make, but threats to a manuscript were of a more elemental nature and thus came with much lower probability: fires, floods, fits of rage. And yet they did come, often in ways rather comical in their imporbability.

One of those comical tragedies of creative work befell John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968), a great proponent of the satisfactions of writing by hand, as he was in the midst of writing his novella Of Mice and Men in the spring of 1936. The incident involved his beloved dog — an Irish setter named Toby. (Steinbeck was among literature’s greatest pet-lovers and, like E.B. White and like Mary Oliver, shared his entire life with dogs.)

In a May 27 letter to his editor, Elizabeth Otis, found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) — which also gave us the beloved writer on the difficult art of the friend breakup, his advice on falling in love, and his spirited retort to racism — 34-year-old Steinbeck relays what is both the then-equivalent of a tragic computer crash and a comical addition to the dog-ate-my-homework canon of excuses.

After confirming the receipt of a check for $94 — the commission for a book review he had written for an English publication — Steinbeck reports:

Minor tragedy stalked. I don’t know whether I told you. My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my [manuscript] book. 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. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog for a ms. I’m not sure is good at all. He only got an ordinary spanking with his punishment flyswatter. But there’s the work to do over from the start.

[…]

I should imagine the new little manuscript will be ready in about two months. I hope you won’t be angry at it. I think it has some thing, but can’t tell much yet. I’ll get this off.

I hear the postman.

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck with Toby, 1937 (Photograph:  Beatrice Kaufman)
Steinbeck with Toby, 1937 (Photograph: Beatrice Kaufman)

Being a formidably disciplined writer, Steinbeck made good on his word and finished the manuscript over the coming months. Of Mice and Men was published in 1937 and became his first major critical success. It was adapted into a Hollywood film two years later and led to Steinbeck’s memorable reflection on the dark side of success.

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters is a wonderful read in its entirety, full of the Nobel-winning writer’s genial wisdom on literature and life. Complement it with Steinbeck on creative integrity, writing and the mobilizing power of the impossible, and his prophetic dream about how commercial media are killing creative culture, then revisit great writers’ reflections on loving their pets.

BP

John Steinbeck on Racism and Bigotry

“I am sad for a time when one must know a man’s race before his work can be approved or disapproved.”

In September of 1936, young John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) witnessed murderous riots in the streets of his Californian hometown — the result of a violent clash between the local lettuce growers and the migrant farm workers who had finally revolted against the inhumane conditions they had long endured. (Decades later, one such laborer would detail these horrific conditions in his conversation with Studs Terkel.) Animated by irrepressible compassion, Steinbeck set out to tell the migrants’ story and spent two years working on a manuscript titled L’Affaire Lettuceberg. But he held himself to so high a standard that he ultimately decided he had failed to live up to his humanistic duty and destroyed the manuscript — one of the most courageous acts for a creative person to perform.

He then started from scratch and embarked upon the most intense writing experience of his life thus far — a quest to give voice to these oppressed laborers, to celebrate the basic goodness and humanity of the so-called common people amid a culture than had tried over and over to dehumanize them. The result was his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (public library), published on April 14 of 1939, in which Steinbeck wrote:

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success … in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

First-edition cover for The Grapes of Wrath, published on April 14, 1939

Both populist and insurrectionist, both protest song and gospel, the book was instantly beloved by those who stood for equality and human rights, and instantly reviled by the Donald Trumps of the day, who saw it as a threat to the power structures that buoyed them.

Steinbeck received a letter from a Reverend L. M. Birkhead, National Director of an organization called “Friends of Democracy,” claiming to combat Antisemitic, pro-Nazi propaganda. But Birkhead’s missive had a troubling undercurrent of bigotry. He asserted that The Grapes of Wrath had been called “Jewish propaganda” and implied that the only way to dispel such accusations would be for Steinbeck to prove that he is not Jewish — an accusation analogous to the conspiracy theories which “birthers” directed at President Barack Obama nearly a century later, stemming from the same soul-malady of which all bigotry is a symptom.

Steinbeck’s response to the Reverend, found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library), is a masterwork of moral wisdom and a sublime stance against bigotry, just as timely and perhaps — such is the tragedy of our time — even timelier today.

Steinbeck writes:

Dear Mr. Birkhead:

I am answering your letter with a good deal of sadness. I am sad for a time when one must know a man’s race before his work can be approved or disapproved. It does not seem important to me whether I am Jewish or not, and I know that a statement of mine is useless if an interested critic wishes to ride a preconceived thesis… It happens that I am not Jewish and have no Jewish blood but it only happens that way. I find that I do not experience any pride that it is so.

If you wish — here is my racial map although you know what an intelligent anthropologist thinks of racial theories. As you will see, I am the typical American Airedale.

After outlining his genealogy, not without sarcastic jabs at the very notion that it is of any significance at all, Steinbeck adds:

Anyway there it is. Use it or don’t use it, print it or not. Those who wish for one reason or another to believe me Jewish will go on believing it while men of good will and good intelligence won’t care one way or another. I can prove these things of course — but when I shall have to — the American democracy will have disappeared.

The Grapes of Wrath was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year and became a cornerstone of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize two decades later. It endures as a one of the most significant works of social justice ever written.

Complement the thoroughly fantastic Steinbeck: A Life in Letters — the source of his timeless wisdom on falling in love and the art of the friend breakup — with the story of how the beloved writer used the diary as a tool of discipline and an antidote to self-doubt as he was writing The Grapes of Wrath.

BP

John Steinbeck on Writing, the Crucible of Creativity, and the Mobilizing Power of the Impossible

“A good writer always works at the impossible.”

John Steinbeck on Writing, the Crucible of Creativity, and the Mobilizing Power of the Impossible

An advocate for the creative benefits of keeping a diary, Virginia Woolf saw this informal practice as training ground on which one can “loosen the ligaments” for formal writing. But hardly anyone has put private writing to more fruitful use as a creative and psychological sandbox for public-facing art than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968).

Thirteen years after he completed the remarkable and psychologically revelatory journal he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck enlisted another private medium of informal writing in perfecting his public prose. In January of 1951, as he was setting out to write East of Eden — a book he considered the most difficult he ever attempted, the ultimate test of his talent and discipline as a writer — Steinbeck decided to loosen his creative ligaments by writing a daily “letter” to his dear friend and editor, Pascal Covici.

An ardent believer in the spiritual rewards of handwriting with the perfect writing instrument, Steinbeck began pouring his compact longhand into the large-format ruled notebook Covici had given him. He wrote a letter a day, each over a thousand words on average, until the first draft of the novel was finished 276 days later. A hobbyist woodworker, Steinbeck delivered the manuscript to Covici in a special wooden box he lovingly carved to hold the masterwork his wife considered his magnum opus.

On the pages of the blue-lined notebook, Steinbeck worked out and fine-tuned his ideas about writing, the creative process, family life, the purpose of art, and his most elemental convictions. These letters were eventually published as Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (public library) — an extraordinary document illuminating not only the mental, spiritual, and creative interiority of one of the most formidable artists who ever lived, but the very nature of creativity itself.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the letters is the sincerity with which they reveal the inseparability of an artist’s selfhood and personal life, with all of its elations and anguishes, from his art. (Patti Smith addressed this indivisibility in her moving letter to Robert Mapplethorpe.) Particularly touching is Steinbeck’s love for his two young sons, four and a half and six and a half at the time, to whom he addressed the novel.

In his very first letter to Covici, with undertones evocative of artist Anne Truitt’s reflections on the parallels between being an artist and being a parent, Steinbeck writes:

I am choosing to write this book to my sons. They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them. It is not written for them to read now but when they are grown and the pains and joys have tousled them a little. And if the book is addressed to them, it is for a good reason. I want them to know how it was, I want to tell them directly, and perhaps by speaking directly to them I shall speak directly to other people.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the seventh of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing, Steinbeck adds:

One can go off into fanciness if one writes to a huge nebulous group…

John Steinbeck with his sons, Thom and John. Paris, 1954. Photograph courtesy of The Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley.
John Steinbeck with his sons, Thom and John, in Paris, 1954. (Photograph courtesy of The Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley.)

But what makes the novel so abidingly powerful is that in speaking to his children, Steinbeck speaks to the most innocent parts of all of us — something he captures in articulating why his boys are the perfect objects of his artistic intent:

They have no background in the world of literature, they don’t know the great stories of the world as we do. And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all — the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness. I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable — how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born.

Among these inseparable doubles are also the batteries of knowing and not-knowing, of the possible and the impossible. In an exquisite passage that captures the heart of why artists make art, Steinbeck adds:

I shall tell them this story against the background of the county I grew up in and along the river I know and do not love very much. For I have discovered that there are other rivers. And this my boys will not know for a long time nor can they be told. A great many never come to know that there are other rivers. Perhaps that knowledge is saved for maturity and very few people ever mature. It is enough if they flower and reseed. That is all that nature requires of them. But sometimes in a man or a woman awareness takes place — not very often and always inexplainable. There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness. The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through — not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible. There is another kind who pulls in his horizons, drops his mind as one lowers rifle sights. And giving up the impossible he gives up writing.

Journal of a Novel is a revelatory read in its totality, brimming with Steinbeck’s earnest intensity and beautifully articulated insight into the machinery and mystique of creativity. Complement this particular portion with Annie Dillard on the animating force of great art and Henry James on its ultimate purpose in human life, then revisit Steinbeck on creative integrity, discipline and self-doubt, the difficult art of the friend breakup, and his perennially wonderful advice on falling in love, penned in a letter to one of his sons.

BP

John Steinbeck’s Prophetic Dream About How the Commercial Media Machine Is Killing Creative Culture

Half a century before Buzzfeed, a nocturnal epiphany about the greatest threat to art.

We are in constant dynamic interaction with the thing we call culture — culture is both shaped by our values and shapes what we come to value. I think a great deal about the line between catering and creating, and on which side of it artists, writers, musicians, thinkers, and other culture-crafters must stand — is the responsibility of the cultural enterprise to cater to what people, or “the people,” already crave, or is it to create new, more elevated tastes by insisting on the substantive over the vacant?

No doubt there is a necessary dialogue between catering and creating, but I side wholly with E.B. White, who famously asserted that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” and that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down.” And yet, half a century after White’s piercing idealism, we’ve found ourselves amid a culture that purveys cat listicles because, the narrative goes, cat listicles are what the people want — a narrative suffused with the insidious implication that cat listicles are all that people are capable or worthy of wanting. Increasingly, our agents of culture are abdicating their responsibility to create more elevated tastes and capitulating to catering.

This discomfiting line of thought reminded me of an extraordinary 1956 letter that John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) — a writer of uncommon integrity, deep resistance to commercialism, and supreme faith in the human spirit — sent to his legendary agent and lifelong friend, Elizabeth Otis. Previously unpublished and found in the 1978 limited-edition treasure Letters to Elizabeth (public library), the missive speaks volumes about what is perhaps the most significant threat to creative culture today.

In late July of 1956, Steinbeck writes:

Do you ever dream of getting letters? I used to a lot but haven’t lately until last night when I had one very clear and sharp. I can even see the stationery. It was from Otis Wiess and it said, “We would like very much to print your book The Short Reign of Peppin IV and think we can do it in two large installments. There are, however, certain changes we would like you to make in order that our readers will be more interested. The pace must be considerably speeded up and many of the historical and literary allusions must be removed since they will only confuse our readers. We should also want you to add three new characters and several episodes which are too long to put in a letter. I should like to meet with you to tell you of the changes we will require. Will you please let me know when this will be convenient?”

It was all perfectly clear. When the clock went off this morning I was busy typing an answer and had got as far as “Dear Otis: I have your letter and am deeply pleased with your interest in my book. I would like to suggest to you that rather than put in new characters and episodes, that you get new readers—” And I woke up thinking this was funny as hell and just laughing at my own cleverness. Isn’t that an odd and perhaps prophetic dream?

How prophetic indeed, and what a perfect addition to the canon of creative titans’ existentially insightful dreams, including Dostoyevsky’s dreamsome discovery of the meaning of life, Margaret Mead’s epiphany about why life is like blue jelly, and Leonard Bernstein’s nocturnal tussle with identity and sexuality.

Complement Letters to Elizabeth with Steinbeck on discipline and self-doubt and his advice on falling in love, then revisit poet Mark Strand’s beautiful ode to dreams and the strange science of dreams and why we have nightmares.

BP

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