The Book Blurb:
Each working day from January 29 to November 1, 1951, John Steinbeck warmed up the work of writing East of Eden with a letter to the late Pascal Covici, his friend and editor of The Viking Press. It was his way, he said, of "getting my mental arm in shape to pitch a good game."
Steinbeck's letters were written on the left-hand pages of a notebook in which the facing pages would be filled with the rest of East of Eden. They touched on many subjects -- story arguments, trial flights of workmanship, concern for his sons.
Part autobiography, part writer's workshop, these letters offer an illuminating perspective on Steinbeck's creative process, and a fascinating glimpse of Steinbeck, the private man.
What Hooked Me:
I have no idea if one is meant to read the novel East of Eden first to thoroughly enjoy this book like I did. A great part of me however, wishes that I read this book first. East of Eden would have resonated with me on a much more personal level, and I wouldn't have this strong desire to reread it again. As this book was never meant to be published, John Steinbeck wrote about his innermost feelings about a myriad of things: from his choice of pencils, his concern for his two sons and new wife Elaine, his bouts of weariness and his passion for writing East of Eden. It is undeniably why this book is exceptional. It offers an emotional (his thoughts on p.89 is really sad) and highly personal window into the mind of a great (maybe the best) American writer.
'January 29, 1951 (Monday)
Dear Pat: How did the time pass and how did it grow so late. Have we learned anything from the passage of time? Are we more mature, wiser, more perspective, kinder? We have known each other now for centuries and still I remember the first time and the last time.'(opening lines)
'This book will be most difficult of all I have ever attempted. Whether I am good enough or gifted enough remains to be seen. I do have a good background. I have love and I have had pain. I still have anger but I can find no bitterness in myself. There maybe some bitterness but if there is I don't know where it can be. I do not seem to have the kind of selfness any more that nourishes it.'(4-5)
'It is always amazing to me how we forget our failures. I guess if we didn't, we could not survive. But perhaps it is no bad thing to take a little time to go back over failures, not to glory in them but just to remind ourselves. In the forgetting it is not vainglory that bothers me but simply that things neglected as not done well slip away as though they never happened.'(22)
'This book is very important to me. I am going to do no going back until the whole is completed but then it is going to be overhauled very very deeply. I shall insist on that. This is my big book. And it has to be a big book, and because it is new in form although old in pace it has to be excellent in every detail. And I don't care how long it takes to make it that way and I mean this. You can't train for something all your life and then have it fall short because you are hurrying to get it finished. So there.'(33)
'You know I am really stupid. For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is all right some days is no good another day. ... I have fine prejudices, lazy ones and enjoyable ones. It occurs to me that everyone likes or wants to be eccentric and this is my eccentricity, my pencil trifling.'(35-36)
'It is amazing how many things there are to do in a house, new house or old house. And for some reason I love to make the little repairs and improvements myself. A curious penuriousness comes out in me about paying a man twenty-five dollars for doing badly what I can do just as badly in less time. Besides I can improvise and most people can't. Give me a box of odds and ends of metal and wood and I can build dam near anything. But it isn't only penuriousness either. I love to do it. It gives me some kind of satisfaction.'(42)
'I believe you can only be unafraid if you find out what it is you fear and conquer it. All the pretense in the world won't help you otherwise.'(44)
'They say, and I expect truly, that if a man could see his whole life, he would never live it. He would kill himself instantly. Something like this happens on the week-end days when I do not work. I lift my eyes out of the details of the little day's work and a panic crashed on me. The size and difficulty rise up and smack me. And yet it is necessary to look at the whole thing now and then. It's like swimming with your head down or up. It cuts your speed to raise your head but at least you know where you are going.'(65)
'Now -- we must think of a book as a wedge driven into a man's personal life. A short book would be in and out quickly. And it is possible for such a wedge to open the minds and do its work before it is withdrawn leaving quivering nerves and cut tissue. A long book, on the other hand, drives in very slowly and if only in point of time remains for a while. Instead of cutting and leaving it, it allows the mind to rearrange itself to fit around the wedge. Let's carry the analogy a little farther. When the quick wedge is withdrawn, the tendency of the mind is quickly to heal itself exactly as it was before the attack. With the long book perhaps the healing has been warped around the shape of the wedge so that when the wedge is finally withdrawn and the book set down, the mind cannot ever be quite what it was before. This is my theory and it may explain the greater importance of a long book. Living with it longer has given it greater force. If this is true, a long book, even not so good, is more effective than an excellent short book.'(66-67)
'Plans are real things and not experience. A rich life is rich in plans. If they don't come off, they are still a little bit realized. If they do, they may be disappointing. That's why a trip described becomes better the greater the time between the trip and the telling. I believe too that if you can know a man's plans, you know more about him than you can in any other way. Plans are daydreaming and this is an absolute measure of a man.'(74)
'There is one field of feeling , however, in which either I am different from most people or they do not tell the truth -- perhaps not knowing it or not daring to face it or perhaps feeling that it is a monstrous thing which should not be brought into the light. I don't know that this is so, I simply offer these as reasons why people do not seem to feel the way I do. I refer to the will to live. I have very little of it. This must not be confused with a death wish. I have no will to die but I can remember no time from earliest childhood until this morning when I would not have preferred never to have existed.'(89)
'Not that it is necessary to be remembered but there is one purpose in writing that I can see, beyond simply doing it interestingly. It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage. If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and our half developed culture, is it this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice.'(115-116)
'July 2, Monday
Now, how did it get to be this time of the year. The last time I looked up it was March. And in other ways I seem to have been writing on this book forever. I guess the last is true. I have been writing on this book all my life. And throughout, you will find things that remind you of earlier work. That earlier work was practice for this, I am sure. And that is why I want this book to be good, because it is the first book. The rest was practice. I want it to be all forms, all methods, all approaches.'(117)
'Refrain is one of the most valuable of all form methods. Refrain is a return to the known before one flies again upwards. It is a consolation to the reader, a reassurance that the book has not left his understanding.'(124)
'How the mind rebels against work, but once working, it rebels just as harshly against stopping. I don't know why this should be. It's a dumb brute, the human mind. And it has really brutish tendencies.'(147)
'And from this meeting a new character has emerged. He is called the Reader.
He is so stupid you can't trust him with an idea.
He is so clever he will catch you in the least error.
He will not buy short books.
He will not buy long books.
He is part moron, part genius, part ogre.
There is some doubt as to whether he can read.'Well, by God, Pat, he's just like me, no stranger at all. He'll take from my book what he can bring to it. The dull witted will get dullness and the brilliant may find things in my book I didn't know were there.'(182, from the original draft for the Dedication of East of Eden)
a Penguin book
Book borrowed from the library