Date of Award


Degree Name

M.A. in English


Several years ago at a flea market, I bought for fifty cents a dilapidated book entitled Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Until that time, I had little interest in John Steinbeck, although I had a keen interest in reading diaries and letters. As I glanced through the book, I vaguely remembered reading Of Mice and Men in high school, and I'd seen the film version of Grapes of Wrath; that was the extent of my experience with Steinbeck. But my flea market purchase, a book of letters written by Steinbeck to friends, publishers, and other people he was acquainted with, compiled and edited by the writer's wife after his death, was to change forever my concept of what a writer should be. Here was a man who loved and lived to write, a truly dedicated author who loved the feel of a pencil in his hand, whose writing was his escape from a troubling personal life, whose writing provided him a most interesting and exciting career, and whose temperament was as fascinating as his writing. I read Letters from end to end. I began to collect and read his works and discovered that he wrote correspondence with the same dedication that he gave to his novels, short stories, and nonfiction writing. Every type of writing was a new adventure to him. He welcomed the experience of starting a new project, was terrified to be typecast as an author, and fought labels all his life. He wrote for himself; he wrote to better himself. In August, 1990, I attended the annual John Steinbeck Festival, which takes place in his home town of Salinas, California. During one session, Steinbeck's younger son, John IV, discussed his memories of his father's writing his longest novel, East of Eden, which was the topic of that year's symposium. One person in the audience asked John IV whether he really understood his father well enough to comment on his thoughts as he wrote the book because, after all, John IV was only a small child at the time. The question, more than the answer, stayed in my memory because I myself wondered how well the boys knew their father, since their parents divorced when they were little more than toddlers and they visited their father infrequently. I got the impression that the questioner thought she had some insight into Steinbeck that his own son lacked. Through Steinbeck's prolific letter and journal writing, so much of which has now been published, many of his fans erroneously believe that they understand the man perhaps as well as his own family does. In August of 1991, I once again attended the Steinbeck Festival. One year's time had brought about a tragic change. John IV had died from a heart attack during surgery. Speaking that year was his older brother, Thom, who said he resented the question I remembered. He made clear right at the beginning of his talk that he would entertain no such questions about how well he knew his father. He said that he felt he knew the man, and he had always been able to separate the man from the author. It occurred to me that separating the man from the author has been a problem for fans and critics of Steinbeck. There was the dilemma--the problem the critics did not solve. Thom said it: the man and the author were two different entities. When I began to read Steinbeck criticism, I discovered that the critics had little understanding of his dedication to discovering new techniques and changes in style. They, instead, for the most part, looked at the social content of his works and judged him according to their concepts of how he should write. I came to realize that he had been maligned and misunderstood by critics throughout most of his writing life.

Rights Statement

Copyright © 1992, author