We shouldn’t reread as grown adults some of the books we either loved or hated as young people, we should reread all of them.
I don’t much like John Steinbeck, it turns out. I’ve read most of the books, but many of them when I was young. Cannery Row is the only one I can say I read as a mature adult and loved. A recent reading of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and his collected letters convinced me of what Steinbeck’s adolescent son said was the revelation of his childhood: “My father is an asshole.”
Still, give me an asshole who can write over one who can’t. After dirtying my face with plenty of Steinbeck’s bitterness and narcissism, I found damned few gems in his work—most of them, in his letters. Here are a three:
On the Status of Writers
“You remember I was going to get an office to work in,” Steinbeck wrote to his longtime editor Pat Covici in 1944 (after he’d already published The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men). “In Monterey there is only one office building, owned by a man named Parsons. I tried to reach him for three days and this morning got him by phone. I said, ‘I want to rent an office for a couple of months.’ ‘Very well,’ he said, ‘we have some vacancies. What is your name?’ ‘Steinbeck,’ I said. ‘And what is your business?’ ‘I’m a writer,’ I said. There was a long pause and then—’Do you have a business license?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘none is required in my business.’—Another long pause, then ‘I’m sorry—we don’t want people like that. We want professional people like doctors and dentists and insurance.'”
On Good Taste
“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 b oof of no excitement and surely of no originality. … There is shockingly bad taste in the Old Testament, abominable taste in Homer, and execrable tased in Shakespeare.”
And on Parenting
“As for my boys,” Steinbeck wrote when his were still small, “I will do the best I can all of the time. I will always be available and I will give them all the love in the world, but if I cannot be God, I will not take that blame either.”
Ah! See what I mean? And the more I read Steinbeck now, I see his work pinched by that essential selfishness and self-protection. No wonder he’s mostly unread now, except for school children assigned Of Mice and Men, mostly because it’s short.
I’ll give you a couple of worthy literary heroes tomorrow.