Dear John,

English: John Steinbeck

Speak of the Devil, here’s the little ball of sunshine now. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not one to poke about garage sales, as I consider my time worth more than panning for questionably valuable knick-knacks on a definitely valuable Saturday. When I received a text during the Junior High Dance about a friend having such an event, I was hesitant. He did mention there would be books available, and therefore I agreed to make an appearance. We have similar taste in literature, and I thought it would be a good way to pick up something I had not considered.

Fortuna spun her wheel upward that day, as I set my eyes upon Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. It’s a second-hand library book, and feels delicious to the touch. Hardback with a laminated cover, it’s glossiness brings me back to the 80s and the pages are incredibly soft. I inhale its pulpy bouquet like a Cabernet.  By the way, that little idiosyncrasy is bound to get me tossed out of Barnes & Noble. I’m sure of it.

Considering I have a stack of books “on deck” (so-to-speak) up to my knee, I’ll have to wait to read in toto. There’s a modern thriller a friend of mine wants me to read. Temptation got the better of me, however, and I cracked it open to a random page. I found this letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt, of all people:

Los Gatos

August 13, 1940

Dear Mr. Roosevelt,

I assure you that if there were any alternative, I should not bother you with this letter. When you were kind enough to receive me I said I did not want a job. But after listening to the growing defeatism in the country, especially among business men, I find I have a job whether I want one or not.

When I spoke to you I said that the Germans were winning in the propaganda matters through boldness and the use of new techniques. This has also been largely true in their military activities. At the time I had been thinking that our weapons and tactics would have to come not only from the military minds but from the laboratories.

Perhaps you have heard of Dr. Melvyn Knisely, who has the chair of Anatomy at the University of Chicago. He is a remarkable scientist and an old friend of mine. discussing with him the problem of the growing Nazi power and possibilities for defense against it, he put forth an analysis and a psychological weapon which seem to me so simple and so effective, that I think it should be considered and very soon. I would take it to some one less busy than you if I knew one with imagination and resiliency enough to see its possibilities.

What I wish to ask you is this- Will you see Dr. Knisely and me in a week or ten days- see us privately and listen to this plan? Within half an hour you will know that we have an easily available weapon more devastating than many battleships or you will not like it at all. Afterwards-if you agree-we will discuss it with any one you may designate on the National Defense Council.

Please forgive this informality, but frankly, I don’t know anyone else in authority whom I can address informally.

May I have a yes-no reaction to this letter at your convenience?

Sincerely yours,

John Steinbeck

The rest of the story came from skeptical White House staff suggesting FDR would delegate this task to lower-level personnel. To their surprise, he agreed and saw the writer and scientist on September the 12th. The idea brought forth by Knisely was to scatter high-quality German tender over enemy lines and in copious amounts. The president was in favor of the idea, but the men in the U.S. Treasury put the kibosh on the notion. Why? It doesn’t say, but one could speculate.

This letter, in conjunction with the forward, threw me in a state of shock. This did not read like the Steinbeck I read in Of Mice and MenThe Grapes of Wrath, and The Pearl. His works read like a case of irritable bowel syndrome with flair ups occurring at a moment’s notice. They were all rough and prickly and gritty, and I pictured him wearing a grimace throughout the whole writing process. The above letter was not that at all. It was polished, genteel, and even a little reverent. On thinking about it, he was trying to be persuasive with the then President of the United States. One can’t be too cocksure and coarse with such a person, although there was that one time FDR decided to serve hot dogs to the Queen of England. Oh, Frankie, you scamp!

It does present a jarring situation for me, as I’ve now been provided with two faces of a well-known author. Steinbeck was noted to be very quiet in person, and preferred writing letters instead. He could easily write seven letters a day before starting on his regular work. It got his juices flowing. I can certainly relate to that, but it does get me to wonder. How do I want any reader to see me? Would I prefer to keep my actual personality a secret and let my books produce an idea in their heads? Would it be an exciting extra for people to know me in reality? Would it matter? Do I even have a different presence in writing versus real life?

I suppose most of this will have to be answered later, as I’m not on Steinbeck’s level. It’s still free to think about though, and an interesting set of questions at that.

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4 thoughts on “Dear John,

  1. I did not know about this letter from Steinbeck. That’s really cool, and it raises him up a LOT in my book, because generally I feel the way you do about his writing. It’s brutal to try to slog through it. And kudos to FDR for taking the meeting. It’s unfortunate that more people don’t know this side of him. On the other hand, enough people seem to enjoy his novels. Those are what he’s known for, but if it were me, I think I’d rather be known for doing something cool. It’s probably why I’m not famous.

    • As I see it, he has much more recognition than many other writers. I would be honored to have that sort of notoriety. On the same token, I think more along your lines. It has occurred to me that I write the stories _I_ want to read. I”m not trying to pander to an audience. If people like what I write, then that makes me feel happier. If I don’t get visibility, it’s probably because of that.

      • That’s exactly how I feel. I assume Steinbeck wrote what he wanted to, otherwise he would have bored himself to death. I’m not a fiction writer but if I were, I’d write what I wanted to read, not what I thought others wanted to read. It’s more personally satisfying that way, isn’t it.

      • It is much more satisfying to be sure. Otherwise, I could waste time second guessing myself.

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