A Life in Letters
In these letters, Steinbeck recorded the process of publishing The Grapes of Wrath and Oklahomans' reaction to the novel.
This is an excerpt of a letter to Steinbeck’s agent, Elizabeth Otis. Steinbeck discusses potential revisions and the book’s provisional title, The Grapes of Wrath.
September 10, 1938
…About the title—Pat [Pascal Covici] wired that he liked it. And I too am glad because I like it better all the time. I think it is Carol’s best title so far. I like it because it is a march and this book is a kind of march—because it is our own revolutionary tradition and because in reference to this book it has a large meaning. And I like it because people know the Battle Hymn who don’t know the Star Spangled Banner.
…And still I can’t tell how much longer it will be nor how much time and I don’t intend to think about it but I am fairly sure that another sixty days will see it done. I hope so. I’ve been sitting down so long I’m getting office spread. And I’m desperately tired but I want to finish. And meanwhile I feel as though shrapnel were bursting in my head. I only hope this book is some good. Can’t tell yet at all. And I can’t tell whether it is balanced. It is a slow, plodding book but I don’t think it is dull.
I haven’t left this desk since March, what with the other book and this one. When I’m done, I’ll probably go nuts like a spring lamb. Never have worked so hard and so long in my life. Probably good for me but I’m soft now physically and must get in some hard digging work when I finish. To harden up…
Love to all,
Steinbeck, John. “To Elizabeth Otis.” 10 September 1938. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, Viking Press, 1975, 171-172.
This is an excerpt from a letter written to Pascal (Pat) Covivi, Steinbeck’s editor at The Viking Press. After reading the manuscript, Covivi and other editors recommended changing the book’s ending, which they found too abrupt. Covici said, “The incident needs leading up to, so that the meeting with the starving man is not so much an accident or chance encounter, but more an integral part of the saga” (qtd. in Steinbeck and Wallsten 177).
January 16, 1939
…I am sorry but I cannot change that ending. It is casual—there is no fruity climax, it is not more important than any other part of the book—if there is a symbol, it is a survival symbol not a love symbol, it must be an accident, it must be a stranger, and it must be quick. To build this stranger into the structure of the book would be to warp the whole meaning of the book. The fact that the Joads don’t know him, don’t care about him, have no ties to him—that is the emphasis…You know that I have never been touchy about changes, but I have too many thousands of hours on this book, every incident has been too carefully chosen and its weight judged and fitted. The balance is there. One other thing—I am not writing a satisfying story. I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied.
And still one more thing—I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written.
…Throughout, I’ve tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness. There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won’t find more than he has in himself…
Love to you all,
Steinbeck, John. “To Pascal Covici.” 16 January 1939. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, Viking Press, 1975, 178-179.
This is an excerpt of a letter from Steinbeck to Otis about Oklahomans' response to his novel.
July 20, 1939
…The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad. The latest is a rumor started by them that the Okies hate me and have threatened to kill me for lying about them. This made all the papers. Tom Collis says that when his Okies read this smear they were so mad they wanted to burn something down.
I’m frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing. It is completely out of hand– I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing and it is not healthy.
About the pictures– I don’t know. [Nunnally] Johnson wrote that he was nearly finished with the script. The Hays office will be the tough nut since it is owned outright in N.Y. But the forces that want the picture made are rallying and they are both numerous and voluble. Meanwhile the Associated Farmers keep up a steady stream of accusation that I am first a liar and second a communist. Their vilification has a quality of hysteria too.
I shudder for you in the heat. I detest the New York heat.
Love to you all,
Steinbeck, John. “To Elizabeth Otis.” 20 July 1939. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, Viking Press, 1975, 188.