‘Spouse, youngsters, finest pal all gone’: Diaries reveal Steinbeck’s darkest 12 months | John Steinbeck


On the eve of 1949, shortly earlier than he began writing his masterpiece, East of Eden, the nice American creator John Steinbeck wrote in his diary: “I don’t suppose anybody has ever so hated a 12 months as I hated 1948. It’s with an excellent sense of reduction that I transfer into 1949. Regardless of how unhealthy it’s, it could actually’t be as unhealthy as ’48. Spouse, youngsters, finest pal: all gone. However maybe it toughened me.”

His finest pal and fellow creator, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, had died in a practice crash, earlier than his second spouse, Gwyn, left him and took their youngsters along with her. The diary Steinbeck wrote all year long that adopted was essentially the most “intense and personal” journal he ever wrote, mentioned Prof Susan Shillinglaw, the pre-eminent Steinbeck scholar and former director of the Heart for Steinbeck Research at San José State College, California.

Now this unpublished journal and others he wrote – together with unpublished essays and an deserted novella, first editions of his work, handwritten manuscripts and a sword he gave to his sister – are anticipated to fetch as much as $1m when they’re bought at public sale for the primary time by his descendants.

“He’s writing out his lowest, most private and most miserable ideas,” mentioned Shillinglaw, who’s believed to be the one educational ever given entry by Steinbeck’s household to the deeply private assortment. “That’s a option to take care of them, it’s a option to cope: hold a journal of the darkest a part of your self.”

The sudden dying of Ricketts hit Steinbeck arduous, alongside together with his divorce and the painful absence of his two sons, and he turned “severely depressed”, she mentioned. “In 1948 and 1949, he didn’t write a lot.”

Consequently, she thinks this journal is “revelatory” about Steinbeck’s mind-set at one of many lowest factors in his life: “There was some darkness in his nature that he reveals most absolutely in that journal.”

Gwyn Steinbeck in 1957, wearing a button-down shirt and a skirt, sitting near a kitchen counter with a radio and cupboards in her home
Gwyn Steinbeck in her kitchen in 1957. {Photograph}: CBS Photograph Archive/Getty Photographs

It’s a “very vital” textual content, she mentioned, in relation to East of Eden, during which Cathy – a seductive, serpentine character his sons later confirmed was loosely primarily based on their mom – is depicted as an inherently sinful and inhumane spouse, mom, whore and assassin.

“I believe that it [the journal] does assist us perceive the darkness that he’s making an attempt to return at in East of Eden,” she mentioned. “He’s pondering the character of evil in East of Eden, and he’s pondering the character of darkness in his personal soul in that journal.”

Tucked into this journal was a handwritten letter Steinbeck wrote – however by no means posted – to his younger sons, dated 5 January 1949, explaining that it was Gwyn alone who wished to separate (“some compulsion was on her that I don’t perceive … Her happiness was very treasured to her”) and telling them he feels “dying blowing down [his] neck”: “The loneliness for my household continues to be like ice on me. I suppose it will get higher. It must or my life will exit in a short time,” he writes.

The journal additionally contains particulars of how a lot he wrote every day, revealing how his temper improved when he’s productive, in addition to diary entries in regards to the weekend he met his third spouse, Elaine.

“Every week after that weekend, he writes: ‘She burned a mark on me that can keep and I believe she was singed just a little too’,” mentioned Catherine Williamson, the Steinbeck specialist at Bonhams, which is holding the public sale on 25 October in New York.

Included within the sale is Steinbeck’s unpublished and deserted 34-page novella, The Good Little Neighbour, about an American on a strolling tour of Mexico, that Steinbeck wrote in 1942 in one other journal.

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Williamson said the story is “very experimental, kind of fantastical, with almost magical realism”. Steinbeck made line drawings illustrating the story on the left-hand pages, which Shillinglaw said was unusual: “There’s no such elaborate illustration I know of in another manuscript.”

1936-37 Dorothea Lange portrait of a poor, worried-looking mother holding a baby with a boy resting his dirt-covered face on her shoulder, against a canvas tent held up by a thick stick in California
A Dorothea Lange portrait of dust bowl refugees in California in 1936-37 – the inspiration for Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Photograph: Getty

In another unpublished journal, written in 1938 as he is prepared to write The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck alludes to some journalism he wrote about the lives of migrant farm workers in California, who were starving due to exploitative wages: “I know perfectly well the danger I am running in exposing the Associated Farmers. They are quite capable of murder or faking a criminal charge, and if they do, I will be alone … I know they can beat me personally, but they may not be able to …

“The old fire is beginning to burn again. In a little while, I will be ready to tear every goading thing away and get to my knitting.”

Williamson said: “That’s the way he talks at the end of the 1949 journal. ‘The old fire is beginning to burn again’: that’s what he says when he’s getting ready to write a big novel.”



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