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Steinbeck: A Life in Letters

4.33  ·  Rating details ·  526 ratings  ·  55 reviews
For John Steinbeck, who hated the telephone, letter-writing was a preparation for work and a natural way for him to communicate his thoughts on people he liked and hated; on marriage, women, and children; on the condition of the world; and on his progress in learning his craft. Opening with letters written during Steinbeck's early years in California, and closing with a ...more
Paperback, Penguin Books Reissue, 928 pages
Published April 1st 1989 by Penguin Books (first published 1975)
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Average rating 4.33  · 
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Aug 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction

John Steinbeck was a compulsive writer. In a letter to his editor and friend Pat Covici in 1960, he recorded his excitement about a planned trip by campervan around the United States.* Steinbeck wrote: "I nearly always write - just as I nearly always breathe". The association of writing with life itself defines Steinbeck. He wrote novels, plays, screenplays, opinion pieces, political speeches, travel journalism and war reportage. And, of course, letters.

From his days as a struggling writer in
Oct 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've been working on this book a long time-- a year or better. I would read a little here and there. I found it fascinating and couldn't put it down at times. But, I would force myself to only read a letter or two at a time because it was just something to be savored. Last night, I decided to just go ahead and finish it-- I had 200 pages left. It's good I finished the last 200 pages so quickly. It was depressing. I mean, it's hard to finish a book you have been reading so long and enjoying so ...more
Tom Barnes
Dec 02, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: All Readers
Recommended to Tom by: I follow Steinbeck's work

John Steinbeck never wrote an autobiography, but his letters probably reveal more about the writer and the man than an autobiography could have hoped to.
John Steinbeck was everyman, suffered every weakness, stood up to every duty, doubted his own talent, feared the beginning of every new work, and grew with each experience.
In one of his early letters he admitted his shortcomings when he was cornered by academia. He hated the idea of proper spelling and punctuation for a clean manuscript in his
Brian Willis
Oct 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
Steinbeck never got around to writing an autobiography. He mooted it many times but the impulses never energized him to write about himself or to frame his life within a narrative structure.

This massive project is the equivalent, perhaps better, than conscious self conceptualization because it catches Steinbeck at his most unguarded. Hundreds of letters were gathered just after his death to complete this project, and there are countless gems within its pages. In fact, Steinbeck was our most
This is the kind of book you own and pick it up and read randomly every night or day. I absolutely loved it but had to give it back to the library :(. I admit that the only Steinbeck I've read is Of Mice and Men...but oh, how fascinating to read about his life in his own words! Amazing!
Mar 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended as a "staff pick" by the worker at the book store in Pacific Grove.

The trip to Pacific Grove, learned that that little coastal town that I had never been to was really integral to the John Steinbeck story. Yes he was born and raised in Salinas. Yes, his childhood Victorian remains there and can be visited and also, in the center of town, is the imposing "International Steinbeck Center." Yet to read his letters, one sees how his life evolved around Salinas and most happily, and most
Bree Riley
Jan 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Well this book was everything I hoped it would be. I said most of the things I wanted to say in my updates as I worked through the book. Some of Steinbeck's offhand remarks were a little questionable /dated (mostly regarding women /people of colour) but I'm not going to make a big fuss about that because the letters were written y e a r s ago and a lot of things have changed. (And they were offhand remarks. Without much context or explanation.) I'm glad I picked this up and I'm glad I took so ...more
Mar 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Well, he's in here--warts and all. This is a hugely large collection but it seldom lags. I read it in short, concentrated doses over the course of a couple of months. Very enlightening and endlessly fascinating. I learned quite a bit about the man, the writer, the process, and the world as he saw it. My greatest disappointment: So many times I wanted to hear both sides of the epistolary conversation, but that's not generally how these things work. My greatest sadness at its end: That he never ...more
I don't just love this book because I love Steinbeck -- I think anybody who wants to be a writer should read it. From the very first letter to the last Steinbeck talks about his process of writing and how his work defines every day of his life. It's amazing and inspiring and I am so grateful that people used to write letters like this and that records of people's lives exist in this way. It makes me sad that the best modern equivalent we have is someone's blog or Facebook page. We should all be ...more
Jul 30, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir-biography
This is an odd book to have on a list of personal standouts, but it's there because, quite apart from being a terrific collection of correspondence from a man who dealt with everything including his own psyche by expressing it in writing to other people, I happened to be reading it during a very bad and lonely patch and suddenly found him articulating exactly what I was feeling and going through. I can still remember the revelation and the relief of discovering someone else had been there and ...more
Dec 23, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
If you like mundane details, this one is for you.
Reagen Ward
Feb 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Sage advice from Steinbeck's letter to his son in boarding school, on this Feb 14:

New York
November 10, 1958
Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First -- if you are in love -- that's a good thing -- that's about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don't let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second -- There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for
Aren LeBrun
Every now and then if you enjoy reading and writing and you have a little bit of luck on your side you will encounter something so good it just totally cracks you open and helps you see things differently and better. In my life I have experienced this process four times and each time it is new and still very recognizable the moment it starts.

The fourth time was recently and it warrants a small note. This old battered collection of correspondence from the life of John Steinbeck accompanied me on
Feb 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There is a want to say the most perfect thing as it was one of the best reads of my life. A Five Star for sure. The fact that it is through his letters to others makes it all that much more precious. It is a very intimate and detailed portrait of a Great man. It progresses slowly and offers the feel of sitting on a train with John sitting across from you sharing his life story as you go along. His voice is strong, yet gentle and kind and does not rush to tell things, but profoundly makes his ...more
So happy to have gotten to see a glimpse of his early life. The book went much farther but I'm stopping now. I'm no prude, it isn't that he is going to break up his marriage. It is the realization that men have their breaking point. Women and men need what that are missing and cannot be satisfied any other way, then, ...they ..we get greedy...I liked that he accepted poverty. It never got him down, not like money did. But the money just gave him the opportunity to want more. It's greed, not ...more
J.G. Lyon
Aug 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was Steinbeck’s greatest work. It represents a lifetime of learning, effort, and love. He delivers deeper insight through casual letters to his favorite people than many encounter in the course of their whole lives.

I would highly recommend using tabs to mark your favorites, because you will certainly want to return to them over the years.
John Edward
It is hard to look at Steinbeck the same way after reading this one. I am sure he would be rolling over in his grave at the thought that these letters have been gathered and published in this format. In sharp contrast to his previously published work, this seems to show a timid, manipulative and insecure man.
Dave Carroll
John Steinbeck was a prolific letter writer, particularly to his wife and publisher. This posthumous collection of his best letters was undertaken by his last wife Elaine and shows the breadth of his interests and passion. A must read for Steinbeck scholars and addicts.
Ryan Williams
Steinbeck comes across as a decent, bashful man that hated fame even in the days before right-wing Yanks started blaming him whenever their cars wouldn’t start. Sadly this makes the volume dull reading.
Sep 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
I wasn't sure I was going to make it through at first. But if you stick it out through the first third, it starts to read like a story.
Joni Keith
Oct 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I feel as though I have been trespassing. The letters are so personal and revealing of John Steinbeck's character, I feel as though I know the author personally.
May 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
Interesting, revealing, mind-provoking and advising. Another good work by JS
Jun 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Endlessly fascinating
Katrina Tandoc
Jan 24, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's one of the funniest books I've ever read.
John Bond
Jan 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great panoramic look at a great life and a great writer.
stephanie roberts
Jun 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: writers
Recommended to stephanie by: social media
Shelves: faves, non-fiction
I remember gasping when I opened the box and saw the book was almost two inches thick. I remember carrying it with me on a bus to Toronto. I remember after spending the days chasing down little kids that did not want to: eat, nap, or stop picking on their siblings, i would crash into my bed at night and read John's beautiful correspondences. I told a friend the language that John Steinbeck used at twenty-three writing casually to his friends will make you feel like a moron. I fell in love with ...more
Monty J Heying
Oct 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
This 900-page tome contains rare insights into Steinbeck's life and his views on writing and the creative process. Well worth the time if one is interested in these subjects.

The content is chiefly Steinbeck's letters; so he is the author, but editorial comments are carefully distributed throughout, along with occasional excerpts from related correspondence. This is a selection of correspondence initiated by Steinbeck, chosen and edited with loving care by Elaine, his third wife, and Robert
Jan 05, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This collection of letters makes for a great book.
Not only does it give insight into the mind of a fantastic author, but also a fresh perspective on the world in his time.
What caught me most of guard was the realization that I had only read bios from the first half of his career. I aim to rectify that now, and thanks to the authors own thoughts and opinions I know just where I want to start.
This was a long read, difficult at times but satisfying. The one drawback is the decision by the
Nov 17, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The first time I read this, I could not put it down. This time I decided to savor it awhile, but I was still sad when it was over. Usually with a biography/autobiography, you only see the face the author decides to show. Through reading someone's letters to their closest friends and family members you get to see who they really were. I almost felt guilty reading about some of the more private experiences, because it was not intended for me, but it allowed me to see who John Steinbeck was more ...more
Jim Awe
Mar 15, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I don't think I would have ever guessed that 800 pages of personal letters would be a fascinating read, but luckily a wise woman gave me this book for Christmas so I was compelled to read it. It turned out to be really interesting to watch the arc of a man's life from starving artist to world renowned author. Along the way he goes through the standard life changes of marriage, divorce, affairs, kids, moving, etc. He's no different than the rest of us, but because he's a great author with ...more
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John Steinbeck III was an American writer. He wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 and the novella Of Mice and Men, published in 1937. In all, he wrote twenty-five books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books and several collections of short stories.

In 1962 Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley
“If you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”
“Many are the stories I have heard about myself. I have mistresses I have never met. When I hear that I am a sodomist and a zoophalist then I shall know that I have reached the high point of fame, but I suppose I can hardly expect such exaltation for many years.” 9 likes
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