Letters Project

Letter from John Steinbeck to Thom Steinbeck

[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 self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you--of kindness and consideration and respect--not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply--of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it--and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone--there is no possible harm in saying so--only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another--but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens--The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.




John Steinbeck was the most popular novelist in the world when he died in 1968. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, and in 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his life’s body of writing. Thom is the oldest of his two sons. He is fourteen and is living at a boarding school in Connecticut. The boys’ mother was Gwyn Conger, Steinbeck’s first wife. Elaine is his third wife.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/23 at 09:20 AM
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©2005 Montana Heritage Project

Letters as private literature

“Letters are magical. I never throw out a good letter. They enable us to nurture, connect and communicate with a worldwide circle of friends--friends we otherwise might never have met. They open doors to innumerable emotions and experiences. Letters document the chapters in our lives--our discoveries, our passions, our sorrows and growth as well as all the ebb and flow inevitable in life. Letters allow us to be personal, natural and specific. More than any other medium, letters provide an uninhibited view of everyday life--the most accurate and natural form of autobiography. Like an intimate conversation between friends, they record immediate circumstances, events, news, gossip and feelings. They are detailed; they act as a zoom lens into specific moments, experiences, and emotions. When I write a letter to a friend, I bring that person into my day, describing domestic events, my mood, my attitude, colors and pleasures. A cut finger, my cold, news of my children, the weather, music, smells from the kitchen, are all shared. If I write a letter late at night in the intimacy of one lamp I tend to describe my surroundings and the stillness. If I write a letter from a restaurant I might describe what looks good on the menu. Scenes are painted, stories told that linger as long as the letter, and beyond.

“A letter can be written for any number of reasons--joy, pain, neglect, love, lust, desire, loneliness, flight of fancy, disgust, ecstacy--but always there is overwhelming need to share, to connect, to feel understood. That’s why a letter is a blessing, a great and all-too-rare privilege. More personal than even a favorite book, more alive than a favored possession, a letter is written, addressed and mailed to one, and only one, person. Consequently, a letter holds enormous impact. Whenever one needs to feel close to a good friend, all one has to do is write a letter.”

Gift of a Letter (1990, HarperCollins, 6-7)
Alexandra Stoddard

For some time I’ve thought the most important use of writing by most people was not for publication or jobs or business (the usual aims of writing programs) but to create family and community literature or scripture. It seems letter writing might be the most direct way to communicate this.

As some of you have noted in the historical letters you’ve found in your communities, many letters are not very interesting because they were not well written. Imagine how rich and wonderful the past and the future would be if people really did learn to use the lessons of literature in crafting letters that are powerful, detailed, personal and honest. (Such letters could, of course, be “mailed” via email.)

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/20 at 11:05 PM
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©2005 Montana Heritage Project

Phil Leonardi

The Devil In The Details

The use of primary accounts through personal letters and journals is much like fishing an unfamiliar creek for the first time.  First, without exploration and effort, one can never tell if there are any fish in the water.  Secondly, that next step you take in shallow water might actually be the one into a deep pool that is well over your head.  You should have left your wallet in the car if you didn’t want it to get wet!  Students, like novice anglers, should start in the slower waters, something simple so that nuance and detail are easily recognized.

I’m utilitarian.  A rock makes a fine hammer in almost any case but a hammer rarely makes a good rock.  Imagine trying to “skip” a hammer on the river while fishing.  Context and specific detail are most important in my teaching.  Below is a birthday card for “Robert” dated September 2, 1956.  Look for some of the detail.  What areas need clarification?

Sep 2 – 1956
Happy Birthday Robert
We been thinking of you all day today knowing it is your Birthday.  We are taking a siteseeing tour of Belgium and Holland it cost us 48 dolar each for the 4 day by buss with a guide explaining everything and the Hotel room and meal included.  They bought us to the vary last Hotel.  We left yesterday morning from Paris.  We treveled 7 hours throw Belgium stoping three different time.  We are now in Ansterdam Holland, we seen most of this city today it is vary nice.  Holland and Belgium are the most modern and cleen country we seen.  The people hear dress liche in the U.S. more than any other.  All the women wear hats.  We also seen a tour where people dress like the old Holland stile but very nice and clean.  We are enjoing this trip.  Tomorrow we will be treveling to a different city agin returning to Paris Tuesday night about 8.  Hoping everybody is fine at Home.

Love and best wishes,
Mom & Dad

These are the facts:
-Modernity seems to be a guide to quality
-Fashion, especially women’s hats, is important in 1956
-The cost of travel seems to be inexpensive
-If it’s “clean” then it can be “nice”

These are the areas that need more detail through exploration:
-How old is “Robert”?
-Are “Mom & Dad” frequent travelers?
-What is the condition of transportation systems in post-WWII Europe?
-What efforts were undertaken to “modernize” Europe in the post-WWII?
-What is the value of $48.00 in 1956?
-How would a trip today compare with the itinerary described in the card?

Style, voice, topic, theme, diction are important but basic statements of fact are the launching pad for additional inquiry in the social studies classroom.  This card doesn’t provide a great many details but opens the door to discussion and research.  A sequential diary is a gold mine of material but a much easier source is a postcard.  Postcards usually contain very brief but detailed descriptions along with a supporting image.  Additionally, depending upon the source, postcards are sequential in that they document different stages of the same journey.  The romanticism associated with writing is better left to the teachers of English.

The devil in these details?  Robert is my father and it’s his 27th birthday.  Mom & Pop are my grandparents, born in Italy, who are making their first trip to Europe in 40 years.  They were “tidy” people but not obsessive/compulsive by any means.  These facts are important to me but not a requirement needed by the student to initiate research.  I am never too worried that the student will get in over their head – most kids know how to swim.image

Posted by Phil Leonardi on 03/11 at 11:25 AM
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