Letters to Elizabeth

These are letters John Steinbeck wrote to his literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, spanning 27 years wherein she encouraged, counseled, and criticized the Nobel laureate. She was one of a select group who were sounding boards for Steinbeck who might discuss a specific work or just ruminate on subjects that interested him.

The book was published by The Book Club of California in 1978, being one of 500 hardcover copies printed by the Plantin Press. It was edited by Florian J. Shasky, a Palo Alto, California bookseller, and Susan F. Riggs, a librarian at Stanford University who later (1980) compiled A Catalogue of the John Steinbeck Collection at Stanford University. They provide the preface.

Title page

Title page

Shasky told me that this was one of the most swiftly produced books in the history of The Book Club of California. Apparently a book that had been scheduled for publication fell through, so this book was put together, rather hurriedly, from Steinbeck letters to Elizabeth Otis within Stanford University’s collection.

The book follows another book of Steinbeck letters that Viking published in 1975. Edited by Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine, and Robert Wallsten, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters provides a wonderful biography of the great writer through publication of many of the multitude of letters Steinbeck wrote through the course of his life. Steinbeck was a prolific letter writer and often started his day writing by warming up via letters to his agents, editors, and friends.

Letters to Elizabeth isn’t as comprehensive as Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, but it wasn’t designed to be. It should be noted that none of the letters in the latter are reproduced in the former.

Perhaps the most charming aspect of the book is the introduction written by Steinbeck’s roommate at Stanford University and lifelong friend, Carlton A. (Dook) Sheffield. Dook, in this case, in a bastardization of the name Duke. Steinbeck thought that Sheffield was such a good swimmer that he was a regular Duke Kahanamoku, the famous Hawaiian swimming and surfing champion. I knew Sheffield for about a decade until his death in the late 1980s. While he would regularly answer to Dook or Duke, he preferred to be called Sheff.

Inscription  by Sheff

Inscription by Sheff

Sheff’s importance to Steinbeck’s writing career cannot be overstated. It was Steinbeck’s practice to write his stories as if he were telling the story to just one person rather than to a mass audience. That one person was Sheff.

Well before Steinbeck became a published author and early in Sheff’s career as a newspaperman he “started saving John’s letters, not for any well-defined reason but because there was something about even his most hurried and crudely developed creations that struck me as being worth keeping. His points of view were always fresh, his arguments original, and his treatments of the obvious full of surprises. Without my realizing it, they opened new vistas of expression for me by providing examples that I kept trying to equal….”

Although biographies and autobiographies are often useful in providing insights into the life of an author, it is often via his letters that we learn more intimacies, when they reveal more about themselves, their thoughts, their desires. In story writing an author tries to present an intended perspective. In letter writing, they are more personal, unaware that others might be reading those words which might reveal more than the writer intended.

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