In her review of Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings sells the book in the best way, by giving us a taste of Steinbeck unadorned and earnest, answering in the afternoon a letter he received from his son that morning.
Brain Pickings is one of a hectic day's joys, by the way. How could it not be, for it promises -- and often delivers, "[i]nterestingness, curated – picking culture's collective brain..."
Among his correspondence is this beautiful response to his eldest son Thom’s 1958 letter, in which the teenage boy confesses to have fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan while at boarding school. Steinbeck’s words of wisdom — tender, optimistic, timeless, infinitely sagacious — should be etched onto the heart and mind of every living, breathing human being.
November 10, 1958
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.
Steinbeck married three times, Elaine Scott being his third wife in what was a happy union. His sons Thom and John IV were from his second marriage with Gwyn Conger.
He wrote East of Eden for his boys.
In a letter of that period, Steinbeck noted, "And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all - the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness. I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable - how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born." [Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters]