Today I took my very last final of the semester, and it was for my Eminent Authors class on John Steinbeck. The final was super easy: write a letter to John Steinbeck. As easy as that. We gathered around a fake campfire in the middle of our classroom, ate lots of food and read aloud our letters to the author we've been studying all semester long. It was a fun final "exam" and everybody loved my letter, including my professor who felt the need to shake my hand! Ha ha... Anyway, I thought I'd post it here. Enjoy.
Dear John Steinbeck,
Although you are dead, I imagine you on some shore somewhere near your beloved Salinas, sand between your toes, pencil in hand as you scribble ferociously on your yellow pad, ideas washing over you like ocean water. Perhaps it’s night, and you’re writing by the light of a bonfire. Charley’s head is in your lap and you pause from your writing to take a swig of beer and stare deeply into the fire’s orange wonder. Your novels live on, John, and they light a fire in all of us. The world changed as you pressed pencil to paper, leaving graphite lines that formed letters that formed words that formed stories that have called out for social equality, shed light on our own human folly, liberated us from our humdrum existence and let us know that there is nothing more remarkable than that “glittering instrument, the human soul.”
God, what I would give to have known you. To meet you, just once. To shake your hand and pick your brain and see the world as you see it out of those ever-searching deep blue eyes—eyes that captured America during the gritty horrors of the Dust Bowl, led a rebellion during World War II and pondered on all the confusing politics of Vietnam. You, who lived in California and New York, Mexico and France, a man who was always seeking out some new frontier; some new experience; some newer, higher, better plane of thinking and being and loving and learning. You, who counseled presidents and befriended marine biologists. You, who knew the plight of the downtrodden as if their story was your own. What would I ask you, John Steinbeck, if I could?
I’d ask you why on earth you gave a shit about those critics that couldn’t bear to admit that you had grasped onto something that they never even knew to reach for—why? Why, John? Weren’t you confident in your writing? Weren’t you confident in your ability to carve a character out of nothing but typewriter ink and a sheet of blank paper? To breathe life into them like a God and then watch as they struggle to make tough decisions? Do you see it now, John? Your success as a writer? Is it finally made apparent? Do you feel worthy of your accolades? Your praise? Your Nobel Prize? Do you see us here, now, reading your books, taking college courses all about you, studying your life and your essays and your novels like hungry children shoving sweet cake down our greedy, yearning throats?
Cal is full of good and bad, as are most of your characters. As are you. And though there were bad reviews and negative criticisms, there were good reviews too and the good will always outlive the bad. Good always does. Your talisman saves us, John, like it saved Ethan Hawley. Your milk nurtures us, like it did from Rose of Sharon. The pearl is buried deep in the ocean, and though the baby is dead, we know that life goes on—the Song of the Family keeps singing, louder and louder until it crushes the scorpion. Why? Because of timshel. Because there’s something inside all of us—that same noble stuff that the Joads had, and Lennie had, and the wise Chinaman Lee had—that will not surrender. We keep moving on. “Man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes,” but by God, he keeps on moving forward. You are that man, John Steinbeck. You were flawed—yes—but you are good. And it’s that goodness in your characters that you will always be remembered for. There’s darkness to humanity, that is true, but you show it to us so that we might fight it off. You give us the dark, so that we might see the light.
You call us back to our roots, you help us see that we are not so different from our neighbor, you criticize a system that stomps on the little guy, you fear a world with no nature, and you present those ideals to the world to chew on and think over and embrace. What was it like, John, to have such a great effect on America? How did you change the world with just a pencil and pad of yellow paper? I hope you can tell me someday. I’ll be reading and I’ll be listening.