John Steinbeck on the Loneliness of Success and His Surprising Private Escape Into Transcendence

“The loneliness and discouragement… I can’t talk to anyone much about them or even admit having them because I now possess the things that the great majority of people think are the death of loneliness and discouragement.”


As a writer, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) remains one of the most beloved artists of the past century, whose exceptional work ethic and unrelenting pursuit of the impossible earned him both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize. As a person, he was animated by a deep humanity, uncommon integrity, and lucid optimism.

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) unfolds the record of a rare man who was a Complete Human Being, a living spectrum, who would with equal earnestness give his son timeless advice on falling in love and perform the difficult art of the friend breakup, would visit the carpenter who built his house in the hospital when the man broke his back, would unselfconsciously sign his letters to friends “love, john,” and would write to President Roosevelt: “Please forgive this informality, but frankly, I don’t know anyone else in authority whom I can address informally.”

John Steinbeck

In the fall of 1940, two years after he had first begun to taste the dark side of success, Steinbeck contemplates the private loneliness of public acclaim in a letter to his dear friend and onetime college roommate, Carlton A. Sheffield:

The loneliness and discouragement are by no means a thing that has passed. In fact they seem to crowd in more than ever. Only now I can’t talk to anyone much about them or even admit having them because I now possess the things that the great majority of people think are the death of loneliness and discouragement. Only they aren’t. The last time I saw Chaplin (this don’t repeat please but it is a part of the same thing) it was the night when the little lady [Paulette Goddard] was leaving him for good. And he said, “When I get this picture opened and all the formal things done, can I please go up to your ranch and kick all the servants out and just talk a little bit quietly about how lonely and sad I am? It will be self indulgence but I’d like to do it.” He is a good little man. And he knows so much better than I do the horrors of being a celebrity.

Later that year, he writes to another old college friend from Stanford (after whom Steinbeck named his manuscript-devouring dog):

Dear Toby:

Why is it, do you suppose, that we don’t get together any more? Of course, I know you are carrying some big secret in you that is bigger than you and that you’ve turned inward on your secret. And I suppose I’ve turned inward on something too.

[…]

Sometimes I get so dreadfully homesick I can’t stand it and then realize that it’s not for any home I ever had. And the passionate youthful desire to communicate was the same kind of homesickness. It’s curious and it doesn’t get any better, only one learns not to talk about it. And if everyone is that way, I wonder why they all learn not to talk about it. Their eyes get dull with disgust or pain or tiredness. I haven’t crossed the hump I guess or I wouldn’t be writing this letter.

But I sit upon this beautiful ranch in this comfortable chair with a perfect servant and a beautiful dog and I think I’m more homesick than ever.

Steinbeck found one surprising way of transfiguring this homesick loneliness into nourishing aloneness. Upon approaching his fortieth birthday, he began taking flying lessons near his home in Northern California. In the skies, he shed all the earthly trappings with which success had trapped him. There, he was able to be his barest human self. He captures that transcendent freedom in another letter to Sheffield:

I’m taking flying lessons up at the Palo Alto Airport and I love it. There’s something so god damned remote and beautiful and detached about being way to hell and gone up on a little yellow leaf. It isn’t like the big transports at all because this little thing floats and bobs and yet is very steady and — there’s no sense of power at all but rather a sense of being alone in the best sense of the word, not loneliness at all but just an escape into something delightful. I think you used to get it after you had had a lot of guests and they all went home and the house was finally cleaned up and you could turn on the radio and cook your own kind of stew and read and look up and know god damned well that you were alone. And there’s something about seeing a cumulus cloud way off and going over there to see what it is like.

My first reason for getting a license was that here I am only about a year and a half from forty and I wanted to learn to handle the controls while my reflexes were still malleable. I saw my father try to learn to drive a car when he was sixty five and he never could do it unconsciously. He had to think every time for the gear shift and he had to think about how to get out of a mess. Well, I wanted to get the controls into my unconscious before I got too old. And the moment I began going up I found something much more than that. Some very delicious thing with no name for it yet anyway, but it does seem to be some extension of aesthetics.

Complement the endlessly rewarding Steinbeck: A Life in Letters with the beloved writer on racism and bigotry, the crucible of creativity, and the necessary contradictions of human nature, then revisit Bruce Lee on the only meaningful measure of achievement and Joni Mitchell on freedom, the source of creativity, and the paradox of success.


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