John Steinbeck adored his two sons, Thom, the eldest, and John (better known by his nickname, “Catbird”). After a tumultuous divorce with his second wife, Gwyn, the mother of the boys, and a long and usually loving marriage but also difficult relationship with his first wife, Carol, Steinbeck had found true love with his third wife, Elaine. The two were married until his death, from 1949 to 1968.
My dissertation is on Steinbeck and in my research, I have spent months perusing his vast collection of personal letters, most of which are housed in the Special Collections at Stanford University. In addition to the disciplined daily composition of his novels, Steinbeck typically wrote six to eight letters a day: to friends, family, and colleagues. Almost everyone kept the letters.
I got to know the relationship between Steinbeck and his sons very well through those letters. He was a marvelous father. When he saw traveling could offer his boys a better education than traditional schooling, he took Thom and Catbird with him and Elaine to Europe and elsewhere. Their tutor was the very young playwright, Terrance McNally.
Here is a letter that fourteen-year-old Thom received from his dad, before those traveling years, when Thom was at boarding school in Connecticut and was just beginning to be interested in girls. It has been widely published before, but it is such a beautiful thing…everyone should read it.
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.
There are many things I love about the letter: he is to expect a response from Elaine, as a woman’s point of view will also be helpful; that he is wise enough to know to not dismiss Thom’s feelings, just because he is young; that he can tell him in language a boy of that age can understand, and really, speaks plainly to anyone of any age, about the types of love. There is not just one kind; some are negative and destructive, some are positive and constructive.
And in closing, he does not forget the object of Thom’s affection. He acknowledges her by name and welcomes her.