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Author: William A. Stein
For man is lonely when he is cut off...
The following letter to George Albee, marks the first of several instances when Steinbeck set about to explain, as much or more to himself as to his intended audience, the idea of the phalanx or group-man. Particularly important, it describes a socio-biological and political action in terms of a traditional aesthetic experience; and so, here Steinbeck reasons out a means of satisfying both the aesthetic and the political impulses which he felt so keenly, an approach I call his populist aesthetic. Pay particular attention to his likening of the effects of joining the phalanx to the sublime effects of appreciating the fine arts in the fifth paragraph of this excerpt.
To George Albee
[Salinas, California] [1933]
We know that with certain arrangements of atoms we might have what we would call a bar of iron. Certain other arrangements of atoms plus a mysterious principle make a living cell. Now the living cell is very sensitive to outside stimuli or tropisms. A further arrangement of cells and a very complex one may make a unit which we call man. That has been our final unit. But there have been mysterious things which could not be explained if man is the final unit. He also arranges himself into larger units, which I have called the phalanx. The phalanx has its own memory -- memory of the great tides when the moon was close, memory of starvations when the food of the world was exhausted. Memory of method when numbers of his units had to be destroyed for the good of the whole, memory of the history of itself. And the phalanx has emotions of which the unit man is incapable. Emotions of destruction, of war, of migration, of hatred, of fear. These things have been touched on often.
Religion is a phalanx emotion and this was so clearly understood by the church fathers that they said the holy ghost would come when two or three were gathered together. You have heard about the trickiness of the MOB. Mob is simply a phalanx, but if you try to judge a mob nature by the nature of its men units, you will fail as surely as if you tried to understand a man by studying one of his cells. You will say you know all this. Of course you do. It has to be written in primer language. All tremendous things do.
During the war we probably had the greatest phalanx in the history of the world. If we could devote our study to the greater unit, we would be capable of judging the possible actions of the phalanx, of prophesying its variability, and the direction it might take. We can find no man unit reason for the invasion of Europe by a race of Hun shepherds, who were transformed overnight into a destroying force, a true phalanx, and in another generation had become shepherds again, so weak that an invasion of Tartars overwhelmed them. We can find no man unit reason for the sudden migration of the Mayas. We say Atilla did it or Ghengis Khan, but they couldn't. They were simply the spokesmen of the movement. Hitler did not create the present phalanx in Germany, he merely interprets it.
Now in the unconscious of the man unit there is a keying mechanism. Jung calls it the third person. It is the plug which when inserted into the cap of the phalanx, makes man lose his unit identity in the phalanx. The artist is one in whom the phalanx comes closest to the conscious. Art then is the property of the phalanx, not of the individual. Art is the phalanx knowledge of the nature of matter and of life.
Dr. [Walker K.] Fischer at Hopkins [Marine Station, Pacific Grove] said one day that you could find any scientific discovery in the poetry of the preceding generation. Democritus promulgated an accurate atomic theory four hundred years before Christ. The artist is simply the spokesman of the phalanx. When a man hears great music, sees great pictures, reads great poetry, he loses his identity in that of the phalanx. I do not need to describe the emotion caused by these things, but it is invariably a feeling of oneness with one's phalanx. For man is lonely when he is cut off. He dies. From the phalanx he takes a fluid necessary to his life. In the mountains I saw men psychologically emaciated from being alone. You can't find a reason for doing certain things. You couldn't possibly find a reason. You are dealing with a creature whose nature you cannot know intellectually, of whose emotions you are ignorant. Whose reasons, directions, means, urges, pleasures, drives, satieties, ecstasies, hungers, and tropisms are not yours as an individual.
I can't give you this thing completely in a letter, George. I am going to write a whole novel with it as a theme, so how can I get it in a letter? Ed Ricketts has dug up all the scientific material and more than I need to establish the physical integrity of the thing. I have written this theme over and over and did not know what I was writing. I found at least four statements of it in the God. Old phalanxes break up in a fine imitation of death of the man unit, new phalanxes are born under proper physical and spiritual conditions. They may be of any size from the passionate three who are necessary to recieve the holy spirit, to the race which overnight develops a soul for conquest, to the phalanx which commits suicide through vice or war or disease. When your phalanx needs you it will use you, if you are the material to be used. You will know when the time comes, and when it does come, nothing you can do will let you escape.
"I am sick of the noble working man talking very like a junior college professor."
To George Albee
[Pacific Grove] January 15 [1935]
This is the first time I have felt that I could take the time to write and also that I had anything to say to anything except my manuscript book. You remember that I had an idea that I was going to write the autobiography of a Communist. then Miss McIntosh suggested that I reduce it to fiction. There lay the trouble. I had planned to write a journalistic account of a strike. But as I thought of it as fiction the thing got bigger and bigger. It couldn't be that. I've been living with this thing for some time now. I don't know how much I have got over, but I have used a small strike in an orchard valley as the symbol of man's eternal, bitter warfare with himself.
I'm not interested in strike as means of raising men's wages, and I'm not interested in ranting about justice and oppression, mere outcroppings which indicate the condition. But man hates something in himself. He has been able to defeat every natural obstacle but himself he cannot win over unless he kills every individual. And this self-hate which goes so closely in hand with self-love is what I wrote about. The book is brutal. I wanted to be merely a recording consciousness, judging nothing, simply putting down the thing. I think it has the thrust, almost crazy, that mobs have. It is written in disorder.
In the God [To a God Unknown] I strove for a serene movement like the movement of the year and the turn of the seasons, in this I wanted to get over unrest and irritation and slow sullen movement breaking out now and then in fierce eruptions. And so I have used a jerky method. I ended the book in the middle of a sentence. There is a cycle in the life of man but there is no ending in the life of Man. I tried to indicate this by stopping on a high point, leaving out any conclusion.
The book is disorder, but if it should ever come to you to read, listen to your own thoughts when you finish it and see if you don't find in it a terrible order, a frightful kind of movement. The talk, and the book is about eighty percent dialogue, is what is usually called vulgar. I have worked along with working stiffs and I have rarely heard a sentence that had not some bit of profanity in it. And in books I am sick of the noble working man talking very like a junior college professor. I don't know what will become of this book. It may be too harsh for anyone to buy. It is not controversial enough to draw the support of either the labor or the capital side although either may draw controversial conclusions from it, I suppose. It will take about a month to whip it into shape for sending. If you see Miss McIntosh will you tell her [Mavis McIntosh, Steinbeck's literary agent] ? I should have it off by the fifteenth of February.
It is called Dubious Battle from the lines in the first part of the argument of Paradise Lost:
Innumerable force of Spirits armed, That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring, His utmost power with adverse power opposed In Dubious Battle on the plains of Heaven, And shook His throne. What though the field be lost? All is not lost -- the unconquerable will, And study of revenge, immortal hate, And courage never to submit or yield: And what is else not to be overcome?
To Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Fascinated by film, and particularly by Hollywood, Steinbeck often found himself involved in various productions. However, he strongly objected to changes made in his script for the movie Lifeboat, as the following letter indicates. A month later, he sent a telegram to his agent, Annie Laurie Williams, asking to have his name removed from the project, but alas, Hollywood was not moved. In that telegram he referred to Alfred Hitchcock, the film's director, as an "incredible English middle class snob who really and truly despise[s] working people" (E. Steinbeck & Wallsten 267). And, in fact, subsequent research by Robert E. Morsberger (California State Polytechnic University) suggests that Hitchcock himself made the changes Steinbeck found objectionable.
New York January 10, 1944
Dear Sirs:
I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are only one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true that I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in the script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro there was a Negro of dignity, purpose and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.
John Steinbeck
" or technique may be a straitjacket..."
While touring Europe, his break after having finished both East of Eden and the script for Viva, Zapata!, Steinbeck addressed the following letter to his agent, Elizabeth Otis. Characteristically vague, his examination of his own artistic process nevertheless highlights the one aesthetic concern that haunted him throughout his writing career of nearly a half century, the fear that his writing might become formulaic. More than an anxiety of the influence of both preceding and contemporary writers, this was even more an anxiety of copying from himself, of falling into unintentional self-parody. Curiously, although Steinbeck experimented greatly with form, he nevertheless did fall into syntactic patterns that make almost all of his work sound like "Steinbeck" to those familiar with his writing. For example, the tendency to overuse the passive voice (presumably to create the effect of orality), the use of polysyndeton, and the use of catalogue all contribute to his distinctive voice. His concern about the danger of the facility of writing to good writing was an accurate, if unheeded (or unheedable), diagnosis. Steinbeck would comment often on the writing ahead about how easily it came to him.
To Elizabeth Otis
London, September 17, 1954
When a writer starts in very young, his problems apart from his story are those of technique, of words, of rhythms, of story methods, of transition, of characterization, of ways of creating effects. But after years of trial and error most of these things are solved and one gets what is called a style. It is then that a story conceived falls into place neatly and is written down having the indelible personal hallmark of the writer. This is thought to be an ideal situation. And the writer who is able to achieve this is thought to be very fortunate.
I have only just arrived at a sense of horror about this technique. If I think of a story, it is bound automatically to fall into my own personal long struggle for technique. But the penalty is terrible. The tail of the kite is designed to hold it steady in the air but it also prevents versatility in the kite and in many cases drags it to earth. Having a technique, is it not possible that the technique not only dictates how a story is to be written but also what story is to be written? In other words, style or technique may be a straitjacket which is the destroyer of a writer. It does seem to be true that when it becomes easy to write the writing is not likely to be any good. Facility can be the greatest danger in the world. But is there any alternative? Suppose I want to change my themes and my approach. Will not my technique, which has become almost unconscious, warp and drag me around to the old attitudes and subtly force the new work to be the old?
I want to dump my technique, to tear it right down to the ground and to start all over. I have been thinking of this a lot. I think I have one answer but I have not developed it enough to put it down yet.
[unsigned] "The discipline of the written word..."
Steinbeck wrote the following letter to the son of his friend Nathaniel Benchley (yes, Peter went on to write Jaws). Attending Exeter, Peter requested "a contribution to a special issue of the school newspaper. Steinbeck replied: 'Here are some lines. You're welcome to them if you want them. In a first draft I usually put in lots of generalities and in rewriting hunt them down and kill them'" (E. Steinbeck & Wallsten 522).
As usual, Steinbeck leaves us wanting a bit more explication. How does the discipline of the written word punish stupidity (presumably the writer's stupidity)? His thoughts on contextualized meaning as opposed to immanent meaning in language intrigue us as being quite contemporary and again only make us wish he had expanded on them. And, here, as elsewhere in his letters, he comments on his craft as part of an ancient tradition of storytelling which places his art on a foundation of orality and popular tradition.
To Peter Benchley
[Sag Harbor] [1956]
A man who writes a story is forced to put into it the best of his knowledge and the best of his feeling. The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty. A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel and kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter from a refrigerator. Of course there are dishonest writers who go on for a little while, but not for long -- not for long.
A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn't telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say -- and to feel --
"Yes, that's the way it is, or at least that's the way I feel it. You're not as alone as you thought."
It is so hard to be clear. Only a fool is wilfully obscure.
Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends and this is arbitrary because there are no beginnings nor any ends. We do have curtains -- in a day, morning, noon and night, in a man's birth, growth and death. These are curtain rise and curtain fall, but the story goes on and nothing finishes.
To finish is sadness to a writer -- a little death. He puts the last word down and it is done. But it isn't really done. The story goes on and leaves the writer behind, for no story is ever done.
"These committee men are neither very brave nor very intelligent."
Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing throughout the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy instigated and led congressional investigations into alleged communist activities that supposedly threatened the national security. One of Pascal Covici's stable of writers at Viking Press, Arthur Miller, had recently been called upon to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee regarding his alleged communist affiliations. Later, Miller would allegorize the hysteria of these hearings in his play The Crucible. Although Steinbeck wrote a letter in defense of Miller which Esquire published, nevertheless he regretted not having done more and not having done anything sooner.
To Pascal Covici
Florence May 16, 1957
Dear Pat:
Thanks for sending Atkinson's letter on to me. [Brooks Atkinson, drama critic of The New York Times.] I have answered it. I feel deeply that writers like me and actors and painters are in difficulty because of their own cowardice or perhaps failure to notice. When Artie told me that not one writer had come to his defense, it gave me a lonely sorrow and a shame that I waited so long and it seemed to me also that if we had fought back from the beginning instead of running away, perhaps these things would not be happening now. These committee men are neither very brave nor very intelligent. They would not attack an organism which defended itself. But they have been quite brave in pursuing rabbits and in effect we have been like rabbits. McCarthy went down not because Eisenhower faced him. That is a god damned lie. Eisenhower was scared of him. It took one brave man, Ed Murrow, to stand up to him to show that he had no strength. And Artie may be serving all of us. Please give him my respect and more than that, my love. You see, we have all along had the sharpest weapons of all, words, and we did not use them, and I for one am ashamed. I don't think I was frightened but truly, I was careless.
love to all there john