Three “Historic Letters” February 5, 2013February 5, 2013 But first . . . ED KOCH Emerson Schwartzkopf: “I really didn’t think anything at all about his private life. But I sure would’ve liked more about those two battle stars. The U.S. Army didn’t hand those out for just hearing a few gunshots in the distance.” ☞ Indeed. Here is a lovely farewell from the West Point point of view. Marc Fest: “When you list openly gay international officials, such as mayors of Houston, Paris, and Berlin, you may want to include Germany’s openly gay foreign secretary, Guido Westerwelle. I find that even more impressive. “ ☞ Oh, sure, but then I’d have to list Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo, the world’s second openly gay national leader; and Iceland’s Johanna Sigurdardottir, its first. And perhaps Kathleen Wynne, elected to lead the Canada’s most populous province, representing more than a third of the nation And perhaps New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose legislative body has as many constituents as Switzerland. Where does it end? (Or is it just beginning? I don’t like them myself, but some real estate agents say it’s good for a neighborhood when the gays move in.) OH, OKAY Of course I like them, being one, but could not resist channeling Jon Stewart. Guest: “I love your show.” Stewart: “Really? I don’t care for it.” TTNP Some of us bought this one at $1.77. Some waited until (or bought more when) it had, by this past May, lost more than half its value. It was one of you latter prescients who wrote yesterday, with the stock tripled to $2.48, asking what Guru thinks now. He thinks it goes to $3 or more; and that $3 would be a good place to get out and move on. And now . . . THREE HISTORIC LETTERS (two of them about Borealis) Long-time readers will know that I collect “historic documents,” ranging from a great Humphrey Bogart letter that was once stolen off my wall (if you know anyone with a great handwritten 1938 letter from Bogie to “Ken,” hanging on his wall, please play it really cool . . . don’t let on that you know . . . just . . . shhhhhhhh! . . . [urgent stage whisper] call the coppers!) . . . to Einstein congratulating newly-confirmed Justice Felix Frankfurter . . . to a document from 1501 in which Empress Isabella directs that one of her servants be given a bonus. It is, I suppose, in its whimsical breadth, less a collection than an eclection. Anyway, I’ve lately been rummaging amongst old files, unearthing items acquired decades ago — when I was actually getting paid to write these columns — and I came upon three that had found their way into an unexpected box. Which makes rediscovering them all the more fun. The first was from John Steinbeck to a writer assigned to profile him. It has no financial significance but is so direct and revealing-of-the-man, and perhaps the times, I just love it. Handwritten with a fountain pen (ball points having only vaguely been invented) . . . two years before publication of The Grapes of Wrath but right around the time it must have been rolling around in his head: August 25, 1937 Dear Harry Moore, Back in New York and soon to go west again. Your letter written long ago was waiting for me. We didn’t have mail forwarded. We’re down at a place in Pennsylvania for a few days and I haven’t [given] them name and address. I’ll take a chance that this will be forwarded to you. Now concerning your questions -1 think you know my principle — that the perfect biography of a writer is born — died. The whole process of trying to be a writer is to drop personal identity. That person identity is the boundary of the writer’s possibility. He shouldn’t have any. His history should be the history of his people. I dislike in this period, all those little tricks by which writers of the 19th century proved they were “originals.” I’m not original. My life has been not dull, but not literary unless it is editorialized in that direction. I detest personal detail because it thrusts self-consciousness back when it should be eliminated. Physical facts – O.K. although I’m not much interested in them. Me – Born – Salinas, Monterey Co, California -1902 Father – John Ernest Steinbeck / born in Florida during the war (arrived California 16 years of age) Mother – Olive Hamilton / born in San Jose, Calif. My mother was a school teacher at 16 – taught in Big Sur, and in Peachtree near the mustang grade – There’s so much nonsense about the jobs – this surveying party stuff – Probably the first surveying party was in the Big Sur in the 18th century. I worked on a line for the first road below the Sur. You see what foolishness gets said. The Red Pony was written about two years ago and appeared in the North American Review and isn’t much of a story. I am not the doctor in In Dubious Battle and never was. I didn’t enter that book at all but simply tried to include various kinds of viewpoints. Because the doctor was the most literate in the group, it was taken for granted that I used him as a personal mouth piece. I was interested in the group and its components. I am working on a sociological study only in so far as an account of any group of people is a sociological study. As for the question about a swing Left. No, I haven’t swung left. I’ve always been left. I don’t look back with nostalgia to any good old time nor ahead to a static perfection. But I do believe and see a constant improvement (in the long view) a constant and consistent struggle toward a better kinder life, and I do see that the struggle and the impulse comes invariably from the common people. As for participation in this struggle – I take part when it is required of me. And one knows when it is required. That’s a bit oratorial but there it is. And there’s an end to and a rest on your questions. I’m awfully glad you got a reaction on your novel. There’s nothing like an advance to keep a publisher’s interest warm. Good luck. In a couple of weeks we drive home and very glad too. We’ve been away too long. Go on into Russia while you’re over and see what you come out with. I don’t yet know what I came out with. It’s nice of you to do this critique. I wish I could believe the work justified it but it is so poor, such a miserable statement of such a big thing. Must try to make it better. I’m down here at George Kauffman’s doing a final play script. The minute it’s done I’ll scram home. I’m not interested in the play but the discipline of writing for the theatre has been good. I’m fairly sure this will be my only Broadway show. Tortilla Flat is going on too this fall but I’m not writing the book for that. Jack Kirkland who wrote Tobacco Road is doing it. They both go on this fall but I’m through with the whole business when I finish the script. Let me know how you get on. John Steinbeck The other letters I happened on are about Borealis: The first, from Scotsman John Logie Baird, is dated October 25, 1929, six days after the crash — what a good time that must have been to build a new industry requiring massive investment — informing one Mrs. A. Tweedy of Mayfair that, no, he couldn’t show off his invention that Friday (he had, five years earlier, transmitted the flickering image of a Maltese falcon over a distance of several feet . . . demonstrating a more robust version of his “television” two years later, in 1926, and then over a 438-mile telephone line to Glasgow) — how about Tuesday or Wednesday of the following week? This is about Borealis because you will note that it then took a quarter century before his technology made any actual money. The second letter is dated February 15, 1867, in the hand of Sam’l F.B. Morse, a painter (of John Adams, James Monroe, and the Marquis de Lafayette, among much else), a Yale man, a supporter of slavery, an opponent of immigration (he ran for Mayor of New York on that plank) — and of Catholics (Wikipedia, which makes me sound way smarter than I am, says he refused to doff his hat in the presence of the Pope). He also invented the telegraph. And, for it to be useful, Morse code. (Funny story: by the time word reached him that his young wife was ill, and he reached her bedside, she had died. He gave up painting to develop a faster means of communication.) He is writing here to one of his business associates to say that, yes, if the Post Office would like to acquire his invention he would consider it; but — having turned him down for $100,000 in 1844, assessing, as he quotes them, that it would “never be productive of revenue” — they would now have to pay millions. It took nearly a quarter of a century for the value of technology to soar. Of course, even I am aware that for every letter like these there are a hundred thousand from inventors whose dreams turned out to be fantasies, or whose reward was snatched away from by someone who got there first or stole their patent for a song when they ran out of money. So the practical relevance of these letters to Borealis is close to nil. But it’s fun, isn’t it?