Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Death, by Embarrassment, of a Great American Novelist

This letter always makes me laugh and offers an intimate glimpse into the workings of John Steinbeck's sense of humor:

Page 1 of 13
It is an unpublished letter written by John Steinbeck on August 4, 1964 and addressed to his personal assistant, Nancy Pearson. It is accompanied by a reprint of “A Writer’s Credo,” Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and a printed letter from Steinbeck. The reprint and the letter are the reason for this 13-page letter, written in pencil on legal-sized yellow lined paper. Apparently, the reprint and printed letter were sent as mementos to those he met while on a tour of the Soviet Union in lieu of personalized correspondence. However, Steinbeck writes, "I should have known better ... Every person rushed to the local paper and demanded that his unique letter be printed. Then discovering that his or her letter was not unique, they all felt cheated.”

The remainder of Steinbeck’s letter sets out his strategy for attempting to deal with this gaffe and perhaps restore his reputation with his Russian friends. Noting that “The Russians do have a wonderful sense of humor, particularly if the joke is on someone else,” he asks Pearson to address a letter to Khrushchev’s son-in-law, Alexei Adzhubei, who headed the Soviet news agency, explaining, in a humorous way, what happened and asking him to distribute the story to all the major news outlets in the Soviet Union.

The offending document

He then asks Pearson to draft a letter to a contact in the Writer’s Union, "Al Poltorastsky" [Oleksii Poltorats'kyi] that should read as follows:
Dear Mr. Poltorascal [the name is spelled thus throughout the letter; possibly a pun on Poltorasts'kyi's name, Polto + rascal]:

As a friend and associate of Mr. John Steinbeck, I was present at the time of his passing. Since in extremis, your name was often on his lips, I am sure he would want you to know of his last moments.

When Mr. Steinbeck began to fail, very like a chicken with the soup, specialists were called in and to a man they diagnosed the sickness as embarrassment for which there is no cure. As the sickness approached its climax, the patient went into coma and in that state talked a great deal. I took down some of the things he said over and over.

"Poltorascal could have saved me," he repeated. "The noble Poltorascal, defender of Stalingrad, the Phoenix of Kiev, destroyer of mothers in law, my old comrade in arms, veteran and "ancient camel" of the battles of Borodin, Sebastopol, Lepanto and Pepper Vodka, he could have saved me. Why did he desert me. Didn't I laugh at his jokes? Didn't I prepare sex movies for him in Times Square? Oh! great Poltorascal, why did you desert me in my weakness and confusion? Why did you reject me with the virus of embarrassment? Why did you not invent an explanation like the excuse you use for not shooting your own mother in law."

Sir, there was much more in this vein. But then as the climax approached and the death struggle began, our friend seemed to explode with rage. He rose up in bed. His eyes glared with terrible anger and accusation. He pointed a finger like a bayonet and his voice became that of Boris Gudonov. He cried - "I know. Now at last I know. You are no Ukranian. You are a Nigerian, a Byleo russian, a Texan but you are no Kievian. That is the explanation. A man of Kiev would not desert his friend on the field of honor."

For several moments he breathed heavily and it was apparent that he was going. Then he said so softly that I had to bend close - "Poltorascal," he whispered "When we meet in Elysium, your anecdotes will have to be pretty damned funny before I will laugh."

And with that, he entered the ages. I tell you all this not to accuse you but only to inform you.

Yours very truly,
Nancy Pearson
(Sec'ty to the very late John Steinbeck)
Page 13
 Steinbeck's letter to Pearson continues for another nine pages, closing by saying, "The reason you have had no more copy is that I am engaged in urgent work which is only slightly less top secret than atomic weapons, and I hope is more destructive."

I hope you enjoyed this little peek into Steinbeck's life (and death) as much as I did. For more information about the other contents of the letter, see our website.

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