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Computer Crashes Before Computers: When John Steinbeck’s Dog Ate His Manuscript

“Two months work to do over again… I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”

To write in the twenty-first century is to benefit from a number of labor- and sanity-saving conveniences we’ve come to take for granted — spellcheck, find-and-replace, the undo button. But the greatest saving grace of the digital writer is the backup. We often come to appreciate its glory the hard way — anyone who has ever lost hours or days or weeks of work to a computer crash knows intimately the anguishing interpolation between self-pity and self-blame.

Before computers, backups were both harder and less necessary — copies were laborious to make, but threats to a manuscript were of a more elemental nature and thus came with much lower probability: fires, floods, fits of rage. And yet they did come, often in ways rather comical in their imporbability.

One of those comical tragedies of creative work befell John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968), a great proponent of the satisfactions of writing by hand, as he was in the midst of writing his novella Of Mice and Men in the spring of 1936. The incident involved his beloved dog — an Irish setter named Toby. (Steinbeck was among literature’s greatest pet-lovers and, like E.B. White and like Mary Oliver, shared his entire life with dogs.)

In a May 27 letter to his editor, Elizabeth Otis, found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) — which also gave us the beloved writer on the difficult art of the friend breakup, his advice on falling in love, and his spirited retort to racism — 34-year-old Steinbeck relays what is both the then-equivalent of a tragic computer crash and a comical addition to the dog-ate-my-homework canon of excuses.

After confirming the receipt of a check for $94 — the commission for a book review he had written for an English publication — Steinbeck reports:

Minor tragedy stalked. I don’t know whether I told you. My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my [manuscript] book. Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog for a ms. I’m not sure is good at all. He only got an ordinary spanking with his punishment flyswatter. But there’s the work to do over from the start.

[…]

I should imagine the new little manuscript will be ready in about two months. I hope you won’t be angry at it. I think it has some thing, but can’t tell much yet. I’ll get this off.

I hear the postman.

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck with Toby, 1937 (Photograph:  Beatrice Kaufman)
Steinbeck with Toby, 1937 (Photograph: Beatrice Kaufman)

Being a formidably disciplined writer, Steinbeck made good on his word and finished the manuscript over the coming months. Of Mice and Men was published in 1937 and became his first major critical success. It was adapted into a Hollywood film two years later and led to Steinbeck’s memorable reflection on the dark side of success.

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters is a wonderful read in its entirety, full of the Nobel-winning writer’s genial wisdom on literature and life. Complement it with Steinbeck on creative integrity, writing and the mobilizing power of the impossible, and his prophetic dream about how commercial media are killing creative culture, then revisit great writers’ reflections on loving their pets.


Published May 27, 2016

https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/05/27/john-steinbeck-dog-letter-manuscript/

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