A good writer helps to create other writers, and I can recall the first time, in the ’30s, when I read John Steinbeck’s early books, and his stories. To open those pages was like opening paintings. I remember clearly the challenge I felt to enter into nature, something I had never thought of before, coming from New York City. And I began to look around in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at trees, and animals, and I felt more alive because of his prose.

I thought of him as a friend, but our lives ran parallel, and with one or two exceptions they never really crossed. I had read him in college, and by the time we met in the early ’50s, he was a world celebrity whose life was filled with famous friends, and the powers that come with fame. Such was the view from afar. But close up, it was his uncertainty I found surprising, and his shyness and sensitivity, especially when he was so physically large, and so deliberative in his views. We lived in a time distorted by obligatory and defensive patriotism, in the ’50s, an atmosphere which seems to be incubating again, incidentally. The contest then, however, was with the Russians, and it grew uglier by the week. John, after all, had begun as a radical writer, and the guilts inherent in that kind of alienation were compounded by the strident demands of convention in the ’50s and later. It was perhaps inevitable, given the near-hysterical state worship of the hour, that he should have come to feel alien to both past and present ideologies. Filled with feeling, he tended to seek out the reassurance of goodness in the American world. And to some extent, perhaps, to sentimentalize occasionally the underdog.

Steinbeck, utterly American, had a suffering conscience. His moral life was always central in his work, and his daily existence. So at times he would feel compelled to feign a toleration, if not a chuckling sardonic air of acceptance, of almost any kind of repulsive behavior. The alternative was an isolation only an ideologue would cherish. I couldn’t help seeing in John a grownup country boy who saw glamour in the city which a native New Yorker like myself was blind to. He had read philosophy and much classical literature, and enjoyed talking about arcane and mysterious forces affecting human fate. But he seemed to like best sitting and carving wood, and it was when he was talking about farm or small-town life that a certain genuine warmth poured out of him, a kind of easy familiarity and joy. I wondered if he wouldn’t have been better served as a writer and more accepting of himself as a person had he stayed home, as Faulkner and Welty tried and often enough managed to do. In the last part of his life Steinbeck sometimes seemed like a displaced person rather than a cosmopolitan at home anywhere. But then it is a very rare thing for an American writer to stay home. We tend to use up the energies of a particular place, then to leave home in the attempt to capture a wider America. But in the end America is perhaps only a lot of little places, the undistinguished street and neighborhoods and countrysides of native ground.

I can’t think of another American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, whose imagination so deeply penetrated the political life of the country. The Grapes of Wrath, as I recall, stopped a deaf congress from babbling on about very little, and turned its attention to the masses of people who had been forced off their native lands by the Depression, then turned into desperately ill-paid itinerant farm labor, attacked and often murdered by thugs, employed by harvest contractors who were resolved to squelch protests of any kind. The Joads became more vividly alive than one’s next-door neighbor, and their sufferings emblematic of an age. His picture of America’s humiliation of the poor was Steinbeck’s high achievement, a picture which for a time challenged the iron American denial of reality.

As I say, we were not privy to one another’s private life, but our paths on a few occasions did cross, sometimes in an illuminating way. I had broken off my relation with Elia Kazan after his cooperating testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Some weeks or months later—I can’t recall how long exactly—John, who was a friend and sometimes collaborator and intimate of Kazan’s, wrote to say that he felt I ought to resume a friendship that had been so deep and a working relationship as productive as ours had been in the theater. He saw quite correctly that we were both wounded by what had come between us and offered to do what he could to heal the breach. For myself, in the struggle of that time, I could see no way to go over that broken bridge and have never known what Kazan’s reaction was to Steinbeck’s attempt, but within a week or two, a second letter from Steinbeck arrived. This apologized for his having suggested what, on thinking about it, he realized was impossible. Taken together, the letters reflect perhaps the two sides of Steinbeck. Perhaps the two eras of his development: the struggle within him between an overflowing sympathy for suffering, a veritable embrace of those in pain, and a hard-headed grasp of moral dilemmas from which with all the good will in the world there is no escape.

But I think Steinbeck’s whole life was a hard struggle. First to achieve recognition, and then to dig in against easy and shallow popularity and the wilds of empty show-business values, which in so many ways have triumphed in our whole culture. Even when mistaken, as in my view he was when declaring support for Lyndon Johnson’s doomed Vietnam policies, the way he chose for himself was far from easy. John Steinbeck was not outside the battle, safely wrapped in his fame, but within it to the end.