by Jim Marquardt
“Out here I get the old sense of peace and wholeness…and it seems to be getting into my work. I approach the table every morning with a sense of joy,” from a note to his publisher in 1956.
“I grow into this countryside with a lichen grip,” in a letter to friend and fellow novelist John O’Hara in 1958.
Steinbeck won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, and in 1962 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novels, short stories and sketches. In September 1953, he rented a waterfront cottage in Sag Harbor, and in 1955 bought a small house in an oak grove on Sag Harbor Cove. He wrote a friend, “I really love it out here. Am going to winterize this little house so I can come up when it is cold. I haven’t felt so good in years.” And later, “We love our little place on Long Island.”
In the spring 1992 issue of the Long Island Historical Journal, Frances Kestler quoted a Steinbeck letter about autumn in Sag Harbor, “Almost my favorite season. For some reason it brings a kind of happy energy back to me. The birds are flocking and flying. The geese go over at night very high. And the air has muscle.”
While working on a modern version of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in January 1957 he wrote his editor Elizabeth Otis that “the bay is nearly frozen over with just a few patches of open water…Charley (his dog) is having a wonderful time trying to walk on the ice.” Steinbeck’s tiny writing hideaway, that he called Joyous Garde after Launcelot’s castle, stood away from the house, closer to the cove. A year later he told Otis about the “solace I get from the new boat (in Sag Harbor). I can move out and anchor and have a little table and a yellow pad and pencil. Nothing can intervene. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Steinbeck helped start the Old Whalers Festival (now Harbor Fest) in the early sixties and was made its honorary chairman. He happily joined in the fun, writing official words of welcome, “… The fact that I have been made Honorary Chairman of the Old Whaler’s Festival is a clear indication of the explosive but cautious thinking of the descendants of the Old Whalers. If all goes well we share the happiness, but if the village blows up, I get the blame. I don’t know how I got here. I’m only a sixth class citizen. It takes six generations for first class…”
In their delightful collection of Sag Harbor stories, Maryanne Calendrille and Katherine Szoka of Canio’s Books included Steinbeck’s essay My War With the Ospreys that reflected his love of the village. “Two and a half years ago I bought a little place near Sag Harbor… a wonderful village inhabited by people who have been here for a long time…the place I bought is not one of the great old houses but a beautiful little point of land on the inland waters, a place called Bluff Point, with its own little bay… My own boat, the Lillymaid… is a utility craft twenty feet long, a clinker-built Jersey sea skiff… Many of these specifications could also describe my wife. She is not clinker-built however… I came from a small town on the West Coast… And I find that what applies in my home country is equally acceptable in Sag Harbor. If you pay your bills, trade locally as much as possible, mind your own business and act reasonably pleasant, pretty soon they forget that you are an outsider.”
In The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, biographer Jackson J. Benson described Steinbeck’s simple daily habits, remarking “…sometimes later in the day after work he’d stop by and ask (Bob) Barry out for a beer at Sal and Joe’s or the Black Buoy.”
John was afflicted with back and heart problems in 1967 and was treated in New York City, but yearned to come back to Sag Harbor. “…to go out to my little house on the point, to sharpen fifty pencils and put out a yellow pad. Early in the morning to hear what the birds are saying and to pass the time of day with Angel (Charley’s successor) and then to hunch up my chair to my writing board and to set down with words – Once upon a time…”
Steinbeck’s recurring heart problems worsened in November 1968 and he again was taken to a hospital in New York City, leaving his beloved Sag Harbor for the last time. He died on December 20th.