In the article beginning on page 94 John Steinbeck has written one short sentence that pretty well sums things up for us in this end-of-the-year summing-up time. "Sports," he says, "get into everything." One catches a small note of surprise in his tone. Without sharing that astonishment, we admit to having been a little awed over the years by reminders of how completely sports do get into everything. It was certainly on this premise that we approached writers such as Faulkner, Marquand, O'Hara and now Steinbeck and successfully encouraged them to do stories for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. The background of this week's article illuminates the whole point.
It began early this fall with a phone call to Mr. Steinbeck's literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, who is one of the best. She has represented Mr. Steinbeck for 35 years and, as Steinbeck puts it, "she is a hard woman, but she is hard on my side and that is a matter of great satisfaction to me."
Miss Otis was asked if she thought Mr. Steinbeck would consider writing an essay on sports. She said the proposition was hopeless because 1) he writes almost nothing for magazines, and 2) he knows nothing about sports. If we wanted to persist she would, however, be glad to pass along to him any letter requesting such an essay.
We did persist, and one week later a note arrived from Miss Otis: "To my complete astonishment, Mr. Steinbeck has answered your letter." Attached was the manuscript of what our editors, and later Mr. Steinbeck himself, came to call his "non-essay on sports." "Manuscript" actually evokes the wrong image. It was a letter, plain and simple. It had scratched-out places and small editorial repairs where the Steinbeck typing finger kept hitting the 9 instead of the 0 and a piece Scotch-taped onto the bottom of a page where a thought had proved longer than the paper it was being set down on. It even had Hemingway spelled with two m's. (Deliberately?). But, above all, it showed the rich enthusiasm of a man recalling places where sports had touched his life, from the fourth grade forward to today and even tomorrow, assuming he is ready to start the oak-tree race he has invented.
When it was mentioned to Mr. Steinbeck that his sporting interests had escaped Miss Otis, he answered that it did not surprise him that she was "unaware of one of the secret lives of this Mitty. One does not tell her everything. I have never told her about the alligator wrestling [page 99] for the same reason I did not tell you. Neither of you would have believed it."
He observed that his non-essay was a "rough and unpolished thing," but he evidenced an inner satisfaction with it by making only one small revision. He did request that a stern eye be kept on the spelling—exit Mr. Hemingway's extra m. Later, hesitantly, knowing the furies such things can arouse, Miss Otis was asked how strongly Mr. Steinbeck felt about keeping his own style of punctuation. "For years," she said, "Mr. Steinbeck put a comma after every seven words, figuring that should about do it. He is better now, but do feel free to suggest changes."
There is one final note, and we hope Mr. Steinbeck will excuse us for quoting him so much. In his last letter concerning his piece he said, "I am pleased that you like my non-essay on sports. It was in a sense a pretentious thing to do, since I am deeply aware that much of the American writing which is now so admired in Europe is the work of men who got their training in sports-writing.... I am sorry it is over, because I may never get another chance to parade my ignorance in such style."
We are sorry it is over, too, because it has been a pleasure to have a Nobel Prizewinning alligator wrestler remind us that sports get into everything.
Our next issue will be dated January 3. May we choose this time to wish you a Merry Christmas and a successful New Year.