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John Steinbeck’s lovely letter to his lovesick teenage son is perfect Father’s Day reading.

Jessie Gaynor

June 17, 2022, 9:23am

This weekend is Father’s Day, and while I could recommend some World War II books you could buy last-minute, instead I’m going to recommend that you read one of the few examples we have of actually good fathering among the canonical American writers of the 20th century: a letter from John Steinbeck to his son, Thom. (I can’t speak to Steinbeck’s parenting overall, though his other son, John Steinbeck IV, described it in a 1989 interview with the San Diego Reader as “very Huck Finny.” He never had to be a parent, Steinbeck said “except on his time and on his terms, and then he was very good at that, very good.” So… a mixed bag!)

Nevertheless, we do have a shining example of Steinbeck’s fatherly wisdom. In 1958, 14-year-old Thom wrote his father a letter from boarding school and described having fallen in love with his classmate Susan. Steinbeck’s response is thoughtful, kind, wise, and lovely. He treats Thom as a full human, and gives advice with no trace of the patronizing.

And the advice, it must be said, is timeless, and worth heeding by anyone, at any age, who finds themselves be-crushed. He writes, in part:

There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

Of course, Steinbeck also allows that it’s possible that Susan won’t reciprocate the crush: “It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.”

May this excellent Dad Energy carry you into Father’s Day.

[h/t The Marginalian]

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