Sunday, 29 November 2009

Perfect pencil: John Steinbeck, Blackwing Pencils and the Mongol 480

John Steinbeck, famous author of 16 novels among which Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row and East of Eden, and Nobel Prize winner in 1962, writes in one of his letters to his friend Pascal Covici:
My hands have to keep busy. I have to hold a pencil in my fingers. I need to write some pages every day. ... On the third finger of my right hand I have a great callus just from using a pencil for so many hours every day.
Steinbeck's favourite writing instrument was indeed the pencil. It is said that John Steinbeck would start the day with 24 newly-sharpened pencils which he would need to sharpen again before the day was through with  a rare for his time electric pencil sharpener. The story goes that he used some 300 pencils to complete East of Eden (1952). For the Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Cannery Row (1945) he is said to have used 60 cedar pencils every day.

Most of his life, John Steinbeck would look for the perfect pencil. Did he ever find it?

Blackwing Pencils, Mongol 480

John Steinbeck's love of pencils and his search for the perfect pencil is legendary. He described Blackwing Pencils as "soft and fine" floating "over the paper just wonderfully". But at other days the Blackwings "cracked on him", their points breaking and "all hell is let loose". And then it was the Mongol 480 #2 3/8 round. Jay Parini identifies the Mongol pencil as Steinbeck's preferred writing instrument. And for some strange reason, Steinbeck relied on his friend Covici to supply him with his perfect pencil at regular intervals.

The famous Blackwings of John Steinbeck: Courtesy of
When John Steinbeck decided on the title of his novel East of Eden he realised that he was running out of pencils:
My pencils are all short now and I think I will celebrate by getting out 12 new pencils. Sometimes just the pure luxury of long beautiful pencils charges me with energy and invention. We shall see. It means I will have to have more pencils before long though. Would you send me another box. They are Mongol 480 #2 3/8 round."
For a review of Blackwing Pencils, see Blackwing 602 in Pencil Talk; Thomas Fensch, Steinbeck and Covici, New Century Books, 2002; Jay Parini, John Steinbeck: A Biography, Henry Holt: New York, 1996.

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