Perfect live oaks grew in the meadow of the lovely place, and the hills hugged it jealously against the fog and wind.

—John Steinbeck The Pastures of Heaven

Even the natives have begun to call California's Monterey Peninsula "Steinbeck Country."

The author's widow, Elaine, remembers being taken to admire its beauty when she first met the novelist in 1949. He was already world famous for such novels as Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row and The Red Pony, many of them rooted in this very landscape.

"The impulse of the American woman to geld her husband and castrate her sons is very strong," John Steinbeck had written in a 1948 letter to a friend. The novelist was confronting the ruins of his second marriage. "I guess I wasn't a man or I wouldn't have put up with it. But I am a man now," continued Steinbeck, disclosing their separation, "and I don't think I will surrender that nice state."

Less than a year later, the would-be bachelor had met and fallen in love with Elaine, who would become the third and last Mrs. John Steinbeck. After the novelist's death in 1968, Elaine Steinbeck began the mammoth task of assembling and editing the lifelong correspondence of a man who frequently dashed off three or four dozen long letters a morning as a way of warming up to his fiction. She shares editorial credit for the scholarly, 906-page Steinbeck: A Life in Letters with Robert Wallsten, long a family friend. The book will come out in paperback in the fall.

"I never read those diatribes against women and marriage until I was putting this book together," remarks Elaine Steinbeck, with some amusement. "He had gone back to the family's summer house in Pacific Grove in Monterey—to lick his wounds." The novelist invited movie star Ann Sothern up for the 1949 Memorial Day weekend, and Elaine, then married to actor Zachary Scott, came along as chaperone.

By Christmas of that year, Elaine had divorced Scott and returned to New York City, where she had earlier headed as a stagestruck graduate of the University of Texas and had become one of America's first women stage managers. Steinbeck joined her and they married in 1950, remaining virtually inseparable until his death. Because this was so, Steinbeck rarely wrote to Elaine, and the major presence in the novelist's later years is but a shadow in the life described in his letters.

In the flesh, Elaine Steinbeck is a confident and zesty woman in her 50s. Collecting the letters was "a strengthening process" for her after Steinbeck's death. Lately she has begun indulging her wanderlust again. "I've never wanted jewels and furs. The most exciting thing for me is travel," she says, just back from a trip up the Nile. Between her New York City luxury apartment and the Steinbeck cottage at Sag Harbor, Long Island, she lives comfortably on the royalties from his 29 books.

Steinbeck's grave is in Salinas in his native California, a place that she enjoys visiting now, because after reading all the letters she has come to see it much the way he did. She, too, will be buried there. " 'No man should be buried in alien soil,' he told me a few days before he died," Elaine Steinbeck remembers. "I said that I understood and would follow his wishes. There was a long pause and I said, 'I will be,' and another long pause and he said, 'No, you won't. I'll be there.' "