Collecting John Steinbeck
This article appeared in Firsts Magazine, January 2007 Volume 17, Number 1.
View our collection of Steinbeck and Steinbeckiana
By James M. Dourgarian
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Table of Contents
An Introduction & Brief Biography
Few writers equaled John Steinbeck's stature as a novelist. He wrote widely and well on many topics, boldly experimenting when common wisdom dictated he stick to the tried-and-true. How many other writers, American or worldwide, can claim to have been successful writing such a broad range, or so experimentally? He won any number of individual awards, such as the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Grapes of Wrath, and is among only a handful of American writers to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which the Swedish Academy bestowed upon him in 1962.
Despite his iconic status in American letters, not everything John Steinbeck wrote was pure gold. He wasn't much of a poet, and his satire was terrible. He did have some success as a playwright. His stage adaptation of one of his own short novels, Of Mice and Men, proved to be an enduring stage and screen classic. Regarding his other two play adaptations, The Moon Is Down and Burning Bright, the former was pretty good and the latter was a failure. As a journalist/essayist, Steinbeck was both talented and prolific. He wrote several screenplays, many of which were both commercially successful and literary. And he was a master of the short story.
How good a mind did Steinbeck possess? Consider this. At one time he misplaced the original manuscript for The Red Pony and eventually was forced to start over and rewrite the entire manuscript. Later, he and his first wife, Carol, came upon the original manuscript again. When they compared the two versions, they found that the two differed by just seven words.
Yet controversy and critics hounded and savaged Steinbeck. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize, The New York Times was among the many journals that questioned the choice. Arthur Mizener wrote an article for the Times that was headlined "Does A Moral Vision of the Thirties Deserve a Nobel Prize?" Mizener's answer was a resounding "No!" Not only was this an odd answer for an American publication writing about an American Nobel recipient, it was just plain wrong. The memory of this critical misstep became a continuing embarrassment for The New York Times. But such a dagger, however wrongly placed, still caused pain, and it contributed to misleading assessments of Steinbeck's literary achievements.
Luckily, the public wasn't fooled. Steinbeck is widely collected today, both privately and publicly. Among the many institutions with substantial Steinbeck collections are the University of Texas (Humanities Research Center), Austin; the National Steinbeck Center in the author's home town of Salinas, California; Columbia University; The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley; The Pierpont Morgan Library; the Steinbeck Research Center at San Jose State University; the University of Virginia Libraries, Charlottesville; and Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. The author is also widely represented in private collections, which range from modest affairs containing a couple of well-loved titles to completist libraries housing every Steinbeck item the collector could gather from far and wide.
When John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. was born on February 27, 1902 in Salinas, California, there was no Internet, no video games, not even television or radio. People had to read and use their imaginations for entertainment. Steinbeck's mother, Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, a former schoolteacher, saw to it that her family read and read well. The author's father, John Ernst Steinbeck Sr., held a position with the local county government that allowed his family a fairly comfortable middle-class life.
A book given to the future author when he was eight years old changed his life. It was a version of the Morte d'Arthur of Thomas Malory, a gift from his Aunt Mollie. This book was key in developing Steinbeck's love of language and writing. Late in Steinbeck's career he would "translate" the Winchester manuscript of Malory into modern English. The result was The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, published posthumously by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1976. In his introduction to that book Steinbeck wrote, "I think my sense of right and wrong… and any thought I may have had against the oppressor and for the oppressed, came from this book."
That is how this writer, this artist, began. For John Steinbeck was an artist. His canvas was a pad of legal-sized ruled yellow sheets. His brush was a box of freshly sharpened Number Two pencils. His subject matter was where his fertile imagination and life took him. His biographer, Jackson J. Benson, wrote that "he became entranced, literally, with the feel, the sound, and the look of words, which was accompanied by an equally intense absorption in the transformational possibilities of literature."
A writer writes, and from his early years Steinbeck had no other ambition. In his youth he was famousor infamousfor sitting at his upstairs bedroom window while thinking, dreaming, fantasizing and writing. He practically forced neighbors and friends to listen to him read his stories aloud, a habit he continued all his life. The nearest rival for his writing was his love of nature and all things magical. He managed to combine these elements throughout his literature.
Not quite 20 miles from the California coast, Steinbeck's hometown lay at the mouth of a long valley bounded roughly by the Gabilan Mountains to the east and the Santa Lucia Mountains to the south. Still known as the "Lettuce Bowl of America," the farms of the Salinas Valley also grew sugar beets and other types of produce, and the slow-moving trains that carried this bounty made it easy for local boys to hitch rides around the area and to the coast. Young Steinbeck came to know the land intimately in its many variations: the rocky cliff-lined beaches and the fertile, but demanding fields.
While growing up, Steinbeck often spent his summers working as a farm hand. He met and worked with a number of types and characters he later used to populate his stories. Because of the book given to him by his Aunt Mollie, Steinbeck wanted to become a writer almost immediately, and he began studying people up close and from afar, eventually developing an astonishing ability to capture personality in a word or a phrase. His mind was like a sponge, soaking up information, character traits, psychology and dozens of vignettes to be pulled from his memory at just the right time.
Steinbeck attended Salinas High School and, despite a near-fatal bout with pneumonia during his senior year, graduated in 1919. He entered Stanford University later that year, and for the next several years attended classes off and on, not really working toward a specific degree. Still, literature remained the dominant theme in his life. He was a member of the English Club, and published several stories in the Stanford Spectator. He took a number of English classes, including a writing class from famed teacher Edith Ronald Mirrilees, who influenced him to make his writing "true."
Another class that left a lasting impression on Steinbeck and influenced his future life and work was a summer course in marine biology. To the youthful observations he made while wandering along the California coast was added scientific knowledge gained during this course, which used Monterey Bay as a classroom.
Steinbeck left Stanford permanently in 1925, without graduating. He had always considered his work experience equal to his university studies in the pursuit of a writing career and now, he felt, he was ready to try his wings.
Like so many other aspiring artists before and since, he headed for New York. And, like many of his fellow artists, he had a hard time of it there. He worked odd jobsincluding as a laborer on the construction of Madison Square Gardenand wrote in his off hours. He briefly held a position as a reporter for The New York American, but he was fired for incompetence. He sent a collection of his short stories to various publishers, but met only with rejection. In 1927, he had to admit temporary defeat, and returned to California. But his failure in New York didn't stop him. At home he continued writing.
One of the many odd jobs Steinbeck took while writing was that of winter caretaker of a home at Lake Tahoe. He was sometimes snowed in and during this period of solitude he wrote his first book, Cup of Gold: A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History. Published in 1929, the book was just successful enough to embarrass the publicity-shy young author. It did, however, foster his belief that he could continue as a writer and tackle more weighty subjects.
The previous year, Steinbeck met Carol Henning, the lively and outspoken young woman who, in 1930, became his first wife. Until their divorce 12 years later, Carol served as Steinbeck's wife, typist, editor, critic and muse. She also introduced him to radical politics.
The couple moved into the Steinbeck family home and cared for Steinbeck's aging mother and father until their deaths in 1934 and 1935, respectively. When the elder Mrs. Steinbeck died, Steinbeck wrote to a friend, "The house in Salinas is pretty haunted now. I see things walking at night that it is not good to see."
It was also in 1930 that Steinbeck met a man who would become his closest friend, influence his work, and show up repeatedly in his stories and novels: marine biologist and philosopher Ed Ricketts. Years later, Steinbeck described his first meeting with Ed Ricketts in a dentist's office in Carmel in "About Ed Ricketts," in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and the friendship they developed so quickly: "Knowing Ed Ricketts was instant. After the first moment I knew him, and for the next 18 years I knew him better than I knew anyone, and perhaps I did not know him at all." In Ricketts, Steinbeck found a kindred spirit and his intellectual equal, a friend who already had a strong sense of life philosophy.
With wider experience and new stimulation, Steinbeck changed his approach to writing. The somewhat purple prose of Cup of Gold had not satisfied him any more than it had the critics. He began writing about what he knewthe people and the land of his birthinterweaving hidden layers that had to do with Jungian concepts, classical music and allegory.
He attempted to crystallize what he knew about the land and its people in his next book, The Pastures of Heaven (1932). In the interrelated stories that make up this book, the main characters try to develop a California valley without really attempting to understand the natural cycles and patterns of nature there. The earth has much to teach us, the author seems to say, if only we will listen.
This theme weighed upon Steinbeck's mind for much of his early career, and ran through both his second and third published books. Although To A God Unknown was published in 1933, after The Pastures of Heaven, it was actually written before that book. In To A God Unknown, Joseph Wayne attempts to control natureto ignore its rhythms, to dominate and tame itonly to learn in his dying moments that he and the land are one. The book's dark mysticism put off some critics, but its power could not be denied.
Steinbeck finally found commercial success with his next book, Tortilla Flat (1935). It was followed by In Dubious Battle, the author's first book to deal with the problems of the working class and their struggles with both farm-labor organizers and big-business farmers.
When Steinbeck's short novel Of Mice and Men was released in 1937, New York stage producer Sam Harris contacted the author about adapting his play for Broadway. Steinbeck was far from sure he was up to the task, but even before he could begin working on it, Harris hired George S. Kaufman to direct the play. With Kaufman's guidance (but not, it should be noted, with his co authorship), Steinbeck produced the adaptation. Although the production was a huge success (it won the Drama Critics Circle Award of 1937), Steinbeck refused to go to New York to see it. It was, he told Kaufman, perfect in his own mind and any performance would be a disappointment.
After the publication of In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck was asked by George West of The San Francisco News to go to the Central Valley and investigate conditions among farm laborers there. Over the Dust Bowl years, thousands of emigrant workers had poured into California in search of a living. Steinbeck produced a series of articles for West entitled "The Harvest Gypsies," which eventually led to his great masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
The book caused an upheaval in the author's life. Critical acclaim was huge, and the book won the Pulitzer Prize. At the same time, there was uproar over its "Communist" portrayal of agribusiness and the plight of migrant workers. The celebrity and notoriety took a toll on Steinbeck, who wrote in distress, "The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad. The latest is a rumor started by them that the Okies hate me and have threatened to kill me for lying about them. I'm frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing."
Partly to get away from this chaos, Steinbeck, his wife and Ed Ricketts set off on an exploration of the Sea of Cortez in 1940. This resulted in Sea of Cortez: A leisurely Journal of Travel and Research.
It was a time of change in Steinbeck's life as well as the world in general. In 1940, Steinbeck and his wife separated. The author moved to New York late the next year with his soon-to-be second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger. The couple eventually had two sons: Thomas and John III. The move, along with the intervention of World War Two, also meant that he saw little of his friend Ed Ricketts from that time on.
Not surprisingly, Steinbeck spent his war years writing. Prevented from entering the Air Corps because he was suspected of Communist leanings, he nevertheless wrote for several governmental agencies. He produced the novel The Moon Is Down which, in 1946, was awarded the King Haakon (of Norway) Liberty Cross. He also worked as a war correspondent, and continued writing for films.
After the war, Steinbeck attempted to move back to California and his roots, but found himself rebuffed. There was still ill feeling over In Dubious Battle and, especially, The Grapes of Wrath; in addition, many old friends and acquaintances were jealous of his success and celebrity. "This isn't my country any more," he observed, "and it won't be until I am dead. It makes me very sad." Before he moved back to New York, Steinbeck went home again, at least fictionally, with Cannery Row (1945), a nostalgic book about a group of social outcasts who attempt to live apart from the demands of "respectable" society. The book contains one of Steinbeck's most notable characterizations of Ed Ricketts.
Steinbeck made one more attempt to take up residence in California. In 1948, he moved to the town of Pacific Grove and began research for a "marathon book" to be called Salinas Valley. He discovered that the legend of his youth in Salinas had a life of its own. "I have a whole life and adventures in Salinas, all of which are new to me… I have become a giant kind of half criminal, half ape over there."
In spite of this interlude, 1948 was not kind to Steinbeck personally. In May, his friend Ed Ricketts died, just days before his fifty-first birthday, after an accident in which his car was hit by a train. Shortly after this, Steinbeck's second wife announced that she had never loved him and left, taking their two boys with her.
This shock, coming hard on the heels of Ricketts' death, sent the author into a tailspin. Fortunately, he was able to recover, helped by his ability to pour his feelings into his work and a meeting, the following year, with Elaine Scott, who became his third and final wife on December 28, 1950.
Steinbeck's "marathon" book, East of Eden, was published in 1952. It wove the story of a family's fall from grace into the actual history of the Salinas Valley to produce a tale of good and evil, of the dangers of disconnecting from and trying to dominate nature. After its publication, the writer turned increasingly to other forms of writing.
John Steinbeck's last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, was published in 1961. By this time, his literary reputation had been under attack for years from one faction or another who felt he had not produced whatever form of writing most suited their particular agendas. But the public still held him in high regard, based not only on a continuing appreciation for his early work but also, more lately, on the account he wrote of his last road trip across America, Travels With Charley: In Search of America (1962).
It came as a huge surprise to Steinbeck when, in 1962, he was informed he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The abuse he received in the wake of that announcement caused him to abandon fiction for the remainder of his life.
John Steinbeck died in New York on December 20, 1968.
For more information on "The Steinbeck Collector," contact Robert B. Harmon at email@example.com or 408-297-2810.
The Center for Steinbeck Studies - San José State University