Sunday, April 14, 2019

A run-of-the-mill book

Today is the 80th anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Although it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, and to be cited by the Swedish Academy when awarding Steinbeck the Nobel Prize, Steinbeck himself confided in his diary that he thought it ‘just a run-of-the-mill book’.

Born in 1902, the third of four children, Steinbeck grew up in Salinas, California, and studied at the local school and Stanford University. He took various jobs to support himself, but dropped out of university, and then worked on a freighter heading for the east coast. Less than a year later, he returned to California on another steamer. His first novel, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929. He moved to San Francisco, and married Carol Henning in 1930, but then he and Carol moved to his family’s cottage in Pacific Grove, about 100 miles further south.

During the Depression the couple lived largely on what they could grow or catch in the sea. Steinbeck, though, travelled around the area and wrote about what he saw. His most famous novels were written in the 1930s, novels such as Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men and, in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath - which won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

In the early 1940s, Steinbeck divorced Henning, moved to New York, and married Gwyndolyn Conger. For a short while, he worked as a war correspondent in Europe for The Herald Tribune. Gwyndolyn and Steinbeck had two sons, Thomas and John, but were divorced in 1948. The same year he moved back to Pacific Grove, where he wrote East of Eden. In 1950, Steinbeck married his third wife, Elaine Scott, and lived in various places. In 1962, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In awarding the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy’s Anders Ă–sterling picked out The Grapes of Wrath for special mention: ‘. . . The way had now been paved for the great work that is principally associated with Steinbeck’s name, the epic chronicle The Grapes of Wrath. This is the story of the emigration to California which was forced upon a group of people from Oklahoma through unemployment and abuse of power. This tragic episode in the social history of the United States inspired in Steinbeck a poignant description of the experiences of one particular farmer and his family during their endless, heartbreaking journey to a new home.’

It is 80 years ago today that the book was first published by Viking Press in New York - the title page only says April 1939 (see the Pulitzer Prize First Edition Collecting Guide), but several websites refer to the specific date as 14 April 1939. The BBC, for example, published a story in 2009 which states that the book was released on that day because it was the fourth anniversary of Black Sunday, ‘when the worst dust storm in recent American history had rolled across the Great Plains blotting out the sun and later depositing airborne topsoil 1,000 miles east in Washington DC’. (First editions of the book are available, but at a price up to and over $30,000 - see Abebooks)

Thirty years ago today - i.e. on the half century anniversary of the book, Viking Press published a new edition of the ‘great work’, but also a diary that Steinbeck had kept while writing it: Working Days - The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath 1938-1941, edited by Robert DeMott. The introduction, by DeMott, can be read online at Googlebooks. And here is DeMott’s explanation for how and why the journal came to light:

‘‘The mystery of creativity was on his mind during Christmas Week 1950, when Steinbeck was sifting through the memorabilia of his past. His impending marriage to Elaine Scott was about to signal another major turn in his life. He had been married twice before - to Carol Henning (1930-1943), and to Gwyn Conger (1943-1948). The first marriage resulted in some of his most famous books; the second marriage produced two sons and much of the material for East of Eden, which he would begin writing a month after his wedding to Elaine. The third, and last, marriage promoted emotional stability, and coincided with the international spread of his fame.

One of the items Steinbeck came across in his nostalgic mood was the handwritten journal he had kept when he worked on The Grapes of Wrath. He sent it to Pat Covici at The Viking Press, with a letter that read in part: “Very many times I have been tempted to destroy this book. It is an account very personal and in many instances purposely obscure. But recently I reread it and only after all this time did the unconscious pattern emerge. It is true that this book is full of my own weaknesses, of complaints and violence. These are just as apparent as they ever were. What a complainer I am But in rereading, those became less important and the times and the little histories seemed to be more apparent. . . I had not realized that so much happened during the short period of the actual writing of The Grapes of Wrath - things that happened to me and to you and to the world. But a browsing through will refresh your memory,” Steinbeck had two requests: that the journal not be printed in his lifetime, and that it should be made available to his children, Thom (aged 6) and John (aged 4), if they should ever want to “look behind the myth and hearsay and flattery and slander a disappeared man becomes and to know to some extent what manner of man their father was.” ’

The New York Times was much impressed, although it thought Working Days was ‘less interesting as an explanation of The Grapes of Wrath’ than ‘as a portrait of a writer possessed’. Steinbeck, it noted, had ‘rather little to say about the content of his book’, rather that he felt it necessary to prove himself worthy, ‘that to do so he must not only write well but also discipline himself to work on schedule, and that somehow he was failing in both respects.’ The review concluded: ‘. . . the sense one gets from reading Working Days is of a writer in a heightened state of consciousness taking possession of a gift. . . To read the novel now along with the journal he kept with it is to be lifted ever so briefly into the presence of something inexplicable and magic.’

Here is one diary quote (thanks to The New York Times article) as he was nearing the end of writing the novel: ‘I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing - it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do. Now to work on it.’

Other ‘journals’ of Steinbeck have also been published - see The Diary Junction. Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters was published in 1969, a year after Steinbeck’s death. The title tries to have it both ways but, in fact, this is a series of letters, rather than a diary, addressed to Pascal Covici. Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research documents a six-week marine specimen-collecting expedition Steinbeck made in 1940 in the Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez), with his friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. And then there’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America which records a road trip Steinbeck took with his dog (a poodle) around the United States in 1960.

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 14 April 2009.

1 comment:

Jeffery said...

On the birthday of GRAPES let celebrate controversial authors. The novel that got Steinbeck the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize also earned him hate from many people in his own home state. People tired to get the book banned, they tried to make Steinbeck look like a communist and a drunk. they were generally upset about how they had been portrayed as not helping the lest of them. When was the last time an author stirred up that much trouble? We need writers who can cut to the core of our people and upset them to. check out what i wrote about it at (