Steinbeck, Russia and R. Crumb

Several years ago I purchased a Russian edition of John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.  It had been owned previously by film director George Cosmatos.  This hardcover may have come with a dust jacket at one time, but it didn’t have one when I acquired it.

I was intrigued by the book for a couple of reasons.  The massive and important Bradford Morrow catalogue devoted exclusively to Steinbeck said that the first Russian edition was published in 1957.  The Morrow catalogue citation is found as No. 515 in this 700-item catalogue which was issued in 1980.  But that couldn’t have been correct since the Bible of all Steinbeck bibliographies, Goldstone & Payne, said its item D475 was the first Russian edition, and that it was published in 1941.  However, my copy gave 1940 as the date of publication.  Hurrah, I had just acquired not only the first Russian edition, but also the unrecorded first Russian edition.  Collectors like unique books, and this certainly was a unique copy if only for straightening out previously published information as to what truly was the first Russian edition.

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Much of what I learned about the book came from my friend Ken Holmes, a long-time Steinbeck collector who is extremely knowledgeable, especially about Steinbeck in translation.  The book was translated by N. Volzhina with an afterword by I. Anisimov.  It includes pen and ink drawings on the front cover, plus several full-page and chapter beginning illustrations by L. Brodati.  The colophon records that the work was sent to the typesetter on June 16, 1940 and was published Oct. 2, 1940 in an edition of 25,000 copies.

If this correction was the cake, the icing was the fact that the book had been inscribed and presented by Steinbeck to a much earlier Hollywood director, Lewis Milestone.  Milestone was part of the Russian colony in Hollywood.  He and Steinbeck were friends.  Milestone produced and directed both the original 1939 film version of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and the 1949 film version of Steinbeck’s The Red Pony.

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When I first acquired the book I tried many times to translate Steinbeck’s inscription which was apparently written in Russian.  The inscription reads, “For Lewis Milestone Nov smoz ka palp!  John Steinbeck.”  Steinbeck obviously knew Milestone well, and I was hoping that his inscription would be meaningful.  I spun my wheels for some time until I was contacted by a man who was the book’s owner before Cosmatos.  He set me straight.  Steinbeck’s inscription turns out to be mock Russian, derived from a cartoon feature by Gene Ahern called “Room and Board” in which a character known as the Little Hitchhiker would mutter incomprehensible Russian phrases, such as “Nov smoz ka palp!”  Fast forward a few decades, and it seems that famed cartoonist Robert Crumb has acknowledged that his character Mr. Natural was inspired by the Little Hitchhiker.  It’s a small world.

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