It’s not often that we as the reading public can find the genesis of an author, to see the seed planted, fertilized, germinated, and sprouted that turns a being into a motivated individual who not only wants to write, but is compelled to write, to use language, to express themselves in a manner previously unknown to them.  With Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature winner John Steinbeck, the source of the path he choose so long ago is easy to find.


The Boy’s King Arthur

Not surprisingly, it’s a book, but what is surprising is that we can pinpoint the actual copy in question.  The book is titled The Boy’s King Arthur.  The copy in question was edited by Sidney Lanier and was published by Scribners c.1880.  The book itself is unpretentious, but when Steinbeck’s Aunt Mollie gave him the book in 1910 when Steinbeck was a boy of just eight years, little did either one of them realize what would happen, that these tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table would lead Steinbeck to his eventual career as a writer.  In fact, this life-long affair with the written word led Steinbeck to continued study of the Knights of the Round Table to the point that he tried writing his own “translation” into modern English which was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1976 as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.  In his own introduction for this book Steinbeck writes, “I remember that words  —  written or printed  —  were devils, and books, because they gave me pain, were my enemies….And then, one day, an aunt gave me a book and fatuously ignored my resentment.  I stared at the blank print with hatred, and then, gradually, the pages opened and let me in.  The magic happened….I think my sense of right and wrong, my feeling of noblesse oblige, and any thought I may have against the oppressor and for the oppressed, came from this secret book.”


The book began Steinbeck’s life-long obsession with words and their meaning and the magic they can perform.  Because of this book Steinbeck took a greater interest in reading and was so spellbound that it led him to try his own hand at the written word.  In his definitive biography of Steinbeck, author Jackson J. Benson  writes how Steinbeck became famous (or infamous) in his hometown of Salinas, California as the boy who stayed up late at night working with words and stories.  The light from his bedroom window seemed to be constantly illuminated as he worked with his words and stories.  The significance of this specific book cannot be over-stated.  Steinbeck was essentially a moralist who constantly used the battle between good and evil in his works.  It is this specific book that established his path as a writer.  Steinbeck later gave this book to his best friend and philosophical mentor, Edward F. Ricketts, who wrote some pencil notes within the table of contents.

The specific book, inscribed to Steinbeck by his Aunt Mollie, has had an interesting history.  It was purchased from Ed Ricketts, Jr. by a bookseller who eventually consigned the book to auction where it was purchased by my best customer.  After his death, his heirs consigned the book to me to sell for them.  It is now in the home of an advanced book collector who knows the treasure that it is.


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One response to “Genesis

  1. Steinbeck’s interest in mythical adventure was a crucial part of his nature.

    His first published book was an adventure story–Cup of Gold.

    You can see this trope in all his work–a mythologizing tendency. He saw it in ordinary events and ordinary people. It is part of what makes his work feel so ennobling. He believed in heroism and individual courage under odds–an almost supernatural quality. This is of course only one aspect of his work, but it shares billing with the sympathy for the downtrodden, his love of common humanity.

    When we think of Steinbeck as a “classic” author, it’s as much as anything an acknowledgement of his ability to evoke that sense of timelessness through veiled reference to traditional literary characterization. His characters are “ordinary” and extraordinary at the same time, people you might meet in your daily life, but raised to a limit of folk myth. Relationships and situations become symbolic and resonate with deeper implications.

    Steinbeck’s stories have this other dimension, which is not always immediately apparent, but you realize at some point that it isn’t just a narrative you’re reading, but a kind of formulaic riddle. I’m thinking of the story Flight, just now, but it’s something I feel in all his works. Flight, by the way, I think was probably an inspiration for Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy.

    There’s a feeling of submitting to fate, of repeating a ritual or code that has been reiterated countless times “in eternity”–even when the outward events may be comic, or improbable.

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