One of the most significant books in my life as a bookseller with a keen interest in John Steinbeck is Jackson J. Benson’s The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. It is the Bible of all Steinbeck biographies. There was a lot of talk about this book in Steinbeck circles years before in was published. We all knew it was coming, but none of us knew exactly when. The expectation level was extremely high. This was going to be THE biography. And it was. And it still is. After all, Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine, had given Benson access to everything. He researched everything. He interviewed everyone. His research lasted 12 years. Then he (and the rest of us) endured three more years before all threatened lawsuits were finally out of the way so that Viking could publish the book, which it did in 1984. It was a massive project, and it resulted in a massive book. There was some thought of breaking it into two or three volumes because of the sheer amount of information. It has 1,084 pages of text and notes. When it was published in 1984 it was priced at $35. Remember, these are 1984 prices — for one book. Wow! Benson surely wasn’t going to get rich, and neither was Viking, although the book did go into a second printing. It was, and is, worth every penny. The first print-run was 10,000 copies, with 2,000 of those going to the British publisher, William Heinemann.
So why am I showing the advance state, the proof, rather than the published state of the book? Easy. The proof is the only version that includes all of what Benson intended to publish, before the lawsuits were threatened. Seems that some family members and others of the inner circle objected to parts of the book, and thus wanted those sections suppressed. So, what was so offensive? Was it the part about his sons coming home to find their mother drunk, naked, and passed out on a living room couch mid-day? Nope. Was it that part where their mother, sometimes known as Gwen and sometimes known as Gwyn, threw a can of vegetables at one of the boys while in a drunken rage. Uh-uh. The offending and ultimately extracted parts had to do with Steinbeck being a jazz fan. I’m still puzzled by this since he was indeed a fan of jazz. But you can read all about it — if you can locate a copy of this elusive proof. If you do find one, expect to pay a pretty penny (well, a LOT more than that) as a premium exactly because the proof is the only version as Jack Benson envisioned the book. And while you’re at it, write Jack a fan’s letter of thanks. He deserved it way back then, and he still deserves it today. Thanks, Jack! We owe you.