The Viking Press published John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, in April of 1939. Sales exploded. Both Viking and Steinbeck made a lot of money, but that wasn’t the most significant change in Steinbeck’s life. From that point on critics wondered why he didn’t write the same book over and over again. He was lambasted by Big Agriculture for leftist politics. As I wrote in an earlier blog, the wife of a California state senator wrote a book, Of Human Kindness, that challenged all of what Steinbeck’s book indicated, telling us how wonderfully migrant farm workers were treated. The attention for the publicity-shy Steinbeck was overwhelming. His life would never be the same, and while some of that change would be for the good, there was plenty of bad to go around, too.
I re-read the book a few months ago for the first time in probably 20 years. The ending of this plot-less book still blows me away. As I read it for the first time, I kept wondering how he was going to end it. I was squirming with astonishment the first time I finished the book, and I was astounded again upon my re-reading of the book, and this time I knew what was coming! I had forgotten much of the story. I remembered how strong a character Ma Joad is, but when she was ready to throw down with anyone who was even thinking about breaking up the family, well, I was blown away again.
As a book collector, long before I became a bookseller in 1980, I remember all too well buying at least two copies of the “first edition,” only to find out later that the dust jackets on both books were from later printing. I didn’t know then that there is a tab on the lower right-hand part of the front jacket flap that states FIRST EDITION. I also didn’t know that the text and its presentation on that front jacket flap are different on the first edition compared to later printings. Oh, the books themselves were first editions, but the unscrupulous book dealers who sold me those copies purported them to be firsts without telling me that the jackets were not. Like a lot of lessons learned the hard way, the lesson has stayed with me forever.
Steinbeck didn’t sign many copies of the book. While the price of a solid first edition in a solid first issue dust jacket has greatly appreciated over the years, the price of inscribed copies has skyrocketed. And if there is an association between Steinbeck and the recipient of the book, the price goes even higher. Here’s an example. At the top you can see that Steinbeck has inscribed the book to Vincent Sheean. The inscription is short, as almost all of his presentation inscriptions are, even to those well known to him. In this case, Sheean was indeed well known to Steinbeck. He was a published author as well as a newspaper reporter who was a favorite drinking buddy of Ernest Hemingway. As a newspaper reporter, Sheean had a knack for being in the right place at the right time for news events. He is mentioned in a Hemingway-related story in Jack Benson’s biography of Steinbeck, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. What makes this copy even more appealing is the note that Sheean has added to the book. He writes, “Although it is signed to me, Mr. Steinbeck intended this book to go for the Spanish intellectuals in exile—Vincent Sheean.”
Whether you are a private collector or a bookseller, you live for finding books like this.