The Grapes of Wrath

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.

Front of dust jacket, as illustrated by Elmer Hader

Front of dust jacket, as illustrated by Elmer Hader

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.

Inscription by Steinbeck and Vincent Sheean on the front free endpaper

Inscription by Steinbeck and Vincent Sheean on the front free endpaper

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.



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3 responses to “The Grapes of Wrath

  1. Carloz

    I haven’t yet read this magnum opus of Steinbeck’s but after reading this blog I am definitely moving it way up on my list. I’ve always been fascinated by “Journal of a Novel – The East of Eden Letters.” I was mesmerized by reading about the creative process and the personal accounts of the author’s daily life as he shared it in a series of letters to Pascal Covici, his editor at The Viking Press. Good stuff.

  2. James:

    I don’t know if I ever relayed this anecdote to you before, but it was told to me by my old mentor, Allen Covici.

    One evening in a stylish San Francisco restaurant, a fan noticed Steinbeck and another man at an adjacent table. Ironically, this fan happened to have a copy of a Steinbeck book with her (probably Travels with Charley). She considered for a few minutes, then decided to approach him to ask him to autograph the book. As she approached their table, she could tell that Steinbeck was in no mood to be importuned. She held the book out, but before she could speak, Steinbeck, looking very annoyed, motioned her away. Nevertheless, realizing this would be the only chance she would ever have to confront him in the flesh, she persisted. “Please, Mr. Steinbeck, I’ve been an admirer of your work all my life, and if you could only just sign it, I would be most grateful.” Impatient and obviously offended, Steinbeck grabbed the book, borrowed a pen from his dining companion, and wrote in the book, “With distaste! John Steinbeck.”

    It may not be altogether obvious from his books, but Steinbeck the man was not by any means the amiable avuncular presence many people seem to imagine. He had been an alcoholic for years, had had two failed marriages, was estranged from his sons, was often bitter and depressed, and late in life switched sentiment and became a reactionary conservative. After he became rich and famous, he moved to New England and tried becoming a gentrified down-east patrician.

    I read Grapes of Wrath in high school. Predictably, I was moved by the “preaching” chapters with their high-minded poetic style, but found the narrative part of the book pretty much like the earlier Long Valley, Tortilla Flat and In Dubious Battle. In retrospect, I think the book would have been better if those preaching chapters had simply been removed and the resulting straightforward (and comparatively short) narrative presented instead. As it is, the book now feels a bit pompous, especially considering that Steinbeck soon moved away from the left political position the book implies, as did many of his generation after the war.

    For me, Steinbeck is always at his best when he’s writing about the California of his youth (or in his youthful imagination). It bears comparison with the best of Katherine Anne Porter’s and Paul Horgan’s work about the Southwest. It’s vivid and genuine. Whenever he departs from that material, he begins to sound out of his depth. Fontenrose thinks that all Steinbeck’s work derives from mythic and religious archetypes, but I disagree. He’s much more a naturalistic writer who was best when he could gracefully condescend to his material.

    • Hi Curtis: Interesting story and undoubtedly true. Steinbeck was never a warm and fuzzy guy. I also think it inappropriate to approach any celebrity when they are in their private life. Steiny was painfully shy, despite his bluster. I still like those inner chapters and scholars tend to love them. There is no doubt that JS had his down side. Whenever he got “mystical” as he did with To A God Unknown, or at the end of The Wayward Bus or at times within The Winter of Our Discontent, he would lose me, but there is hardly anyone as accessible as him and and very, very few who can write a descriptive sketch as well as him. Read “Breakfast” which I believe is included in The Long Valley. He takes you right to the morning campfire, the steaming coffee, the smell of frying bacon. I really do appreciate your comments and especially love the fact that anyone out there is actually reading the blog, so thank you very much. By the way, I heard that you did visit Swan’s Fine Books in WC and purchased a few books. Anyone who opens a brick and mortar store these days is probably crazy, but I still like the idea of supporting that craziness, so thanks for that, too. Jim

      James M. Dourgarian, Bookman 1595-B Third Avenue Walnut Creek, CA 94597 (925)935-5033 Established 1980 Member ABAA, ILAB

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