Many years ago Elaine Steinbeck appeared at the annual John Steinbeck Festival in the great author’s hometown of Salinas, CA. I couldn’t make it, but a friend toted a large box of my books to have Elaine sign for me. I probably overwhelmed her. There were several copies of both proof and trade editions of Steinbeck: A Life in Letters which she edited with Robert Wallsten. And there was the June 1967 issue of McCall’s. That issue has a piece by Mrs. Steinbeck titled Letter From Abroad. It is an article she wrote about her trip to Vietnam with her husband while he was on assignment from Newsday. It was also an opportunity to visit his son, John, who was stationed there while in the Army.
When my friend shipped the books and magazines back to me, all had been dutifully signed by Elaine Steinbeck. And she wrote a note in that issue of McCall’s that carried her article. She wrote, “The only real piece I ever wrote!” She also laid in a note that she didn’t own a copy of the magazine. Well, what better way to repay her for her time and trouble in being overwhelmed by having to sign so many books and magazine for me than to gift her an extra copy that I had?
So, I sent it off. A few days later the phone rang. A rather gravelly voice announced, “This is Elaine Steinbeck.” She couldn’t have been nicer in thanking me for the gift and said we were now friends, and that she was going to send me a little present.
The phone call alone was all the thanks I needed. It alone had left me feeling elated, but a few days later there arrived an envelope from Elaine. There were two enclosures. One was a small card signed by John Steinbeck. Accompanying it was a note from Elaine which read, “Here’s an autograph I found of John’s. You might like to put it in your favorite Steinbeck book. Elaine Steinbeck.”
I could not have been more thrilled. I immediately pulled my copy of his second book, The Pastures of Heaven, off my shelf and placed both her note and the autographed card into the book. This first edition is one of only 1,650 copies actually bound. Only a measly 650 copies of the book were sold originally. It is the first of his books with what could be called the Steinbeck “sound.” It is comprised of inter-related stories set in what seems to be an idyllic valley that came to represent Steinbeck Country. In these stories something is not quite right with the inhabitants of this otherwise peacefully valley. According to Harry Thornton Moore in his first critical study of Steinbeck’s works, The Pastures of Heaven “is the most popular of Steinbeck’s three early books. It points the way to most of his subsequent writing.”
I chose this book to house the signed card and Elaine’s note for a number of reasons. It was my first “big” purchase way back in the early 1970s that really got my book collecting going. I purchased the book from Barbara Rootenberg, also a member of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America. Back then, that $250 was a LOT of money. The stories in the book are also filled with irony and the notion that not everything is what it might seem to be. These are themes that really appealed to me.