Tortilla Flat is usually included in anyone’s list of their favorite John Steinbeck titles. Why? Well, it’s funny. It’s curious. It’s quirky. It was made into a successful 1942 film that starred Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamar, and John Garfield, although for my money Frank Morgan steals the movie. For scholars, it’s a Knights of the Round Table story in the guise of a tale about paisanos of Monterey. Those that know Steinbeck well know that he usually wrote on many levels. These are just some of them.
Covici Friede published Tortilla Flat in 1935. It was Steinbeck’s fourth book, but his first to be published by Covici Friede. That publishing house continued to publish him regularly, even re-publishing his three earlier works, until the firm was forced out of business and one of its principals, Pascal Covici, brought Steinbeck to The Viking Press in 1938 where Steinbeck was to stay until his death 30 years later.
Steinbeck wrote the book while tending to his dying mother. One might think that he was trying to lift his own spirits in that time of turmoil and grief by writing something humorous, something that was a departure from what he had written earlier, and which had a theme, Knights of the Round Table, that was dear to his heart.
Although one of his three earlier books, The Pastures of Heaven, was a great book, all of them were pretty much ignored and sales were sluggish, at best. Not so for Tortilla Flat. It became a surprise best seller. It was Steinbeck’s breakthrough book that really launched his career. The 4,000 copies printed in the first edition, illustrated by Ruth Gannett, sold quickly and other printings followed rapidly to meet the demand.
There was an advance edition. The publisher took printed signatures and then wrapped the dust jacket around those signatures, gluing it along the spine panel. Those 500 copies were sent out for both review and promotional purposes. They are quite scarce today, and valuable. It is pictured here.
This copy is also an association copy. It’s a little hard to read when reproduced via a scanner, but on the top left-hand portion of the title page, Alice B. Toklas wrote: “from Alice B. Toklas/Paris, March 1945.” Toklas was the companion of Gertrude Stein. It is a special book, in a special state, owned by a special person. You gotta love it.