An author’s first book is often prized by book collectors. The book represents the start of an author’s career. It might point toward his future books and writings. It might even be his best book. Certainly as a first book the print-run would be much smaller than when the writer becomes famous, sells well, with print-runs of his books increasing to numbers so huge that those books might never be collectible/valuable.
Let’s look at some examples. I don’t know if Tarzan of the Apes is Edgar Rice Burroughs’s best book, but it surely is his best known. Invisible Man is a great work, the first book by Ralph Ellison. It undoubtedly is his best work.
But what about William Faulkner? Can you identify his first book? Quick. Oh, too bad. Bzzzz. Time’s up. It’s definitely not among his great literary achievements. The book, The Marble Faun, is a book of poetry. Its high price is a function of its scarcity and a demand for a major author’s first book. The price is not a function of the quality of Faulkner’s early verse.
How about Ernest Hemingway? What’s his first book? Is it expensive because of the quality of Hemingway’s literature? Nope. The cost of his Three Stories & Ten Poems is again a function of scarcity combined with the demand for the first book of famous authors.
How about John Steinbeck? As a Steinbeck specialist I can assure you that his Cup of Gold is far, far from being his best book. I like to call it a product of the Purple Prose School of Writing. There are about two paragraphs in it that “sound” like Steinbeck. Only 1,537 copies were actually bound. Sales were poor, and not just because it was released very close to the 1929 collapse of the stock market and The Depression that resulted. It’s just not very good, but collectors still want those first books — and they should.
Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold has an interesting publishing history. And that history is one that is the subject of a recurring error made by booksellers, a mistake that is repeated over and over again. Let’s set the record straight.
Cup of Gold was first published by Robert McBride in 1929. The first edition as identified by the Steinbeck bibliography known as Goldstone & Payne (G&P) is cited as A1a. Bound in yellow/gold cloth, its garish dust jacket is illustrated with rather flamboyant pirates. So far, no problems, but the next Cup of Gold volume identified by G&P is where things go sideways.
G&P A1b is identified as the first edition, second issue, being published in 1936 by Covici Friede. G&P errs in this designation. The book is actually the second edition, as I will show in a moment. That would make the next book identified by G&P, noted as A1c and called the second edition, also an error. It’s really the third edition. As is so often the case, once a mistake is made it is repeated over and over again until the error becomes accepted as fact. That’s the case with G&P A1b.
G&P A1b was published by Covici Friede in 1936 with a maroon cloth binding and a much more subdued “pirate” dust jacket. It has a preface by Lewis Gannett that wasn’t included in A1a. It also has a different title page. Unfortunately, the publisher’s name was misspelled as Covici Freide on the dust jacket’s spine panel. So, that was blacked out and the correct spelling, Covici Friede, printed above the blacked out area. The front of the jacket makes no mention of Steinbeck as being the author of Of Mice and Men as the very similar jacket on A1c does note.
The copy I have of A1b is a family copy belonging to Steinbeck’s older sister, Elizabeth Ainsworth. It carries her bookplate. Laid into the book is a manuscript note, probably in her hand, stating “First novel/written when John/was just past 20/years old.”
If you check the Notes section of G&P A1a it suggests that unbound sheets from the 1929 first edition were acquired by Covici Friede which turned them into A1b. Actually, Pascal Covici used photo offset plates from the 1929 first edition to make his own printing. Steinbeck collector Phil Ralls, in his Steinbeck Firsts, notes that none other than legendary bookman Lawrence Clark Powell makes this very point in the April 17, 1937 issue of “Publisher’s Weekly.” A physical examination of A1a and A1b confirms a major difference between the two books. The text block width for A1a is 28 mm while the text block width for A1b is 33 mm.
It is unfortunate that the rest of the book community, including the dealers, have not caught up with the scholarship presented by Ralls that shows that A1b is indeed the second edition. Consequently, A1c, previously known as the second edition is actually the third edition. It’s also rather sad for us professionally and for me personally that Ralls died a year ago before his Steinbeck Firsts became part of the useful bibliography available for John Steinbeck material.