The Great Black Book

How can a book published 37 years before his birth be considered a John Steinbeck item for book collectors?

The book in question is Gunn’s New Family Physician: Or, Home Book of Health by John C. Gunn.  Its 100th edition, revised, enlarged, and illustrated was published by Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin in Cincinnati in 1865.

Front of the "great black book"

Front of the
“great black book”

It is a huge black book commonly used in the 1800s when doctors might be miles and miles away from your farm, for example, and you needed a cure.  According to the book itself, it provides a complete household guide, “giving many valuable suggestions for avoiding disease and prolonging life, with plain directions in cases of emergency, and pointing out in familiar language the causes, symptoms, treatment and cure of diseases incident to men, women and children, with the simplest and best remedies; presenting a manual for nursing the sick, and describing minutely the properties and uses of hundreds of well-known medicinal plants.”  It also includes “supplementary treatises on anatomy, physiology, and hygiene, on domestic and sanitary economy, and on physical culture and development.”

"Nursing the sick, physiology, physical culture, and sanitary economy"

“Nursing the sick, physiology, physical culture, and sanitary economy”

It was also a source book for Steinbeck in writing East of Eden.  He called it the “great black book.”  Interestingly, the book was also cited by another great American author, Mark Twain in his Huckleberry Finn.  Twain wrote, “…Dr. Gunn’s Family Medicine…told you all about what to do if a body was sick or dead.”

According to Steinbeck scholar Dr. Robert De Mott, Steinbeck used the book “as a means of deepening the artistic portrait and creative legacy of his maternal grandfather Samuel Hamilton (who owned a copy), as a source for several kinds of information, and as a model for certain aspects of human behavior which he hoped to preserve for his own children.”

De Mott points out that Steinbeck was an author “who read to write,” noting that Steinbeck’s books “are marked by the impact of his reading and preparatory research.  Nearly all of them contain references or allusions to books or authors whose work he had encountered during his career which helped shape his attitude toward experience and even his execution of form.”

In a paper published in “American Studies,” De Mott wrote that “Steinbeck depended on Gunn for specific contemporary medical information which added verisimilitude to his rendering of 19th Century life.”

DeMott also asserts that Steinbeck used Gunn’s information “on pregnancy and midwifery, especially for medical lore and common sense knowledge.”


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