It’s not a river in Egypt, but a state of mind adopted by some bibliophiles when they discover a new-to-them “A” item missing from their collection. An “A” item would be defined as a primary first edition. These collectors would rather deny the very existence of the item in question than employ their previous seek-with-zeal modus operandi. Some may have heard of the item, but they dismiss this information as rumor.
I wish I had a dollar for every collector who told me they had a complete collection of Dean Koontz, for example.
I usually look at them slightly askance and ask, “You mean you have Bounce Girl and Aphrodisiac Girl? You know, his porn.”
Their faces freeze like a deer caught in headlights.
“How about his two counter-culture books?”
“You know,” I prompt them, “The Pig Society and Underground Lifestyles Handbook.”
“Huh?” is about all they can muster.
The biggest part of the problem is the lack of reference. If you have never heard of an item you can’t be looking for it. Not all authors have had a bibliography written about their works.
Let’s check out one major author for whom a bibliography has been written. Surely everyone has heard of John Steinbeck, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, author of The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, East of Eden, etc., right?
Then we know all there is to know about this blue chip author’s “A” items via the Goldstone & Payne (G&P) bibliography published by the University of Texas, Austin in 1974, right?
Even this Bible of all Steinbeck reference books doesn’t include all of Steinbeck’s “A” items. They aren’t noted in Bradford Morrow’s incredible 1980 catalogue devoted to all things Steinbeck either.
There are at least three unrecorded fugitive items, all of them broadsides, all of them so rare that they are virtually unknown. These three are John Steinbeck on Matuson Revelations!—Death of a Racket (1955), A Letter From John Steinbeck to His Editor About “The Short Reign of Pippin IV” (1957), and …like capture fireflies (1959).
To show that professional booksellers also practice denial, I passed on the first two items many years ago, denying to myself that they were worthy. They were unknown to me at the time. Both are mimeographs and thus inconsequential as to their physicality. Not exactly a fine press item one might admire. All of them might also be considered inconsequential as to their content, and the text for each might be available elsewhere, but none of them are inconsequential as to their rarity. It’s amazing what a little perspective will do.
Let’s examine each of these three broadsides.
James Pepper, prominent bookseller from Santa Barbara and a member of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America, listed the first two broadsides, the two mimeos, in a 1986 catalogue. According to that catalogue, John Steinbeck on Matuson Revelations!—Death of a Racket, was issued in 1955 by the publishers of “The Saturday Review.” The text is entirely by Steinbeck. This 8.5X11-inch mimeo was issued to magazine and book dealers to promote an upcoming issue. The piece eventually appeared as an editorial in the April 2, 1955 issue of the periodical with the title shortened to The Death of a Racket.
It is important to note that this item, very much like the next item, was issued when book and magazine publishers were just beginning to experiment with promotional items. Several hundred, maybe even several thousand were produced, but like the beginning of any trend, recipients may have looked at the mimeo, they may have commented on it, but in the end they very probably balled it up and trashed it. That’s why they are so rare today.
The second broadside listed in Pepper’s catalogue (and shown at some book fairs) was also a promotional item. It too measures 8.5X11 inches. It too is a mimeographed broadside. In it, Steinbeck writes a humorous letter to his editor at Viking, the legendary Pascal Covici. The mimeo sports the Viking logo on its top and was intended to promote Steinbeck’s then-forthcoming The Short Reign of Pippin IV.
The third fugitive, …like captured fireflies, is a bit different. It wasn’t issued as a promotional item. It isn’t a mimeo. It was hand-set and printed by letterpress. It measures c.10X14 inches. It is derived from an article about teachers, noting that Steinbeck had three teachers vastly important to his life — one from his school days in Salinas, California, his hometown, one from his university days at Stanford, and the last being famed marine biologist Ed Ricketts. This article first appeared in the November 1955 issue of the “CTA (California Teachers Association) Journal.” It was later reprinted in the September 1956 issue of “Family Doctor.” Its appearance as a broadside was produced by J. Wilson McKenney in an edition of only 12 copies, as the broadside itself notes, in 1959.
McKenney was the editor of the “CTA Journal.” He also published his own “Out West” magazine and also published books via his Wilmac Press on Southwest deserts, Western mining, and California history. McKenney’s interest in Steinbeck grew out of a series of articles in the “CTA Journal” about prominent Californians and the teachers who influenced them. Steinbeck was one of the featured Californians, representing literature. After the “CTA Journal” publication, McKenney decided to reprint the piece as a broadside. After lengthy negotiations between himself, Steinbeck, and his agents, it was decided that McKenney could produce the broadside — but only if the print-run was small enough so that it wasn’t a commercial venture.
Rare? There isn’t one at Stanford, the only institution of higher learning that Steinbeck attended. There isn’t one at San Jose State University which has a world-class Steinbeck collection. There isn’t one at the National Steinbeck Center in Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas. There isn’t one at the famed Humanities Research Center at University of Texas. There isn’t one at any college, university, center, or institution of any kind. Fact is that while the print-run guaranteed an instant rarity, its circumstance of publication was so obscure that no one knew about it then and damn few people know about it now.
When asked about those two mimeographed broadsides he sold during the 1980s, Jim Pepper said that her would not hesitate to price them at $10,000 each, if he could find copies today.