To A God Unknown is John Steinbeck’s third published book. It is preceded by the forgettable Cup of Gold and his second book, a short story cycle and one of his best books, The Pastures of Heaven. But To A God Unknown was actually written before The Pastures of Heaven. And it’s a good thing, too, because we might not know John Steinbeck as we know him today without To A God Unknown.
It’s interesting to note that the dust jacket for this book was illustrated by Mahlon Blaine. Blaine also illustrated Steinbeck’s first book, Cup of Gold, but in a completely different style. Where the jacket illustration for To A God Unknown is rather muted, the jacket for Cup of Gold is garish and flamboyant.
Before it was Steinbeck’s book with his own title, the material for To A God Unknown was written by Steinbeck’s good friend and running buddy from his Stanford University days, Webster “Toby” Street. Street’s manuscript was a three-act play titled The Green Lady. The lady in question was, essentially, Nature. In Street’s version the story was set in the Mendocino area along California’s north coast. Street had shown the material to Steinbeck and the pair of them discussed the work at length. Eventually, Street became stymied with the project and gave it to Steinbeck to with it as he pleased.
Once it was his, Steinbeck made two important changes, changes that would affect his writing for the rest of his career. First, he changed the location of the story from Mendocino to the lower Salinas Valley. Despite a trip he made to Mendocino where he had never visited previously, he couldn’t become comfortable in writing about an area he didn’t know well. So, he moved the action to an area he did know, following the sage and age-old advice of writing about what you know. We have come to know this area as Steinbeck Country. And instead of populating his story with vague characters he didn’t know, he patterned his new book’s characters after people that he did know. Through many drafts he developed the kind of characters he would use in the best of his fiction, stern and stoic men of character and durable women of strength.
In the end, we see that Steinbeck discovered and developed his descriptive powers. He employed short, visceral sentences. There was still the problem of his getting “mystical” to the point that his direction and meaning sometimes eluded his readership. That’s why To A God Unknown ultimately fails, but in writing the book with new methods he was able to re-direct himself and his style which directly led to the literary success he enjoyed with his next book, his breakthrough book, Tortilla Flat.