John Steinbeck Replies

Some books just don’t look like books.

When you say the word “book” you’re probably thinking of something maybe 5.5 inches wide by eight inches tall.  But a book can be a single sheet of paper folded to make four pages.

John Steinbeck Replies is just such a book.  It is cited by the Goldstone & Payne (G&P) bibliography of Steinbeck as A13a, meaning it’s the 13th book published by Steinbeck.

It is in fact a single sheet of paper folded to make four pages.  The first page shows just the title.  Once opened the second page prints a letter to Steinbeck from L. M. Birkhead, national director of Friends of Democracy located in New York.  The letter is dated May 2, 1940.  In it Birkhead asks about Steinbeck’s ancestry.

Front of book G&P A13a

Front of book
G&P A13a

He writes, “You may consider that it is none of our business, nor the business of anyone else in  the country.  However, there is a very widespread propaganda, particularly among the extreme reactionary religionists of the country, that you are Jewish and that “Grapes of Wrath”, is Jewish propaganda.”  He goes on to note his organization’s work “in combating the pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic propaganda so wide-spread throughout the country.”

The third and fourth pages print Steinbeck’s response, dated May 7, 1940.  Steinbeck writes that he is answering the question with a great deal of sadness.

“I am sad for a time when one must know a man’s race before his work can be approved or disapproved.”  He adds, “I cannot see how the Grapes of Wrath can be called Jewish propaganda but then I have heard it called communist propaganda also.  It happens that I am not Jewish and have no Jewish blood but it only happens that way.  I find that I do not experience any pride that it is so.”

Steinbeck goes on to say that he is German on his father’s side and Irish on his mother’s side, but he also correctly surmises that “Those who wish for one reason or another to believe me Jewish will go on believing it while men of good will and good intelligence won’t care one way or another.”

In 1940 the Overbrook Press reprinted this item in a hardcover format, although it is a rather slim volume of slight physical stature, still not the 5.5X8-inch “traditional book.”  It is cited by the Steinbeck bibliography as A13b.  It was issued in September 1940 in an edition of 350 copies, issued with a glassine dust jacket.  These books are especially difficult to find in fine condition.

Front of book G&P A13b

Front of book
G&P A13b

One copy I have includes an autographed letter signed by Margaret B. Evans of the Overbrook Press dated Dec. 3, 1940 to Miss Kate R. Firestone, secretary of the San Francisco Anti-Defamation Committee on behalf of Arthur Altschul, publisher of the Overbrook Press.  Evans indicates that the book was privately printed, that none were for sale, and that Altschul asked her to send a copy to Nat Schumulowitz of the Anti-Defamation Committee.  Affixed to the book’s front free endpaper is a copy of a letter from Schumulowitz to Altschul thanking him for the book.  Affixed to the rear free endpaper is a Nov. 7, 1940 note from Schumulowitz to himself regarding Altschul’s book and about a tear sheet from San Francisco literary editor Joseph Henry Jackson.  Jackson had earlier written a column about the exchange of letters between Steinbeck and Birkhead.


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