How do you collect?
There have never been hard and fast rules about book collecting, but when I started in the late 1960s, collections were author-driven. Collectors wanted a specific author or authors and tried to collect all of that writer’s works. I collected John Steinbeck, and I wanted all of his books, whether fiction or nonfiction. Others collected Hemingway or Jack London or Edgar Rice Burroughs or any number of well known writers, if they were modern first edition collectors. Others might have collected writers from the 19th Century such as Charles Dickens or Jane Austen or Edgar Allan Poe. Many of us afflicted with bibliomania collected more than one author, and some of us were known as completists. We wanted everything to do with our favorite writer(s). Thus, we wanted first trade editions, signed/limited editions, our favorite writer’s appearances in anthologies and periodicals, film and theatre memorabilia, and books about our favorites, not to mention a vast, ill-defined area we might call miscellaneous.
The pattern of today’s collectors is different. They want high spots, meaning that they confine their collecting interests to just the major works of the authors they collect. For Steinbeck it would be The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, maybe Cannery Row, and maybe one of his early books such as The Pastures of Heaven, In Dubious Battle, or Tortilla Flat. But what about Vanderbilt Clinic? They don’t even know what that is, which, in my view, is shameful. These collectors are not interested in any of Steinbeck’s nonfiction, with the possible exception of Sea of Cortez. This same formula is followed whether the author collected is Steinbeck or Wallace Stegner or Richard Brautigan or William Faulkner.
The problem is that these collectors are missing out on fantastic opportunities to personalize, to color their collection, to set it apart from that of any other bibliomaniac. Where are the film posters for films made from your favorite writer’s best works? Where are the early, impossible-to-find periodical appearances? To collect just high spots doesn’t take imagination or acumen or the hard work of a book sleuth. It just takes money, and if I have to explain the down side of this path, hope has already been lost.
So, let’s talk about an item, among the rarest of the rare, that falls within the collecting interest of Steinbeck fans, or should. It is his high school yearbook, El Gabilan 1919. It was published in Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown, in 1919 by Salinas Index Pub. Co. in softcover. The print-run is undetermined, but there were only 24 members of his graduating class. What’s the expression? You do the math. My guess is that there were less than 150 copies printed. Far fewer survive. This item was not in the collection of the great Adrian H. Goldstone whose collection was the basis for the only useful Steinbeck bibliography ever published, commonly referred to as Goldstone & Payne (G&P). G&P cites this item as C1, C2, and C3, meaning the first, second, and third periodical appearance by Steinbeck, only via photo-copies supplied by the John Steinbeck Library in Salinas. El Gabilan 1919 was also not part of the historic 1980 catalogue issued by Bradford Morrow listing the Steinbeck collection amassed by Harry Valentine.
Lets examine this publication. G&P C1 records Steinbeck’s The How, When and Where of the High School on page 19. C2 records his portion of the Class Will on page 36. C3 records his Woodwork on page 50, but it leaves out all sorts of other citations, the most important of which is yet another contribution by the then-young great writer, Student Body, on page 43. Here are some other important citations missed by G&P. Steinbeck is listed as an El Gabilan staff member in charge of “departments & organizations” on page 4. He is pictured as senior class president on page 9. His sister, Mary, contributes the lead piece in the “literary” section, Dismissed From The Service, pages 16-18. Steinbeck is mentioned as a preacher in the class prophecy on page 38. He is mentioned in the senior notes, page 46, and in the “military” section, page 54. He is listed as the character “Justin Rawson” in the senior class play, page 63. The young, gangly-looking Steinbeck is pictured in the boys basketball team photo, page 72, and in the boys track team photo, page 76. His boyhood friend Max Wagner is photographed as “Yell Leader” on page 77. Steinbeck is pictured in a photo of “dignified senior officers,” page 80.
Finding this item will not be easy, and like collecting just high spots, it will take money, but more importantly, it will require taste, which is often as elusive as this item.