Nothing So Monstrous

Nothing So Monstrous is the first separate printing of the Junius Maltby story from John Steinbeck’s second book, The Pastures of Heaven, a short story cycle that is one of Steinbeck’s best books. It is also a bit of a hidden treasure to today’s readers and collectors who are up to date on The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Cannery Row, but who might not yet have discovered The Pastures of Heaven.

The title comes from a line written by Robert Louis Stevenson, “There is nothing so monsterous but we can belief it of ourselves.” It appears in his essay “On Marriage” that is part of his book Virginibus Puerisque (1881).  According to Jackson J. Benson, who wrote the best biography of Steinbeck (The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer which Viking published in 1984), the story “illustrates a favorite Steinbeck theme — the best among us (and the best in us) is often misunderstood and defeated by an insensitive society.”

Front of book

Front of book

This separate printing was done in 1936 by the Pynson Printers. It is a thin hardcover with marbled boards and an orange cloth spine. The Goldstone & Payne (G&P) bibliography of Steinbeck cites the book as A2f. In addition to its new title, Nothing So Monstrous, Steinbeck has added an epilogue written especially for this edition which is limited to 370 copies. It includes pen and ink drawings by Donald McKay.  It’s also one of the most muddied listings in the bibliography.

According to G&P, the book was sold to subscribers at $2 each. “The limited supply of paper for the binding permitted only 370 copies to be printed.” G&P also states that “Elmer Adler promoted the publication of this book for himself and four other subscribers to use as Christmas gifts.” Those others were Frederick B. Adams, Jr. (100 copies), Ben Abramson (150 copies), Edwin J. Beinecke (50 copies), and Howard Mott (20 copies), with 50 reserved for Adler.

Printed in the colophon in the rear of the book is “This copy of/NOTHING SO MONSTROUS/with pen and ink drawings by Donald McKay/was made by The Pynson Printers of New York/at the request of/for presentation to.” The idea was that these subscribers would write their name after “at the request of” and then fill in the name of the buyer or the person to whom they were gifting the book after “for presentation to.”

Colophon page

Colophon page

Well, sort of. In some cases the names of the subscriber and recipient were printed and sometimes written. But the “subscribers” weren’t limited to the names listed in G&P.   This is one of the big errors in G&P. I have a copy for sale that was one of six copies purchased by Steinbeck himself for his own use. In this case, his name is printed after “at the request of” and then he pens his own inscription to his sister and her husband after “for presentation to.” I have another copy that was Rockwell Kent’s copy bearing his modest bookplate. Kent, who was the house artist for The Pynson Printers, pens his own name after “at the request of” and has penned “himself” after “for presentation to.” This particular copy also bears the signatures of Elmer Adler, F. B. Adams, Jr., and John T. Winterich, all of whom were editors at “The Colophon,” a magazine for book collectors. There are all sorts of copies with all kinds of names other than the subscribers noted by G&P.

Rockwell Kent's bookplate

Rockwell Kent’s bookplate

Speculation.  Seems likely to me that the original “subscribers,” some of whom were booksellers,  filled in the names of the ultimate buyers “at the request of” and then filled in the name of the recipient “for presentation to.” So let’s sayJoe Doakes purchased a copy from Ben Abramson, for example. Joe Doakes is then either printed or penned after “at the request of” and then Mary Doakes, for example, is either printed or penned after “for presentation to.” So, in short, although the book in question might have originated from Ben Abramson, it was actually purchased from him by Doakes for presentation to his wife, Mary.

Spine of Rockwell Kent's custom slipcase

Spine of Rockwell Kent’s
custom slipcase

Michael Winship, as editor of Bibliography of American Literature, once quipped to bookseller Peter Stern that a bibliography is a cry for help. In this case, G&P was doing a lot of crying.  Goldstone himself, in a letter to Howard Mott, wrote, “…if perfection is to be looked for it should be someplace else than in a bibliography.”  Of course, the bibliographers might have asked Howard Mott for details on the book since he was one of the original subscribers.  They did not.

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