Who’s Edith McGillcuddy

Well, she was buddies with Robert Louis Stevenson.


Actually, she was the mother of Max and Jack Wagner, boyhood friends of author John Steinbeck.  She was one of many adults that the young Steinbeck cultivated as he grew up in Salinas, California.  He read her his stories, and she told him hers.  He soaked up her stories like a sponge.  One of her stories was how she met author Robert Louis Stevenson in 1879 when she was just 12 years old.

The story rumbled around inside Steinbeck’s head for years.  Then, after she wrote him to praise his then-latest book, To A God Unknown, published by Robert O. Ballou in 1933, he decided to write Edith’s charming story.  After he sent the story to his agents, he also sent a copy to the woman he knew as Edith Wagner.  Curiously, she had also written up her story and was trying to get “The Reader’s Digest” to publish it.

Steinbeck wrote to apologize when he heard this.  “I’m terribly sorry if I have filched one of your stories.  I’m a shameless magpie anyway picking up anything shiny that comes my way  —  incident, situation or personality.  But if I had any idea, I shouldn’t have taken it.”

He withdrew the story from his agents.   A number of years passed without Mrs. Wagner finding a publisher for her version, so she gave Steinbeck permission  to pursue his version.  In 1941 Steinbeck thought the then old and crippled Edith Wagner might be cheered up with publication of his version of her story, so he sought publication again.  When he sold the story to “Harper’s” which published it in its August 1941 issue, he sent the money to Mrs. Wagner.

Front cover of magazine

Front cover of magazine

The famed Rowfant Club of Cleveland published the story separately in book form in 1943.  Although not signed, it was limited to 152 numbered copies printed at The Grabhorn Press.  It is cited by the Goldstone & Payne (G&P) bibliography of Steinbeck as A20.  The magazine appearance is cited as G&P C39.

The story is delightful, especially Stevenson’s charming interaction with the young Edith.  She was on her way to Sunday school in Salinas when she met up with another young girl whom was going to ”a free funeral.”  It was free because the deceased’s family had hired the narrow gauge railroad to transport the mourners from Salinas to the funeral in nearby Monterey.  The young girl convinced Edith to go along since they could fit in, if the girl cried a bit.

Front of the separately-printed limited edition

Front of the separately-printed limited edition

Once in Monterey, the young girl ditches Edith who wanders away from the funeral where she mets up with another young girl who promises to show Edith a woman who smokes cigarettes while sitting next to a long-haired man.  The shocked Edith agrees to go see them.  They decide to fill a bucket with huckleberries to sell to the man who will buy anything for a nickel.  That will be their entry.

The two girls go to an adobe home and sure enough they find the cigarette-smoking woman and the man with long hair who are sitting on a white cloth spread over the ground.

“On one side of the cloths a lady in a white dress smoking a cigarette, and on the other side squatted a long-haired young man with a lean sick face and eyes shining with fever.”

But as soon as he hands over the nickel, Edith’s friend flees out the gate, leaving the young Edith alone with the strange pair.  Stevenson recognizes that her “friend” has played both her and the young adults, especially since the berry bucket was filled with more leaves than berries.

“It always is,” the man says gently, and then offers Edith tea.  Delightful conversation ensues, while the woman still smokes, but as soon as she hears the train whistle for the return trip to Salinas, little Edith scrambles back.  Why?  The brakeman had shouted upon their arrival, “The trains will start back at four o’clock, and it won’t wait for nothing.”







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