The Challenge of Collecting Steinbeck
By James M. Dourgarian
The challenge for virtually all collectors of John Steinbeck, whether novice or grizzled veteran, is the same -- money! If you still need a pretty copy of Tortilla Flat, a first in jacket, can you spare that extra $10,000 it's going to take to acquire the book? Is your long-held copy of The Grapes of Wrath still as tired as it was when you acquired it 15 years ago? It's probably in worse condition now. Do you have a spare $7,500 to $10,000 to upgrade to a fine copy in a like, first issue jacket? The choice often seems to boil down to either buying your spouse a good used car or buying yourself a missing piece of the puzzle that is your book collection. These examples are a bit extreme, but let's say you still need the Rowfant limited first edition of How Edith McGillcuddy Met Robert Louis Stevenson. A nice copy in an average jacket is going to cost about $2,500 to $3,500. That's still a lot of money. Collecting Steinbeck has always been expensive because his books are so valued, so desired. That desire combined with scarcity has always driven prices higher and higher, but the perception is that today's prices are particularly daunting.
What can you do? Do what Steinbeck did when he was composing a short story or a play or a novel -- use your imagination! Be creative. You don't have to collect in the same tried and true method employed by bibliophiles since the beginning of library building. How about building a title collection? What's that? Find yourself a copy of The Grapes of Wrath: A Fifty Year Bibliographic Survey compiled by Bob Harmon, published by the Steinbeck Research Center in 1990. Use it as your guide to see all the different editions of Steinbeck's masterpiece that have been published over the years. You could assemble a collection of the first edition by Viking, the Limited Editions Club two-volume illustrated edition signed by Thomas Hart Benton, the Sun Dial edition, both versions of the Armed Services Editions issue, the Modern Library edition, the Bantam Books edition, and any number of other permutations of this classic. Supplement those books with maybe a poster or two from the John Ford-directed film version. Add a few magazine appearances of the Joad family's migrant adventures, and maybe a few early periodical reviews of the book. Total outlay isn't huge and the collection would be mighty impressive and interesting to view -- for you and visitors. You might choose another title. If Cannery Row is your favorite, or if maybe it's The Red Pony, you could amass an equally viable collection of interest that would fully entertain you in viewing it and entertain you in the hunt for its respective pieces.
Some long-time Steinbeck collectors have already built a substantial collection of first editions in dust jackets. Perhaps the only books they are missing are ones that cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. They would still like to participate in the hunt for Steinbeck material, but don't want to separate that much money from their wallets. Why not start collecting Steinbeck's appearances in periodicals? This can be a very rewarding experience. Many of the periodicals in question are of extreme importance and several are extremely difficult to find. The cornerstone of this endeavor would be Steinbeck's high school yearbook, the 1919 "El Gabilan." This item includes Goldstone & Payne C1, C2, and C3 -- Steinbeck's first periodical appearances. No firm numbers exist as to how many copies were printed, but Steinbeck's graduating class numbered only 24 individuals. Copies do come to the market, but not very often. This item is one of many that fits the collector's needs -- importance combined with scarcity/rarity. Another example is the March 1927 issue of "The Smoker's Companion" which includes Steinbeck's first professional sale, in this case using his John Stern pseudonym (Goldstone & Payne C8). Neither item was in the Adrian Goldstone collection. Goldstone & Payne C1, C2, and C3 were cited via photocopies supplied to Goldstone courtesy of the John Steinbeck Library in his hometown of Salinas, CA. Goldstone & Payne C8 was cited via a photocopy supplied by the New York Public Library. Certainly any of Steinbeck's five appearances in "The North American Review" should be on any collector's shelves, especially the first in November 1933, his first professional sale/appearance using his own name. These issues are difficult to find as well, but they are findable. A more difficult task would be to find "The San Francisco News" issues for Oct. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 12, 1936 for they comprise Goldstone & Payne C20, The Harvest Gypsies, a very important precursor to Steinbeck's writing The Grapes of Wrath. Again, this item wasn't in the Goldstone collection, but was cited in the bibliography via photocopies from the San Francisco Public Library.
There are many other important periodical appearances that would make significant additions to any Steinbeck collection. In general, if a collector cannot afford to search out the big-budget first editions, there are always all kinds of secondary/ephemeral items to tantalize the needs of any collector. Let's compare two Steinbeck collections. One has a large number of fine first editions of Steinbeck in like dust jackets. How does it differ from anyone else's collection of same? If both collections are comprised of just books, there is no difference, just as there would be no individuality, nothing to separate that collection from any other collection. But let's say that one of these collections is supplemented. Let's say that the collection includes some important reprints of Steinbeck primary first editions. Let's say that it includes the Limited Editions Club issue of The Grapes of Wrath, the Peggy Worthington-illustrated edition of Tortilla Flat, the second edition of Cup of Gold, and others. Now supplement this collection with some Steinbeck contributions to books. Start with Berton Braley's Morgan Sails the Caribbean which includes a letter from Steinbeck to Braley whose book was inspired by Steinbeck's Cup of Gold. It is also the start of the anthology section in Goldstone & Payne (B1). Let's add John Hargrave's Summer Time Ends, whose second issue dust jacket is virtually plastered with Steinbeck's high praise for the experimental novel. There is a huge number of other anthology possibilities. Supplement this building with the periodicals already mentioned. Color this emerging collection with some film posters or similar film memorabilia from your favorite film made from one of Steinbeck's works. You can always add important works about Steinbeck such as Peter Lisca's The Wide World of John Steinbeck, Jackson J. Benson's Bible of Steinbeck biographies, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, and, without question, the Goldstone & Payne Bibliography. There are many choices. Each should reflect the interests of the specific collector who is building this more colorful, more interesting collection. It might be reflected in that collector's own experiences. For example, that collector would probably want to make sure his or her collection is represented by as many different editions of the Steinbeck title that first hooked him or her into collecting Steinbeck. If Cannery Row was your favorite, if To A God Unknown knocked you out, if East of Eden compelled you to read more and more of Steinbeck which then started you to collect Steinbeck, then that title should be heavily represented. If The Red Pony was your favorite film made from a Steinbeck work, then a poster for that film is practically required.
Another interesting way to collect is to acquire a Steinbeck collection comprised entirely of vintage paperbacks. The covers of these books is worth the effort alone. The beauty is that not only would such a collection be visually interesting, but it would also be easy to amass and inexpensive to boot. There are Armed Services Editions titles, Bantam Books, Avon, Signet, Penguin, Pocket Books, Dell, Cardinal -- virtually all of those publishers that began the mass market paperback era. This is a terrific alternative to mainstream collecting.
There was a time when broad-based collecting was the norm. That was changed over some time by those who began to collect only high spots. Today's collectors of modern American literature would certainly want The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. They might choose Of Mice and Men or Cannery Row, or they might ignore them, just as they would ignore The Pastures of Heaven, In Dubious Battle, Tortilla Flat, just as they would ignore A Russian Journal, The Wayward Bus, and Sweet Thursday, just as they would ignore obscure publications (and extremely difficult to find "A" items) such as Vanderbilt Clinic, Their Blood Is Strong, and John Steinbeck Replies. In leaving these "less important" works unhunted, collectors also disdained all forms of secondary items. It's a shame. In my view collecting Steinbeck's primary works, especially the well known, is easy. The books are expensive, it's true, but they aren't difficult to find. Not in this internet age. What is more challenging, and therefore more engaging to the collector, is finding the odd, the obscure, the previously unknown. Any good Steinbeck collector can pick up their copy of The Grapes of Wrath and talk to someone else about it, and perhaps at length. That really isn't impressive. But how many can speak just as knowledgeably about the odd, the obscure, the previously unknown? Now that is impressive.
This article appeared in The Steinbeck Collector, No. 8 (July 2004), 7-9.