The handwritten manuscript of John Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, complete with the swearwords excised from the published novel and revealing the urgency with which the author wrote, is to be published for the first time.
Written in under 100 days between May and October 1938, The Grapes of Wrath was Steinbeck’s effort to chronicle the migrant crossings that he had reported on as a journalist for the San Francisco News. The author, wie by 36 had already published Of Mice and Men, felt a huge pressure, and responsibility, to get his story right, writing in his diary at the time: “This must be a good book. It simply must. I haven’t any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I’ve ever attempted – slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge.”
Independent press SP Books will release the manuscript version of the novel on 7 Oktober. Filled with Steinbeck’s tiny handwriting, it opens with the words NEW START, in capitals. Steinbeck had already tried to write about the migrant experience in L’Affaire Lettuceberg, but had destroyed his previous attempt.
The author also notes “Big Writing” at the start, presumably to remind himself to keep his handwriting legible for his typist and proofreader, his first wife Carol Steinbeck. Despite this, his writing gets smaller and smaller as he races to his conclusion, missing commas, capital letters, full stops and quotation marks along the way. At the end of chapter eight, he notes “End Chapter 8 long son of a bitch too”, writes “halfway” as he reaches page 98, and scrawls END just below his final line. “She looked up and across the barn and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously,” wrote Steinbeck on 26 Oktober 1938, as the novel ended.
“From start to finish, Steinbeck’s manuscript evidences the single-mindedness with which he approached this task, with relentless determination and discipline,” said SP Books, who have already published facsimiles of the original manuscripts of novels including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy.
There are scarcely any crossings-out or rewrites in the manuscript, although the original shows how publisher Viking Press edited out Steinbeck’s dozen uses of the word “fuck”, in an attempt to make the novel less controversial. It also excised two sentences accusing tenant farmers of socialism and bolshevism, and of wanting to attack the sacred rights of property.
The manuscript itself, the only one of The Grapes of Wrath, is kept in the University of Virginia’s archives. Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw said that “to see an author’s handwriting is to creep close to the source of inspiration”, describing it as a “powerful moment”.
“The writing begins with a large hand and gets smaller and smaller as the text progresses, so one can sense Steinbeck’s urgency. He wanted to capture history as it was happening, and indeed that’s what he accomplished. The manuscript suggests the sheer weight of the task he was undertaking – to capture migrant woe in California in the late 1930s – and also the urgency of his telling,” the academic said.
Shillinglaw noted that the facsimile reproduces the faint “slut” written at the end of the manuscript, a word she described as “an archival mystery”. “Did his wife Carol playfully write that word in red and then erase it? Did someone in the University of Virginia archives deface the manuscript?" sy het gese. “I suspect the latter, but we’ll never know for sure. But this facsimile doesn’t skirt the issue but includes the faint marks on the final page.”
The manuscript also reveals, Shillinglaw added, how much Carol was involved in the project. “Steinbeck wrote books in his mind before committing to paper, and he knew the shape of the book (the closing scene, byvoorbeeld) at the beginning. But to see how much editing work his wife Carol had before her is daunting," sy het gese. “She typed the manuscript, the daily pages each evening, and she not only had to decipher his writing but also indicate paragraph breaks, clarify spelling when the Joads were speaking – the dialect not always easy to transcribe … Of course all the writing is Steinbeck’s. But Carol ‘willed’ the book into being, as the dedication notes.”
Once a reader becomes used to Steinbeck’s handwriting, Shillinglaw said it was “fairly easy” to decipher the manuscript, particularly at the start. “When Steinbeck extends his prose to the far margins and to the top of the pages, his writing becomes smaller. But that in itself is a wonder: the concentration and focus is evident on these pages. It’s amazing to see," sy het gese.
The estate of John Steinbeck said it was “always working to promote the works of” the author. “Whenever possible, the estate endeavours to introduce new editions of legitimate works that may offer additional insights regarding the works and the creative process of John Steinbeck,” it said in a statement about the new release.