What Steinbeck hoped would be his “most important work”

Peter Warn contributed the following to the Steinbeck Centenary Writeoff I organized on epinions and has kindly given his permission for its revival here.

Pros: Clear version of influential, enjoyable tales. Insight into Steinbeck’s thinking.

Cons: Steinbeck didn’t finish it.

The Bottom Line: Steinbeck provides an engaging version of the Arthurian legends. His letters about the project provide fascinating insights into his obsession with stories that brightened his youth.

 

John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1962), but he died in 1968 before he could realize his destiny. The author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men left unfinished his version of Sir Thomas Malory’s compilation of the legends about King Arthur and his noble knights. It was this work that Steinbeck described in 1957 as “destined to be the largest and I hope the most important work I have ever undertaken.”

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The considerable chunk of that work that Steinbeck was able to complete, posthumously published as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, follows the familiar parts of the story of the Arthur from his being raised by Merlin to his using the power of Excalibur to unite England with the help of his noble knights. He tells the stories in modern English, while always suggesting a magical time long ago and far away. He also fleshes out much of the story that might now be less familiar, from varied quests by numerous knights to Lancelot’s adventures, which tend to be overshadowed by his betrayal of Arthur. Steinbeck’s tale ends just as Lancelot and Queen Guinevere are about to commit the adultery that will ruin Camelot. Because he was not able to complete it, Steinbeck’s delightful presentation of the legends ends with his tantalizing suggestion in a letter to his agent that what he was planning to write about Arthur would be “strange and different”.

Steinbeck sought to introduce the Arthurian legends to contemporary readers whom he worried might otherwise get their understanding of the myths from comic books. Arthur lives at the end of Steinbeck’s book, which is not an irony brought about by the author’s death. He sought to remind the world that the work most commonly called Le Morte D’Arthur is about much more. The original title for the Malory manuscripts Steinbeck interprets was The Birth, Life and Acts of King Arthur, of his Noble Knights of the Round Table, Their Marvelous Enquests and Adventures, the Achieving of the San Greal, and in the End Le Morte D’Arthur with the Dolorous Death and Departing Out of this World of All of Them.

Malory’s stories hold power over readers, even over readers who are familiar with them only through the varied works they have inspired, from the musical Camelot to the DC Comics version, Camelot 3000. The characters are like dinosaurs: larger-than-life figures who are gone but who captivate us because their lingering presence suggests worlds full of unknown wonders. Steinbeck’s graceful retellings capture the magic, chivalry and intrigue that give the stories their power.

Merlin knows that he and Arthur are destined to suffer betrayals by the women they love, but he knows too that they are powerless to escape their fates: “Every man who has ever lived holds tight to the belief that for him alone the laws of probability are canceled out by love. Even I, who know beyond doubt that my death will be caused by a silly girl, will not hesitate when that girl passes by. Therefore you will marry Guinevere. You do not want advice–only agreement.”

Although they cannot change their natures, the characters have keen understandings of them. Arthur’s half-sister Morgan Le Fay, for instance, comes close to seducing Lancelot because she knows what he wants:

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With power you can try on cities like hats, or smash them when you tire of them. Power attracts loyalty and requires none. The will to power keeps a baby suckling grimly long after he is fed, counsels a child to take his brother’s toy, reaps a gaggling harvest of concupiscent girls. What drives a knight through tortures to his prize or death? The power of fame. Why does a man heap up property he cannot use? Why does a conqueror take countries he will never see? What makes the hermit grovel in the black filth of a cell but the promise of power, or at least influence in heaven? And do the humble mad saints reject the power of intercession? What crime is there that does not become a virtue in the hands of power? And is not virtue itself a kind of power? Philanthropy, good deeds, charity, are they not mortgages on the currency of future power? It is the one possession that does not flag or become tedious, for there is never enough of it and an old man in whom the juices of all other desires are dried up will crawl on his tottering knees toward his grave still grabbing with frantic hands for power.

Much of Steinbeck’s story follows Lancelot, who comes across as a charming crank on whom the burden of being universally hailed “the greatest knight in Christendom” does not always rest easily. This Lancelot complains at length and with apparently unintended humor that women are always demanding that he perform some bit of gallantry for them. Even so, his honor demands that he ask every woman he encounters if there is something he can do for her.

The emphasis on Lancelot in what is supposed to be Arthur’s story seems odd, until one reaches Steinbeck’s letters about the project. His literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, and his editor, Case Horton, share much of Steinbeck’s correspondence about the project to which he devoted more than a decade of extensive research throughout Europe. These letters provide fascinating insights into Steinbeck’s thinking along the way, from his envying Malory for the time he could commit to his writing (Malory apparently spent much of his life in prison) to his admiring the progress Malory made as a writer. In one of his letters, Steinbeck suggests that Malory and he shared many of a novelist’s traits: “A novelist not only puts down a story but he is the story. He is each one of the characters in a greater or a less degree.” Malory, Steinbeck argues, saw himself in Lancelot.

The energy Steinbeck put into studying Malory’s writings and the varied histories and other sources that provided context for them suggests he identified with his characters as well. His writing is fueled by the energy that a knight would have needed as he sought the Grail. Death may have prevented Steinbeck from seeing his quest to its end, but he produced a work that drives readers’ imaginations on quests of their own.

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SM comment: I was curious about this book that Steinbeck worked on for a long time. It sounds less dried up than I expected. A label on the gazebo from his Sag Harbor home says that he went to it to write day after day, writing nothing. It’s not like he had some other job or lack of income that kept him from writing. He had writer’s block, even if part of it can be attributed to the savagery of some New York critics in whose midst he chose to live (inexplicably to native or immigrant Californians!)

I hit similar statements about people wanting approval, not advice in Pippin IV and The Winter of Our Discontent, other late works of the master born a century ago today

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