21 June 2008

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck. THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Viking Press, New York (1939)

Current Selling Prices
$4000-$10000 /£2000-£5000

Tolstoyan novel with important social content. The book that won Steinbeck the Nobel prize. Basic plot is this - forced from their home in the south by the dust storms (Dust Bowl), the Joads, a family of 'Okies' are lured to California to find work; instead they find disillusionment, exploitation, and hunger. The Oxford Companion to Literature says that '...it articulates a life-affirming 'mystical socialism' and speaks eloquently for the concerns of the deprived and the dispossessed.' It sold nearly half a million copies in its first year of publication, although it had its detractors - Steinbeck was accused of everything from harboring communist sympathies to exaggeration of the conditions in migrant camps. The uproar drew the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who came to Steinbeck's defense, and eventually led to congressional hearings on migrant camp conditions and changes in labour laws.

His wife came up with the title -- from the lyrics of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" ("Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored... ") -- and typed up the manuscript as he wrote in Los Gatos. Los Gatos is now a chic town on the edge of Silicon valley, with about one restaurant for every 100 people and a shopaholics paradise, then it was a merely agricultural town. Both its bookshops are now closed. The one on the top corner of the main drag which was run as late as the 1990s by an old cove with a Jaguar is remembered fondly. Over the hill in populous Salinas (his birthplace) the John Steinbeck Public Libray was faced with extinction in 2005 (no money) but at the last moment the citizens of Salinas voted themselves a sales tax to keep the library and other city services funded for the next ten years. In Monterey , Steinbeck mementoes are everywhere and some of the canneries near the front have become antique markets - with the occasional bookdealer, always with shelves of Steinbeck. He is the California writer, the Beach Boys sang about him... (pace Jack London.)

VALUE? For serious money you need the original color pictorial dust jacket with jacket illustration by Elmer Hader with the $2.75 price and "First Edition" intact on front flap (sometimes called 'tab'.). A book that makes mega bucks with a good signature-in 2007 a copy in a used jacket inscribed to his sister Beth made $47000 ( ''For Beth with love John"). At the Rechler sale in 2002 a copy inscribed to Marshall Best (one of Steinbeck's publishers at The Viking Press) in an unknown jacket made nigh on $40,000. Inscribed copies appear online at $20000, some more, some less. Less, of course for copies that are merely 'flatsigned' - the meathead theory that a plain signature is better than an inscription doesn't work for Steinbeck -or any other writer. Without inscription the book has never made over $9000 in auction. Decent copies online appear to start at $10000 with an avowedly much better than fine copy decribed as 'immaculate in a non-price clipped pristine dust jacket' at $14000. The UK 1939 first edition from Heinemann in its crimson/ purple jacket can make £400 or so it tip-top condition. Outlook? Although Steinbeck is not Tolstoy this is a world classic and a book that will never go away - it should hold it's own through recession and depression.

TRIVIA. In 1917 Boyd Cable wrote a book 'The Grapes of Wrath.' Subtitled 'Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Private Soldier' it consisted of stories from the front in the First World War. Nice copies in jacket can be bought for less than $50. There are several books called 'The Wrath of Grapes' including a rare temperance book and a recent book about the wine trade. There are also wine bars with this name and a reality TV series "Corkscrewed: The Wrath of Grapes" which follows the trials and exploits of American Idol producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick as they make a major investment in a long held dream - owning their own vineyard. A 'must see' -a reality show about reality show people losing part of their wad on wine. Talking of drink it is said that Steinbeck, although fond of a bevy, was the only American writer / Nobel winner (apart from the deathless Pearl Buck, and the much later Saul Bellow) who was not a raging alcoholic. Below is the shack on Greenwood Lane, Los Gatos where he started the book: he finished it in the Santa Cruz mountains. After the book came out he wrote:
“The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad. The latest is a rumor started by them that the Okies hate me and have threatened to kill me for lying about them. I'm frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing, It is completely out of hand ; I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing that is not healthy.” 
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