Rare Steinbeck Letters Come Up for Bid
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Dozens of never-before-published letters from John Steinbeck will be sold today at a New York auction house. They come from two collections, and offer a wide range of Steinbeck moments.
In one 1938 letter, the author asked a friend, do you like the title we've chosen, "The Grapes of Wrath?" In others, he chronicles possibly the saddest time of his life - the year when his best friend dies in a car crash and Steinbeck's wife leaves him.
But the most intriguing letters may well be those that document a little-known episode in his life - his work with television. The letters are valued at between $100,000 and $200,000. Catherine Williamson is the director of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams auction house.
Dr. CATHERINE WILLIAMSON (Director, Fine Books and Manuscripts Department, Bonhams): The letters from 1948 and 1949 are written to a man named Henry S. White, and he was a television producer. And he and Steinbeck and a couple of other people very early on established a production company called World Video. Steinbeck was, surprisingly, really interested in the new medium of television. He thought it had an awful lot of possibility.
MONTAGNE: But their enthusiasm - over a reasonably short period of time - waned, as the letters show.
Dr. WILLIAMSON: I have a couple of letters here where he pitches show ideas, and I don't think he's serious. I think he's just being cynical, but you'll be kind of shocked and astonished how familiar these show ideas are. He's actually 60 years ahead of his time.
MONTAGNE: Oh, hopefully not something like "American Idol" or reality TV or - or what?
Dr. WILLIAMSON: Exactly. You hit it on the nose.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. WILLIAMSON: Seriously. "American Idol"/"Gong Show" pitch.
(Reading) "What would you think of a lousy little stage, hook and all, and a ratchet club audience of real or simulated illiterates making the choice and the comments? And have real amateurs, some of them very bad. With a tough emcee, it could be wonderful - a mug's amateur night. And instead of promising the contestants the world on a platter, make the trick just staying onstage at all. It could be very sad and very funny."
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: So this letter was 1948-ish?
Dr. WILLIAMSON: '48, '49 is also undated.
MONTAGNE: Oh, wow. You know, one thing that makes him more disenchanted with television production is his political associations.
Dr. WILLIAMSON: It becomes clear - Steinbeck thinks - that part of the problem that World Video is having selling programs is Steinbeck's leftist reputation. So he writes this long letter where he politely offers to bow out of the company, and he says:
(Reading) "I think I had a certain value to World Video in its formation and in attracting to the company a certain kind of people who were needed. But now, I want you quite unemotionally to consider my record - and don't get excited. I was denounced on the floor of Congress as a communist and a liar. My books were publicly burned in a dozen towns in California.
And then he goes on to describe how Bank of America tried to boycott him. Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover is gunning for him. And he concludes: What do you think my name does for the whole company?"
MONTAGNE: Catherine Williamson is the director of Fine Books and Manuscripts at Bonhams auction house, which today will be auctioning off dozens of never- before-published letters from John Steinbeck. Thank you very much for joining us.
Dr. WILLIAMSON: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.