Voice and Doubt – A Tale of Attempted Artistic Suicide – Part 2

Looks like there are a total of 4 parts to this thing:  Part 2 is up here tonight, Part 3 coming Friday, and Part 4 on Sunday.

(Note:  All quotes within are from either the letters contained in the appendix to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, or from The Winter of Our Discontent.)

Read:  Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


Part 2 – Wherein the author really gets down to business, and continues talking about people other than himself

In November of 1956, John Steinbeck began work on The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.  It’s not one of his better-known works, unless you’re a Steinbeck scholar.  In fact, it was never finished, and only published posthumously, in 1976.  And truthfully, it reads a little awkwardly…it’s hardly his best work.

The edition I have—and love, and have read over and over—comes with a singularly interesting addition:  at the back are transcripts of all of the letters he wrote to Elizabeth Otis (his agent) and Chase Horton (author and Steinbeck’s fellow Arthurian nut and historian), from the first moment he began actively considering the project until a few months before his death.  And with those letters, and this abandoned project…the remainder of his life and career becomes a bit clearer.

Steinbeck was no stranger to moments of creative crisis in his life.  There was intense controversy surrounding The Grapes of Wrath, including several libraries banning it as pornography, and other people—often from the complete opposite end of the ideological spectrum—berating it as propaganda.  At one point, Steinbeck wrote to Chase that:

“The undersheriff of Santa Clara County was a friend of mine and he told me as follows:  ‘Don’t you go into any hotel room alone.  Keep records of every minute and when you are off the ranch travel with one or two friends but particularly, don’t stay in a hotel alone.’  ‘Why?’ I asked.  He said, ‘Maybe I’m sticking my neck out but the boys got a rape case set up for you.  You get alone in a hotel and a dame will come in, tear off her clothes, scratch her face and scream, and you try to talk yourself out of that one.  They won’t touch your book but there’s easier ways.”

For the next twenty years, Steinbeck “drifted”…he served as a war correspondent during WWII, which led to some very interesting short work, but nothing approaching the scale or achievement of Grapes.  He wrote a forgettable sequel to Tortilla Flat called Cannery Row, which feels very much like Spielberg doing Jurassic Park 2.  He wrote some shorter pieces, and decided to pursue for a while what he considered a whole new art form, a combination short-story-play, that could be published in book form or handed to a director and actors without any need for adaptation—kind of like a car that can drive right into the water and become a boat—which produced some interesting moments but again, nothing that truly had the entirety of his passion and talents pulling in harness.  Imagine a custom built sports car, locked in 2nd gear, delivering mail to a suburban neighborhood.

He divorced twice and married twice more.  In 1948, Ed Ricketts—Steinbeck’s best friend and confident, the rock which his tumultuous life could cling to—was killed in a car accident.

Then, in November of 1951, he completed work on East of Eden, the work that he considered his greatest (and this author humbly agrees)…it’s a masterpiece that defies literary convention and allows his singular voice to wander wherever it may—from straight narrative to non-fiction regional history to very “Steinbeck-ish” character passages to outright philosophy—as he takes us through the lives of characters both minutely drawn and archetypically-tied.  The master had his engine fully engaged, his Voice was unleashed, and was producing work that only he, in that time and place, was capable of.

And he seemed to feel it himself.  After dallying for a bit in political satire with Sweet Thursday and The Short Reign of Pippin IV—two novels that have many high points, but lack the underlying drive and conviction that distinguish his greater works…like an Olympian stretching in between events—he decided to get started on his next great masterpiece:  a retelling of the story of King Arthur and his Noble Knights.

The Arthurian stories were formative for Steinbeck in his youth, and decades later, he wanted to turn his creative attention to providing the same kind of discovery experience for the next generation of children.  He planned to retranslate Mallory’s works, even going so far as to tour the UK and France to find rare early editions that may have even been part of the first publishing run in Mallory’s time.

And he was excited about it, as much as he had been about any creative endeavor in his life.  He wrote to Elizabeth Otis, in his first documented mention of his plans:

“I am going to start the Morte immediately.  Let it be private between us until I get it done.  It has all the old magic.”

But his goal wasn’t to write the next great Steinbeck novel.  East of Eden’s success had given him the freedom to pursue his own goals, without thought of his legacy or the audience’s expectations.

“Finally, I have had no intention of putting it in twentieth-century vernacular any more than T.M. [Thomas Mallory] put it in fifteenth-century vernacular.  People didn’t talk that way then either.

I wanted an English that was out of time and place as the legend is.

Perhaps I am overambitious, but I am trying to make it available, not desirable.  I want the remote feeling of myth, not the intimate feeling of today’s man…

In a word I have not been trying to write a popular book but a permanent book.

It doesn’t sound like me because I don’t want it to.”

And as you read through the book—the first part, at least—it’s clear that he was on to something potent.  It doesn’t read like a Steinbeck novel, nor really like a novel at all.  If anything, it reads Biblically, like a simple history of events so profound that they need nothing more than subject, verb and object to shake the reader to the core.

Until, about halfway through, when something changes.  More and more of the typical Steinbeck Voice begins to seep in.  There’s an extensive monologue about how the longbow will change the balance of power forever, removing the nobility’s advantages and returning technological prowess—and the freedom that comes with it—to the people.  There’s a bit about how witches and witchcraft are really just a female-empowerment movement.  There are asides where gorgeous descriptions of the environment serve also as metaphor for the people living there, and the events yet to come… a particularly Steinbeck trademark.  Finally, we read of the first tryst between Lancelot and Guinevere, and watch befuddled as they kiss…and then Lancelot flees down the stairs, weeping, in the worst sort of soap-opera parody of Steinbeck’s most melodramatic moments.

And that’s where it ends; Steinbeck may have written more on it, but those pages have never surfaced.  He certainly never thought of the work as in any way complete himself.  Having the letters to accompany the narrative, it’s pretty clear what happened.

Here’s a bit of a letter he wrote to Elizabeth and Chase on May 13, 1959, apparently in response to their first comments on the Arthur work, the first segment of which he had recently sent to them for their feedback:

“Then your comments and Chase’s almost lack of comment on the section sent to you.  I must think very carefully and not fall into obscurity in my answer.  To indicate that I was not shocked would be untrue.  I was.

It is natural to look for arguments in my defense or in defense of the work as I am doing it.  Let me say first that I hope I am too professional to be shocked into paralysis.  The answer seems to be that you expected one kind of thing and you didn’t get it.  Therefore you have every right to be confused as you say and disappointed.

I know you have read T.H. White’s Once and Future King.  It is a marvelously wrought book.  All the things you wished to find in my revision are superlatively in that.  But that is not what I had wanted and I think still do not want to do.

You will understand that what saddened me most was the tone of disappointment in your letter.  If I had been skeptical of my work, I would simply have felt that you had caught me out.  But I thought I was doing well, and within the limits I have set for myself, I still do.”

And what comes after that, for the next few months, are somewhat wandering thoughts from Steinbeck, interspersed with thoughts like this, from Elizabeth to Chase, “Over the weekend John read the most recent ms. to me and it is a great deal better.” [emphasis in original]

And while I don’t know the dates that each section of the narrative were written, I would be willing to bet the house that the section Elizabeth mentions in her letter is the same one where it becomes obvious that the Steinbeck Voice has crept in and taken over the storytelling.

Subsequent letters focus on Steinbeck’s “joy” in refocusing his efforts…“I am trying to work on the ‘people’ of the stories”… “Also, whenever by suggestion I can tie the story to the present by developing a situation which was true in both, I have done so”…two things he was specifically and violently opposed to doing when he first set out to write these tales.  By early August, most of his correspondence concerns travel arrangements, obscure research cul de sacs (he goes on at length as to possible origins for Chase’s name), and ballpoint pens stuck in customs.

On August 22, 1959—just 3 months after he saw how disappointed his initial audience was, and the subsequent change in his creative direction—he writes to Elizabeth:

“The work doesn’t jell.  You know that and so do I.  It isn’t one piece yet.  There is a time when all the preparation is done when it has to take shape and no one can do that but I.  It must become one thing and that it hasn’t as yet.”

Between August and October of 1959, there are only 4 more letters that even mention the Arthur work, and it’s not clear if Steinbeck was even still writing.  Finally, nine years later, in 1965, he mentions it a few times in letters, but nothing ever came of it; he died 3 years later, in 1968.


And to me, it seems pretty clear what happened:  he started out working on something new, with all of his talent and passion and will behind it, determined to do something different and unexpected.  And when his first-tier audience got a look at it, they were horrified:  this isn’t Steinbeck, this isn’t the kind of work we’ve come to know and love and cherish.  This isn’t the Steinbeck Voice.  And in a moment of panic, he began to doubt himself, and turned the ship back to safer waters, where he felt comfortable, and safe…and ultimately bored, and dishonest.

The very last words of the manuscript (as it was abandoned in the end) are an epitaph for Lancelot, after he’s run down the stairs in tears after being with his friend’s and Lord’s wife:

“And so at that tyme sir Lancelot had the grettyste name of ony knight of the worlde, and moste he was honoured of hyghe and lowe.”

Which when translated from Old English reads, “And so at that time Sir Lancelot had the greatest name of any knight of the world, and was the most honored of high and low.”

And I swear, those final passages before that end-card are so awful, so clearly a deliberate mocking of the worst of Steinbeck’s earlier work…I believe he intended that epitaph for himself, as much as he did the dishonest knight.


So here we have Steinbeck, harshly disillusioned about what’s expected of him as a writer, even from his closest confidants.  He had tried something new, something bold and different, and was told instead, Woah, there…hold on.  Just keep to what we expect from you, and everything will be fine.

So he begins work on his next—and final—novel, The Winter of Our Discontent.  It’s a cheerful story about a man who’s had back luck at just about every stroke, always as a result of his trying to do the right thing.  He is now an employee at the store he used to own, one handed down to him from his father.  All of his friends and peers are making more money, living in nicer homes, and enjoying all of the benefits of the Good Life, while he stands and watches.

He can’t take it anymore, so he first decides to rob the town’s bank.  He has a long conversation a friend who works there about all the typical things robbers do wrong, and how someone should actually do it if they want to get away with it.  He sets those plans exactly in motion, but he is startled into inaction moments before actually going through with it.

Instead, he decides to just do what’s expected of him, of everyone around him…no longer staying true to that inner voice inside of him, trying to guide him…his son later says to him:

“Don’t you read the papers?  Everybody right up to the top—just read the papers.  You get to feeling holy, just read the papers.  I bet you took some in your time, because they all do.  I’m not going to take the rap for everybody.  I don’t care about anything.”

He reports his employer—the man who bought the store from him when he couldn’t afford to run it anymore—to immigration, and before the man is deported, he buys his store back from him for pennies on the dollar.

He makes just enough anonymous and veiled comments about some of the shadier dealings of the town’s leaders to get them investigated for conflict of interest (passing laws that affect the businesses they also own).

Worst of all, he discovers that an old friend of his—his best friend while growing up—is a miserable drunk, but still owns some land outside of town.  And that there’s a multi-million dollar investment deal brewing to purchase that land and use it for an airport.  So he has his old, dear friend draw up a will, ceding all of his possessions, including the land, to our Hero, who then gives him enough money to go and drink himself to death.  When the investment team comes calling for the land’s rightful owner…he makes a real killing.

What finally does him in is realizing that his son is following in his footsteps, that all of this dishonesty, and caring for other’s opinions instead of his own, has passed on to the one true responsibility he has in life, his child.  And so he goes off to kill himself.

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shown.  The world is full of dark derelicts…  there comes a time for decent, honorable retirement, not dramatic, not punishment of self or family—just good-by, a warm bath and an opened vein, a warm sea and a razor blade.”

Yet, the book is not about that quiet sense of retirement.  It is a Steinbeck book, the Voice is all over it, but it is not kind, it is not gentle.  There is no befuddled main character offering insights as the story moves along.  The landscapes are filled with raging seas churning ancient sunken wrecks, failures never allowed to sleep peacefully.  Everyone is evil, no one is truly good…those who don’t overtly sin are still guilty:  his old friend of falling into the bottle, his wife of typical avarice and comparing him to his peers by the clothes he wears, the job he has, and the money he earns.

There’s only one seemingly pure character, his daughter, who actually manages to save his life, preventing him from killing himself.  But even that, it’s a desperate act…it’s not the sad realization of George, or the profound deathbed epiphany of Adam…it’s a wild flailing into a dark wilderness.

“I was in the hall, reaching in the closet for a raincoat as Mary wished, when I heard a scuffle and a scramble and a rush and Ellen flung herself at me, grunting and snuffling.  She buried her bleeding nose against my breast and pinned my elbows down with encircling arms.  And her whole little body shook.

She grappled me again and her hands caressed and stroked my arms, my sides, dug her balled fists into my side pockets so that I was afraid she might find the razor blades.

I had to get back—had to return the talisman to its new owner.

Else another light might go out.”

It is a final angry Fuck You to everyone who wants, expects and demands something from you, especially when you have taken the incredible personal risk of attempting to leave that something behind in search of something new and different.  It is the sudden victory of an aging king with a mortal wound.

“It must be that there are years unlike any other years, as different in climate and direction and mood as one day can be from another day.  The year 1960 was a year of change, a year when secret fears come into the open, when discontent stops being dormant and changes gradually to anger.”

And it means so, so much, infinitely more if you know where it comes from.  If you know the Story of the story.


Coming Friday:

Part 3 – Wherein the author continues to dally, but in a mostly-entertaining fashion

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2 responses to “Voice and Doubt – A Tale of Attempted Artistic Suicide – Part 2

  1. A nearly unrelated curiosity – I’d be interested to know which of his works prompted you to put time into depth for Steinbeck, or any of those you’ve delved deeply into. What typically triggers (in the initial breadth browsing) the drive to do the depth?

    • It’s usually something to do with an honest moment of describing something clearly in a way that I hadn’t thought of before but that, once seen, makes perfect sense. Unpredictable yet inevitable. For Steinbeck, it was chapter 13 in East of Eden,

      “Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning towards dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then–the glory–so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.”

      Which is basically how it feels when an Idea lands, and it’s time to stop thinking about writing and actual write.

      As another example, I was sold when Peter Straub started his book Koko with a quote from Frank Morgan, a saxophonist: “I believe it is possible and even recommended / to play the blues on everything.”

      On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of things that caught my attention and failed to deliver. I think Coldplay’s “Clocks” is one of the best songs written in the last 10 years…and everything else they’ve ever done is just a poor attempt to copy that same vibe without actually admitting that they’re trying to copy it.

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