arthurian lady


SJSU Englsh Department>
The English Department of San Jose State University.


Biographical Sources

       There is a substantial amount of information about John Steinbeck and his works that is available in the form of biographies, memoirs, and letter compilations.  Each of the sources quoted in this section, capture his words and accurately describe his persona in a way that is easy to understand.  Writers such as Jackson Benson, Elaine Steinbeck, Robert Wallsten, Jay Parini, and Carlton Sheffield collectively have provided a glimpse into the man, his writings, and his inspirations.

       Translating Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur intoThe Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which remains unfinished, was at once his love and his nemesis.  According to Jackson Benson, author of John Steinbeck, Writer, Le Morte d'Arthur was the initial stimulus for Steinbeck becoming a reader.  It provoked his first interest in language, and it generated a lifelong interest in Malory:
One day, an aunt gave me a book and fatuously ignored my resentment.
Istared at the black print with hatred, and then gradually the pages
opened and let me in.  The magic happened.  The Bible and Shakespeare
and Pilgrim's Progress belonged to everyone.  But this was mine -
secretly mine.  It was a cut version of the Caxon "Morte d'Arthur" of
Thomas Malory.  I loved the old spelling of the words - and the words
no longer used.  Perhaps a passionate love for the English language
opened to me from this one book.  I was delighted to find our
paradoxes - that "cleave" means both to stick together and to cut
apart...For a long time, I had a secret language. (20, 21)

John shared this "secret language" with his sister Mary and in their youth they "would read Arthur tales together and then recreate them in a play, going into the fields with lath swords, cardboard helmets, and the pony, Jill, to search for the Grail" (Benson 21).  John and his sister Mary were close and formed a strong bond.  His fascination with the ancient tales became an integral part of his personality, and he related to the stories with a certain level of intimacy:

He had alluded to it, overtly and covertly, frequently in his work, he
had named the things around him from it, and he even acted as if, at
times, he saw it as a metaphor for his own life.  He really did
believe, with his whole heart, in Lancelot, and that Knight's nobility
became for him both a model and a measure of the love, generosity,
loyalty, and sense of duty that a man may bring to his life.  Early in
his work he wrote a personal introduction to the volume which would
follow.  As a young reader, he wrote, he found in this book:
all the vices that ever were - and courage, and sadness and
frustration, but particularly gallantry - perhaps the only single
quality of man that the West has invented.  I think my sense of right
and wrong, my feeling of noblesse oblige, and any thought I may have
against the oppressor and for the oppressed, came from this secret
book...In pain or sorrow or confusion, I went back to my magic book.
Children are violent and cruel - and good - and I was all of these -
and all of these were in the secret book.  If I could not choose my
way at the crossroads of love and loyalty, neither could Lancelot.  I
could understand the darkness of Mordred because he was in me too; and
there was some Galahad in me, but perhaps not enough.  The Grail
feeling was there, however, deep-planted, and perhaps always will be.
(804, 805)

       Steinbeck's life-long love affair with Le Morte ignited in him the desire to travel to London in order to research the earliest version of it first hand.  In 1957, he and Elaine "went first to Manchester, where John inspected one of the two existing Caxton first printings at the Rylands Library where he met for the first time Eugene Vinaver, professor of French language and literature at the University of Manchester and the world's leading authority on Malory" (The True Adventures of Steinbeck, Writer, Benson 817).

       London was not the only place that the Steinbecks traveled.  They also spent time in Rome.  In Steinbeck and Wallsten’s, Steinbeck, A Life in Letters, the authors include a letter that he wrote to Elizabeth Otis and Chase Horton" on April 26, 1957 in which he discusses his translated work:

Dear Elizabeth and Chase:
  I have been reading all of the scholarly appraisals of the Morte,
and all the time there has been a bothersome thought in my brain
knocking about just out of reach, something I knew that was wrong in
all of the inspection and yet I couldn't put my finger on it.  Why did
Launcelot fail in his quest and why did Galahad succeed?  What is the
feeling about sin, the feeling about Gwynevere?  How about the rescue
from the stake?  How about the relationship between Arthur and
  Then this morning I awakened about five o'clock fully awake but
with the feeling that some tremendous task had been completed.  I got
up and looked out at the sun coming up over Rome and suddenly it came
back whole and in one piece.  And I think it answers my nagging
doubt.  It can't be a theory because it won't subject itself to
proof.  I'm afraid it has to be completely intuitive and because of
this it will never be very seriously considered by scholars.... (552)
He was correct in his assumption and as exciting as his literary adventure was to him, it did not come without pitfalls.

       In Jay Parini's book, John Steinbeck, A Biography, he relays an account given by Elaine Steinbeck with regard to John's reaction to critics.  In 1959, after an incident where he "had dropped a cigarette in the bed, and it had set fire to the sheets and his pajamas," Steinbeck suffered from a "small stroke" that they discovered when he was rushed to the hospital (417).  Parini continues with further details and a personal letter of Steinbeck's:

The failure to turn the Malory project to account had depressed
Steinbeck mightily throughout the fall, and it may (as he believed)
have contributed something to this episode.  For weeks afterward,
right up until Christmas his speech was uncertain; temporarily he lost
the nimbleness of his fingers.  He wrote to Vinavers:
  Privately I think my recent illness was largely contributed to by
the frustration of not being able to do what I wanted to do with the
book.  Such things happen.  And nature has a way of using shock
therapy.  I reached a state of confusion out of which there was no
exit except a dead stop.  Perhaps I know parts of my theme too well
and parts not well enough.  I have tried to put the whole things out
of mind for a while, perhaps to get a new start.  Arthur is a terrible
matter.  If you don't give him your best, he wants no part of you.

In his darkest moments, Steinbeck reflects on his inner emotions in a touching manner.  These reflections by the author serve to give the reader a deep insight into his mind.  He was, above all things, a person like anyone, with his own set of defeats to overcome and triumphs to enjoy.

       In Carlton Sheffield's book, John Steinbeck, the Good Companion, His Friend Dook's Memoir, he reprints several personal writings by the author.  An excerpt from a note of Steinbeck's, titled "Again" exemplifies his introspective musings:

My story is better than I am.  It seems to be contrived by a better
brain than I possess.  If I hoped enough and prayed enough, might not
the spirit which helped me to design my plan, help me to bring it into
the land.
   May I be honest; may I be decent; may I be unaffected by the
technique of hucksters.  If invocation is required, let this be my
invocation - may I be strong and yet gentle, tender and yet wise, wise
and yet tolerant.  May I for a little while, only for a little while,
see with the inflamed eyes of a god. (140, 141)

It is clear that he possessed vast riches of intellect, and luckily so much of his personal letters and notes have been preserved for future generations to discover.  One quote that he wrote on June 12, 1961 is a fitting conclusion to this short segment about his life and work: "So it is that I would greatly prefer to die in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a book and so leave it as all life must be - unfinished. That's the law, the great law” (Sheffield 186).