In many ways the critical reception of Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights begins with Steinbeck’s own reception of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. So taken was he with Malory’s compilation of heroic tales that he ostensibly sought to reproduce his reaction in a vast and demanding twentieth-century audience. Perhaps it is easy to imagine that Steinbeck, already an established literary figure by the time he began writing the book, could have easily pulled this off. Perhaps he might have charmed critics and made a bestseller of his scholarship in chivalric romance of the Middle Ages. However, it is impossible to know whether it could have happened: the project saw neither completion nor Steinbeck’s full satisfaction, and posthumous publication is often a problematic phenomenon.
It is immediately evident that The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is a very different type of book, a book that requires more than simply a penchant for either Steinbeck or Malory to fully understand. After all, whatever Steinbeck’s full intentions were for the project, the book is palpably incomplete, and its publication history leaves readers as concerned with the process of its genesis as with the actual narrative. It is no wonder that critics are especially sensitive to both Steinbeck’s own difficulties in writing the text as well as the drama of editorial involvement that brought the book to its final, commercial state.
What does a reviewer say about a work which was neither finished nor intended by the author to be published in the final state? There is no single answer to this question, just as there is no single method with which to approach this text. Upon the work's release, reviewers could hardly agree whether it was meant for children or adults, and had more trouble deciding to what degree it was successful in Steinbeck’s attempt “to put...in a language which is understandable and acceptable to a modern-day reader” the twelfth century compilation of Arthurian legends by Thomas Malory (Steinbeck 377). What reviewers do agree upon is that Steinbeck’s prose undergoes a discernable change “gradually moving further and further away” from Malory’s version as “the novelist takes over and the translator moves away” (Kiteley 55). It is during this departure from Malory that the critics most praise Steinbeck’s efforts, noting that “when [he] abandons caution…he contributes most” (Shippey) and that moving towards “novelistic, not mythic” prose is when Steinbeck truly succeeds (Gardner 34).
The first edition includes an appendix featuring selected letters from Steinbeck to his agent and publisher discussing the production of the text during its various stages. From the outset, it is clear that it is this additional material that in many ways saves the book from being dismissed entirely by critics. In fact, critics within the first few years after the publication of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights are almost universally in agreement that these supplementary letters are “important [and] enriching” (Fuller 22) to the point of being “the most valuable and interesting part of the book” (Kiteley 55). Indeed, many early criticism of the text focuses greatly on the volume’s appended correspondence, acknowledging that in many ways it “form[s] a moving tale” in itself (McDaniel 57), and is possibly “the best justification for publishing the book” (Williams 34). Critics are highly aware that Steinbeck “had always been reading and re-doing Malory” to some extent in all of his novels and that “there are Arthurian themes and echoes throughout” them (Williams 34). Perhaps it is no surprise then that critics agree Steinbeck did his best not in this rendering of Camelot but when writing “about his own Camelot, this California” (Kirsch).
On the inclusion of the appendix, John Gardner, in an October 1976 review in The New York Times Book Review indicates that the first edition of The Acts is “in fact two books,” one being an “incomplete but impressive work of art” and the other “the complete story of a literary tragedy” (Gardner 31). Gardner is certainly kinder in his estimation than some other critics, but his review nonetheless relies heavily on reference to and quotations from Steinbeck’s letters, a tactic other reviewers largely employ. In fact, so much do the reviews focus on Steinbeck’s letters and the circumstances of the book’s creation that it is surprising that there is actually another text at hand here. Whatever is meant by the marginalization of Steinbeck’s retelling of Arthurian legend, it is obvious that for critics of the first edition the main interest lies in Steinbeck’s difficulties in writing – and ultimately completing – this book. The addition of the letters, furthermore, does not simply satisfy a curiosity for learning of Steinbeck’s process, but may serve as a type of publicity for an author who, at his best, did not need it.
When venturing away from discussing the Appendix of The Acts, critics vary in their responses. Most of the critics overcome the problem of evaluating the unfinished work by looking at the finished Arthurian tales as whole pieces and seeing the book more as a collection of stories than an incomplete novel. When they do this, some find “what is arguably some of Steinbeck's finest writing” (Ditsky 635) and even “stories which are unified, tough-minded, chatty, and sophisticated” (Black 207). The Acts are even compared “favorably with Keith Baines’ translation [of Malory], which appeared in 1962” and was considered “very successful” (Williams 35). Other reviewers, however, note that Steinbeck “never achieved a distinctive voice for his tales” (Masterson) and point to the story’s “narrative foibles” and passages that “rarely come off” (Kirkus), even going as far as to ask “why, oh why did he write this” (Kiteley 55)?
Both early and later critics are wary of evaluating the work as a completed Steinbeck novel. One Times of London critic notes that Steinbeck “neither finished the work nor prepared any of it for publication” and that “his publishers have now gathered up Steinbeck's very tentative text and his correspondence relating to it, and have issued it under the title he chose” (Alderson). Perhaps the publishers were looking to earn some quick money by publishing a Nobel prize-winning author, but their actions have not escaped the eyes of the critics. The book has obvious points of interest for both the Steinbeck scholar and the King Arthur enthusiast, but perhaps it truly would “have been kinder to Steinbeck to have left us wondering about the unpublished work” than to have published such an incomplete piece (Kiteley 56).
A number of reviewers question the lack of explanation given by the editor of The Acts, Chase Horton, as to the extent of his editing or reasons for publication. There are profuse letters from Steinbeck to Horton and others, but Horton's “insights from his experience with the author, at the very least his letters to Steinbeck, are sorely needed to answer questions he has raised by releasing this book” (McDaniel 59). Since “at no point can these drafts by Steinbeck be seen to measure up to the high hopes he had of them, or even to hold promise of improvement if he had continued,” why did Horton choose to publish them (Alderson)?
The fact that the critical responses to the appendix of The Acts greatly overshadow the fictional narrative points to the greater problem of whether or not Steinbeck intended the work to ever be published at this stage, and what precisely the extent of Horton’s editorial embellishments were. As a result, reception to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is extraordinarily ambivalent: highly attuned to the work’s limitations and incompletion, yet always in reverence of its author.