“I believe in and will fight for the right of the individual to function as an individual without pressure from any direction. I am unalterably opposed to any interference with the creative mind. It may be wrong but out of it have come the only rights we know. I am opposed to these pressures and constrictions, no matter where they arise in my own country or in any other” (America and Americans – page 90, 1954, John Steinbeck).
John Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for his best-known work, The Grapes of Wrath when married to Carol, his first wife, to whom “Grapes” was dedicated and who indeed suggested its title. Other well -known works East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row reflect the influence of his second wife, Gwyn Conger Steinbeck, who until the publication of her memoir MY LIFE WITH JOHN STEINBECK, has been a silent presence in the Steinbeck story. Her name is even missing in the bios that accompany his works, which still sell in tens of thousands, some standard works for literary students worldwide.
Steinbeck was rightly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for his overall canon of work soon after the publication of The Winter of Discontent. By then, he had been married to his third wife, Elaine, for a decade. Steinbeck’s writing was well thought through, wonderfully descriptive of America (and on one occasion Russia!), yet energetic and edgy. It regularly featured characters on the fringe of society, bums and misfits, the greedy, the crooks and in some cases even the depraved. His tales were understandable to ordinary readers, if not popular with Sunday school ma’ams, and more genteel and conservative middle Americans.
But what of second wife Gwyn, his wartime lover, mistress, bride, mother and ex-wife within nine years (1939-1948)? She divorced him on the grounds of incompatibility (the only ground that he would accept) and later died in 1975, before the major biographies of John Steinbeck were written. Her full story has never emerged until now. Her memoir accounts their wild times together and recalls his personality, tempers both good and bad, his moral frailty, belligerence and fanatical devotion to his writing. Her memoir is graphic, often funny and indicative of the relationship between the sexes in those times (which now seem so long ago and wrong by todays’ standards), and if in places her tale is embittered, then that is inevitable.
From the 1972 interview with Douglas Brown until this year – the story has been hidden. The publishers believe it should be revealed; that it would be remiss for Gwyn’s story not to be published, although this is but one complete version told to Palm Springs Desert Sun editor Douglas Brown.
In the United States, December 20th marks the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck’s death. Papers are to be unsealed. Who knows if among them there will be more revelations about Gwyn Conger Steinbeck.
This year also makes the centenary of women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom, how fitting that Gwyn’s journal – the story of Steinbeck’s second, and perhaps deliberately “forgotten” wife, be published.
Bruce Lawson, Biographer