27 August 2008

The Link Between The Grapes of Wrath and My Father’s Dragon

As long as I’m talking about John Steinbeck and Penguin, I might as well retell the story of how he became a successful literary author. He didn’t start out that way, as this biography from the Educational Paperback Association explains:

Throughout his early years, Steinbeck's tenure with publishing companies tended to be short. Each of his first three books was issued by a different press, and after To a God Unknown failed to sell Steinbeck was in danger of having no publisher at all.
Then Steinbeck had the luck to attract the attention of Pascal Covici, a Romanian immigrant who headed a small publishing house named Covici-Friede. It had published The Front Page and The Well of Loneliness, and Covici decided to take a chance in 1935 on Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat.

In fact, Covici decided to gamble bigger than a small literary press could usually afford to do. He decided to commission illustrations for Steinbeck’s book. And not just from any artist--he hired Ruth Chrisman Gannett.

Gannett would go on to illustrate her stepdaughter’s My Father’s Dragon books and to earn a Caldecott Honor for My Mother Is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. But in 1935 I don't think she'd started working on children’s books yet. In fact, her career might not have gotten any further than Steinbeck’s.

But Gannett’s husband Lewis happened to be book critic for the New York Herald Tribune. Covici was undoubtedly hoping that by slipping the manuscript into the Gannett household he could get his new California author some extra attention--if not necessarily a good review, but at least more than the same consideration as all that year's other novels from little-known authors.

And it worked. Lewis Gannett wrote in the 19 May 1935 Herald Tribune:
I like Tortilla Flat, and I do not think that I am prejudiced in its favor merely because I lived with Danny [the hero] for two months before I read the book, while Ruth Gannett was drawing pictures to illustrate it. John Steinbeck is a born writing man, and Tortilla Flat a book to cherish.
And that review made other critics notice Steinbeck, too.

Covici-Friede published three more Steinbeck novels in the next two years: In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Red Pony. Then it went out of business. Covici went to work for Viking, taking Steinbeck along; they continued to work together for the rest of their careers. (Friede went to work for Zeppo Marx.) Eventually Viking became part of Penguin, which is why the current copyrights lawsuit involves Penguin and some Steinbeck heirs.

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