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Storage unit full of John Steinbeck personal belongings, manuscripts will soon be up for auction

A Stanford drop-out achieved widespread renown not in the startup scene or through sports championships but in bookstores and libraries across America. John Steinbeck, who died in 1968, attended the University on and off for six years beginning in 1919, before leaving without a degree. (Photo: Octubre CCC/Flickr)

A storage locker full of manuscripts, decorative objects and a rare “warm-up” journal belonging to beloved American novelist and Stanford dropout John Steinbeck will be auctioned off on Oct. 24, SF Gate reported.

The locker, located where the author spent the last half of his career in New York City, belongs to the family of Elaine Steinbeck, John’s third and final wife, and contains his personal belongings.

Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, attended Stanford on and off for six years between 1919 and 1925 before leaving without a degree. His interests at Stanford included English, biology, rowing and the Encinas Drinking Club, according to surviving records stored by Stanford Libraries. 

Elyse Luray, trusts and estates director at Heritage Auction, described the contents of the storage locker in a press release. 

“These are items that personally belonged to John,” Luray wrote. “They give collectors a front-row seat into this life, travels, thoughts, family and personal feelings.”

The most valuable item that Elaine Steinbeck’s family will auction off is a 1946-1947 warm-up journal, estimated at $20,000, that contains his notes for two lesser-known projects, the short story “The Wayward Bus” and the unfinished play “The Last Joan.”

Steinbeck’s notes and journals, written in forceful pencil and often adorned with cigarette burns and fanciful doodles of pigs, are objects of intense desire among a diverse range of collectors. Steinbeck described the booklet as “one of those interminable notebooks that serves no purpose but to warm me up and sometimes to cool me down.”

Other notable items include personal letters from John F. Kennedy about the arts and Jacqueline Kennedy about her husband’s assassination, as well a manuscript of “Tortilla Flat,” the popular California novel which was turned into a 1942 film starring Spencer Tracy and John Garfield. 

Steinbeck’s third wife Elaine, a close friend of Lyndon B. Johnson, encouraged Steinbeck’s rediscovery of politics amid a transition from the leftist populism of his classic novels to a more individual and conservative outlook, which included vocal support for the Vietnam War. 

One of the most intriguing items up for auction is a five-page manuscript in which Steinbeck expresses fear about rising social tensions and “the legal and criminal distribution of ‘sleeping and pep’ pills.” Denouncing the breakdown of civil politics and morality, he wrote that “nerves are drawn tense” and that emotions, “both in individuals and groups bail up and spill over into violence and largely in oblique and unnatural directions.”

These themes echo those in a letter Steinbeck composed to Martin Luther King, Jr., housed in the John Steinbeck Collection at Stanford University. 

Steinbeck’s almost-alma mater hosts one of the most extensive known collections of Steinbeck first editions and manuscripts, many scrawled in pencil on yellow legal pads. The collection testifies to the diversity of Steinbeck’s canon, from field-organizing notes describing Dust Bowl migrant camps, to his marine biology textbook “Sea of Cortez,” to his film projects including “Of Mice and Men” and “The Pearl.” 

Stanford-affiliated items include Steinbeck’s yearbooks and photos of him rowing, drinking, hazing first-year students and learning from English mentor Edith Mirrielees. One notable item is his first short story, “Fingers of Cloud,” which was published to little acclaim in Stanford’s literary magazine. All items in Special Collections are available to current students by appointment.

Contact Cooper Veit at cveit ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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