Steinbeck and Covici

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The story of the long friendship of John Steinbeck and Pascal Covici, Sr., who served as editor for Steinbeck’s major works and most of his minor ones, is told by Thomas Fensch principally through the many letters exchanged by the two men during more than a quarter-century. A few letters to other correspondents are included because they provide continuity and relate to matters appearing in the Steinbeck-Covici correspondence. Although most of the letters were published in 1975 in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, they were not grouped there and thus did not reveal fully the author-editor relationship made evident in Steinbeck and Covici. Fensch supplies narrative and explanatory bridges, quotations from several relatives or friends of the two men, and a few footnotes. Source notes appear together following the bibliography.

Fensch briefly sketches the careers of Steinbeck and Covici up to the publication in 1935 of Steinbeck’s first best-selling novel, Tortilla Flat, which later became a play and then a film. Steinbeck, a native Californian, had published three earlier novels, Cup of Gold (1929), The Pastures of Heaven (1932), and To a God Unknown (1933). None had attracted much attention. Covici, a Rumanian, had come with his immigrant parents to Chicago in 1896. He opened a bookstore there in 1922 and also published books until 1928, when he moved to New York and began publishing with Donald Friede under the company name of Covici-Friede.

Tortilla Flat, the first of Steinbeck’s books to appear under the Covici-Friede imprint, was followed by another novel, In Dubious Battle (1936); Of Mice and Men (1937), which appeared as both a novel and a play; and The Red Pony (1937), a collection of related short stories. In 1938, Covici-Friede was dissolved and Covici joined Viking Press as senior editor, remaining there until his death in 1964. In all, he aided in the publishing of twenty-two books by John Steinbeck from 1935 through 1962, the year in which Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

As the letters make clear and as Fensch repeatedly emphasizes, the relationship between Steinbeck and Covici was much more than a businesslike one between an author and his editor. Many of the letters have little to do with any book or other literary project that Steinbeck was working on. Steinbeck often confided in Covici regarding such personal problems as those involving his first two wives, and Covici answered like a friendly counselor, offering sympathy, understanding, and commonsense advice. As Harold Guinzburg, President of Viking Press, once said, Covici was “some part psychiatrist, some part lawyer, some part priest.” Like most authors, Steinbeck was moody. When he needed a boosting of his ego, a cooling of his anger, or a consoling of hurt feelings, Covici obliged. In a few letters Covici indulged in hyperbole, as Fensch points out, seeming to be buttering up a valuable publishing property; but when his letters are judged as a whole there appears a genuine care about a man whom he respected and deeply admired as both a literary artist and a personal friend.

An early example of Covici, as editor, suggesting a manuscript change, and of Steinbeck reacting defensively and vigorously though not in anger, may be seen in an exchange in 1939 involving the closing scene in The Grapes of Wrath, in which Rose of Sharon, who has recently lost her baby, suckles a starving man she has never seen before:Nobody could fail [wrote Covici] to be moved by the incident of Rose of Sharon giving her breast to the starving man, yet, taken as the finale of such a book with all its vastness and surge, it struck us [the publishers] on reflection as being all too abrupt. . . . The incident needs leading up to, so that the meeting with the starving man is not so much an accident or chance encounter, but more an integral part of the saga.

In reply, Steinbeck first said flatly, “I am sorry but I cannot change the ending.” Then he defended it at length, remarking in part, “The giving of the breast has no more sentiment than the giving of a piece of bread. . . . The incident of the earth mother feeding by the breast is older than literature.” Yet, in the end, Steinbeck followed the editors’ wishes and changed the scene.

Twenty-three years later Covici suggested another change, in Travels with Charley, though this time for a very different reason and with the backing of Steinbeck’s agent, Elizabeth Otis, and his attorney. Covici believed that some descriptive phrases that might be used as the basis of one or more libel lawsuits by anti-integration demonstrators should be dropped. Steinbeck was convinced and removed the potentially dangerous words.

The most extended series of letters between Steinbeck and Covici is that concerning East of Eden, Steinbeck’s long, three-generation novel embodying some of his own family history and a modern version of the Cain and Abel story from Genesis. On Steinbeck’s side the letters fall into two groups: those that were actually mailed to Covici and those...

(The entire section is 2135 words.)