Nine years before John Steinbeck published his Pulitzer Prize-winning historical masterpiece, “The Grapes of Wrath,” he was working on a lighthearted detective novel featuring a werewolf.
The manuscript, “Murder at Full Moon,” was completed in 1930 but was never published. A single copy has been sitting, mostly forgotten, in an archive in Texas since 1969. It includes drawings by Steinbeck himself.
A scholar of American literature at Stanford University is pushing for the book to be published, but the agents for Steinbeck’s estate vehemently refused this week, after the effort was featured in The Guardian.
The professor, Gavin Jones, is undeterred. He dug “Murder at Full Moon” out of the archive at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin while working on a book about Steinbeck. “I’d love to see it published,” he said.
His description of the book lit up literary Twitter and online book forums. Yes, long before Steinbeck was a Nobel laureate known for Depression-era literary classics, the financially struggling writer had tried his hand at mixing genres more typical of the era’s pulp fiction.
“I was expecting a fragmented, bizarre, incomplete work,” Jones said.
Instead he found a coherent, completed 233-page manuscript. “It’s a potboiler, but it’s also the cauldron of central themes we see throughout Steinbeck’s later work,” he said. For this reason, he believes it’s worth sharing with the public.
His campaign prompted a firm email statement from Steinbeck’s agents this week.
“Steinbeck wrote ‘Murder at Full Moon’ under a pseudonym, and once he became an established author, he did not choose to seek publication of this work,” a representative of the New York-based agency, McIntosh & Otis, wrote. “There are several other works written by Steinbeck that have been posthumously published, with his directions and the careful consideration of the Estate. As longtime agents for Steinbeck and the Estate, we do not exploit works that the author did not wish to be published.”
The pseudonym Steinbeck chose was Peter Pym. Jones said the use of the name did not mean Steinbeck had not wanted the book to see the light of day. The author did not get rid of the manuscript, something he had done with other unpublished works, the professor noted.
“He didn’t destroy ‘Murder at Full Moon,’” he said.
Steinbeck wrote the story in nine days, according to William Souder, who wrote the biography “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck.”
The writer was 28 in 1930, living in a cottage in Pacific Grove, near Monterey, California, hoping for his big break. The year before, he had published his first book, “Cup of Gold,” a swashbuckling pirate adventure set in the Caribbean in the 1600s. Although it received better-than-expected reviews, it was already out of print, Souder said.
Steinbeck had written more serious books but had not had any luck selling them. He told a friend that all he needed was another 10 or so rejections to become convinced that he should give up on writing.
He was also broke, so he decided, “I’ll just write something terrible for public consumption and try to make a few bucks off it,” Souder said.
Steinbeck’s writing process typically involved scrawling pages by hand in what Souder called his “microscopic” handwriting. His wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck, a superb editor, would then type it up, sometimes making tweaks as she went. It took her a couple of weeks to type “Murder at Full Moon,” Souder said.
Jones, who is one of the few people to have ever read the book, described the plot (spoilers ahead): The book focuses on a cub reporter who takes a job in the fictional town of Cone City near a spooky dismal marsh. He is soon drawn into the orbit of a local hunting club. When one member’s dog is killed on a moonlit night, the reporter and an eccentric candidate for sheriff decide to investigate. Other, more gruesome killings of people follow, always under a full moon. The illustrations by Steinbeck include a murder scene.
In order to find the killer — who they start to suspect might be a superhuman monster that has arisen from the marsh — the investigators apply a theory of crime detection built on reading bad murder mysteries. This element gives the novel a “postmodern, ironic feel,” Jones said.
It is a lost piece of California noir, he said. “I think he was inventing something here.”
Steinbeck, who dropped out of Stanford, might be surprised that a Stanford professor would one day praise the book. His use of a pen name might seem odd to a modern audience that has grown accustomed to authors of literary fiction dabbling in horror and other genres. But when Steinbeck sent the manuscript to a college friend, he told the friend, “I don’t want anyone to know I had anything to do with it,” Souder said.
It is not clear whether publishers formally rejected the book or if Steinbeck ever properly shopped it around, Souder said.
Not long after he completed the novel, Steinbeck ended up with an agent, who sold a more ambitious book, “The Pastures of Heaven,” starting a new phase in the author’s career. When “Grapes of Wrath” was published in 1939, with its emotional story of farmworkers forced to migrate from the Depression dust bowl of Oklahoma, it became an overnight sensation. Other works, like “Cannery Row” and “Of Mice and Men,” also became classroom classics. Steinbeck died in 1968 at age 66.
Souder, who has yet to read “Murder at Full Moon,” is not as excited about it as Jones is, but he agrees it is worth publishing.
He suggested a compromise: The book should be published “with a scholarly introduction or foreword that frames it properly as a book Steinbeck wrote only in hopes of earning some quick money and not as a book that belongs in the main channel of his development as a writer.”
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