How Edith McGillcuddy Met R.L.S. by John Steinbeck
In January of 2012, Mr. Adamson apprised the readers of Books & Vines about the Rowfant Club, and in the article, he inquired about the Rowfant Club’s other publications. The only additional information I will provide about the Rowfant Club is that they utilized several different printers to print their books, so that’s also a contributing factor in the desirability of certain titles printed by the Club over the years.
After some initial research, I concluded that two publications of the Club were the most desirable due to their unique properties. The first was a magazine-style reprint of the famed magazine The Dial, including commentary presented in two volumes by George Willis Cooke. Printed in 1901-2, this was an eighteen volume set of which sixteen were paperback reprints of The Dial itself. Magazine reprints of magazines by their nature usually don’t last as long as a hardbound reprint would have. It’s very difficult to find a volume of this reprint, much less a complete set – the two volume commentary set is much easier to find. Thus, a complete set of this reprint as issued is probably one of the rarest Rowfant Club publications out there.
Scarcity alone doesn’t always determine the worth of books as is well known among collectors. Rather, a sort of perfect storm has to ensue in conjunction with some sort of scarcity to provide value to any printed matter. The production value of such printed matter is of the highest consideration in today’s modern world, especially with the advent of modern offset printing. Older books that were hand-set or utilized cast type are seen as desirable, so even obscure titles from the turn of the century about arcane subjects by unknown authors can still fetch decent prices on the market today.
In order to truly become a valuable and desirable book in today’s market, it needs to have quality production, scarcity, an author whose work is in demand, and possibly be a first edition or limited edition (beyond normal scarcity). All of the criteria above is fulfilled in a publication by the Rowfant Club from 1943. That book was the first printing of a short story that Steinbeck penned for Harper’s Magazine in the August 1941 issue – How Edith McGillcuddy Met R.L.S.. Steinbeck of course, went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, more than twenty years after this short story was first published in Harper’s.
Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and Tortilla Flats before this short story, so his literary reputation was already established by this point. However, this short story is almost never mentioned anywhere. Several Steinbeck sites don’t even mention it. And that’s not surprising at all – a copy of this story is one of the rarest items of Steinbeck ephemera, which only increases the value of anything that contains this story. The story itself isn’t currently in print anywhere today – not even within the Library of America Steinbeck volumes.
The publication history of this story as far as I can tell goes like this:
- First printed in Harper’s Magazine – August 1941 issue
- First appearance in a book as a standalone story (first edition, first printing) – The Rowfant Club – 1943 (but approved for publication by Steinbeck on May 6, 1942)
- Reprinted as part of the O Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1942 – The Literary Guild of America – 1942
- Reprinted as part of the Viking Portable Steinbeck in 1946 – no longer in the edition, unsure if it was ever reprinted in any of the editions since 1946 – 1946 selections were made by Pascal Covici
- Reprinted in London’s Chambers Journal – November 1950 (with epilogue added), story is entitled ‘How Edith McGillcuddy Skipped Sunday-School”, pp 641-646.
- Reprinted as part of Uncollected Stories of Steinbeck – Nan’ un-do Company, Tokyo, 1986 (Nakayama Kiyoshi, editor) – copies are being sold for above $100. Herb Behrens wrote in to let me know that this edition is available from the gift shop at the Steinbeck House in Salinas – if you are near the location, you should definitely visit the House and then you could purchase this edition. Thanks once again, Mr. Behrens.
As is the nature of ephemeral pursuits, you often find a new topic to take a tangent on. One of those cases would be noticing that Covici was the editor of the Viking Steinbeck volume. This is important as you will later find out from the examination of the Rofant Club volume. Pascal “Pat” Covici was also Steinbeck’s editor.
John Steinbeck is a collectable author to the point where there have already been two important collections slash bibliographies of Steinbeck ephemera and published works by collectors unrelated to the Steinbeck family. They were brought together to become “Goldstone & Payne”. A bibliography containing the extant information from both collections (both collections are now held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas – Austin) was printed, a scarce volume in its own right. Published by the University of Texas (Austin) in 1974, 1,200 copies were printed of John Steinbeck, a Bibliography. Steinbeck ephemera sellers often refer to this bibliography when describing items, such as “Goldstone and Payne A-32-B” to refer to the first edition of East to Eden (Viking, 1952).
A true Steinbeck collection would try to acquire the Harper’s magazine, the Rowfant Club edition, and the London Chamber’s Journal volume (which is undocumented in Goldstone and Payne), but a completist would probably try to get one of everything possible. The point at which ‘collecting’ becomes ‘acquiring’ is when the focus of the collection has changed or been removed from its original intent. Collecting firsts and supplementary material lends credence to searching out Harper’s, Rowfant Club, and Chamber’s Journal. Anything else for this specific story by Steinbeck would just be acquiring, unless your collection is the story itself and all its versions.
Without further ado, here’s the original version of the Steinbeck story as it appeared in Harper’s:
- August 1941 issue – (a few months before Pearl Harbor)
- This issue of Harper’s also contains another article considered by some journalists to be one of the greatest articles ever written in the 20th century (Who Goes Nazi? by Dorothy Thompson)
As can be seen above, I’m extremely jealous of the slate of writers Harper’s was able to publish back then. Elmer Davis. Steinbeck. E.B. White. And that’s just the August issue! I don’t think there’s a comparable modern publication that can match the star power that was achieved in the early 20th century by a few magazines. Some publications may come close by featuring a star once in a while, but definitely not on a constant sustained basis.
More envy will easily be produced once you see the roster of writers in the 1942 O. Henry Memorial volume. Then again, just about every collection would pale in comparison. Best American Short Stories 2011, even though touted as one of the best volumes recently, has nothing in the way of star power. This volume was also printed during the early years of America’s involvement with World War II, although I’m not sure if it was printed before or after the May 1942 implementation of rationing in America.
I didn’t exaggerate. Look at that roster! Welty. Faulkner! McCullers. Steinbeck! Any one of those would easily have made this volume worth its purchase price alone, but you get all four in a single year! First prize went to Welty’s The Wide Net, originally published in Harper’s Magazine. There you go, more validation for the talent showcased in 1941 in Harper’s. The 2nd-3rd place stories and a honorable mention were all published in Atlantic Monthly, another fine serial that is still being published today as well.
While the Harper’s is the first appearance of the story and the O. Henry Prizes collated it, the first edition of the story in book format by the Rowfant Club is a wondrous marvel. I was lucky enough to be able to handle one of the few remaining copies of this publication, even if it was missing its dust jacket.
[I would like to express my deepest appreciation to the Ohio State University Libraries and the Rowfant Club for granting me permission to feature this rare edition of Steinbeck’s story.
How Edith McGillcuddy Met R.L.S. photographs courtesy of the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection of The Ohio State University Libraries. Written copyright permission to feature these photos granted by the Rowfant Club Council of Fellowes. My thanks to all involved.]
Before we look at this book, I want to emphasize that the typography and drop-cap type designed for this book is simply stunning. While most fine books are illustrated in some form, the only illustration in this edition is a blue facsimile image of a letter. As a substitute, it has superb type with a rare color combination that works well.
All I can say is ‘wow’. Not only was there only 152 copies produced, the blue letter from Steinbeck himself provides the background of how he heard the story in the first place. This unique provenance adds more value to this edition, as this wasn’t first provided anywhere else. I absolutely love the color combination used, and of course the paper itself was top-notch.
But that’s not the only thing that dramatically increases the value and prestige of this edition. It was also printed at the Grabhorn Press. Yes, the same Grabhorn Press that became the Arion Press. So this was printed by Robert Grabhorn, as Andrew Hoyem didn’t join the Grabhorns until 1966. It’s a stunning example of how good of an education Hoyem was able to acquire from the Grabhorns, not to mention the tools and type as well.
So if you were wondering what exactly would produce a “perfect storm” to create a valuable book, this volume hits all of the notes. Popular author. Ultra-limited edition. Printed finely and with high quality. Printed for a historic publisher. Printed by a historic printer. Added value from the author. First edition. In short, you name it, this book has it all. The only thing missing would be illustrations, but that doesn’t always have to be a part of the book. This is probably the apex of the valuation a book would have sans illustration of some sort.
And now, a bonus ephemeral pursuit. While the value of this book is easily $2,000 or more, it can easily reach a higher value if a dust jacket is present. According to James M. Dourgarian,
[I]t was issued in a plain green paper dust jacket that carries the same number in manuscript as the limitation number of the book … The green paper dust jacket was not the highest quality paper available. The books may well be fine, but don’t hold your breath looking for a fine jacket. Virtually all dust jackets today are flawed–faded, discolored, torn, chipped, and, in general, ugly.
The Rowfant Club publication is listed as A20a in Goldstone & Payne. A brief rundown of the limitation numbers I’ve been able to locate on the Internet while searching for a photo of the green dust jacket:
- No. 91 (this volume) – The Ohio State University
- No. 34 – Princeton University, as donated by
Steinbeck’sPreston Beyer’s daughters Thanks to Herb Behrens for writing in to let me know of my error
- No. 110 – For sale at Heritage Book Shop, $2,250 – no dust wrapper
- No. 113 – Auctioned for $1,610 in a live auction May 2007 at PBA Galleries, with dust wrapper (not pictured)
- Unnumbered copy – To be auctioned, apparently from the library of one Carl Irving Wheat.
- No. 142 – Mentions that the dust jacket is present, with No. 142 inscribed in crayon. From the Bradford Morrow Steinbeck collection. For sale for $4,500 from Antic Hay Books.
- Unmentioned copy – Auctioned at Christie’s in December 1991, with a jacket. $1,100 (1991 price)
- No. 52 – Auctioned at Bonham’s in June 2010, realized price not provided. No jacket.
After finding several more copies sold at Christie’s and other auctioneers over the years, I gave up the pursuit of trying to find a photo of the green dust jacket. From the descriptions I’ve read, essentially they were green dust wrappers with the limitation number written in some sort of crayon on them.
The crux of this article was that this is probably the most valuable book ever published by the Rowfant Club, as far as monetary value is considered. There have been several fine books produced over the history of the club itself, and it’s probable that you might find another book that means more to you. The previously mentioned reprint of The Dial is both valuable for its content and its scarcity.
If you just wanted to read How Edith McGillcuddy Met R.L.S., the fastest way for you to do so would be to subscribe to Harper’s Magazine and then set up digital access to their back issues – here’s a direct link to the article. I’d highly recommend not trying to track down the specific edition of the Viking Portable Steinbeck that contains this story, as that’s not going to be an easy task.
If you wanted to revel in the glory of the Rowfant Club’s luxuriously produced book, the best advice I have for you is to have deep pockets or find an academic institution that has a copy and try your best to get access to the book. It’s well worth the time, especially if you appreciate wonderful typography. I cannot praise this edition enough for its beauty in its simplicity.