On this day in 1968 the Nobel Prize–winning novelist John Steinbeck died. His groundbreaking book, of course, was The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939. Critics of literary celebrity in the 21st century would do well to read the essay on Steinbeck published in The Nation that November, written by then–literary editor Margaret Marshall, which addresses the question of whether Steinbeck would let the fame go to his head and whether the film version of the novel then in production would violate the spirit of his work.

John Steinbeck has probably had more publicity since April than any other living writer; but he seems to have a more healthy attitude toward his work than many of his commentators. In an interview which appeared in the Los Angeles Times in July he is reported to have said, “I’m not even a finished writer yet.” “They’re not going to lionize me,” he went on to say; “I think of the Arabian story-tellers, the best writers in the world. You didn’t find them installed in luxurious surroundings. They squatted in the market-place and told and retold stories, and they refined and perfected them to the point you find in ‘Arabian Nights.’” So far as I have been able to discover this is not an expression of false modesty. Steinbeck is extremely shy; the fact is attested by competent witnesses. At the same time this shyness seems to have nothing to do with a lack of confidence in his work, though it should be recorded also in this connection that in mid-career, just before “The Grapes of Wrath,” he tore up a manuscript dealing with similar material which he decided was “false.” I have no doubt that, being human, he enjoys praise, but he has consistently shunned the mechanics and functionaries of publicity, for which he has a genuine if exaggerated dislike. His remarks do indicate a youthful and self-conscious cast of mind which is characteristic and which documents his own assertion that he is not a finished writer yet, especially in so far as the term means maturity of mind as well as skill with words.…

He has had little experience of the urban side of American life, including the “literary” world, which he avoids. On the other hand, an intense love of nature and of rural life are more than apparent in his books, most of which deal with the land and people close to the land, He is said to have a dread of insecurity, which is ascribed to years of living from hand to mouth but probably springs from deeper sources—the sense of insecurity might be called the national neurosis; he still lives frugally, and I understand that he has distributed his considerable earnings among various banks in deposits of $5,000, the maximum amount guaranteed by the government. But though he has been sensible enough to insure his economic future, there is no evidence to suggest that he is unduly cautious or has any respect for respectability.…

“The Grapes of Wrath” is now being filmed. Mr. Steinbeck told Darryl Zanuck in a reported interview that he was keeping in reserve the $75,000 he got for the movie rights and intended to sue if the picture violates the theme and spirit of the book. Mr. Zanuck told Mr. Steinbeck that he had had detectives investigate the plight of the Okies and had been informed that conditions were much worse than Steinbeck pictures them. This suggests a new social use for detectives which only a Hollywood producer would have thought up.

December 20, 1968

To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.