June 23: John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent was published on this day in 1961. Steinbeck enjoyed reading Shakespeare, and he approached the publication of his novel with the hope that it might very well make “glorious summer” of his various discontents. His book on Arthurian legend had bogged down (for good, it turned out), his estrangement from his sons continued, and his battles with his ex-wife were in court. Though just in his late fifties, his heavy drinking and cigarette smoking had compromised his health, and then he had a stroke while working on the book. He despaired that “I come toward the ending of my life with the same ache for perfection that I had as a child,” and believed that his fame or his friends had somehow led him astray, so that “true things gradually disappeared and shiny easy things took their place.”
He wanted to “slough off nearly fifteen years and go back and start again at the split path where I went wrong.” His view of the United States, sharpened by a year in England, was similar: “If I wanted to destroy a nation,” he wrote Adlai Stevenson (the letter then passed on to the newspapers), “I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.” The Winter of Our Discontent was his plan to bring its author and America back to their best selves.
Some celebrated the result, Saul Bellow saying that Steinbeck had returned to Grapes of Wrath form: “Critics who said of him that he had seen his best days had better tie on their napkins and prepare to eat crow.” Many reviews were less enthusiastic, and when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, critics in most of the major publications went from not eating crow to picking a carcass. A New York Times article published on the eve of the awards ceremony said that serious readers had stopped reading Steinbeck decades ago, driven away by his sentimentality.
Steinbeck wrote a friend that he had made a pledge not to let the Nobel be an “epitaph,” but The Winter of Our Discontent turned out to be his last novel. He died of a heart attack in 1968, at the age of sixty-six.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.