Gareth Lloyd writes:
The visitors’ book of The John Rylands Library contains the names of thousands of people who have visited the Rylands since 1899. There are many surprises in the volume – signatures that one does not expect to see.
One such visitor in July 1957 was the American Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, author of some of the twentieth century’s most famous novels, including Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. One would expect Steinbeck’s visit to have been a high-profile public event, but in fact he came to the Rylands in a private capacity. Why he came, what he saw and the influence that this had over Steinbeck’s writing is one of the untold stories of The John Rylands Library.
Steinbeck was passionately interested in Arthurian myth and many of his works show the subliminal influence of the medieval romantic style. In 1956 Steinbeck and his wife moved to England, to a cottage near Glastonbury, in order to conduct personal research into Arthurian texts and use that experience to take his writing in a different direction.
The holdings of the Rylands include the world’s second largest collection of books printed by William Caxton. The collection includes one of only two surviving copies of the Caxton edition of Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, printed in 1485. This was the book that popularized the Arthurian legend and inspired the young Steinbeck with a love of language and the power of the written word. He described in later life, this childhood encounter with Malory’s masterpiece:
One day, an aunt gave me a book … I stared at the black print with hatred and then gradually the pages opened and let me in. The magic happened. The Bible and Shakespeare and Pilgrims Progress belonged to every-one. But this was mine – secretly mine. It was a cut version of the Caxton Morte d’Arthur of Thomas Malory. I loved the old spelling of the words – and the words no longer used. Perhaps a passionate love for the English language opened to me from this one book …
The Rylands also has a 1498 edition of the same work from the press of another early English printer, Wynkyn de Worde, and this copy is unique. It was these books that John Steinbeck came to Manchester to see, almost as a form of literary pilgrimage. His research into Malory had a practical aspect – it influenced the style of his satirical novel The Short Reign of Pippin IV, published in 1957. Despite the muted critical and popular response to Pippin, Steinbeck continued to draw heavily on Malory for inspiration. At the time of his death in 1968, he was working on a re-writing of the story of King Arthur, which was published posthumously as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976).
The experience of travelling around England and researching the works of Thomas Malory meant a great deal to Steinbeck on a personal level. During his final illness, he told his wife that he considered the happiest period of their lives together to have been the year spent in England researching the basis for his literary inspiration.
John Steinbeck’s connection with the John Rylands Library is in one sense a footnote in the story of his life; his visit was personal in nature and was quickly forgotten. But this is one of the intriguing aspects of the story – Steinbeck came to the library, not as a distinguished visitor, but as a reader and in so doing illustrates the deeper and more meaningful connection between writers, readers and institutions like the John Rylands Library.
The Library’s copies of the Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde editions of Le Morte d’Arthur have been fully digitised and are now available to view within the Library’s image collections via the following links:
- Caxton: http://enriqueta.man.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/1e8oa7
- Wynkyn de Worde: http://enriqueta.man.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/toval8
 Quoted by Jackson J. Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (Heinemann: London, 1984), pp.20-21.