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On the mysterious obscenity scribbled on John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath manuscript.

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October 5, 2021, 3:30pm

This week, SP Books, a press which primarily publishes manuscripts, will release facsimiles of the handwritten manuscript of The Grapes of Wrath. The manuscript, currently stored in the University of Virginia’s archives, reveals information previously unknown to casual readers about John Steinbeck’s writing process—as well as the word “slut” mysteriously written at the end of the manuscript.

Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw described the word as an “archival mystery.” “Did his wife Carol playfully write that word in red and then erase it? Did someone in the University of Virginia archives deface the manuscript? I suspect the latter, but we’ll never know for sure,” Shillinglaw told The Guardian. “But this facsimile doesn’t skirt the issue but includes the faint marks on the final page.”

Steinbeck’s handwriting also changed throughout the manuscript: it began in large writing and rapidly grew smaller. “One can sense Steinbeck’s urgency,” said Shillinglaw to The Guardian. “He wanted to capture history as it was happening, and indeed that’s what he accomplished. The manuscript suggests the sheer weight of the task he was undertaking—to capture migrant woe in California in the late 1930s—and also the urgency of his telling.”

Steinbeck’s initially large handwriting was on purpose: at the start of the manuscript, he wrote “Big Writing,” because he needed his wife, Carol Steinbeck, to be able to decipher it. Carol Steinbeck typed the manuscript up each evening, proofreading as she went, and was responsible for much of the formatting, including paragraph breaks and dialect spelling; the cramped, dense manuscript also lends a reader insight into just how much work Carol put into the book. Said Shillinglaw, “All the writing is Steinbeck’s, but Carol willed the book into being.”

Though it’s still a highly revealing document, the manuscript contains very few edits and rewrites, as Steinbeck notoriously wrote his books in his head before writing them down. Famously, Steinbeck’s dog, Toby, ate an early manuscript of Of Mice and Men—“I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically,” Steinbeck wrote to his editor. But an apocryphal story circulated that Steinbeck simply lost that early draft, and found it after writing his new draft to discover the drafts only differed by seven words. (Perhaps he forgot the word “slut” at the end of the manuscript.)

[h/t The Guardian]

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