- Steinbeck in Avalon: Bruton, Somerset, 1959 by Andrew Pickering
Scotts Valley, Calif.: CreateSpace, 2014, 144pp. Paper $598.99
by Andrew Pickering
Andrew Pickering’s Steinbeck in Avalon: Bruton, Somerset, 1959 begins by recounting Steinbeck’s fascination with Malory’s Morte D’Arthur from the age of seven when his aunt gave him a “much edited version” known as The Boy’s King Arthur published “about 1900.” This volume evoked many childhood games for Steinbeck and his younger sister, Mary, who served as an imaginary squire to his imaginary knight (30–31). The Arthur legend held its charm for Steinbeck throughout his life, and he dedicates his modern translation to her. Pickering includes the full text of this dedication and notes Steinbeck’s decision to have it copied in fifteenth-century script on vellum and sent to Mary (41).
Steinbeck began his Malory translation in earnest in 1956, projecting that it would take ten years. He researched Malory’s time period, biography, and surroundings, and visited England in 1957 and 1958. The work progressed well at first, but he soon suffered a bout of “writer’s block” and decided to return to England. Knowing he worked best when he understood his content in his bones and wanting to be as close to Malory and Arthur as possible, he and Elaine rented a farmhouse in Somerset. Most of Pickering’s book describes, in loving detail, the Steinbecks’ fascination with Bruton in Somerset and shows how his immersion in this place gave him inspiration to write much of the manuscript—although he later abandoned the work. It would be published unfinished after his death as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.
Pickering details the tensions at work in Steinbeck’s thinking as he embarked on this project. First, he worried that he did not know enough about Arthur’s time and geography to write about either convincingly. This concern soon gave way to his discovery that the more research he did, the more he realized he needed to do (31). He also persuasively argues that what made Steinbeck’s rewriting of Malory’s work noteworthy was that he approached the task as a novelist rather than a scholar. As a novelist, he identified with Malory’s political problems because of his own experiences after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath (22–23). And real-life Malory was not the only man with whom Steinbeck identified, for he also feared that his attempt to translate Morte D’Arthur was akin to the fictional Lancelot’s quest to find the unattainable Grail (124). [End Page 221]
Pickering quotes at length from Steinbeck’s letters, which makes his assertions about Steinbeck’s endeavors and his state of mind compelling. Of particular interest is the exchange between Steinbeck and his agent, Elizabeth Otis. When he sent her the typescript of the Merlin section, she responded unenthusiastically because she had assumed his project would be on the order of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Steinbeck’s subsequent replies are excerpted at length (95–97), showing how serious he was about keeping Malory’s story in front of readers, even though they were translated out of his own creative perspective.
While Pickering’s book is full of valuable contextual information on English geography and Arthuriana, it does not distract from his main objective— providing a detailed account of John and Elaine’s time in Bruton.
The ending of Pickering’s book—not unlike Steinbeck’s Malory text—is somewhat abrupt and unsatisfying. After effectively highlighting the tensions surrounding Steinbeck and his Arthurian endeavor, Pickering devotes only two pages to his subsequent relinquishing of the project. More importantly, he hints at Elaine’s dismay upon finding that Steinbeck had blended the beginning of their own courtship with the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere, for she believed he had now “written himself into a corner” (Benson 860, qtd. Pickering 120). But Pickering does not follow up on this assertion. It is among the most tantalizing moments in the text, but it occurs as a rapid interlude between an excerpt of the...