The Werewolves of Our Discontent: Why John Steinbeck’s 1930 Novice Werewolf Novel Should Remain Unpublished

The young John Steinbeck. Image by Peter Stackpole, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Professor Gavin Jones of Stanford University has recently hailed as an “incredible find” a “lost” 1930 manuscript by John Steinbeck. The manuscript in question has long been known to scholars and has only been as “lost” as anything can be “lost” while residing, well catalogued and accessible, in one of the most prominent primary source literary depositories in the world: the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

Jones’s well-publicized announcement has, not accidentally, done much to raise the profile of his forthcoming book Reclaiming John Steinbeck: Writing for the Future of Humanity (Cambridge University Press/June 2021). So too has his call for the Steinbeck Estate to license the publication of Steinbeck’s novice 1930 effort entitled Murder at Full Moon, a potboiler about werewolves which Steinbeck — at the time unknown and impoverished — sought to have published under the pen-name Peter Pym, but which publishers rejected.

Steinbeck’s longtime literary agency, McIntosh & Otis, which now represents the Steinbeck Estate, has replied that they will not be allowing publication. “As Steinbeck wrote Murder at Full Moon under a pseudonym and did not choose to publish the work during his lifetime, we uphold what Steinbeck had wanted. As the estate’s agents, we do not further exploit the works beyond what had been the author and estate’s wishes.”

Steinbeck’s estate should be respected in honoring what they clearly believe to have been the novelist’s intention.

Fact: Steinbeck reached a point in his career where he could have handed ANYTHING to Viking Press and they would have published it.

Fact: He never sent them Murder at Full Moon.

Fact: Even before he had any reputation whatsoever to protect, Steinbeck only thought of publishing Murder at Full Moon under a pseudonym. He clearly did not want his name to be attached to it.

Fact: The book was rejected by publishers back in the day.

As for Jones’s “incredible find” and “discovery” of the “lost” manuscript, it is interesting to read this item published in the Ransom Center Magazine on February 23, 2011:

When scholars announce a “discovery” at the Ransom Center, it usually means one of two things: publication or identification. Steve Mielke, Head of Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging at the Ransom Center, says that in some cases, the word “discovery” may be a little misleading.

“When I see a headline saying that a manuscript was discovered at the British Library, for example, I realize it’s probably been there and known about for some time. It’s just that someone took note of it and decided to do something with it,” Mielke says. “There are lots of things here at the Ransom Center that are unpublished. That doesn’t mean we don’t know they’re here. If everything we cataloged were widely known, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.”

The existence of Murder at Full Moon has previously been noted in numerous published studies of John Steinbeck and his work. These include William Souder’s Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck (2020), Keith Ferrell’s John Steinbeck: The Voice of the Land (2014), Alison Morretta’s John Steinbeck and the Great Depression (2014), Robert McParland’s Citizen Steinbeck: Giving Voice to the People (2016), Peter Lisca’s John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth (1978), and Jackson Benson’s The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer — A Biography (1984).

As author Brian Railsback tells us in his 1995 book Parallel Expeditions: Charles Darwin and the Art of John Steinbeck, “In a letter, Steinbeck notes that the manuscript was written in nine days, typed up in two weeks, and is in ‘a slightly burlesque tone.’” Writing in his 1975 book John Steinbeck: The Errant Knight, Nelson Valjean speaks of how Steinbeck “ground out” Murder at Full Moon as a “potboiler” because he was “in need of quick money.” And in 1983’s John Steinbeck, the California Years, Brian St. Pierre comments on how the financially strained Steinbeck “in extremis … banged out a murder mystery, a rank potboiler called Murder at Full Moon, in nine days flat.”

It has been recently reported that Philip Roth left strict instructions for his personal papers to be destroyed once (the now controversial) Blake Bailey was done writing his authorized biography. Many people are disturbed by this idea, but the prerogative nevertheless belongs to Roth.

I’m glad that the manuscript for Murder at Full Moon did not suffer a similar fate. I’m glad that it is safe and secure at the Ransom Center, and readily available — as it always has been — to scholars contemplating the life and work of the great John Steinbeck. But I’m also glad that, thanks to the decision of McIntosh & Otis and the proprietors of the Steinbeck Estate with respect to the author’s wishes, what is clearly a substandard, rushed, novice work will not be paraded before the general public.

Writer published by Doubleday, Crown, Oxford University Press, and other major houses.

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