One of America's greatest and most prolific writers of the twentieth century, John Steinbeck is famous for his epic novel of rural deprivation in the United States during the Depression, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). He is less well known for his incomplete retelling of Thomas Malory's medieval romance, Le Morte d'Arthur, which was published posthumously in 1976 as The Acts and Deeds of King Arthur and his Noble Knights. It was this book which brought Steinbeck to Bruton in 1959.
John Steinbeck and Thomas Malory.
A writer is deeply influenced by his surroundings and I did not feel that I could know the man Malory until and unless I knew the places he had seen and the scenes which must have influenced his life and his writing. (letter 1958)
John Steinbeck began work on his Arthur project in November in 1956. A record of his progress has survived in a fascinating correspondence with his literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, and his close fiend, Chase Horton. He expected to spend at least a decade on the work and regarded it as his most ambitious and important undertaking, '...this should be the best work of my life and the most satisfying.' His research brought him to England in the summers of 1957 and 1958, and for nine months in 1959. During the first couple of visits he travelled wide and far, tracking down original printings of William Caxton's Malory, dating from the late fifteenth century, visiting Malory's birthplace in Warwickshire and various sites associated with the Arthurian legends, including Glastonbury and Tintagel. In addition to gathering a collection of books, photographs and microfilms of documents, he came to England to gain 'a sense of topography, color of soil, marsh, moor, forest and particularly relationships of one place to another.' He hoped also to get closer to Thomas Malory himself:
I think it is possible through knowledge and discipline for a modern man to understand, and, to a certain extent, live into a fifteenth century mind but the reverse would be completely impossible. I don't think any of the research on this project has been wasted, because while I may not be able to understand all of Malory's mind, at least I know what he could have thought or felt.
Malory intrigued him and his unusually well documented fifteenth century and literary career had a curious resonance in Steinbeck's own in twentieth. As well as being a poet and parliamentarian, Sir Thomas Malory according to the sources, was a violent criminal. Among other crimes, ii is alleged that in 1449 he conspired to ambush and murder the Duke Buckingham, and he was found guilty of rape and extortion in 1450. Le Morte d'Arthur is said to have been composed in prison. Perhaps in a bid to reconcile the greatest chivalric writing of the Middle Ages with the supposed brutality of its author, Steinbeck wrote to Chase Horton in 1957:
Let me tell you a story. When The Grapes of Wrath got loose, a lot people were pretty mad at me. The undersheriff of Santa Clara County was friend of mine and he told me as follows: Don't you go into any hotel room alone. Keep records of every minute and when you are off the ranch travel with one or two friends but particularly, don't stay in a hotel a/one.' 'Why?' asked. He said, 'Maybe I'm sticking my neck out but the boys got a rape cast set up for you. You get a/one in a hotel and a dame will come in, tear off her clothes, scratch her face and scream, and you try to talk yourself out of that one. They won't touch your book but there's easier ways.'
Steinbeck was driven out of California as a result, having ruffled the feathers of a reactionary and paranoid right-wing Establishment. Maybe, he thought, Malory was wrapped up in a similar political struggle. After all, he was writing during years of chronic civil war, the Wars of the Roses, at exactly that time
when the Duke of Warwick, the `kingmaker', fell foul of Edward IV. And Malory was a Warwickshire man. Steinbeck concluded his letter:
We know why Cervantes was in jail. Do we really know who Malory was?...the parallels with our own time are crowding me.
Artist in Residence
In the winter of 1958/59 Steinbeck, suffering from a bout of `writer's block', decided to return to England:
I am depending on Somerset to give me the something new which I need. It is my profound hope that at Avalon I can make contact with the very old the older than knowledge, and that this may be a springboard into the newer than knowledge. (New York, Jan 3 1959)
He and his third wife, Elaine, landed at Plymouth in the early spring.
The countryside is turning lush as a plum. Everything is popping. The oaks are getting that red color of swollen buds before they turn gray and then green. Apple blossoms are not out yet, but it won't be very long.
From the start he felt more confident and no longer `afraid' of Malory and the monumental task he had set for himself. He was soon writing what, at the time, he considered his best prose, 'a close-reined, taut, economical English, unaccented and unlocalized.' In Somerset, he found contentment and a pace of life appropriate to the work in hand:
Time loses all its meaning. The peace I have dreamed about is here, a real thing: thick as a stone and feelable and something for your hands.
The countryside he described and the peace he found was that of Bruton and its environs. The playwright and local teacher, Robert Bolt, who they had met on their previous visit, had found a house for the Americans to rent - Discove Cottage, Redlynch, a short walk through fields and an ancient `holloway' from Bruton. The centuries old two-up, two-down cottage boasted electricity but little else by way of modern conveniences. The Steinbecks had water plumbed into the kitchen, and they arranged for their landlord to provide a refrigerator `named His Majesty's Voice. It must be his late majesty because it stutters.' The open fireplace and stove kept Steinbeck busy chopping wood and he spent a good deal of time attempting to grow vegetables in the garden. By the summer he was occupied with trying to safeguard the fruits of his labours:
I'm trying to shoot a rabbit from my window. Poor little thing is so innocent and so sweet But he is destroying the lettuces I raised and planted. And so I must kill him or go lettuceless. (8/June/59)
Discove Cottage is as remote now as it was then, not even connected by a service drive to the quiet lane that runs through Redlynch. In perfect solitude he found the inspiration to write:
...I can't describe the joy. In the mornings I get up early to have time to listen to the birds. It's a busy time for them. Sometimes for over an hour l do nothing but look and listen and out of this comes a luxury of rest and peace and something I can only describe as in-ness. And then when the birds have finished and the countryside goes about its business, 1 come up to my little room to work. And the interval between sitting and writing grows shorter every day.
In the evenings, he practised his wood carving, making spoons out of old oak.
King Arthur Country
According to one interpretation of the Arthur legend, Arthur was a 'Dark Ages' warlord, a post-Roman Christian Celt, defending his culture against the incursions of the fearsome, pagan Angles and Saxons, sometime around the beginning of the sixth century AD. Local tradition sets the scene in Somerset: his great victory of Mons Baden was fought at Bath, Camelot was at South Cadbury, the Lady of the Lake resided in the then lake of the Somerset Levels, fed by the River Brue, and Glastonbury was the Isle of Avalon, Arthur's last resting place and the hiding place too of the Holy Grail.
The association with this part of the world and the Arthur myth is an ancient one. After John Leland, on behalf of Henry VIII, made his way in 1542, via Bruton, to South Cadbury, he remarked in his itinerary `... at the south end of South Cadbury church stands Camelot'. That the hillfort at South Cadbury was Arthur's castle was confirmed for Leland by the locals, and also by local place names with the `Camel' prefix such as the village of Queen Camel. Between Glastonbury and Street, he found a four arch bridge known as `Pomparles' across the Brue `and it was here, according to legend, that King Arthur cast his sword into it'.
Malory's Avalon was located in central Somerset and in this he followed a tradition already hundreds of years old. In 1190 the monks of Glastonbury, perhaps as a ruse to attract wealthy pilgrims, claimed to have found the grave of Arthur and Guinevere. Archaeology confirms that an ancient grave was located where they said they had found the once and future king and that it had been disturbed and a coffin dragged out. In 1607 William Camden produced a facsimile drawing of an inscribed cross, since lost, which he was informed had been found on Arthur's Glastonbury tomb. It has been suggested that peculiarities in the spelling and lettering could indicate that it is very much older than the late twelfth century.
Several weeks after taking up residence at Discove Cottage the Steinbecks had a revelation:
The other night I discovered that fifty feet from our house, through a break in Quest the trees, you can see St Michael's Tor at Glastonbury. Elaine didn't believe it until I showed her and she is so delighted. It makes this house so much richer to have the Tor in sight. Am I in any way getting over to you the sense of wonder, the almost breathless thing? There is no question that there is magic and all kinds of magic.
In April 1959 he climbed up to Cadbury Castle for the first time and viewed Glastonbury Tor and Alfred's Tower from the ramparts. Overwhelmed on a fine Spring day by one of the loveliest views in England, he wept.
Steinbeck completed just seven chapters of what he intended to be his magnum opus. It neither satisfied his literary agent, who doubtless wanted another great contemporary novel, nor the exacting author himself who, ultimately, did not find the voice he searched for during his nine months in Somerset. He left Bruton defeated and depressed - the Grail had eluded him.
Nevertheless Steinbeck, for the most part, loved his Somerset idyll. He seems to have made quite an impression on Bruton too - the wealthy New Yorker with the automobile, the employer of local typists, the frequenter of the Post Office, pubs and Mr Windmill's ironmonger's shop. He never entirely gave up the idea of completing the Arthur book in the remaining decade of his life, nor did he forget Bruton. When he quizzed Elaine, on his deathbed in December 1968, 'What's the best time we ever had together?' they shared one answer: 'The time at Discove'.
The Committee of the Bruton Arts Festival promoted awareness of the Bruton Steinbeck connection by hosting, in May 2000, a well attended lecture in the Community Hall delivered by Dr Richard Nate (Essen University) which was entitled `Through the Great Depression and Beyond: John Steinbeck and the Quest for the Grail'. A less formal version of this event, which attempted to intertwine Steinbeck's prose with contemporary American folksong and open discussion, was held in July 2000 in the Blue Ball, from where Steinbeck addressed at least one of his many Bruton letters. The complete letters of John Steinbeck are published by Penguin Books.
(Reproduced from "Notes From A Small Town" by kind permission of the author Andrew Pickering).