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Steinbeck's latest sad story

May 19, 2009 |  9:17 am


Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the case involving the estate of John Steinbeck, putting an end to a protracted copyright lawsuit between different branches of the Steinbeck family.

Steinbeck was married three times. He and his first wife, Carol, had no children. He had two sons with his second wife, Gwyn, and no children with his third wife, Elaine Anderson, although she had a child from her previous marriage (to actor Zachary Scott). The dispute is primarily between the surviving son, Thomas Steinbeck, and Elaine's heirs (she died in 2003). 

At issue is the ownership of Steinbeck's work, which incldues the books "Tortilla Flat," "Cannery Row," "Of Mice and Men," "East of Eden," "The Pearl" "Travels With Charley" and "The Grapes of Wrath." 

Exactly how the disagreement arose probably goes back far further than this court case and may have its origins in long-held family tensions. On the surface, there seems to be a deuling battle of histories: The official John Steinbeck bio from the National Steinbeck Center makes no mention of Gwyn at all, while there's a Steinbeck Wikipedia disambiguation page that includes both sons but omits his widow Elaine.

Thomas Steinbeck's daughter, Blake Smyle, a party to the case, said in a press release, "This is about family. My grandfather would be deeply saddened to know that his contributions are now in the hands of strangers."

A press release from the opposing side's legal team, which heavily emphasized the role of copyright law, said, "The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit last Summer ruled unanimously that a 1994 copyright agreement entered into by Elaine Steinbeck, who had received the rights by will, could not be terminated by John Steinbeck's biological heirs.... The Estate of Elaine Steinbeck told the Supreme Court that it ultimately did not need to wade into this factual dispute regarding a particular intra-family contract."

When Steinbeck was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature, the presentation speech said, in part:

The topics he chose were serious and denunciatory, as for example the bitter strikes on California's fruit and cotton plantations.... The great work that is principally associated with Steinbeck's name, the epic chronicle The Grapes of Wrath (1939) ... is the story of the emigration to California which was forced upon a group of people from Oklahoma through unemployment and abuse of power. This tragic episode in the social history of the United States inspired in Steinbeck a poignant description of the experiences of one particular farmer and his family during their endless, heartbreaking journey to a new home.... His sympathies always go out to the oppressed, to the misfits and the distressed; he likes to contrast the simple joy of life with the brutal and cynical craving for money.

It may be for the best that this family dispute not be fought using copyright law as a bludgeon — the laws are complicated enough as is, and the repercussions of a Supreme Court decision probably wouldn't have simplified things any. 

But it's sad that the fight exists at all, that the legal heirs and biological heirs can't bridge the gaps between them. And Steinbeck's work always seemed too noble for an ugly fight over which family members should be made rich by it.

— Carolyn Kellogg