I was going to include this in the Morning Warm-Up, which was already weird, but then realized that I wasn’t sure what the ethics verdict should be. Thus it became an ethics quiz.
Which American novelist would seem like the most unlikely to author a werewolf story? I wouldn’t put him at the top of my list, but John Steinbeck, a Nobel laureate known for somber Depression-era literary classics, would certainly be in the top ten. Yet the lionized author of “Of Mice and Men,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Cannery Row” and “Travels With Charley” did write a werewolf novel, in 1930, when he was a struggling writer. Completed under the pseudonym of Peter Pym, “Murder at Full Moon” was never published. A single copy sits in an archive in Texas, including drawings by Steinbeck himself.
Gavin Jones, scholar of American literature at Stanford University, has read the book, and pronounced it fascinating, complete and publishable. The agents for Steinbeck’s estate, however, have so far rejected his entreaties. “It’s a potboiler, but it’s also the caldron of central themes we see throughout Steinbeck’s later work,” Jones insists, and argues that the public should be able to read it. The author’s literary agents, the guardians of Steinbeck’s legacy, demur, saying,
“Steinbeck wrote ‘Murder at Full Moon’ under a pseudonym, and once he became an established author, he did not choose to seek publication of this work. There are several other works written by Steinbeck that have been posthumously published, with his directions and the careful consideration of the Estate. As longtime agents for Steinbeck and the Estate, we do not exploit works that the author did not wish to be published.”
Jones retorts that the use of a pen name did not mean Steinbeck had not wanted the book to see the light of day. (Stephen King, who has written about werewolves and is proud of it, authored several books under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman.”) Jones also notes that Steinbeck did not get rid of the manuscript, something he had done with other unpublished works. “He didn’t destroy ‘Murder at Full Moon,’” he said. Why not, if he was determined to keep it from the public’s eyes?
The question of the author’s intent is always near the heart of these controversies. In the case of “Go Set A Watchman,” the sequel to “To Kill A Mockingbird,” a greedy estate seemingly overruled (or bullied) an old and declining Harper Lee to veto her earlier intention not to allow the inferior novel to mar her classic. Usually estates try to block posthumous publications of discovered works, in the interest of protecting the author’s reputation. But is that reasonable or necessary? Even if “Murder at Full Moon” is total junk, would anyone have a lower opinion of the John Steinbeck who wrote his classics? And if the horror novel turned out to be a hoot, wouldn’t that make Steinbeck more interesting, rather than less? A decent movie version might even send young readers who never heard of him to “Of Mice and Men.”
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…