Family of literary legend John Steinbeck auctioning off personal items

The family of literary legend John Steinbeck is auctioning off a personal treasure trove of items including personal letters, diaries, and sentimental manuscripts. 

A lot estimated at $700,000 worth of unique and very personal items will be sold at a live Bonhams auction in New York. The collection of over 100 items were passed down from Steinbeck's sister Mary to her daughter and son-in-law. 

Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the literary giant was influenced by his experiences growing up in Salinas Valley. Some of his most celebrated works were set in the region, including East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath.

"We now call Central California around Monterey and Salinas Valley ‘Steinbeck country,’" said longtime Steinbeck scholar Dr. Susan Shillinglaw.

Dr. Shillinglaw is an English professor at San Jose State University and led the University's Center for Steinbeck Studies for 18 years. She was also the National Steinbeck Center's Director from 2015 to 2018. 

"Anytime you have items from the direct family being auctioned off that’s really special," said Dr. Shillinglaw.

Some of the unique personal items on sale include:

• A vast archive of letters from Steinbeck to his younger sister Mary Steinbeck Dekker and other family members, discussing both personal and professional milestones over the decades, estimated at $250,000 – 350,000.

• The original typed manuscript of Steinbeck's first novel Cup of Gold with extensive margin notes by an unknown reader giving feedback as well as small corrections throughout made by Steinbeck in pen, estimated at $100,000 – 150,000.

• Steinbeck's personal journal for 1949 which begins "I don't suppose anyone ever so hated a year as I hated 1948... Wife, children, best friend all gone. But perhaps it toughened me. I hope so." The journal, estimated at $20,000 – 30,000, details his despair at the loss of his best friend, Ed Ricketts, end of his marriage to his second wife Gwen, who took their two small boys, and the long journey to writing again, culminating in his meeting Elaine Scott in May.

• First edition, presentation copies inscribed by Steinbeck to his sister Mary of Tortilla Flat, estimated at $15,000 – 25,000, The Pastures of Heaven, estimated at $10,000 – 15,000, and Cup of Gold, estimated at $15,000 – 25,000.

• A heretofore unknown Steinbeck journal from February to March 1938, estimated at $10,000 – 15,000, which provides a raw and important look at the writer's journey as he works his way toward his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.

• An Arthurian wrought-iron sword and calligraphic manuscript given by Steinbeck to his sister Mary, likely sometime between 1956 and 1959, when he was deep into his Acts of King Arthur project, estimated at $2,000 – 3,000. The manuscript, written in Middle English with a calligraphic hand, seeks to right a wrong from childhood: the failure of Steinbeck to fully recognize his sister's bravery and grant her a "knighthood."

Some more quirky one of a kind collectibles include Of Mice and Men original draft page, which had eaten by his dog and locks of his hair his mother kept when he was three years old.

"You can own something, you can touch something, that the person you admire and idolize owned. There’s something very tantalizing about that," said Dr. Shillinglaw.

She said it’s very possible some of the local institutions with Steinbeck archives could bid in the auction, including Stanford, San Jose State, or the National Steinbeck Center in downtown Salinas.

The live auction is in New York on October 25th.

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To learn more about what’s on sale and how to bid, visit

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.