Few people know about John Steinbeck’s time in England, where he lived in 1943 and 1959. His experiences there influenced his writing and his personal life.
In 1943, he traveled to England as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. Steinbeck lived in London during the blitzes of World War II and wrote about soldiers in an effort to humanize the war. Some of his dispatches from this time were collected and turned into Once There was a War in 1958. Steinbeck’s articles covered a wide range of topics including troops’ voyage across the Atlantic, a London bomber station, and military installments in Dover. Steinbeck listened to soldiers’ complaints about the extent to which media coverage concealed or twisted disheartening aspects of the war effort. In his own work, Steinbeck recognized the problems of propaganda intended for enemy and home audiences and attempted to communicate more truthful interpretations to the American public. (“War Years” 165-166, 203-205, 210-211).
In 1957, Steinbeck revisited the English landscape when he began working on a manuscript for a modern translation of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. He first became interested in the Arthurian legends after he received a book of them from his aunt as a child. He then decided to work on a modern translation to eliminate obstacles to reading and understanding the stories so that others would be able to enjoy them in the way that he had as a boy (Laws 127).
In 1959, he and his wife, Elaine decided to move to the center of Arthurian legends. Once they arrived in England, they rented a cottage in Bruton, a village in the southwestern part of the country. Once there, he was able to continue his research and take a break from his life in America. Steinbeck felt at home when he was living in Bruton. He wife Elaine observed, “John’s enthusiasm and excitement are authentic and wonderful to see. I have never known him to have such a perfect balance of excitement in work and contentment in living in the ten years I have known him (Laws 127-130).
Steinbeck spent most of 1959 in England writing and researching. When he sent a first draft of his manuscript to his publishers mid-year, the critical response he received was quite unexpected. New York editors felt that Malory’s voice overshadowed that of Steinbeck in the text and that Steinbeck had failed to resolve some of the work’s structural issues. As a result of the criticism, Steinbeck found it hard to continue working on the manuscript. In October of that year, he and Elaine left England and moved back to New York. He occasionally considered returning to the project, but ultimately, he never finished it. Elaine decided to publish the unfinished manuscript after her husband's death. In 1978, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights made its debut (“Acts of King” 4).
Laws, David. “‘The Time at Discove’: John Steinbeck in Somerset.” Steinbeck Review, vol. 3, no. 2, 2006, 127-134.
Simmonds, Roy S. “Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, The (1978).” A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia, edited by Brian Railsback and Michael J. Meyer, Greenwood Press, 2006, pp. 3-5.
---. John Steinbeck: The War Years 1939-1945. Bucknell University Press, 1996.