WCU’s Railsback co-edits monumental Steinbeck work

When a big-time publishing firm asked Western Carolina University faculty member Brian Railsback to edit an encyclopedia about legendary American writer John Steinbeck, the longtime Steinbeck fan jumped at the chance.

Brian Railsback

Brian Railsback

“I was an assistant professor at the time, full of enthusiasm, and ready to knock out this book in two or three years,” said Railsback, now dean of WCU’s Honors College.

Railsback, who has been fascinated by Steinbeck’s work since his high school days, says he should have been wiser, since he knew that one particular Steinbeck biography took more than a decade for the author to complete because Steinbeck’s life is such a vast and complicated subject.

“Not long after I signed the contract to edit the book, one of the foremost Steinbeck critics, Warren French, wrote me a kind letter with the caution that I had no idea what I was getting into,” Railsback said.

Now, 13 years after Railsback began the book, “A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia” has been published by Greenwood Press. Four years after he launched into the project, Railsback became founding dean of WCU’s Honors College, and he asked a fellow Steinbeck scholar, Michael Meyer, to co-edit the volume. Without the contributions of Meyer and others, the book would not have been completed, Railsback said.

In about 250,000 words by 57 contributors, the book captures the many elements of Steinbeck’s life – his literary work, friends, important acquaintances, influences, places lived, books read and awards earned, he said.

In his preface to the 544-page encyclopedia, Railsback wrote that Steinbeck “investigated life as much as possible without preconceptions and he strove to create art without borders or horizons. To contain a writer like Steinbeck between two covers is impossible.”

Phil Ralls, editor of The Steinbeck Collectors Gazette, has already called the book “a magnificent resource” and wrote, “I have found that I just can’t put it down – I’m reading it from A to Z.”

In addition to co-editing the encyclopedia, Railsback is the author of “Parallel Expeditions: Charles Darwin and the Art of John Steinbeck” and is currently finishing a Steinbeck project for the Library of America. He also has published numerous book chapters about Steinbeck and has delivered lectures about him in this country, Japan and Mexico.

Railsback published his first novel, “The Darkest Clearing,” in 2004, and is currently working on a second one.