Archives for September 2013

Contemporary Reviews of New Books by John Steinbeck from Cambridge University Press

John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews book coverWord-of-mouth book recommendations by passionate readers have been creating converts to Steinbeck since The Grapes of Wrath. Reviews of new books mattered, and readers were influenced by critiques of new books in daily papers, Sunday supplements, and national magazines. Steinbeck was fortunate in having influential friends who reviewed new books for major dailies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. He wasn’t lucky everywhere, however, and he came to despise critics of new books as no-talents who couldn’t write their own. What turned Steinbeck against critics? The Cambridge University Press anthology of contemporary reviews of new books by Steinbeck, the majority by journalists, provides a book-by-book record of brilliance, sophistry, sophistication, and stupidity among critics of Steinbeck.

But note four points before you buy the Cambridge University Press anthology of contemporary reviews of new books by one of the 20th century’s most controversial authors:

1. It’s expensive.
2. It’s a collection of journalistic writing, not academic literary criticism.
3. It’s jargon-free and easy to read—a corollary of point #2.
4. It’s well-organized and prefaced by a helpful, well-written introduction.

Point #1 is an economic fact of modern life for publishers like Cambridge University.

Amazon’s paperback price for the volume is $68; $185 for the hardback version. At 2.23 pounds and 562 pages, the book may be a bargain for libraries like those at Cambridge University, but it’s stiff for independent scholars engaged in literary criticism about Steinbeck. Books like this one are now printed on demand: Despite its Cambridge University Press title page, the back-page colophon on my copy reads “Made in San Bernardino, CA, 10 September 2013.”  My guess is that producing a copy like mine costs Cambridge University less than the postage required to mail it to a buyer. As with soaring college tuition fees everywhere, the charge for new books by academic presses seems increasingly self-defeating and disconnected from reality. Caveat emptor.

Point #2 about literary criticism is a distinction with a real difference.

Literary criticism as a subdivision of the humanities (some say social sciences) is a systematic, comprehensive, and objective endeavor, withholding judgments about quality while interpreting, classifying, and illuminating works by authors in the context of history, psychology, and their relationship to other writers. Literary criticism as a euphemism for book-page journalistic reviewing is quite the opposite. Unlike practitioners of academic literary criticism, popular reviewers of new books make subjective judgments of quality based on personal, sometimes peculiar and often unspoken criteria. Like science, literary criticism as a subject depends on evidence, relationship, and analysis, not on the literary equivalent of personal creationism. Contemporary reviews of Steinbeck’s new books provide a dramatic example of this principle at work in journalism from the 1930s to the 1960s. Typically, critics who disapproved of Steinbeck’s language, lifestyle, or opinions described him as a bad writer. No wonder he hated them! I happened to learn literary criticism in college through the works of the Toronto academician Northrop Frye, a former minister who made the inspired observation that aesthetic judgments by critics about new books are more often than not moral judgments in disguise. Steinbeck suffered more than his share.

Point #3 reverses the relative value of professional journalists and practitioners of literary criticism as writers who are required to be readable.

Northop Frye was a facile writer, in part because as a preacher he had a weekly obligation to make himself clear to the voluntary audience in the pews. Journalists face the same challenge: daily deadlines, limits on length and vocabulary, and an obligation to avoid confusing, boring, or losing readers who are free to vote with their feet. Even bad reviewers of Steinbeck’s new books usually wrote well. In contrast, trying to comprehend a work of academic literary criticism published by, say, the Cambridge University Press can be a chore. I think that’s why contemporary reviews of new books by Steinbeck seem so entertaining when read by academic students of Steinbeck today—particularly when (like Mary McCarthy) they made spiteful but memorable comments about his work. As much for perverse enjoyment as for edifying information, the Cambridge University anthology is worth its weight. Carpe diem!

Point #4 reflects an exception to the bad academic writing rule that commends this collection more than most.

Literary criticism about Steinbeck seems—to me, anyway—more readable than contemporary academic writing about other authors. The editors’ introduction to the Cambridge University Press anthology suggests why this may be so. I’m personally familiar with the literary criticism of Susan Shillinglaw—one of the volume’s editors—and I’ve yet to encounter an unintelligible word or an inelegant sentence anywhere in her body of writing about Steinbeck. Her clarity of style matches that of her subject. It is evident in the historical survey of Steinbeck reviews that she and her colleagues provide in their introduction to the Cambridge University Press collection they co-edited.

Susan’s splendid article on Steinbeck’s religious roots—“John Steinbeck’s ‘Spiritual Streak’”—appeared in a journal called Literature and Belief published by Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature. One of the journal’s editors at BYU was Jesse S. Crisler, Susan’s fellow editor—along with Joseph R. McElrath, Jr.—for the Cambridge University collection. Perhaps the BYU relationship led to this project, perhaps the other way around. In either case, putting Susan Shillinglaw on the editorial team was a good move. Not unlike Northrop Frye, who produced literary criticism with pulpit clarity, Susan writes literary criticism as a journalist, to be understood rather than to obfuscate. Steinbeck’s opinion of his critics in the press notwithstanding, that’s a compliment.

John Steinbeck’s Life in the Episcopal Church

John Steinbeck pictured second in line leaving St. Paul's Episcopal ChurchJohn Steinbeck was baptized, reared, and confirmed in the Episcopal Church. He also requested and received a Church of England funeral and throughout his life admired the soaring aesthetics of his Anglican church heritage, particularly the Tudor language of the King James Bible and the lyrical liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. Unfortunately, details of the author’s upbringing, adulthood, and death in the Episcopal Church have been overlooked by critics who have characterized the writer as a humanitarian agnostic, a scientific atheist, or a myth-making literary symbolist, depending on the work in question, the period in Steinbeck’s life, or the critic’s point of view. But the facts of Steinbeck’s lifelong affiliation with the Episcopal Church are indisputable.

St. Paul's, an Anglican church, pictured in Salnas, CaliforniaSt. Paul’s: The Steinbecks’ Adopted Episcopal Church

Though neither of Steinbeck’s parents was brought up as a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States—the American branch of the Church of England, part of the worldwide Anglican church communion—Ernst and Olive Steinbeck reared their children, including their son John, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salinas, California. A traditional Anglican church by early 20th century standards, the parish kept good records. They suggest that the people of St. Paul’s thought of themselves as frontier inheritors of Church of England liturgy, music, and sociability. Even the church’s design (shown above) was Church of England country-parish gothic. As a boy, Steinbeck wore the traditional surplice and sang in the junior choir (shown recessing from the church behind the crucifer in the image at the top of this page).

St. Mary, a Church of England building, pictured in SomersetSt. Mary’s Anglican Church: In Quest of King Arthur

In 1945, Steinbeck had his first son, Thom, baptized as an infant at Old St. James Episcopal Church in Monterey. But except for family events at other Episcopal church sites in nearby Watsonville and Carmel—including the baptism of various nieces—the author isn’t known to have attended Anglican churches outside California until he moved permanently to New York with his third wife in 1950. Steinbeck’s letters reveal that while researching the history of King Arthur in the British Isles, John and Elaine Steinbeck became occasional worshippers at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, an ancient Church of England building in Somerset’s Bruton parish—the namesake of Virginia’s Bruton Parish, the pre-Revolutionary Episcopal church located in Colonial Williamsburg.

Gothic Episcopal church interior of St. James, Manhattan, picturedSt. James Episcopal Church in Midtown Manhattan: Setting for Steinbeck’s Church of England Encore

Before he died in 1968, Steinbeck requested a “Church of England” funeral. The venue? Madison Avenue’s famous St. James Episcopal Church, a fashionable parish with Church-of-England traditions and high-Anglican church tastes. The details of Steinbeck’s dramatic Anglican church service were reported in The New York Times. The actor Henry Fonda read poetry and passages from the Bible, and guests included the humorist Budd Schulberg, Steinbeck’s Hollywood screenwriter friend. Like the California Anglican church where the author sang in the junior choir, the midtown Manhattan Episcopal church chosen for Steinbeck’s funeral is gothic in architecture, Church of England in spirit, and appropriately theatrical in setting for a celebrity’s service. Elaine Steinbeck was a former Broadway stage manager and knew how to put on a show. But the author’s lifetime affiliation with Episcopal church gives away the ending: Steinbeck’s  final curtain came down in a familiar house.

Shades of Partial Truth in Travels with Charley

Long Way Home and Dogging Steinbeck covers, two books about Travels with CharleyWhen I first read Travels with Charley in Search of America—Steinbeck’s nonfiction account of his 1960 road trip from his grandparents’ John-Knox New England to the Salinas Valley of his youth—I was researching the author’s religious roots for an article. Steinbeck’s assertion in Travels with Charley that he attended services one Sunday at a “John Knox church” and liked what he heard didn’t fit what I’d learned about the author’s life or writing. John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism in Scotland, was a rigid, unyielding Calvinist—a type deeply unloved by Steinbeck, as exemplified in the stiff-necked, self-righteous character of Liza Hamilton in East of Eden. The easygoing Episcopalian religion that permeates The Winter of Our Discontent, written in the same period as Travels with Charley, more accurately reflects Steinbeck’s upbringing. Olive Steinbeck abandoned the Scots-Irish, John Knox atmosphere of the Hamilton ranch for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salinas, where her son imbibed the cultured air of candles, flowers, and English church music. What event provoked Steinbeck’s John Knox epiphany in the pages of Travels with Charley? My sources were clueless.

Help with the John Knox Problem in Travels with Charley

Then I read a pair of books by two non-academic writers that suggest why this detail—and others—didn’t seem quite right when I read Travels with Charley. Except for their common subject, the books couldn’t be less alike. Bill Barich, the author of Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America, is a California native whose earlier book—Big Dreams: Into the Heart of California—helped me acclimate to my adopted state when I arrived in 2007. A part-time Californian with a second home in Ireland, Barich possesses an elegant style, a Marin County manner, and an inborn appreciation for California’s liberal culture and laid-back lifestyle. Bill Steigerwald, the author of Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth About Travels with Charley, is Barich’s opposite—a tough-minded Middle-American reporter with little love for liberalism or laying back. Barich and Steigerwald’s books retracing Travels with Charley differ dramatically, reflecting their authors’ contrasting temperaments, assumptions, and aims. Both are worth reading, and each helped me adjust to the probability that Travels with Charley is only partially true.

Barich and Steigerwald’s books retracing Steinbeck’s journey differ dramatically, reflecting their authors’ contrasting temperaments, assumptions, and aims.

Barich retraced portions of Steinbeck’s 1960 election-year Travels with Charley tour during the presidential year of 2008, when the Obama-McCain campaign divided Americans generally along Kennedy-Nixon lines. I happen to share Barich’s enthusiasm for Obama and his respect for Steinbeck’s progressive politics. The author was a lifelong FDR Democrat, despite his family’s John Knox, Teddy Roosevelt Republican roots. He wrote speeches for Stevenson’s 1956 campaign against Eisenhower and supported Kennedy against Nixon in 1960. The pages of Travels with Charley are full of liberal-minded sentiments, underdog characters, and conversations about current issues that aren’t always recognizable as the way real people talk. This, of course, is where Bill Steigerwald comes in. He thinks Travels with Charley belongs in the category of fiction. My reasons for partially agreeing with him are quite personal.

Personal Questions About Travels with Charley Characters

When my mother was pregnant, my dad was still in the Army at Fort Hood, Texas. A proud North Carolinian, Mom insisted on returning to Winston-Salem before my birth because, as she later explained, “I wasn’t about to have my first youngin’ born in Texas.” Perhaps that genetic prejudice produced my doubts about Steinbeck’s sincerity in praising the virtues of his Texas hosts—friends of his Texan-born wife, Elaine—on display during Thanksgiving Day dinner in Travels with Charley. As an ex-New Orleanian, I was also challenged by the tidy trio of Louisiana conversationalists encountered by Steinbeck in the climactic episode of Travels with Charley, a horrific hate-fest observed outside a recently desegregated New Orleans school. Steinbeck’s screaming racist mothers belong to a recognizable segregationist type. But none of the individuals he talks with about the issue of integration sounds to my ears like a Southerner, a Louisianian, or a living human being. Other characters present similar problems. These are the few I sensed were phony from my own experience.

None of the individuals Steinbeck talks with about the issue of integration sounds to my ears like a Southerner, a Louisianian, or a living human being.

Politically, Bill Steigerwald is no John Steinbeck, Bill Barich, or Will Ray. A crusty contrarian with a chip on his shoulder about big government of either party, he wrote Dogging Steinbeck during the Tea Party election of 2010, managing a kind word for Sarah Palin while deconstructing Steinbeck’s 50-year-old classic. It seems unlikely that anyone reading this blog isn’t familiar with the controversy created by Steigerwald in his argument from fact to reclassify Travels with Charley as fiction. Unlike Barich, he retraced Steinbeck’s route and schedule as closely as he could. Unlike Barich’s sentimental journey, Steigerwald’s road trip was gritty, gumshoe detective work. Skeptical by nature and by profession, Steigerwald looked for inaccuracies and found them. He couldn’t locate the “John Knox church” Steinbeck claimed to visit, doing the math to prove that Steinbeck’s published schedule made a Sunday morning church service of any kind unlikely the day Steinbeck says he got a dose of his grandmother’s John Knox religion.

Read Steigerwald’s book or visit his website. He’s a John Knox kind of  journalist—hardnosed, relentless, and unfazed by criticism from what he describes as the “West Coast Steinbeck Industrial Complex.” I predict we’ll be hearing more from him about the shades of partial truth he uncovered in Travels with Charley.

Why Pipe Dream Failed

What made Pipe Dream, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical version of Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday, a failure on the stage? The 1955 theatrical production had a great source, a great team, and great prospects. It also had a run of bad luck, closing after six months despite record advance single-ticket sales, respectable group sales, and nine Tony Award nominations. I love Steinbeck and I love Rodgers and Hammerstein, but I’ll admit I never heard of Pipe Dream until I read Bob DeMott’s introduction to the 2008 Penguin edition of Sweet Thursday, the 1954 sequel to Cannery Row written by Steinbeck with Broadway in mind. I ordered the cast-recording CD, played the piano-solo version, and (I think) discovered the problem behind the problem with Pipe Dream.

Rodgers and Hammerstein pictured at the pianoWhy Rodgers and Hammerstein and Not Frank Loesser?

Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, the show’s producers, wanted Frank Loesser to write the music and lyrics for Steinbeck’s off-key love story about Doc, a deeply melancholy marine biologist based on Ed Ricketts, and Suzy, the whore who steals the heart of Fauna, madam of Cannery Row’s Bear Flag brothel. Loesser was a logical choice. The winner of two Tony Awards for Guys and Dolls, he had been part of Steinbeck’s inner circle. If he wasn’t nervous about glamorizing Damon Runyon’s downtown gangsters and molls, he certainly wouldn’t worry about an off-the-wall romance set in a California whorehouse. Unfortunately, the Loesser of Two Goods was already working on his next hit, Most Happy Fella. But Rodgers and Hammerstein—the Greater of Two Goods, judging by Broadway’s bottom-line standard—were willing, available, and friends of the Steinbecks. Strike one.

Feuer and Martin also wanted Henry Fonda for the role of Doc, the troubled male lead in Pipe Dream. A 1940 Academy Award nominee for his portrayal of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Fonda had won a Tony Award in 1948 for his performance in Joshua Logan’s Broadway musical Mister Roberts. Fonda was also Steinbeck’s friend. Unfortunately, his singing voice wasn’t acceptable to Rodgers and Hammerstein and a less experienced performer got the part. Strike two.

For the demanding role of Fauna, Rodgers and Hammerstein were determined to have Helen Traubel, a classical singer whose Metropolitan Opera contract hadn’t been renewed because Rudolph Bing, the Met’s imperious manager, didn’t like her moonlighting as a nightclub singer. Hammerstein heard Traubel perform at the Copacabana club in New York and later in Las Vegas, where he offered her the part of Fauna in Pipe Dream. Honest about her lack of acting experience, Traubel accepted Hammerstein’s offer anyway. Strike three.

The cover of Pipe Dream pictured, showing the story's main charactersOdds in Favor of a Rodgers and Hammerstein Success

Yet the odds in favor of another Rodgers and Hammerstein success were strong. Oklahoma!, the pair’s first Broadway collaboration, ran for 2,212 performances after opening in 1943. Carousel—a tender story that touched the taboo of domestic violence—ran for almost 900 performances starting in 1945. But South Pacific was the Rodgers and Hammerstein home run that played for years, proving the team’s staying power. Co-written with Logan, Hammerstein’s book openly treated racism, also off-limits for Broadway musicals of the time. Rodgers’ timeless tunes were performed by Ezio Pinza, a classical musician who (unlike Helen Traubel) could act as well as sing.

There were modest failures for Rodgers and Hammerstein along the way, but not many. Allegro opened in 1947 and lasted only nine months. A serious work with a heavy moral, it had a Greek chorus, no sets, and direction and choreography by Agnes de Mille. Me and Juliet—the story of a backstage romance involving an assistant stage manager, a chorus girl, and her electrician boyfriend—featured complex machinery and lighting in place of standard sets and props. Though the odds in 1955 favored Pipe Dream, there was precedent for failure with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Allegro and Me and Juliet, shows that took a bet on breaking rules, had good music and short runs. Two of these traits would also characterize Pipe Dream.

Two CD covers pictured representing the cast recording and remake of Pipe DreamWhy Did Hammerstein Sentimentalize Steinbeck’s Story?

Following not breaking Broadway rules proved to be the problem with Pipe Dream when it opened. Steinbeck closely observed the process of production and worried that Hammerstein was making a mistake in fudging the character of Suzy, the female lead. Described by Steinbeck in a letter to Hammerstein as “an ill-tempered little hooker who isn’t even very good at that,” Suzy had to be a whore, Steinbeck said, for Pipe Dream to work as drama. Fauna’s Bear Flag establishment—in Steinbeck’s novel, the best little whorehouse in Monterey—was becoming a Hallmark card in Hammerstein’s timid treatment of Steinbeck’s tough story. Worse yet, Richard Rodgers was hospitalized with cancer during rehearsals for Pipe Dream, leaving Steinbeck alone to lose his argument with Hammerstein about how much reality audiences were ready to accept regarding Suzy’s true vocation and Fauna’s business. Strike four.

Yet from the show’s overture to its reprise, the music for Pipe Dream is Richard Rodgers at his best. “All at Once You Love Her,” “Everybody’s Got a Home But Me,” “Suzy Is a Good Thing,” “The Man I Used To Be,” “Sweet Thursday,” “The Next Time It Happens”—the show’s songs are as good as Carousel or Oklahoma! despite a single, significant exception. Hammerstein’s reluctance to reveal the truth about Suzy and the Bear Flag is evident in the words and music of Fauna’s signature song, “The Happiest House on the Block.”

I’ve played it a dozen times. Is the Bear Flag’s proud proprietress singing about an all-night whorehouse with a heart or a Hallmark household that simply stays up later than the neighbors? Major key or minor key? Comedy or kitsch? Like Hammerstein’s words, Rodgers’ music can’t quite decide which, leaving this listener—and audiences—confused. Steinbeck was right about Suzy. For anyone to care, she had to be a whore, not the virginal vagrant created by Hammerstein and derided by Steinbeck as coming across like a visiting nurse. And the Bear Flag had to be a brothel, not a house party with a happy-you’re-here message.

Broadway Musicals, the story of Stephen Sondheim, pictured with an image of John SteinbeckIf Only Stephen Sondheim Had Staged Pipe Dream Instead

Sometimes serendipity comes in small packages. While I was thinking about what happened to Pipe Dream between Sweet Thursday and opening night, I received a DVD of the TV special, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, for contributing to my local PBS affiliate. There I learned the startling reason Hammerstein was so wary about Suzy, Steinbeck’s whore—and why Stephen Sondheim would have been a better choice to stage Steinbeck’s ironic story 60 years ago. I’d always assumed that Hammerstein—like Stephen Sondheim and other social outsiders who created the Broadway I loved more than life—was Jewish. I was wrong.

Although his grandfather was a first-generation impresario on the pre-Broadway Jewish stage, Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein II was reared as an assimilated, Anglicized Protestant. And though Stephen Sondheim became Hammerstein’s greatest protégé before the composer died, Sondheim remarks on the DVD that he always resented Broadway’s genteel, Gentile habit of avoiding ambivalence by forcing happy endings on unhappy realities. From the Stephen Sondheim point of view (also mine), a Suzy without her profession, a Doc without his darkness, a Monterey without its whorehouse are monochromatic monads devoid of drama: Oklahoma without the Joads— Oklahoma! without The Grapes of Wrath.

Within years of Pipe Dream, Stephen Sondheim liberated Broadway from its remaining taboos: ambiguous sexuality, ambivalent relationships, and fear of 3/4 time sustained without let-up in a show. Too late, too bad, and a bit haunting when you imagine what might have been if Hammerstein had been as brave as his pupil and less attached to his class when writing Pipe Dream. Like Steinbeck, the lyricist of South Pacific and The King and I was a political progressive with a social conscience. Unlike Steinbeck—or Stephen Sondheim—he never abandoned his Middle-American devotion to happy endings and keeping up appearances. Other than not being Jewish, I wonder why he couldn’t make the leap. Perhaps because—unlike John Steinbeck and Stephen Sondheim—Oscar Hammerstein was a better-socialized product of a better-adjusted childhood with less reason to rebel, reject, or revolt.

In his closing interview for Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, the director-producer Hal Prince reinforced my thoughts about Oscar Hammerstein’s timidity. Prince recalled that when he read Kander and Ebb’s original treatment for Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin,” he thought their concept was too old-fashioned and added a sexually ambiguous character with the anonymous name Emcee. The show became Cabaret, Joel Grey became famous, and it was 1965—10 years after Pipe Dream and less than a decade before Stephen Sondheim replaced Rodgers and Hammerstein as monarch of the Broadway musical. I hope that John and Elaine Steinbeck saw Cabaret when it opened. I wonder if either imagined what might have been if Pipe Dream had been staged by Hal Prince or Stephen Sondheim.

Michael Meyer and the Bridge Between Literary Criticism and the Bible

Michael Meyer TV image discussing literary criticismAs a Baptist minister in England for 40 years, my attachment to Steinbeck came rather later in life. Over time, literature (particularly drama) became increasingly important in my ministry, to my writing and preaching on the Bible, and in my development of Bible study tools. Steinbeck finally clicked for me in the late 1990s when I read The Grapes of Wrath. My interest in the author ultimately led to writing literary criticism and forming friendships with American scholars. Among them was the late Michael Meyer, whose death in 2011 deeply saddened the international Steinbeck community.

A Bridge Between Bible Study Tools and Literary Criticism

Beyond Steinbeck’s numerous references to religion in The Grapes of Wrath, the book’s biblical and theological themes struck me as revealing much about the author’s life and character. In no way was he irreligious, I thought, and in many respects I found him running very close to Christianity as I understood it—though he might not thank me for saying so.

Knowing that the corpus of literary criticism about Steinbeck (like Bible study tools) is immense, I was only too aware of the hazards of digging in my spade as a writer in such well-trodden territory. My first ventures in Steinbeck literary criticism were occasional articles such as “Rumour of God” and “Steinbeck’s View of God.” The longer I thought about the gap that exists between literary criticism and biblical studies, however, the more clearly I realised that Steinbeck represents rich but neglected territory for biblical scholars, preachers, and publishers of Bible study tools. Unfortunately, my initial attempts to introduce these sources to Steinbeck met with little response. I also realised that much of the literary criticism produced on Steinbeck was equally neglectful of developments in biblical studies. Could Steinbeck become a bridge between the worlds of literary criticism, biblical scholarship, and Bible study tools? I thought so.

Thanks to my son (whose job at the time conveniently took him to California), I had the opportunity to do some digging on my own in Steinbeck’s native soil. Meeting Susan Shillinglaw at San Jose State University and her colleagues in Steinbeck’s home town of Salinas led me to write my first article for the American journal Steinbeck Studies, “Did Steinbeck Know Wheeler Robinson?,” as well to an invitation to present my paper “Did Steinbeck Have a Suffering Servant?” as part of the Steinbeck Centennial Conference held at Hofstra University.

Meeting Michael Meyer, a Master of Literary Criticism

Among the Steinbeck scholars I met at Hofstra in 2002 was Michael Meyer, a professor at DePaul University and an acknowledged master of Steinbeck literary criticism. We shared a taxi from the airport to the campus, and he asked about my background. When I told him that my major interest was biblical studies, particularly the Old Testament, he said that he was a student of the Old Testament as well, and a bond was struck.

In due course Mike asked me to contribute to a new collection of literary criticism he was preparing on The Grapes of Wrath. This invitation led to my article “Biblical Wilderness in The Grapes of Wrath,” later published in The Grapes of Wrath: A Re-consideration. Then, following a brief walk in the byways for a similar contribution to Mike’s collection of literary criticism on Harper Lee—To Kill a Mocking Bird: New Essays—Mike invited me to contribute to a collection of literary criticism on East of Eden. Recently published as East of Eden: New and Recent Essays, the anthology includes my article “A Steinbeck Midrash on Genesis 4: 7.” Mike’s untimely death interrupted the process of publication, which was completed by Henry Veggian of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When Mike died, I was nine-tenths of my way through another article of literary criticism that Mike had requested on the subject of Steinbeck and Morte d’Arthur.

Thanks to Mike, the bridge between the formerly alien territories of literary criticism and biblical scholarship, theology, and Bible study tools seems firmer than before. Mike was more than a master of Steinbeck literary criticism. He was also a fine editor, warm friend, and encourager of those—like me—who feel increasingly comfortable in both worlds.

The Seeds of Death


Wherever he lived, John Steinbeck kept a garden. He believed that being close to nature and living in harmony with the earth’s ecology was an essential part of being human. What I learned about industrial agriculture on my recent trip through Steinbeck Country would make the author of The Grapes of Wrath spin in his grave.

How My Genetically Modified Food Education Began

Steinbeck—not genetically modified food—was on my mind when we set out for King City, Paso Robles, and San Luis Obispo—our ultimate destination—recently. There, on busy Monterey Street, a used bookstore beckoned with roomfuls of books on every imaginable subject. In the fiction area, high above the ‘S’ authors, hung huge photos of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. A good sign! On the shelf below, between Gertrude Stein and Thomas Steinbeck—nothing. As the store’s manager explained, San Luis Obispo is an ecology-minded, Steinbeck-loving college town. Used copies of anything by Steinbeck are snapped up quickly. An even better sign for our Steinbeck Country weekend!

Monsanto, EPA, FDA, and Global GMO Food Disaster

The store next door had an intriguing name: HumanKind Fair Trade. A handwritten sign by the door described the inventory and promoted the virtues of purchasing Fair Trade certified products. Inside, among colorful fabrics and hand-woven garments, a stack of For A Better World magazines caught my attention. With nothing by Steinbeck to occupy the rest of the trip, I decided to take a copy of the magazine’s special GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) issues for bedtime reading. I didn’t sleep well. I kept thinking about the helicopters overhead on Highway 101 as we made our way south through the lettuce fields surrounding Soledad, Greenfield, and King City. They were spraying pesticides.

How Monsanto, the EPA, and the FDA Collude to Control

At home I watch the news and keep up with current events. I’d heard about the controversy over genetically modified food crops and genetically modified farm animals. But until I read my copy of For A Better World that night in San Luis Obispo, I had no idea that industrial agriculture and Monsanto have colluded successfully to control the world food supply with EPA, FDA, and USDA approval. I began to wonder why the terrifying genetically modified food story isn’t on the news every night. This GMO monster is a menace to global survival, and the battle against Monsanto may be the most important call to action the world faces today. So why are so-called consumer-protection agencies like the EPA, FDA, and USDA staying on the sidelines?

EPA +  FDA + USDA = Former Monsanto Executives, Monsanto Lobbyists, and Monsanto Board Members

Over the past 10 years, seven or more former Monsanto employees have held high-level positions at the FDA. Michael R. Taylor, currently the Deputy Commissioner of the FDA’s Office of Foods, was also Deputy Commissioner for Policy within the FDA in the mid 1990s. Between his last FDA job and his current one, Taylor was Monsanto’s Vice President of Public Policy. As an attorney for Monsanto, he advised the company on the legal implications of using the rBGH hormone on cattle. However, when Taylor left Monsanto for the FDA, he helped write the FDA’s rBGH labeling guidelines—guidelines which promote profits at the expense of public safety. Giant international chemical companies like Monsanto, Dupont, and Dow now effectively control the EPA, FDA, and USDA, helping push patented products—genetically modified food products, herbicides, pesticides, and hormones—past compliant legislators, regulators, and government agencies.

GMO and Roundup–Glyphosate–Are a Time Bomb

Remember Agent Orange, the Monsanto-made defoliant used in Viet Nam to kill nature and people? The company’s latest gift to ecology is glyphosate, the toxin used as a herbicide, which is now marketed worldwide under Monsanto’s friendly brand name Roundup. Here’s how Roundup works: As weeds become resistant to herbicides, genetically modified food crops require the application of more and more chemicals, including glyphosate. Glyphosate has the ability to disrupt soil ecology, effectively killing the earth where it is used. Glyphosate also binds-up soil nutrients, dramatically reducing the nutritional value of crops. Exposure to Roundup in animals has been linked to brain and immune disorders, reproductive problems, cancer, birth defects, diabetes, and more. Independent scientists warn that Roundup toxicity has been grossly underestimated by industry-friendly regulators at the EPA, FDA, and USDA. Instead of protecting the public from the threat of glyphosate toxicity, the EPA recently raised the allowable trace percentage of Roundup in farm-grown foods. You can read about it here.

GMO Food and Glyphosate: Threats to Global Health

Because the EPA, FDA, and USDA have failed to protect us, we have to do it ourselves—starting at the shelves of our local supermarket. Until the fight for mandatory GMO food labeling is finally won, anti-GMO activists advise consumers to buy only organic foods, avoid processed products, and—because you can’t tell from the label—assume that glyphosate is present unless goods are certified as organic. But glyphosate ingestion is only part of the problem with GMO foods. In independent lab tests, rats have developed horrible cancer tumors after being fed Monsanto genetically modified food products. Damage occurs at the molecular level, as the RNA from the GMO product being consumed binds with the RNA in the cells of the animal consuming the GMO. This process permanently changes the DNA of beneficial bacteria in the gut—another danger to bodily health. If you didn’t know better, you’d be right to ask why the EPA, FDA, and USDA haven’t intervened to stop this deadly cycle.

Same Old Story! Genetically Modified Food = Big Money

The United States Patent Office now allows Monsanto to patent organisms, issuing entire portfolios of patents to the company for the GMO seeds and glyphosate herbicide products Monsanto wants to see all over the world. When the company applies for a new patent, Monstanto’s attorneys claim that every GMO innovation is absolutely unique. Yet Monsanto lobbyists take the opposite position when the company petitions the FDA not to impose the GMO food labeling that is mandatory in most countries. With stunning illogic, Monstanto denies that GMO foods are any different from naturally grown products when the issue is labeling, while at the same time claiming that it has the right to patent GMO seeds as proprietary inventions.

Is Genetically Modified Food the Beginning of the End?

Once farmers convert fields to biotech crops like Monsanto’s, there is no turning back. Soil ecology is damaged by the increased application of Roundup. Genetically engineered plants are frequently sterile, so farmers must go back to the company to purchase the seeds and herbicides needed for next year’s crop. Monsanto prohibits farmers from replanting or cultivating their own seeds from patented GMO stock. Meanwhile, genetically modified pollen and seeds are spreading like a virus, carried by the wind to organically farmed fields miles away. The result? GMO pollen and seeds are now polluting organic food crops on neighboring farms, silently and without the affected farmer’s knowledge or approval. The process of contamination doesn’t end there. Glyphosate poison saturates the soil, enters streams, and may ultimately make its way into rivers and oceans. Our ecosystem is in peril today because GMO profiteers are kept in business by the compliance and collusion of EPA, FDA, and USDA officials in bed with Industrial Agriculture. It’s The Grapes of Wrath on steroids.

Act Now! Avoid GMO Foods and Glyphosate Products

Do three things today to help protect yourself from the global menace of genetically modified food and herbicide products:

  1. Google the words GMO, genetically modified foods, Monsanto, Roundup, glyphosate, Michael R. Taylor, EPA, FDA, and USDA.
  2. Pick up a copy of For a Better World and visit websites like Non GMO Project.
  3. Join the upcoming march against Monsanto.

To get a closer look at what ecocide by genetic modification means to you, check out this compelling video. It’s as dramatic as The Grapes of Wrath, except that its subject is the Seeds of Death being sown by Industrial Agriculture on an apocalyptic scale:

Steinbeck in Scotland

1919 street crowds pictured in Glasgow, ScotlandI live in Glasgow, Scotland, where I “discovered” John Steinbeck relatively late in life. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I sat down and actually read one of his books, my introduction being—as for generations of readers before me—The Grapes of Wrath. From then on I was hooked on Steinbeck, a writer with Scots-Irish roots that I believe are evident throughout his life and work.

Workers’ Rights in Glasgow, Scotland, and in Steinbeck

After moving from The Grapes of Wrath to other works by Steinbeck, I was struck by the parallels between Steinbeck’s themes and the Scottish nature, as well as by hints of Scotland’s strong radical working class tradition in Steinbeck characters who display distinctly Scottish traits. Among the most memorable are Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Jim Nolan—the protagonist of In Dubious Battle—and the young labour organizer who takes a beating in “The Raid.” In their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the good of their social cause, these protagonists clearly reflect the qualities of John Maclean and the Red Clydesiders of early 20th century Glasgow, Scotland.

The accompanying photographs illustrate my point. Two were taken in 1919 at a rally attended by an estimated 90,000 men and women in Glasgow, Scotland, demonstrating their support of the campaign for a shorter working week and better conditions for workers. Unfortunately the police panicked and officials sent in tanks and soldiers to the city centre, fearing that the protests would lead to revolution and resulting in the Battle for George Square. The first image shows crowd members raising the red flag, the second Government tanks on the streets. The third records the trial of the Red Clydesiders.

Battle for George Square pictured in Glasgow, ScotlandKeeping The Grapes of Wrath Fresh Beyond School

As far as I am aware, no in-depth study exists of the Scottish links that became so apparent to me in my reading of Steinbeck. One thing that I think prevents many young people from appreciating Steinbeck’s work in Scotland is that he is required reading in many schools. Being forced to read something in the school environment is not, in my opinion, conducive to personal enjoyment.

I speak from experience. Almost 25 years after leaving school, I am still reluctant to get better acquainted with the works of Shakespeare! Not that Steinbeck or Shakespeare shouldn’t be taught in schools. To the contrary, I think both writers ought to be required reading. The question is whether the teacher’s enthusiasm becomes contagious, inspiring students to continue reading beyond the required introduction and the boundaries of the classroom.

Lessons from a Glasgow, Scotland, Bookstore

I am not alone in this belief. While browsing in a bookshop for Steinbeck titles after finishing The Grapes of Wrath, I got to speaking to with a store assistant. She had been put off from delving further into Steinbeck by being forced to read Of Mice and Men in school. Reversing the usual customer-advisor role relationship, I spent the next few minutes convincing her of Steinbeck’s artistic merit and persuading her to give him another chance! I bought The Winter of Our Discontent that day but haven’t been back to the bookstore to ask if she did. Meanwhile I’ve almost persuaded myself to give Shakespeare a second try.

Shakespeare may be English, but Steinbeck was Northern Irish on his mother’s side. Her family name of Hamilton is Scottish in origin, and seems likely that her ancestors arrived in Northern Ireland from Scotland sometime during the 18th century. Less certain is whether the spirit of John Maclean and the Red Clydesiders—or earlier Scottish movements like the Radicals of the 1820s—directly influenced Steinbeck’s fiction. What is undeniable, however, is the writer’s interest in Scottish affairs.

Trial of the Red Clydesiders pictured in Glasgow, ScotlandFrom Robert Burns to The Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck’s February 1964 letter to Jacqueline Kennedy suggests the author’s sense of attachment to the homeland of his Hamilton ancestors and his familiarity with its history: “You talked of Scotland as a lost cause and that is not true. Scotland is an unwon cause.” Speaking in the spirit of Steinbeck’s statement, Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, noted that “every society is an unwon cause – the struggle for fairness, equality, tolerance, rights of free speech and thought – these are struggles which are never won – they require constant vigilance and courage.”

But Steinbeck’s books also show Scottish influence. His appropriation of the Scottish poet Robert Burns for the title of his novel Of Mice and Men conveys Steinbeck’s theme, along with a connection to Scottish populism. Like Steinbeck’s novel, Burns’ short poem “To A Mouse” reflects both compassion for humanity and uncertainty about the future. Ma Joad, the strong maternal figure in The Grapes of Wrath, is a recognizably Scottish type. Such women became a feature of the working class during the 1920s and 30s, particularly in the mining communities around Glasgow, Scotland, where large numbers of working men were flung onto the unemployment scrapheap, requiring wives and mothers to hold households together through the crisis that followed.

Support for My Steinbeck Journey in Search of Scotland

In the coming months, I would like to explore the similarities between the thinking of John Steinbeck and what I see as the Scots experience, building the case for the influence of Scottish history and values in the writer’s fiction. If I can find the necessary financial support, I will also gauge the mood of modern Scotland as the Scots people decide whether to reclaim their national independence. In September 2014, a general referendum will determine whether Scotland will become an independent nation or remain part of the United Kingdom. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Glasgow, Scotland, will host Britain’s Commonwealth Olympics in 2014.)

In 1960, Steinbeck set out across the United States to learn more about his country at the beginning of a the last decade of his life. For my part, I would like to learn more about my country as we approach a crucial point in the evolution of our identity, and to discover whether the Scottish traits I recognise in Steinbeck’s characters survive in the land of my birth. Are the Scots people up to the challenge of creating a fairer society? Are Tom Joad, Jim Casy, and Jim Nolan still to be found among the two-million-person population of Greater Glasgow, Scotland, and other parts of my country? It’s an ambitious but timely project—one that I look forward to beginning once I’ve identified private sponsorship or public financial support for my Steinbeck-Scotland journey.

Route 66 Features Added to Steinbeck Country App

Cascade Lake, Tahoe, photo, a pre-Grapes of Wrath image on Steinbeck Country appThe Steinbeck Country & Beyond app—published by Windy Hill Publications in collaboration with the National Steinbeck Center—has been updated to include new photographs and additional entries about Route 66, the road followed by the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath.

But the most unusual image added to the app is an historic view of the caretaker’s cabin at Cascade Lake near Lake Tahoe, where Steinbeck completed work on his first novel, Cup of Gold, a decade prior to The Grapes of Wrath. Although the cabin was removed some years ago, the current owners of the property provided the historic black-and-white photograph. Permission to reproduce it in the app was granted by the rights owner, photographer James Hill of Tahoe City, California.

Timed to coincide with the National Steinbeck Center’s upcoming Route 66 road trip along the “mother road and the road of flight” taken by Depression Era migrants to California’s Promised Land, three new entries cover communities along Route 66 described in The Grapes of Wrath. Part I covers Oklahoma; Part II covers Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona; and Part III lists California locations mentioned in The Grapes of Wrath.

A free version of the app describing approximately 200 sites worldwide associated with John Steinbeck’s life and work is distributed by Sutro Media through the iTunes App Store. It is also available for Android systems from Google play. For more information visit the app’s website.

2014 National Steinbeck Center Festival Celebrates The Grapes of Wrath

Starting in October and continuing throughout 2014, the National Steinbeck Center in John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, California—where visitors enjoy daily activities including an interactive exhibit of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley—sponsors a spectacular celebration of the 1939 publication of The Grapes of Wrath. The National Steinbeck Center is located at One Main Street in Salinas, California.

2014 Festival Logo of National Steinbeck Center, Travels with Charley Exhibit

The Joad Journey West in The Grapes of Wrath

October 4-14, 2013

The National Steinbeck Center retraces the epic journey taken by the Joad family along Route 66 through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the odyssey of Dust Bowl desperation that comprises the pre-California chapters of The Grapes of Wrath. The trip re-enactment by artists, writers, musicians, and others explores the human experience of struggle and resilience in new creative work inspired by the journey portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath. Participants will interview people along the route, create expressions of episodes and themes in various media, broadcast results via social media, and invite creative responses from the public.

2014 Steinbeck Festival Focus Book Cover: The Grapes of Wrath

The 34th Annual Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California

May 2-4, 2014

The National Steinbeck Center hosts three days of intensive festival activities in Salinas, California, and throughout Monterey County, featuring talks, tours, films, food, and visual and performing arts inspired by Travels with Charley, The Grapes of Wrath, and other works by the most famous son of 20th century Salinas, California. This year’s Steinbeck Festival will showcase the struggles of the Joads from Oklahoma to Weedpatch in The Grapes of Wrath using the work of artists and writers and oral histories collected along the October re-enactment of the family’s journey west.

From Salinas, California, to International Cities: 2014 Steinbeck Fringe Fest

The 2014 Steinbeck International Fringe Fest

Throughout 2014

Through partnerships with organizations in Cities of Letters around the world, past Steinbeck Festival events have been held in cities such as Paris, Hanoi, Krakow, Berlin, Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Fes, Port-au-Prince, Guanajuato, and other locales. Continuing this global initiative, the 2014 Fringe Fest will bring the celebration of The Grapes of Wrath to Steinbeck’s international audience.

Awe and Humility and Joy IV

A Tribute to John Steinbeck in Paintings by Ron Clavier

"We're There!" painting by Ron Clavier

“We’re There!” from The Grapes of Wrath. Oil on canvas by Ron Clavier.

Oranges Right Off the Trees painting by Ron Clavier

Oranges Right Off the Trees from The Grapes of Wrath. Oil on canvas by Ron Clavier.

The Mile-Long Rows painting by Ron Clavier

The Mile-Long Rows from The Grapes of Wrath. Oil on canvas by Ron Clavier.

A Night So Flooded with Moonlight painting by Ron Clavier

A Night So Flooded with Moonlight from East of Eden. Oil on canvas by Ron Clavier.

A Lid on the Mountains painting by Ron Clavier

A Lid on the Mountains from “The Chrysanthemums.” Oil on canvas by Ron Clavier.

The Fallow Fields painting by Ron Clavier

The Fallow Fields from The Grapes of Wrath. Oil on canvas by Ron Clavier.

The Hour of the Pearl painting by Ron Clavier

The Hour of the Pearl from Cannery Row. Oil on canvas by Ron Clavier.

Awe and Humility and Joy painting by Ron Clavier

Awe and Humility and Joy from America and Americans. Oil on canvas by Ron Clavier.