Archives for March 2014

John Steinbeck in New Short Stories by Steve Hauk: “Lily”

Lily had a little antique and junk shop a half block off Main Street. She also had a thick head of wavy white hair that she brushed up and back like a lion’s mane. The store was as neat and clean as Lily herself, who shone with a healthy scrubbed look. Her strong jaw and high cheekbones were set off by distant, light gray eyes and straight white teeth.

Lily opened the shop shortly after her husband Len died from a stroke at age sixty-seven, and it became her life’s center. She went into the shop almost daily to fill the loneliness—sometimes, if the sadness was upon her, opening on Sundays after church. Lily’s shop traded in old furniture, tools and small farm implements, saddles and fancy bridles, quilts, and framed vintage photographs from the Victorian era. Glass cases contained old post cards, yo-yos, and Dell and DC comics.

On the counter she kept a plastic container of red licorice sticks for five cents each. But when adults came in with children, she’d give the children a free licorice to keep them happy and allow their parents to browse. Anyway, she liked children. She even kept a full water bowl for dogs.

Now and then something valuable would come into the shop—a fine painting, a painted antique six-board chest, a rare piece of art glass, something like that. Lily was not lazy about researching such interesting acquisitions. If she thought it might be special but wasn’t sure, she kept it in the back room until she was. After all, hardly a day went by that a runner or picker didn’t stop in hope of picking off a valuable piece Lily had undervalued and thereby make a killing reselling it in San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Lily acquired some of her inventory at yard sales and farm bankruptcy auctions. But most of the merchandise came through the front door with people in need of money toting items important and dear to them.

Oddly, there was one item Lily didn’t want to see come through the door—books. She especially dreaded books by a particular author, yet they came in often because the author had not only been prolific, he had been born and raised—and so heavily read—in this very town, Salinas, in California.

Even if the seller didn’t have a book by that writer to sell to Lily, the possibility one of his books might be among the offerings invariably got her remembering again. This was something she didn’t want to do—it always led to a repeat of the series of nightmares that had haunted her in her younger years.

A telephone call had led to this dark incident, which would stay with Lily all her life, taking her back to a time in the late 1930s when there was to be a gathering, a reunion of thirty or so high school classmates. Two couples came up with the idea over too many beers at a bar in East Salinas; tipsy, they made late-night phone calls, and the event was set.

The reunion was to be held in a town park on a spring Sunday afternoon. They would eat and drink and talk about what had been going on in their lives. The participants wanted the writer John to be a part of the gathering. He had, after all, been a member of their graduating class. But John had not been seen in Salinas since his parents died.

“He thought there were people in Salinas who might do him harm because of what he wrote and was writing, which is one reason he lived over on the coast. At least that was the story,’’ Lily told a listener decades ago, just a few years before her death in the very chair in which she sat recalling the incident.

“To tell the truth, we felt John had deserted us for those snooty coast people and we were hurt. The folks here have long resented those folks on the coast with their golf courses and big houses and ocean views while over here we lay down manure and grow most of their food for them. I can tell you that the animosity was especially deep in those days.’’

Lily was probably closing in on ninety at the time she told her story. She was sitting at her desk, the sun shining through the shop’s front window, remembering. As she spoke, she absently watched the cars passing by.

“John and I had been close in high school, not sweethearts or anything, you understand, but we liked each other and kidded around a lot. We were both big, awkward kids, maybe that had something to do with it. He was a big fellow, I was a big girl. He called me Lil’. He was a funny guy, fun to be with, not so serious as people made out.

“Anyway, everyone said, `Lily, you call him, you call John and tell him about our little get-together reunion, he will listen to you. You can talk anyone into anything.‘ And that was almost the truth—I can be pretty damn persuasive. `If you tell him he should come, then he will. Remind him he was our class president and we want him here. It’s only right.’

“So I called his house on the coast and Carol answered—she was his first wife and didn’t know me from boo—and she seemed pretty suspicious, maybe because I was a woman and everyone said back then I had a sexy voice, so someone who didn’t know me might actually think I was pretty. Word was John and Carol were on the outs, or close to it. Well, she didn’t have to worry about me. I was not pretty and I was perfectly happy with my Len.

“When I told her why I was calling she said she didn’t think there was much chance of John coming to Salinas, but she put him on the phone anyway. He said, `Hi, Lil’, how are you?’ He was cautious at first and that surprised me because it wasn’t like the John I knew. But as we chatted he loosened up and we started talking about high school and that stuff.

“He even asked about Len and our kids and I asked him about his writing, which of course we had all been reading about in the newspapers anyway. He said to forget those stories, it was all balderdash, he was still struggling and, if he had his way, would always struggle because it was good for him. When I steered the talk to how things were going in Salinas, he got real quiet real quick.‘’

Lily paused for a moment, nervously rubbing her hands together. She continued reluctantly, not looking at her listener.

“Well, so then I got around to telling him why I called, you know, the reunion and all. He said right away, `Sorry, Lil’, I can’t make it. Thanks for asking.’ But just like me,’’ she added ruefully, “I kept after him.’’

“I said, `John, we all know you think people are mad here about what you’ve been saying and writing, about the field workers and the working conditions and all, but we think you’re imagining a lot of it. Sure there are some crabby people, a lot of old curmudgeons so dried up they can’t spit, and some selfish growers just after the buck, but frankly most of us agree things need to be better. We don’t think you should let the crabby ones keep you away. It’s your home too after all.’

“Well, he still resisted, said it wasn’t that . . . though we all knew it was. So I played my hole card; I played to his ego. I told him we were all excited about his success and wanted our wives and husbands and children to meet the famous writer we’d gone to school with, and maybe at the same time he’d like to keep up with what all of us were doing.

“Of course nobody was writing anything about us, but most of us were doing OK. My husband Len’s western wear store was doing very well, for one. John was excited about that. He said, `Good old Len, he has always had the eye. He picked you out, after all. You’ll soon be rich, Lil’. I predict it.’ ‘’

Lily looked around the shop.

“Len’s store was in this very space, did you know that? The place back then was called Len and Lily’s Western Paraphernalia Store. Len picked that unwieldy name paraphernalia on purpose—he said it would encourage people to use their dictionaries. And once they got the word paraphernalia in their heads they’d always think of us. We did very well, so maybe he was right. When Len died I kept the space, but it wasn’t long before I turned it into this shop because I didn’t like dealing with haberdashery wholesalers—that was Len’s job. I’ve always loved old things anyway. Kept the same sign and had Western Paraphernalia Store painted out and Antiques and Etcetera Shop painted in so it says Len and Lily’s Antique and Etcetera Shop. I figured people could look up etcetera just like they looked up paraphernalia. Anyway, etcetera covers a lot of things.’’

Lily started to light a cigarette, but her hands were shaking so she dropped the idea and set the cigarette and lighter on the desk.

“Len would laugh if he could see he’s dealing in antiques now. Well, we still have some western things, like that hand-tooled saddle in the window, and now and then I buy a nice rhinestone shirt or beaver Stetson from a broke cowboy, and there are plenty of them around.’’

Lily stood slowly and walked to a worn velvet burgundy curtain that divided the shop from a back room. She turned and said, slowly and sadly, “I don’t know if I could count how many times I wish John had said no to me and hadn’t made it to the reunion. But he didn’t say no and he did come and you can’t take any of it back once it happens. Amazing how long in life it takes us to figure that out.’’

Then she disappeared through the curtain, returning minutes later carrying a shoebox tied up with string. She was breathing heavily. “I had to reach up high,’’ she explained. “Need to buy a ladder.’’

Lily set the box on her desktop, snipping the string with a pair of scissors and pulling out a handful of old photographs. She handed them carefully to her listener.

“Those are photographs of the reunion. They’re faded but you can still make out children playing tag or hide ‘n seek, adults drinking and eating. Must have been forty of us at final count. You can spot John in three or four of those, big guy with big ears, holding a beer. And he was happy when those pictures were being taken—about his next book, about seeing people he liked, including Len and me I hope.

“I think the only thing he wasn’t happy about was Carol. He hadn’t brought her even though we wanted her to come. Maybe he left her behind because he was worried about her safety. He knew there was a risk. But he didn’t seem nervous like he‘d seemed over the phone. I think those beers he had probably helped. And I think he believed me. I think he thought if I said it would be alright, it would.’’

Lily closed her distant gray eyes for a moment and said, “But it happened anyway.’’

“What happened?’’ her listener asked after a few moments of silence.

“Well, the white truck,’’ said Lily. “The white pickup truck happened. Came out of nowhere, a white Ford pickup truck. Jumped the curb onto the picnic grounds. A truck with big headlights like cartoon eyes. You used to see them up and down the valley. Everyone had one. I’ll never forget those headlight eyes coming at us even though it was still daytime and the street lights weren’t on. It seemed like a living thing. I think we all sensed what it was, especially John. The bastards could have killed a child. I think about that, what might have happened to a child all because of a telephone call I made.’’

“They were after John?’’

“Oh, yes. Oh yes, oh yes. They must have known ahead of time. I always wondered about that, how they knew—still do. There were two of them. The one with a gun, a revolver, threw John against a tree with the gun under his throat. Len moved in, some of the other men, but by then it was too dangerous, what with the gun at John’s throat, so they backed off.

“The one without the gun, he said, `You write one more ‘effin word about field workers and we’ll blow your ‘effin head off!’ John’s face was red and he was clenching his fists and we all yell at one time, I don’t know how it happened but we did, as if we’d rehearsed it for a week, `John, don’t move! Don’t move a muscle!’ Then Len said, stepping up, `We know you boys, anything happens to John . . . . ‘

“And they screamed at Len he was an ‘effin moron just like John. But they wouldn’t have said that if they hadn’t had a gun, no sir, and everyone knew it. Len would have mopped up the fairgrounds with them. And they knew that too. So they pushed John back and got in the truck and drove away real quick.’’

Lily’s hands were shaking from the memory, but she lit her cigarette anyway and again looked out the window at the cars passing by.

“So that’s what happened more or less,’’ she said finally.

“Did Len really know the guys?’’

“That was an inspiration by my Len. Nobody knew them. They were hired thugs, that’s all. But Len put the worry in them. Maybe saved John’s life.’’

“You notify the police?’’

“We wanted to, but John said no, he didn’t want us to, he already had enough troubles with crooks and growers and the law. Anyway, the Salinas law didn’t like him, and what were we going to say anyway? ‘Two guys we never saw before in a white pickup truck like a hundred others. Oh, and officers, nobody got a license number either!’ So we gathered our kids around us and sat quietly for a while, calming John with one more beer, him apologizing to everyone like it was all his fault.

“Next day, a Monday, guess what John did? Applied for a gun permit—in Monterey, not Salinas.’’

“Did you ever see John again?’’

Lily looked at the man and then at the front door of the shop.

“Sure, all the time, honey. Still do see him in fact. See him in my nightmares after someone walks through that door with a pile of books. I’ll see him tonight for sure.’’

“Lily” is one of a series of short stories being written by Steve Hauk based on little-known but dramatic events in the life of John Steinbeck. The stories are inspired by actual incidents, but characters and events are added, as in any work of fiction. There are some exceptions, pure surmises based on anecdotes and reminisces, such as “John and the River,” in an attempt to capture character.  Steve’s working title for the collection of short stories is “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life.”


Collecting John Steinbeck: The Personal Story Behind a Bibliographical Catalogue

Image of books of John Steinbeck catalogye by Kenneth and Karen HolmesThe recent publication of John Steinbeck: A Descriptive Bibliographical Catalogue of the Holmes Collection attracted attention from Steinbeck scholars and collectors and stimulated inquiries about why and how my spouse Karen and I began collecting books by John Steinbeck. This is the story behind our collection of Steinbeck works and the publication of our catalogue.

Collecting Books by John Steinbeck Becomes a Passion

We have been serious Steinbeck collectors for more than 50 years. Although we started with first editions of books by John Steinbeck and had no interest in other items, such as the little pamphlet publications of stories including The First Watch or St. Katy the Virgin, some smart antiquarian book dealers soon persuaded us to take a more comprehensive approach. Over time, this led us to look for anything we could find with a significant or interesting connection to John Steinbeck.

Approximately 20 years ago, after bringing home a little gem I had found on a dealer’s shelf in Phoenix, Arizona—only to discover I already had a copy (a common experience for collectors, repeated frequently)—I realized that our collection had become too big and complex to manage from memory or by using a card file. We needed a computerized listing of what we had and chose Microsoft Access (Version 1) to design the Forms, Queries, and Reports required to accommodate a description for each separate type of item–book, periodical, foreign edition, stage or screen adaptation, and so forth. This led to creation of a notebook of printouts of 14 separate Access Reports of the material in our possession. From that point to the present, the notebook and our working copy of the 1974 Goldstone and Payne bibliographical catalogue went with us on every book hunt.

But the Goldstone book is hard to find and out of date. Eight years ago we realized that we had accumulated enough new information about John Steinbeck and Steinbeck works to produce our own catalogue as a resource for other Steinbeck collectors and scholars around the world. We decided to pattern our catalogue on Goldstone and Payne, but to make it more useful by employing today’s technology. Thus began the long process of editing and revising our collection catalogue into publishable form. The result of our work has been reviewed in various Steinbeck publications, so I won’t detail the contents of our catalogue. Instead, I’d like to share the story of how we came to create it.

When Public Access, Not Making Money, Is the Purpose

Initially, we hoped to have our work produced and marketed by one of the publishers with a history of printing critical works on Steinbeck and began by contacting the publisher of the Goldstone catalogue, which was limited to 1,200 copies. They declined, explaining that, while in 1974 they could count on a substantial purchase by libraries, today fewer institutions were likely to buy a bibliographical catalogue. So we published our book ourselves at a modest print-run of 250 professionally manufactured copies. The price is under $40 and well within the budget of most buyers—a fact noted by reviewers.

One of the dealers who received a copy noticed this, too, commenting: “Looks great. Lots of work. Could have priced more.”  He was right, of course: the book and its accompanying DVD are worth far more than the price we charge. And that leads me to our purpose in publishing John Steinbeck: A Descriptive Bibliographical Catalogue of the Holmes Collection. Money wasn’t our motivation. If we sell every copy we printed we could make a small profit. If not, the project was worth doing for its own sake.

Karen and I are proud of our collection; our catalogue is a permanent record of what we achieved in the course of pursuing our passion for collecting books by John Steinbeck. We gave copies to members of our family and to friends and acquaintances who helped or encouraged our labor of love. We also provided courtesy copies to 10 institutional libraries in the United States that house important collections of Steinbeck books, including the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas and the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. We encouraged each to make the electronic files of the catalogue—and of Steinbeck Firsts images by Phil Ralls and other details embedded in the book’s accompanying DVD—available to the public, free of charge, on their website. We want the broadest public distribution of the information we have assembled.

Image of page from Steinbeckworks catalog by Kenneth and Karen Holmes

How Technology Helps Collectors Use the Catalogue

Collectors familiar with traditional bibliographical catalogues such as Goldstone’s are aware that they describe the materials they list using words and code. The title page of the first British edition of Tortilla Flat, for example, reads: “TORTILLA FLAT | By | JOHN STEINBECK | [colophon] | LONDON | WILLIAM HEINEMANN LIMITED,” with the code mark “|” designating each end of a line of print. The half-title and copyright pages are similarly described. Comparing the description to a physical book in hand is tedious, but images of relevant pages in the first British edition of Steinbeck books are easy to compare with those in a book in hand and much more interesting to consult for most collectors.

Karen and I dreamed of compiling a catalogue that included images of key pages, not just words. Unfortunately, we learned that this would make our catalogue too expensive and bulky for our intended users. Enter the inimitable Phil Ralls, a man whose enthusiasm for John Steinbeck led him to assemble Steinbeck Firsts, an amazing electronic file of images of Steinbeck material and other detailed information interesting to collectors of Steinbeck works. Phil generously agreed to allow us to include Steinbeck Firsts on a DVD disk tipped into every copy of our catalogue. References throughout the book to “See Ralls’ Images” direct users to this digital file. Following Phil’s untimely death, his daughter Whitney confirmed his family’s willingness for us to complete the collaborative project we had begun with our good friend.

We think the digital feature of our catalogue is a first. We had never seen or heard of a bibliographical catalogue issued with a disk of electronic files, so it seemed a significant step forward for scholars and collectors of Steinbeck books, and reviewers agreed. We even included a PDF file of the entire catalogue on the disk in the interest of access, portability, and quick reference to our index. (Search using the “find” feature in your computer’s Adobe Reader program to locate any name, word, or phrase in the catalogue.)

Another innovation reflecting our motive to help others collect, study, and write about books by John Steinbeck: We included additional information about a particular item described that we thought might be of interest to the scholarly or simply curious—far beyond the confines of conventional bibliograhical catalogues. For example, the section we devoted to stage and screen adaptations of Steinbeck works tells you about any awards they earned, including the Oscar nominations John Steinbeck received for several films.

Learn More About the New Catalogue of Steinbeck Works

To receive a free electronic brochure detailing the book’s contents, send me an email at Karen and I are always happy to hear from fellow collectors and scholars of John Steinbeck. Our contacts with many of these individuals, along with our collecting experiences, have rewarded us in ways we never imagined when we bought our first edition of John Steinbeck more than 50 years ago.

Grapes of Wrath Views from the University of Oklahoma: Two Photographers, Two Novels, and Two Migrations

Image of Great Depression photos of migrant Joad figures made by Horace BristolThe day after John Steinbeck’s recent birthday, I spoke to an audience at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where I teach, about three forgotten stories behind the writing, impact, and unintended consequences of The Grapes of Wrath. The occasion was an exhibition of works by the Great Depression photojournalist Horace Bristol, one of Steinbeck’s collaborators in the run-up to The Grapes of Wrath.

The venue was the Fred Jones Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, which figures significantly in the narrative behind John Steinbeck’s novel. Steinbeck may not have visited the state before he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, but Oklahoma cared deeply about his work—and not just in the negative way portrayed by the press. Closer consideration of John Steinbeck, his collaborators, and his fictionalized migrants seemed appropriate in preparing my talk as I contemplated the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath. What I uncovered wasn’t new but hidden. Here is a summary of my remarks to my University of Oklahoma audience.

Unequal Collaborators: John Steinbeck and Horace Bristol

Traveling on weekends on assignment for Life magazine from the end of 1937 to March 1938, Horace Bristol accompanied John Steinbeck to migrant camps in California’s Central Valley. The Steinbeck-Bristol partnership proved less than equal. Bristol needed the collaboration with Steinbeck more than the writer needed the photographer.

In Dubious Battle, the 1936 novel in which Steinbeck charted the anatomy of a Central Valley fruit pickers’ strike, hit sore nerves at both ends of America’s political spectrum and attracted noisy criticism from communists and conservatives alike. In August he moved on to the San Joaquin Valley to examine the living conditions of California migrant workers and their families for the left-leaning San Francisco News. His hard-hitting account of the struggle for survival of Great Depression migrants from the country’s ravaged heartland was serialized in the paper under the title “The Harvest Gypsies.” It was reprinted (with an additional chapter) in pamphlet form by the Simon J. Lubin Society in 1938 under the title Their Blood is Strong, with revenues going to migrant relief.

The Steinbeck-Bristol partnership proved less than equal. Bristol needed the collaboration with Steinbeck more than the writer needed the photographer.

Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men—the searing story of the daily labors, fragile hopes, and ultimate tragedy that befall the itinerant ranch hands George and Lennie—became a national sensation; the New York stage version played to critical acclaim and ran for more than 200 performances. Clearly, Horace Bristol saw the professional benefits of collaborating with John Steinbeck, despite differences. Like the writer, however, the photographer was drawn on a deeply personal level to the suffering migrants they observed living in tents, makeshift shacks, and broken down vehicles, hidden along California’s byways and back roads.

The Horace Bristol-John Steinbeck collaboration for Life resulted in unforgettable examples of Great Depression photojournalism. But Bristol’s goal for the project—a book of his photographs accompanied by Steinbeck’s text—never materialized. By late May, Steinbeck had begun the hectic hundred days of writing that produced The Grapes of Wrath: Steinbeck’s sprawling manuscript, completed in November, was published in April 1939 to acclaim and attack. Clearly, one reason the Bristol-Steinbeck partnership never achieved full fruition is that Steinbeck was too busy writing his novel and dealing with the celebrity and controversy that ensued.

Image of another Grapes of Wrath migrant photo taken by Horace Bristol

But there is another reason: John Steinbeck could be an undependable collaborator. A proposed partnership with the photojournalist Dorothea Lange, whose pictures of Great Depression migrants deeply moved the author, also failed to materialize. And there was a third reason, too: Life refused to publish the text written by Steinbeck to accompany Bristol’s photographs. Although some of Bristol’s pictures appeared, the author’s language was too liberal for the magazine’s conservative tastes. John Steinbeck’s relationship with the Time-Life publishing empire never recovered; almost without exception, his books were panned by Time’s reviewers, despite the Pulitzer Prize he received for The Grapes of Wrath and the Nobel Prize for Literature he was awarded in 1962.

John Steinbeck could be an undependable collaborator. A proposed partnership with the photojournalist Dorothea Lange, whose pictures of Great Depression migrants deeply moved the author, also failed to materialize.

It is also worth noting that, while Steinbeck appreciated the visual arts and understood the power of words wedded to images, as a writer he may have doubted that documentary photography was the most desirable medium to illustrate his powerful prose. Indeed, as pointed out by James Swensen—whose manuscript “Picturing Migrants” is scheduled for publication by the University of Oklahoma Press—the 1939 dust jacket of The Grapes of Wrath featured, not a real-life image by Bristol, Lange, or any of the other Farm Security Administration photographers documenting the Great Depression in disturbing detail, but a made-to-order painting by the commercial illustrator Elmer Hader. To the chagrin of Ron Stryker, head of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration, the deluxe two-volume version of The Grapes of Wrath published in 1940 by Viking Press featured a series of paintings by the Midwestern artist Thomas Hart Benton, not the photographs of Bristol, Lee, or Lange.

As a writer he may have doubted that documentary photography was the most desirable medium to illustrate his powerful prose.

The pictures Bristol took on his travels with Steinbeck became famous anyway, thanks to their publication—along with images by Lange—in the April 1939 issue of Fortune and the June issue of Life, popular magazines with wide readership. As a result, Bristol’s photographs were used by the director John Ford in casting and costuming Ford’s award-winning movie adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, released in January 1940. A second Life magazine article followed a month later. It featured Bristol’s “Joads” (shown above and at the top of the page) and the movie’s characters (shown below), displayed side by side with the telling tag, “Speaking of Pictures. . . these by Life prove facts in ‘Grapes of Wrath.’”  However reluctantly the editors recognized the truth of Steinbeck’s book, they never approved of its author.

Image of fictional Joads from film version of The Grapes of Wrath

Russell Lee, The Grapes of Wrath, and a Great Depression Photography Exhibition at the University of Oklahoma

Now to an unfamiliar twist in this oft-told tale, one that is explored by James Swensen in his forthcoming study for the University of Oklahoma Press. To capitalize on the success of John Steinbeck’s novel and John Ford’s film, Ron Stryker’s Historical Section began mounting Grapes of Wrath exhibitions of work by the agency’s various photographers—with text taken from the novel—showing the conditions in Oklahoma and other parts of America’s Southern Plains that precipitated the exodus of native farm families, the problems they faced on the road, and their plight once they reached California. In March 1940, an FSA exhibition of 48 works by Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn (although none by Horace Bristol) appeared in the University of Oklahoma’s Memorial Student Lounge, sponsored by the departments of Sociology and Anthropology.

Willard Z. Park, an Anthropology Department faculty member, was the person most responsible for bringing the exhibition to campus.  Park—whose brief tenure at the University of Oklahoma lasted from 1938 to 1942—was also part of a faculty group that purchased four copies of The Grapes of Wrath for the university library to help meet demand for the book—more than 100 University of Oklahoma students were on the waiting list to check out John Steinbeck’s novel. Swensen notes that in the wake of the campus exhibit “several [University of Oklahoma] students made trips to a local migrant colony in Norman, called ‘Tower Town,’ to see the plight of the migrants themselves.” Tower Town was located near 804 East Symmes Street, just east of Porter Avenue.

Image of Great Depression photographs taken in Oklahoma City by Russell Lee

As poor as living conditions were for some Norman residents, Swensen explains that the FSA photographers who documented the plight of displaced Oklahomans during the latter years of the Great Depression traveled instead to the banks of the Canadian River in Oklahoma City, where more than 3,000 homeless Oklahomans had camped out. The University of Oklahoma Grapes of Wrath exhibition featured photographs of the Oklahoma City camps made by Russell Lee in 1939. Four examples of Lee’s harrowing images are shown above. They bear visual witness to Henry Hill Collins’ description of Oklahoma poverty in his 1941 book America’s Own Refugees: Our 400,000 Homeless Migrants (Princeton University Press):

Many of the inhabitants of this camp, a rent-free shack-town fashioned over and out of a former dump, were drought and tractor refugees from farms elsewhere in the State. . . . The ‘Housing’ . . . was almost entirely pieced together out of junk-yard materials by the unfortunates . . . . Neither camp provided sanitary facilities; children, looking like savages, played in the dumps, wandered along the neighboring, muddy banks of the half-stagnant Canadian River. . . . [S]o foul were these human habitations and so vast their extent that some authorities reluctantly expressed the belief that Oklahoma City contained the largest and worst congregation of migrant hovels between the Mississippi River and the Sierras.

Image of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and Sanora Babb's Whose Names are Unknown

Whose Names are Unknown: Oklahoma’s Forgotten Novel

Our next story concerns a Great Depression novel written at the time of The Grapes of Wrath that remained unpublished until 2004. Its author was the remarkable Oklahoma native Sanora Babb. Born in the Territory’s Otoe Indian community in April 1907, seven months before Oklahoma became a state, Babb was living in California in 1938 and working for the Farm Security Administration. A contemporary of John Steinbeck, she actually met the author twice. She also kept detailed notes on what she observed in the California camps, copies of which were loaned by her boss Tom Collins—the man to whom Steinbeck dedicated The Grapes of Wrath—along with the meticulous reports Collins wrote about Oklahoma migrant culture and dialect.

John Steinbeck used Collins’ anecdotes and statistics to research The Grapes of Wrath. Sanora Babb used the stories she gathered to write her own novel, Whose Names are Unknown. Its title and subject attracted the attention of Bennett Cerf, the editor at Random House, who wanted to publish her book. Cerf abandoned his plans when The Grapes of Wrath became an overnight bestseller, another collateral casualty of John Steinbeck’s phenomenal success. When Babb approached Pascal Covici, Steinbeck’s loyal editor at Viking, he also declined.

As a result, Whose Names are Unknown was unread for 65 years years before being published by the University of Oklahoma Press. But Babb’s book stands on its own feet as a classic of Great Depression fiction with significant differences from Steinbeck. While The Grapes of Wrath deals with migrants from far east-central Oklahoma—Sallisaw, in Sequoyah County, which was affected by drought and decline but wasn’t a Dust Bowl environmental disaster—Babb’s novel is set in Cimarron, the state’s westernmost county, roughly 450 miles from Sallisaw and squarely within the area of America’s Dust Bowl devastation. Unlike the author of The Grapes of Wrath, Babb was an Oklahoma native who experienced extreme poverty as a child and knew her people and their land firsthand.

Whose Names are Unknown was unread for 65 years before being published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Babb had moved to California in 1929 to take a job at the Los Angeles Times. When she arrived the stock market had crashed, the Great Depression had begun, and the promised job dried up. A migrant without a home, she slept in a city park before leaving for Oklahoma in the mid-1930s, where she witnessed the terrible poverty gripping her native state. Eventually she returned to California to work for the FSA, serving migrant families stranded without a home or a job, just as she had been years earlier. In contrast, John Steinbeck gained much of his understanding of Great Depression conditions in Oklahoma second hand, through reading reports by federal aid workers like Babb and Collins and from his experience delivering food and aid to California migrants from the Southern Plains.

Still, the John Steinbeck-Sanora Babb story sounds like a classic smash-and-grab: celebrated California author steals the material of unknown Oklahoma writer, resulting in his financial success and her failure to get her work published. Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary The Dust Bowl touches on the subject, devoting space to Babb’s life and book in The Grapes of Wrath’s giant shadow. But Steinbeck absorbed field information from many sources, primarily Tom Collins and Eric H. Thomsen, regional director of the federal migrant camp program in California, who accompanied Steinbeck on missions of mercy.

As noted, John Steinbeck acknowledged Collins’ importance in his research for The Grapes of Wrath, although his promise to write an introduction and help Collins’ get his reports published failed—not unlike John Steinbeck’s book project with Horace Bristol. If Steinbeck read Babb’s extensive notes as carefully as he did the reports of Collins, he would certainly have found them useful. His interaction with Collins and Thomsen—and their influence on the writing of The Grapes of Wrath—is documented because Steinbeck acknowledged both. Sanora Babb went unmentioned.

Image of Tom Collins and Sanora Babb in Great Depression photographImage of Sanora Babb with migrant organizer and girlImage of Sanora Babb with Grapes of Wrath migrant group

Whose Names are Unknown was published by the University of Oklahoma Press shortly before Babb (shown above hanging wash with Tom Collins, standing beside an identified labor organizer and girl, and sitting with a group of migrants) passed away at 98. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Babb’s novel is must-reading for serious students of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression in Oklahoma. Its primary characters are Julia and Milt Dunne, an Oklahoma couple with two daughters—Lonnie and Myra—who are caught outside with their pregnant mother when a sudden storm blows up and Julia takes a fall. As a result, Julia’s third child is still-born, like Rose of Sharon’s infant in The Grapes of Wrath, and Milt buries the baby in the yard. Rose of Sharon’s abandonment by her husband in Steinbeck’s story is physical. Julia’s growing distance from Milt Babb’s narrative is psychological:

Sometimes Julia thought of the little boy who was so nearly born, saying in her mind it was better that he was dead, but in spite of this reasonable comfort, she felt the monotonous ache of grief and of Milt’s frustration. That peculiar ripening joy she had felt—with the child filling her and moving strongly with his secret life—had left her. The emptiness of her womb crept into her emotions, and she went through the days and nights feeling numb and alone. Milt was morose and easily angered, and although he spoke of the boy only once or twice, she felt coming from him some undetermined blame toward her.

Parallel Migrations: The Southern and the Northern Plains

Unlike our focus on two novels and two photographers in exploring the background of The Grapes of Wrath, our view of their Great Depression context requires a wide-angle perspective on the contrasting demographics of migration patterns from the Great Plains to the promised lands of the American West in the 1930s. I say promised lands because migration to California from Oklahoma and other Southern Plains states wasn’t the only instance of mass westward movement during the decade recorded in John Steinbeck and Sanora Babb’s writing and the photographs made by Horace Bristol and Russell Lee.

James Gregory, the preeminent historian of the migration of Southwesterners to California during the Great Depression, places the total figure for out-migration to the Golden State in the 1930s from the Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas at 315,000-400,000.  (California received about a million American migrants during the decade, and they came from all over America, not just the Southern Plains.) Notably, fewer than 16,000 of these Great Depression refugees—less than six percent of the total number of migrants from the four states mentioned who ended up in California—came from the area of the Dust Bowl.  Gregory notes that journalists of the period are primarily to blame for “confusing drought with dust” and oversimplifying the facts: “the press created the dramatic but misleading association between the Dust Bowl and the Southwestern migration.” The subtitle of Gregory’s excellent book—American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (Oxford University Press, 1991)—makes this critical point.

Migration to California from Oklahoma and other Southern Plains states wasn’t the only instance of mass westward movement during the decade recorded in John Steinbeck and Sanora Babb’s writing and the photographs made by Horace Bristol and Russell Lee.

So it isn’t surprising that the role played by Oklahoma and its residents looms so large in the public memory of the Southern Plains migration to California during the Great Depression. The Federal Writers Project’s publication Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State (1941) reported that half of the state’s population was on relief by the late 1930s. In his remarkable 1942 study, Ill Fares the Land: Migrants and Migratory Labor in the United States, California’s progressive journalist Carey McWilliams stated that by 1935, “61.2 per cent of farms in Oklahoma were operated by tenants” and between 1935 and 1940 Oklahoma lost a total of 32,000 farms or more at a rate of 18 per day.  Moreover, McWilliams noted, from July 1, 1935 to June 30, 1939, almost 71,000 Oklahomans crossed the Arizona border into California. Interestingly, the bulk of this exodus came from Oklahoma’s populous central counties; the four counties with the highest number of outbound migrants were Oklahoma, Caddo, Muskogee, and Tulsa.

As Oklahomans, Californians, and readers of The Grapes of Wrath quickly learned, the term “Okie” became a derisive identifier for all  migrants to California, not only from Oklahoma but from other Southwestern states as well. “Little Oklahoma” was the local name for the Alisal, the area east of John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas where white migrants from the Plains states were clustered, out of sight and out of mind of respectable Salinians—as Steinbeck noted in his letters and in L’Affaire Lettuceberg, the angry satire he wrote (and destroyed) before beginning The Grapes of Wrath.

‘Okie’ became a derisive identifier for all migrants to California, not only from Oklahoma but from other Southwestern states as well.

Even today, it is hard to avoid perpetuating the “Okie” and “Dust Bowl” stereotypes and the oversimplifications that they represent. These became so  pervasive that historians of the Great Depression have paid little attention to a parallel migration of similar size—approximately 300,000 individuals—from the Northern Plains states of Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota to the Pacific Northwest states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. One historian, Rolland Dewing, has helped correct the record, explaining that Northern Plains migrants left their home states because of drought conditions and economic collapse, much like their counterparts to the south. In Regions in Transition: The Northern Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest in the Great Depression (University Press of America, 2006), Dewing notes that approximately two-fifths came from North Dakota, two-fifths from South Dakota, and one-fifth from Nebraska.

Image of maps showing Great Depression migration patterns

Steinbeck’s Oklahomans and America’s “Other Migrants”

But as massive in scale as the migration from the Northern Plains to the Pacific Northwest became during the Great Depression, the particulars of this phenomenon have for a variety of reasons remained largely forgotten. As Rolland Dewing explains in his book, there was no agribusiness equivalent to California’s Central and Imperial valleys in the Pacific Northwest—no foundation for the systematic economic exploitation and mistreatment of the newcomers.

The Northwest timber industry was doing quite well as the Northern Plains economy collapsed, and this stability—along with other positive economic factors in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho—helped ease the transition of Northern Plains migrants, which peaked in 1936, when the economy of the host region was picking up. Because the population of the Pacific Northwest was aging at the time of the Great Depression, younger migrants were welcomed by many as a demographic addition, unlike those arriving in California from Oklahoma and other Southern Plains states, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.

Because the population of the Pacific Northwest was aging at the time of the Great Depression, younger migrants were welcomed by many as a demographic addition, unlike those arriving in California from Oklahoma and other Southern Plains states, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.

Then, too, the socioeconomic and educational levels of Northern Plains migrants were closer to those of the Pacific Northwest states, so newcomers and hosts shared more in common than Southern Plains migrants did with less friendly Anglo-Californians. Indeed, many residents of the Pacific Northwest had been born or maintained family roots in the upper-Midwest: Northern Plains migrants seemed more alike than different in background and behavior to their hosts.

Like Steinbeck’s migrants in The Grapes of Wrath, Northern Plains residents suffered terribly during the Great Depression. South Dakota, for example, experienced a seven percent population decline in the 1930s. The population loss for Oklahoma was much less: the state’s population was 2,396,040 in 1930 and 2,336,434 in 1940 (a 2.5 percent decline). But migrants from the Northern Plains to the Pacific Northwest never experienced suffering on the scale of their southern counterparts who migrated to California. No one wrote a Grapes of Wrath about them. As a consequence their stories have been largely forgotten.

Image of Sanora Babb, author overshadowed by John Steinbeck

Rescuing Sanora Babb from John Steinbeck’s Shadow

Horace Bristol and Russell Lee were among the most important documentary photographers of Great Depression America. Like the pictures of migrant mother and children made by Dorothea Lange, their images helped sear the truth behind The Grapes of Wrath into America’s collective consciousness. The photographs Bristol took on assignment with Steinbeck for Life proved essential to the casting and costuming of the Joads in the movie version of the novel. But if The Grapes of Wrath hadn’t been so successful, Sanora Babb’s novel of Oklahoma would probably have been published as promised and might have become a Great Depression classic being celebrated, like The Grapes of Wrath, on its 75th anniversary.

Finally, if Steinbeck’s timeless prose—along with photographs by Bristol, Lee, and Lange and John Ford’s movie—hadn’t evoked the Southern Plains exodus to California so powerfully for Americans living through the Great Depression, our memory of migration in the 1930s might include the parallel movement of Northern Plains refugees to the Pacific Northwest. But the migration of these displaced Americans wasn’t chronicled by a John Steinbeck or a Sanora Babb: their suffering was on a smaller scale and they encountered less hostility. Thus art copies history but also reflects it. New light on Great Depression migration and the forgotten background of The Grapes of Wrath from the University of Oklahoma further illuminates Steinbeck’s masterpiece. It also helps rescue a forgotten work, written by a native Oklahoman, from the shadow of a greater writer. is proud to publish David Wrobel’s feature as the 80th post produced by our website in its first eight months. A scholar of United States history, David is also an avid reader and deep thinker on the writing of John Steinbeck. He contributed a chapter about Steinbeck’s social-protest fiction to Regionalists on the Left, an anthology of essays edited by Michael C. Steiner, and he gave a lecture, John Steinbeck’s America: A Cultural History of the Great Depression and World War II, to a large audience at the University of Oklahoma’s 2013 Teach-In on the Great Depression and World War II. He is currently working on “John Steinbeck’s America: A Cultural History, 1930-1968.”

From Short Stories about John Steinbeck by Steve Hauk: “John and the River”

John sat by the front parlor window reading from a book of Bret Harte stories while his mother Olive gardened in the backyard. Olive dug around the turnips to loosen the dark soil. She cut back the red and white chrysanthemums casting shadows against the frame house in the morning sun. Olive wore a straw sun hat and canvas gardening gloves. She stooped vigorously to her work, as she did everything, digging and snipping.

John’s head jerked when he heard a clink on the front window. Then another. He glanced at the window. He frowned and tried to concentrate on his book because he had just read, “He heard a wolf howl, then he looked up and saw a mule in the distance.’’ John wanted to stay in this man’s world. He wanted to know if the man was in danger from the wolf, or perhaps, more alarming to John, the mule was in danger, or maybe they both were. But there was another clink as a pebble struck the glass, and another, and then he heard Herb’s voice.

“John! John!”

It was early summer, and John had turned twelve several months earlier. He was now impatiently waiting to be thirteen, when he felt sure his life would finally change for the better. He would, by then he hoped, gain some control over his clumsy body and awkwardness. Until then he would do a lot of reading if his friend Herb would leave him to it, but it didn’t seem Herb would.

“John! John!’’ Herb called in a soft voice. Herb was wary of alerting Olive in the backyard. He was a little afraid of Olive. John set the book down, keeping his place with an oak leaf he inserted between the pages he was reading. He came out onto the porch, carefully closing the door quietly behind him.

Herb looked up at John, waiting, his hands on his hips, a baseball mitt hooked onto his belt. Herb was small but wiry strong, and had rolled his blue jeans up to his knees – which Herb thought made his pants look like the wool flannels Babe Ruth wore when he came up to bat at Yankee Stadium. Alice, who was John’s age, stood by Herb, and a little bit off John saw his sister Mary, who was Herb’s age, ten.

Alice wore a light green summer dress with white sneakers and Mary had on her favorite denim coveralls and lace up boots. Summer mornings Mary was often out and about before John even got up. John noticed dirt on the front of his sister’s coveralls, suggesting she had already gotten into a scrape or fallen climbing a tree. Mary wore coveralls for a good reason.

“Come on, John, it’s almost ten o’clock, let’s head out!’’ Herb said in a hoarse whisper.

“Can’t, Herb, I told mother I’d read and study this morning,’’ John said.

“Come down off the porch, John,’’ Alice said slowly. “She won’t mind if you come do something. It’s summer after all.’’

Although John liked Alice and thought she was pretty with her yellow hair and dark blue eyes, the way she talked and looked at him often made him even more aware of his clumsiness and large ears. He never knew what to say to Alice, so usually he said nothing and just looked away.

“We’re going to the park!’’ said Herb, looking from one to the other. “If there’s a baseball game maybe we can play. Alice and Mary said they’d watch.’’

“Mother wouldn’t like it. Mary, you know I’d catch hell from mother.’’

Mary shrugged. But she knew it was true that her brother might get in trouble. Olive always let Mary get away with more than John even though she was younger and a girl. This worried her a little bit. Herb made a face of disgust.

“Aw, come on, John,’’ he said, remembering to keep his voice down. “Make a break for freedom. I want to play some ball. The Babe hit two homers last night.’’

John peeked around the side of the porch to see if his mother was coming. To his relief she wasn’t.

“Herb, you know I’m not good at baseball yet,’’ John said.

“What do you mean yet?’’ said Herb.

“I’ll probably be good when I’m thirteen, when I’ve grown into my body,’’ John said. “That’s what father says – I have grown very fast and my body has some catching up to do. When it does I’ll be okay. That’s the way it was with him.’’

“That doesn’t make sense,’’ said Herb. “I haven’t had to catch up to my body and I’m good at baseball.’’

“You’re small, Herb, it’s a different thing,’’ Mary said. “If John isn’t good at sports yet, it’s because of what he said – he’s the biggest boy his age in Salinas.’’

“Who wants to play baseball anyway?’’ Alice said, looking at John still standing on the porch. “When a boy grows so much so fast like John has, strange things can happen to his body, isn’t that so, John?’’

John didn’t know what to say.

“Well,’’ said Herb, “if we can’t play baseball, maybe we can go across the tracks to Chinatown.’’

John looked at Herb and decided to come down the porch steps.

“I wouldn’t mind going to Chinatown,’’ he said.

“John, if mother found out I went to Chinatown she’d lock me up for the whole summer,’’ Mary said. “You know that.’’

“I’d go to Chinatown with you, John,’’ said Alice.

“Sure, we can make fun of the old men,’’ said Herb. “Ching-Chong Chinaman! Ching-Chong Chinaman!’’

“I wouldn’t do that, Herb, make fun of the old Chinese men,’’ said John.

“Because of the Tong? Because the Tong would get after us?’’ said Herb, who had been reading a detective magazine story about secret societies, including the Tong.

“Well, I don’t know about the Tong, Herb. I don’t think there are any Tong in Salinas. But Andy made fun of an old Chinaman just last week in Monterey, down by the sardine canneries, and boy was he sorry.’’

“What happened?’’

“The old man looked at him! That’s what Andy said – stared right at him!‘’

“That’s all? Just stared at him?’’

“Not just – Andy said he looked right through him, so Andy thought he’d been hit in the gut with a basket of fish or something. And you know, Andy’s a pretty tough guy.’’

“Basket of fish?’’ said Herb, thinking it over. “Is that like a Chinese hex?’’

“The old man just looked at him, that’s all. Andy said all he could see was the old man’s sad, dark eyes.’’

“That’s a hex!’’ Herb said triumphantly.

“I don’t think the Chinese have hexes,’’ John said patiently. He found he usually had to be patient with Herb, because once Herb got an idea into his head he had a hard time letting it go. If Herb thought there were Tong, there had to be Tong.

“I don’t care if it was or it wasn’t a hex, or if there are Tong or there aren’t Tong,’’ said Alice. “I just want to do something. Let’s go on a picnic.’’

“Where, Alice? Where would you like to go for a picnic?’’ John said. He was glad that Alice changed the subject, since Herb certainly wasn’t going to.

“Somewhere there won’t be adults telling us what to do, that’s for sure, maybe down by the Salinas River. If we stand around doing nothing and arguing all day soon the summer will be over. We can hide in the rushes by the river and swim, and you know.’’

“Swim naked?’’ Mary asked bluntly.

“Well, that’s not what I meant, but I don’t care. I might if I feel like it. You can if you want. Who would be there to stop us?’’

“Mary isn’t going to swim naked,’’ said John.

“I wouldn’t, don’t you worry, John, because they say the snakes are coming out now,’’ said Mary. “A man was bit near the river by San Ardo. I wouldn’t want to be bit when I was naked.’’

“Who says a man was bit by a snake?’’ said Herb.

“It was in the newspaper this morning, on the front page, father read it aloud before going to work. John wasn’t up yet,’’ said Mary.

“I didn’t know about that,’’ said John.

“They said the man was a raggedy hobo from who knows where. He was passing through and stopped to camp and eat by the river and was bit by a rattlesnake. Maybe two or three rattlesnakes because there were bites on his arms and legs.’’

They were all quiet for a moment, looking at each other and breathing softly as they thought about snakes and snakebites. Then John remembered something he had read once.

“Well, it’s true the snakes are probably there, but it’s nothing new – they’ve been coming down to the Salinas River for at least a million years, maybe more, way before there were people to get in the way, coming out of the hills in the late spring and summer to beat the heat and get some water. But if we’re careful and Alice still wants to go on a picnic . . . .‘’

“I don’t know,’’ said Herb. “If a hobo was bitten . . . .‘’

“Well, San Ardo’s pretty far from here, more than fifty miles I think,‘’ John said. “It would take those snakes a couple weeks to make it up here. And we could look for frogs. You like looking for frogs, don’t you, Herb?’’

“Sure, but so do rattlesnakes, I’d guess, especially plump little frogs and fat little tadpoles. And I’d suppose we have our own rattlesnakes here in Salinas whatever you say.’’

“Well, if you don’ want to,’’ said John.

“I didn’t say that,’’ said Herb, not wanting to seem afraid. “I guess I’d go down to the river if you and the girls are game. Anyway, it is a lot hotter down by San Ardo than here in Salinas, don’t you think? So maybe there won’t be any snakes up here until it gets hotter.’’

“Maybe that’s so, certainly not as many,’’ John nodded, even though he knew that might not be the truth. “Mother talks about how hot it used to be when she was a girl growing up down there.’’

“Did your mother swim naked in the river?’’ asked Alice.

“I don’t think so,’’ said John. “I don’t think mother would do that.’’

“They said his body was stiff and sprawled out like this!’’

“What body?’’ said Herb.

“The hobo’s,’’ continued Mary. “They said his body was stiff with his arms this way and he was found with his mouth open and his tongue sticking out to the side, like this,’’ and Mary stuck out her tongue, then pulled it back so she could talk some more.

“And I don’t want that to happen to me, no thank you. There was an open can of baked beans on the ground, too, but the beans had spilled out onto the ground and maybe the snakes ate some.’’

“Did the newspaper say that?’’ John said. “That the snake ate some beans?’’

“No, I just thought it up,’’ said Mary, who stooped over to tie a loose shoelace. “Who’d know anyway if a snake ate a bean?’’

“Was the hobo dead?’’ said Herb, who was worried all over again.

“Of course he was dead! What do you think we have been talking about? You think his tongue would be sticking out like this,’’ and Mary stuck her tongue out and pulled it back again, “if he wasn’t dead? Do you think he would have left a can of beans that cost ten cents on the ground if he wasn’t dead?’’

They thought about Mary’s last question and what they could do with ten cents and then Alice declared, “Yes, I think he must have been dead.’’

“That’s a nice story, Mary. I like that story,’’ John said after a moment.

“A nice story?’’ Alice was shocked. “Someone’s mouth like this with his tongue sticking out isn’t nice, John. I wouldn’t want to kiss anyone with a mouth like that, would you?’’

“Well, maybe his mouth wasn’t nice,’’ said John.

“So his body being stiff? That was nice?’’

“There was just something about the way Mary told her story, that’s all. I like the way Mary tells stories. She acts them out.’’

“She got the story from a newspaper reporter so I don’t see what the excitement is about.’’

“The newspaper reporter didn’t act it out. He didn’t stick out his tongue. That was Mary’s doing.’’

“I might be an actress someday. I’m seriously thinking about it,’’ said Mary, who enjoyed being the center of attention and being flattered by her brother.

“You never said that before, Mary, that you wanted to be an actress,’’ John said.

“I just started thinking about it, John.’’


They were all quiet for some time, thinking about what they might grow up to be – except for Herb, who had decided a long time ago he wanted to have his own gasoline station on Main Street, so there was no reason to waste time thinking about that anymore. Then Herb had another thought.

“I thought you said you couldn’t go anywhere today, John.’’

“Well, going to the river, that’s a different thing than playing baseball. I like the Salinas River and I’ll tell you why. The Salinas River is one of only two rivers in the whole world that flows from south to north, and guess what the other one is – the River Nile in Egypt! And here’s something else. Flowing from south to north must really be important, because the Salinas Valley and the Valley Nile are the two most fertile valleys in the world.’’

“Really?’’ said Herb, impressed.  “The most fertile?’’

“Yes,’’ said John.

“You read that?’’


“In a book?’’

“In two books and a magazine.’’

Herb had to admit the information John could come up with knocked him over sometimes. Herb knew how many homers the Babe hit but nothing about the habits of snakes or the directions rivers flowed.

“And they both really flow south to north?’’ he asked just to make sure.


“So the Salinas Valley is like Egypt?’’

“Well, we don’t have pyramids or pharaohs, but when it comes to lettuce and strawberries, I guess so.’’

“I’d like some strawberries,’’ said Alice.

“Too bad we can’t turn the other rivers in the world around and make them go from south to north,’’ said Herb. “We could grow more crops around the world and make a lot of money.’’

“It seems that way,’’ John said. “So I was thinking, Herb – so we can go to the river and watch the water flow from south to north which is a rare sight that you can only see here or in Egypt – I was thinking maybe we could come up with a story . . . .’’

“A story?’’ said Herb suspiciously.

“So mother would let me go. So I was thinking you could tell Mother you need to do a summer book report, and you want me to go to the library and help you select a book because you’re only ten . . . .’’

“I don’t know,’’ said Herb.

“She might think that’s OK.‘’

“And we’d really go to the river – is that what you mean? That’s a pretty complicated lie, John.’’

“It won’t really be a lie, Herb. We really will go to the library first to find a book. We did it before. We just won’t tell her the river part.’’

“We did it before?’’

“Sure, remember I picked out Huckleberry Finn for you last summer?’’

“Oh sure, I remember – ,’’ said Herb, spitting on the ground. “I remember getting in trouble for reading it because I was only nine!’’

“But we’d still be going to the river for a picnic, wouldn’t we, John? Not just to the library?’’ said Alice.

“We’ll go to the river after we go to the library. And don’t worry, we’ll look out for snakes. I’ll bring a snake stick.  Maybe you and Mary could scrape up some food and some sodas.’’

Herb shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He looked toward the back of the house. “I don’t know, John. Your mom’s a schoolteacher and she’s smart too. She looks right through me, like that Chinaman did to Andy. Some moms you can get away with stuff, not your mom.’’

At that moment Olive came around the side of the house, taking off her gardening gloves and putting them in the basket as she walked toward the children. She pushed the sun hat back on her head and smiled at the children and then looked at the sky, shielding her eyes with her hand before looking down at Herb.

“I’m not so tough, Herbert Henderson,’’ said Olive. “Don’t I give you oatmeal cookies?’’

“Yes, ma’am!’’ said Herb, amazed that John and Mary’s mother always seemed to know what was going on. Either she had ears like an elephant or she was a mind reader. She would, Herb thought, be a match for the Tong.

“And don’t I tell your mother you are always welcome at our house?’’

“Yes, ma’am, you sure do!’’

“Well, then, don’t tell untrue stories. You are one of the few boys I allow to play with John. I hope you’re not learning bad behavior from him. I do worry about you children. Why, hello, Alice.’’

“Hello, Mrs. Steinbeck,’’ said Alice with a slight curtsey.

“Aren’t you pretty! Mary, do you see how pretty Alice looks in her green summer dress and white sneakers? Doesn’t she look nice?’’

Mary looked at Alice and then at her own boots and dirty coveralls – she’d already taken a fall in a vacant lot tripping over a board and it wasn’t noon yet. She nodded, looking at the ground. It bothered Mary when her mother compared her to other girls.

“Well, since you’re all here feel free to have something to eat in the kitchen. We have lemonade and cold pickles. John and Mary will help you.’’


“Yes, John?’’

“Herb’s been assigned a summer book report – ‘’

“Have you, Herbert? Well, summer’s a time for learning, too. We shouldn’t forget that.’’

“Yes, ma’am,’’ Herb muttered.

“So I thought I might help him choose a book – like I did last summer.’’

“Oh, yes, I recall that turned out very well,’’ said Olive, her smile fading.

“I thought maybe something by Bret Harte this time – his tales of California maybe.’’

“Yes, that sounds safer than Huckleberry Finn.’’

“I’d go to the library with Herb. We’d find the book best for him.’’

“What a delightful idea, the two of you reading together in the library! Would Alice and Mary accompany you?’’

“Yes, ma’am,’’ said John just as, at the same time, Herb and Alice were saying, `No, ma’am.’’

Only Mary, aware of the traps her mother could set, had the good sense to wait before saying anything. To make double sure she would keep her mouth shut, she bit her lower lip as she shoved her hands deep into her coverall pockets.

Olive pulled herself up very straight, looming over all of the children except John, who was almost as tall as his mother.

“Children, as John and Mary will tell you, I grew up on a farm at the foot of the mountains not far from San Ardo. Most every summer the rattlesnakes came down from the hills to find water in the riverbed. I have seen cattle staggered and killed by the bite of a rattlesnake. Yes, large beef cattle felled by a single bite. I’m sure you heard about that hobo found dead yesterday on the riverbank. No one knows where he comes from so he will be given a pauper’s grave with a simple cross to mark his passing. Our church congregation, including John and Mary, will pray for his soul this Sunday. This poor hobo had no home, but now he will, with the Lord.’’

Olive waited a moment, gently looking at each child with her soft green eyes, giving her speech time to settle in. This is what she did when she wanted her students to remember something she thought especially important.

“Now Herbert, now Alice, if you’d run along – to your homes, I would suggest, not to the river to swim, with clothes on or otherwise. It is too dangerous at this time of the year, as we have seen. Will you do this for me?’’

She looked at them again and Herb and Alice met her eyes for a second then nodded. Herb realized there was nothing that could be hidden from John and Mary’s mother.

“And if I might mention, John and Mary have duties and studies to attend to this summer, not roaming around Salinas. John will have plenty of time for that when he gets older. I hope Mary never does. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll all get together again when school resumes.’’

Herb and Alice glanced up at John, who looked at his shoes, then over at Mary, who pretended to be looking at the porch. Then Herb and Alice left, walking stiffly down the sidewalk as if in a little two-person parade because they knew they were being watched. John’s eyes followed them until they were out of sight and wondered what they would do the rest of the day. Maybe they would go to Chinatown or maybe the city park, he thought. He knew they wouldn’t likely go to the Salinas River without him. Olive looked at her children and leaned down and kissed each on the forehead.

“Don’t concentrate so hard, you’ll hurt yourselves,’’ she said with just the flicker of a smile. “Mary, you can help me in the garden if you wish. Your coveralls already have mud on the knees so we won’t have to worry about getting them dirty. John, after lunch Mary and I will have you retell us the story you are reading, will you? From what you were saying this morning, it sounds like a good one. I want to know what happens.’’

John watched as his mother and little sister walked to the backyard, then climbed the porch steps to go inside and finish reading his story. He wanted to know what happened to the man and the mule in the distance who had heard a wolf howl. He hoped their fate would be better than the poor hobo’s by the river.

“John and the River” is one of a series of short stories being written by Steve Hauk based on little-known but dramatic events in the life of John Steinbeck. The stories are inspired by actual incidents, but characters and events are added, as in any work of fiction. There are some exceptions, pure surmises based on anecdotes and reminisces, such as “John and the River,” in an attempt to capture character.  Steve’s working title for the collection of short stories is “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life.”


“Living Alone” Live Audio: Dallas Woodburn Reads from Her California Short Stories

If you like David Sedaris, you’ll love Dallas Woodburn. And as David Sedaris fans know, funny stories are even better when writers read them live. Recently we recorded Dallas Woodburn reading “Living Alone,” one of her David Sedaris-like short stories about life in the social no-passing lane, at San Jose State University, where she is a 2013-14 Steinbeck Fellow. “Fractured,” her first novel, is in progress. “Living Alone” is part of a completed sequence of short stories set in California and destined for publication as one of the books that readers who like their humor black talk about over coffee the morning after. Scroll down to hear Dallas read to an appreciative San Jose State University audience that takes fiction seriously enough to laugh out loud when it tickles. As you listen, follow the story text—if you can! Dallas’s performance just might make you laugh too hard. But that’s okay. David Sedaris fans had the same problem staying dry when he started reading his off-the-wall short stories on the radio. And that story had a very happy ending.


Roger Williams University Honors The Grapes of Wrath in Liberty’s Rhode Island

Image of founder Roger Williams with map of Rhode IslandAmerica’s 2014 celebration of The Grapes of Wrath, written in California and published in 1939, became bicoastal on February 1, when Roger Williams University kicked off a two-month exhibition devoted to the novel’s historical context and contemporary relevance with a lecture by Robert DeMott, an international authority on John Steinbeck’s life and work. The location was propitious: Rhode Island, the home of Roger Williams University, began in 1636 as Providence Plantation, a refuge for minorities fleeing religious persecution in neighboring colonies. Rhode Island retains the progressive spirit of Roger Williams, its colonial founder—a spirit that permeates The Grapes of Wrath and the literature of social protest.

Image of Grapes of Wrath poster from Rhode Island's Roger Williams UniversityAs a collections and exhibitions manager for the Roger Williams University Library, I had the pleasure of collaborating in curating the exhibition with west coast colleagues at San Jose State University and with partners closer to Rhode Island: the Library of Congress; the University of Virginia; Redwood Library in Newport, near the Roger Williams campus; and individuals including Robert DeMott, a distinguished professor emeritus at Ohio University. Rhode Island’s celebration of The Grapes of Wrath is part of Roger Williams University’s Professor John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Program, an annual series of events honoring great works of literature now in its 14th year.

The Grapes of Wrath in Image, Text, and Facsimile

The exhibition—open to the public through March 31—is designed around themes such as the Dust Bowl and migrant workers and employs historical and contemporary photographs to document the background of the writing, publication, and aftermath of The Grapes of Wrath. The Dust Bowl section is composed primarily of Farm Security Administration photographs from the period. The section on California migrant workers today includes photographs from The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers by Rick Nahmias. The book focus of the exhibition features facsimile selections from the digitized manuscript of The Grapes of Wrath, written in Steinbeck’s cramped, hard-to-read hand at his home in the Santa Cruz mountains, far from Rhode Island but close to his novel’s California context.

Why Rhode Island Loves Carol Henning Steinbeck

Carol Henning, Steinbeck’s first wife, was an artist and activist who served as the author’s amanuensis and adviser. The title of The Grapes of Wrath was her idea, and she was an intuitive editor. At Roger Williams University, we chose to honor her talent and independence with samples of her drawings and sculpture. Along with Susan Shillinglaw’s recent biography of the Steinbeck-Henning marriage, the book section includes Working Days, Robert DeMott’s meticulous edition of the journal entries made by Steinbeck during and following the writing of The Grapes of Wrath. Like our colleagues at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies in San Jose, California, we chose cover art from foreign-language editions of The Grapes of Wrath that illustrate specific passages from Working Days.

Roger Williams Welcomes You in Person or Online

Rhode Island is small, friendly, and accessible. Visit us as we celebrate The Grapes of Wrath in the state with the motto Hope founded by Roger Williams—like Steinbeck, an advocate of liberty and apostle of hope who changed the course of history. If you can’t come to the Roger Williams University campus, share the experience online. Our exhibition page features a section not included in the physical exhibition: the adoption of the Library Bill of Rights by the American Library Association. A direct result of the censorship issues associated with The Grapes of Wrath, this pioneering document is powerful proof that The Grapes of Wrath matters, the point and purpose of liberty-loving Rhode Island’s bicoastal collaboration.

Hear The Grapes of Wrath—Steinbeck Suite for Organ

Image of Franklin Ashdown and James Welch at Mission Santa ClaraSanta Clara University recently hosted a celebration in sound for the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath at California’s Mission Santa Clara—the world premiere of Steinbeck Suite for Organ by Franklin D. Ashdown (at left in photo), a prolific composer of popular contemporary organ music. As University Organist at Santa Clara University and a fan of Steinbeck’s fiction, I had the pleasure of performing the world premiere of Frank’s work in the program of American organ music that I played to conclude Santa Clara University’s 2014 Festival of American Music on February 16. Inspired by passages from The Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck Suite for Organ brought the Mission Santa Clara audience—which included Lothar Bandermann, a distinguished composer of orchestral, choral, and organ music who shares John Steinbeck’s German heritage—to its feet. (Scroll down to play audio.)

Organ Music for The Grapes of Wrath and Randall Ray

Steinbeck’s biographers say that the writer studied piano, sang in choirs, and appreciated organ music, particularly Bach. Since The Grapes of Wrath appeared, the music-minded author’s spirit has inspired almost every kind of music—including Aaron Copland’s musical setting of The Red Pony— except that written for the pipe organ. Thanks to a fan who lives near Santa Clara University and appreciates Frank’s organ music as much as he does Steinbeck’s writing, this condition ended with the commission of Steinbeck Suite for Organ in celebration of The Grapes of Wrath and in memory of Randall Ray, a North Carolinian who admired the novel and visited Steinbeck Country shortly before his untimely death in 2013. Members of the family present for the performance felt that the passages selected by the composer perfectly reflected Randall’s generous spirit and sympathy for the poor.

A World Premiere at California’s Mission Santa Clara

But hearing is worth a hundred words. Listen for yourself by clicking to enjoy each of the five movements of Steinbeck Suite for Organ recorded live on February 16 at Mission Santa Clara—music that reverberates with the pathos and exuberance of Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath, and John Steinbeck’s humanism. As I explained to the Mission Santa Clara audience, this organ music expresses energy, drama, and transcendence, qualities of Steinbeck’s writing, in colorful cascades of sound that rise and fall with the emotion of the passage being portrayed. Mission Santa Clara was a perfect venue for the world premiere, located on the Santa Clara University campus midway between Steinbeck’s home town of Salinas and San Francisco, the city where he attended opera and concerts as a boy. The program notes excerpted below were provided by the composer in the original organ music score.

I. Preambolo: “The Humanity of John Steinbeck”

In Preambolo, the first movement of this organ suite, Steinbeck’s sympathy for the individual and the common man is represented by the Trumpet stop which sounds a melody similar in character to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. As the piece develops, a secondary theme builds to full organ, reflecting the immense influence of Steinbeck’s prose in American culture and politics.


II. Divertimento: The Grapes of Wrath

The Joad family joins a makeshift camp of fellow migrant pilgrims headed on Route 66 for the verdant valleys of California. They enjoy instant community as they trade stories, sit around the camp fire, sing folk songs and gospel songs, and finally join in a spirited square dance.


III. Miserere: The Grapes of Wrath

Ma Joad presents groceries for her large family at the check out counter. The clerk, a man with his own family to feed, cannot extend her credit. But he is sympathetic to her plight and pulls out a dime from his pocket to make up the difference. Miserere creates a somber tone which later brightens in response to the kindness of a stranger.


IV. Musica de los Paisanos: Tortilla Flat

Danny and his friends are a mixed Latino and Caucasian band of brothers living above Monterey, paisonos who spend their days adventuring and drinking booze. Musica de los Paisanos begins with a mellow haze and moves through a patchwork of stylized Spanish and Mexican folk tunes.


V. Toccata: Tortilla Flat

Danny, the central character of Tortilla Flat, inherited two houses. The smaller one, which he gave for the use of his paisanos, burned to the ground due to their carelessness. In a forgiving gesture, Danny let them move into his main home, where they enjoyed rich and colorful camaraderie, like the Knights of the Round Table. But it all ended when Danny died and his main house was consumed by flames. Toccata is emblematic of both houses burning.


Playing the Pipe Organ is a Family Affair

In addition to the world premiere of this piece, my February 16 program at Santa Clara University included organ music by American composers, such as Horatio Parker and Richard Purvis, that Steinbeck might have heard. As noted, the writer took piano lessons as a boy and enjoyed a variety of music, particularly the great American genres of jazz and Broadway, throughout his life. Following Steinbeck Suite for Organ on the Mission Santa Clara program, my son Nicholas, age 15, played the piano part for Clifford Demarest’s Fantasie for Piano and Organ, composed in 1917 when John Steinbeck was the very same age. Nicholas is shown at the far left of the photo with our son Jamison, 14, my wife Deanne, and me. Both boys are high school students in Palo Alto, California, where Steinbeck attended Stanford University. Like the writer John Steinbeck and the composer Frank Ashdown, our sons started piano early, and Nicholas now plays the pipe organ at church, as Frank and I did when we were growing up. Enjoying music was a family affair at the Steinbeck home in Salinas. It is at ours, too.

Image of the pipe organ-playing James Welch family

Recording provided by Santa Clara University with the permission of the composer and the performer. Program notes paraphrased by permission of Franklin D. Ashdown. The Mission Santa Clara pipe organ was built by Schantz Organ Company. Frank Ashdown’s choral and organ music is published by Morningstar, Augsburg Fortress, Alfred, Adoro, Concordia, and others. His distinctive compositions for choirs,  pipe organ, and other instruments have been performed in concert halls, churches, and cathedrals including the Mormon Tabernacle, Notre Dame de Paris, and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He was born in Utah, grew up in Texas, and lives in New Mexico, where he directs his church choir and composes on an ingenious digital organ, installed in his home, that produces convincing sampled pipe organ sounds.

John Steinbeck’s Powerful Ambivalence: Book Review

Image from cover of A Political Companion to John SteinbeckJohn Steinbeck remained a force in American cultural life for three decades after his so-called years of greatness between 1936 and 1939—a remarkably productive period marked by the publication of In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Long Valley (1938), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). On the 75th anniversary of Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, the reasons for its continuing popularity—despite the dismissive evaluations of critics—are worthy of reconsideration.

‘Critics do not like to be confounded in their attempts to compartmentalize,’ Simon Stowe reminds us in ‘The Dangerous Ambivalence of John Steinbeck,’ his introduction to A Political Companion to John Steinbeck.

“Critics do not like to be confounded in their attempts to compartmentalize,” Simon Stowe reminds us in “The Dangerous Ambivalence of John Steinbeck,” his introduction to A Political Companion to John Steinbeck (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2013), co-edited with Ernesto Zirakzadeh. Stowe shows how Steinbeck’s ambivalence about America, government, community, and individualism confounds Steinbeck’s critics and helps explain the disconnect between Steinbeck’s readers and many academics. Other contributors illuminate other areas of interest with equal vigor.

From The Grapes of Wrath to World War II and Beyond

During World War II, John Steinbeck was subjected to federal background investigations, even as he worked to advance the nation’s cause, writing the much-maligned yet influential novel and play The Moon Is Down (1942)—not explicitly, yet quite obviously about the Nazi invasion of Norway—and Bombs Away (1942, the positive account of a U.S. Air Force bomber team. He traveled to England in June of 1943, then on to North Africa, Sicily, and the Italian mainland to report on the war on the ground for the New York Herald Tribune. He also wrote a pair of works set in Mexico—The Forgotten Village (1941) and The Pearl (1947)—that addressed the ethical complications surrounding the intersections of modern medicine and indigenous folk cultures, followed by Cannery Row (1945), a divergent work that might be considered the first novel of the coming American counterculture.

Cannery Row . . .  might be considered the first novel of the coming American counterculture.

While less productive in the 1950s, Steinbeck completed one of his most successful and enduring novels, East of Eden (1952), reflecting the generational conflicts that came to mark the post-war period, as well as Sweet Thursday (1954), the critically undervalued sequel to Cannery Row. In addition, the 1950s saw the publication of John Steinbeck’s screenplay for Elia Kazan’s acclaimed film Viva Zapata! (1952) and Once There Was a War, the writer’s collected World War II dispatches (1958).

In 1966, John Steinbeck reaffirmed his deep attachment to his country in his last book, America and the Americans.

John Steinbeck began the 1960s with what would be his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), followed by his endearing and enduring narrative Travels with Charley (1962)—an attempt to reconcile his growing sense of alienation from his culture—and the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded in 1962 over the lamentable protestations of his critics. In 1966, he reaffirmed his deep attachment to his country in his last book, America and the Americans, essays on various aspects of national life and character. In 1966-67 he toured Vietnam, where one of his sons was serving in the U.S. Army. As in World War II, the newspaper dispatches he sent home supported his country and its policies, although he later changed his position regarding his friend Lyndon Johnson’s increasingly unpopular war in Southeast Asia.

Steinbeck and Politics from Great Depression to Cold War

In short, John Steinbeck’s writing of four decades serves as a remarkable guide through the controversies and complications that characterized American politics and culture in the middle third of the 20th century.  If it is appropriate to consider the nation in the middle third of the 19th century under the rubric of Walt Whitman’s America, as David Reynolds’ 1995 book of the name has done, and to label the last third of that century Mark Twain’s America as Bernard DeVoto did in his earlier book, then it seems no less reasonable to view the years from the Great Depression to the Great Society through the lens of John Steinbeck’s acute vision, as Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh and Simon Stow do in A Political Companion to John Steinbeck. A strong addition to the excellent series of volumes called Political Companions to Great American Authors—one that includes Henry Adams, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—the anthology attempts a fuller consideration of Steinbeck’s centrality to at least the first part of American life and politics in the mid-20th century.

John Steinbeck’s writing of four decades serves as a remarkable guide through the controversies and complications that characterized American politics and culture in the middle third of the 20th century.

Not surprisingly, Steinbeck’s work in the 1930s and 1940s gets most of the attention of the book’s many contributors. This includes co-editor Zirakzadeh’s provocative discussion of Steinbeck as a “revolutionary conservative or a conservative revolutionary”; Donna Kornhaber’s treatment of politics and Steinbeck’s playwriting; Adrienne Akins Warfeld’s examination of Steinbeck’s Mexican works from the 1940s; Charles Williams’ insightful exploration of Steinbeck’s “group man” theory in In Dubious Battle; the volume’s standout essay by James Swensen on Dorothea Lange’s photographs and the work of the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Agricultural Organization; Zirakzadeh’s treatment of The Grapes of Wrath as novel, film, and inspiration for the music of Bruce Springsteen; and Mimi R. Gladstein and James H. Meredith’s “Patriotic Ironies,” an account of John Steinbeck’s wartime service. Other essays examine Steinbeck’s legacy in the songs of Springsteen, Travels with Charley and America and Americans (together), and The Winter of Our Discontent.

John Steinbeck’s Enduring Relevance, Despite the Critics

In addition to the absence of any extended treatment of Cannery Row, the second half of Steinbeck’s career in general gets short shrift. There is no significant coverage of East of Eden, nor of Steinbeck’s powerful defense of the playwright Arthur Miller in 1957 against the charges of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the political context of Cold War paranoia in which HUAC operated. Partisan politics are also largely absent from the essays, although as evident from his correspondence John Steinbeck held strong political opinions, beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s. Steinbeck’s dispatches from the Vietnam War (recently republished by the University of Virginia Press) are ignored, and greater attention to the 1950s and 1960s would have made the anthology more complete. With notable exceptions, senior Steinbeck scholars such as Robert DeMott and Susan Shillinglaw are absent from the roster of contributors: Kevin Hearle’s deep perspective on the politics of race and place would have augmented the volume but is missing.

John Steinbeck held strong political opinions, beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s.

Despite the gaps, however, A Political Companion to John Steinbeck achieves the goal of its editors and contributors to illuminate the complexities of John Steinbeck’s political thought and underscore the enduring contribution of his work to American political thought. Well-edited and integrated, the essays explore nuances and complications of Steinbeck’s personal political thought while providing an effective response to the generations of critics who have found his work excessively heroic, sentimental, moralistic, or didactic—or too popular to be taken seriously. Whatever the tensions in John Steinbeck’s writing at a particular moment—between group man and the individual, traditionalism and liberalism, communism and capitalism, alienation from and affirmation of America—contradictions and ambiguities are distinctive characteristics of his art and ambivalence frequently defines his thinking. These traits help account for his continuing relevance.

Whatever the tensions in John Steinbeck’s writing at a particular moment . . . contradictions and ambiguities are distinctive characteristics of his art and ambivalence frequently defines his thinking. These traits help account for his continuing relevance.

John Steinbeck may not be honored everywhere in the academy 75 years after The Grapes of Wrath, but he remains popular with readers worldwide. His dedication to the advancement of human welfare and the nurturing of human relations through art may seem too low-brow to arbiters of the current literary canon, and political extremists on both right and left continue to attack his work, from In Dubious Battle to The Grapes of Wrath and beyond. But a significant segment of the reading public still feels deeply connected to his fiction. More than any other writer of his day, Steinbeck captured and conveyed the striving of average Americans during the Great Depression, World War II, and two subsequent wars—one cold, the other hot. By placing Steinbeck’s powerful, productive ambivalence center stage, A Political Companion to John Steinbeck nudges us toward a fuller appreciation of the writer and his work in a year in which we celebrate The Grapes of Wrath, his masterpiece.

A different version of this review appeared in The b2 Review.