Archives for April 2014

Steinbeck Suite for Organ

From Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen, two books that made John Steinbeck famous—Tortilla Flat and The Grapes of Wrath—have inspired American singers to celebrate both sides, sunny and sad, of John Steinbeck’s moody populism. Aaron Copland wrote orchestral music for The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men in the 1940s, and Ricky Ian Gordon’s operatic setting of The Grapes of Wrath premiered in 1977. But before now pipe organs have been silent on the subject of John Steinbeck, and that seemed strange: the author listened to Bach and had an ear for church music developed as a child. The February 16 premiere of Franklin D. Ashdown’s monumental Steinbeck Suite for Organ at Mission Santa Clara—65 miles from Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas—remedied this historic oversight. Pulling out all the stops on the reverberant Mission Santa Clara pipe organ, James Welch brought passages from Tortilla Flat and The Grapes of Wrath chosen by Ashdown to thundering and whispering life. Five movements describe moments of high drama from two Steinbeck classics: I. Perambolo (“The Humanity of John Steinbeck”); II. Divertimento (“Making Camp and Celebrating on Route 66: The Grapes of Wrath”); III. Miserere (“’If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to the poor people. They’re the ones that’ll help’: The Grapes of Wrath”); IV. Musica de los Paisanos (“’How lonely it would be in the world if there are no friends to sit with one and share one’s grappa’: Tortilla Flat”); and V. Toccata (“The Conflagration of Danny’s House: Tortilla Flat”). Crank up the volume on your computer, then listen, laugh, and weep. The live recording below is courtesy of Santa Clara University and includes movement pauses and audience applause.


Tales of Genius from Pacific Grove: John Steinbeck and Gary Kildall’s Tragic Story

Image of Gary Kildall, hero of computer historyJohn Steinbeck changed the world through his writings in Pacific Grove, California, in the 1930s. In the 1970s, also in Pacific Grove, Gary Kildall (shown here) changed computer history–and eventually human history–through his creation of a groundbreaking software program called CP/M.

As the crow flies, there’s probably no more than a mile’s distance between the little red cottage on 11th Street in Pacific Grove where Steinbeck wrote such enduring works as Of Mice and Men and the tiny tool shed on Bayview Avenue where Kildall composed Control Program for Microcomputers (CP/M).

As the crow flies, there’s probably no more than a mile’s distance between the little red cottage on 11th Street in Pacific Grove where Steinbeck wrote such enduring works as Of Mice and Men and the tiny tool shed on Bayview Avenue where Kildall composed Control Program for Microcomputers (CP/M). CP/M took the world of the personal computer–and thus interpersonal communication and all that can stand for in education, medicine, and the general betterment of mankind, when used wisely of course–to a level unimaginable in John Steinbeck’s time.

Image of the IEEE Milestone plaque installed in Pacific Grove

Celebrating a Computer History Hero in Pacific Grove

It’s ironic that one of Kildall’s strongest supporters, David A. Laws—a curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California—is also a Steinbeck enthusiast, essayist, and photographer. Today in Pacific Grove, Laws will take part in events involving the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in honor of Kildall’s accomplishments, including the 40th anniversary of the unveiling of CP/M in 1974. The IEEE—an international organization that honors major moments in technological advancement—will place a Milestone plaque at 801 Lighthouse Avenue, which was the headquarters for Kildall’s Pacific Grove computer company, Digital Research.

“As semiconductor curator at the Computer History Museum,’’ Laws says, “I understand the extraordinary impact that the personal computer revolution had both on the fortunes of Silicon Valley and on the lives of billions of people throughout the developed world. Uniquely among operating systems, Kildall’s CP/M was configured to allow any computer built with the Intel processor to work with hardware and software from any vendor, rather than a single manufacturer such as IBM . . . .

“That system became widely successful among computer hobbyists and start-up PC companies. It also kick-started the independent software publishing industry,’’ he adds.

`He saw the future and made it work. He was the true founder of the personal computer revolution and the father of PC software.’

But clones of CP/M followed, and others profited from Kildall’s creation.

“Questions surrounding IBM’s selection of a Microsoft clone of CP/M for the next-generation Intel processor used in the IBM PC and the resulting demise of Digital Research and the tragic death of Gary Kildall continue to fuel myths and conspiracy theories today,’’ Laws notes. “However, there is little controversy over Harold Evans’ characterization: `He saw the future and made it work. He was the true founder of the personal computer revolution and the father of PC software.’”

Image of author and editor Sir Harold Evans

Correcting the Computer History Record on TV and in Print

The indomitable Sir Harold Evans made that powerful statement in his popular PBS television program and book, They Made America, writing about such giants of invention as Thomas Edison, Samuel Morse, and the Wright Brothers. Evans includes Kildall in that distinguished group. The former editor of London’s Sunday Times, Evans has made it a crusade to return credit to those, like Kildall, who have forged the way in invention, engineering, and computer history. As noted on the book and series website, “We see Gary Kildall develop the operating system that will underpin Bill Gates’s empire.’’

Kildall’s story is one of brilliance and tragedy, of great achievement and great loss. Gary Kildall was much in the news after his death from a cerebral hemorrhage following a fall in a Monterey bar in 1994—which may or may not have been an accident—then slipped from public memory, becoming a footnote to a lost chapter in computer history.

Kildall’s story is one of brilliance and tragedy, of great achievement and great loss.

My wife Nancy and I knew Gary and his wife Dorothy and before a falling out were for a time friends, playing tennis, going to dinner together, enjoying each other’s company. On several occasions Gary took me flying over Monterey Bay.

I was shocked when I heard of his death. We hadn’t been in contact for several years, though I had followed him in the news, some of it in the newspaper I worked for at the time, the Monterey County Herald. There I wrote a column remembering him. As I look back at the piece, I note that it focused on his sense of fun, his love of life, and his joy in research and discovery.

Some time later a gentleman gave me a copy of They Made America that he had found at a book sale at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey–another irony, since Gary taught at the school for years. I had been thinking of writing something suggested by Gary’s personal story, and the chapter about him in Evans’ book convinced me to get to it. So I wrote the play A Mild Concussion – the Rapid Rise and Long Fall of an Idealistic Computer Genius, which has been published on this website.

To learn more about Gary Kildall and the recognition of his accomplishments and his place in computer history by the IEEE, go to the Facebook page composed by David Laws.

Steppenwolf Theatre’s Grapes of Wrath Reprised at San Jose State University

Image from Steppenwolf Theatre's Grapes of Wrath at San Jose State UniversitySan Jose State University continued its non-stop 75th anniversary party for The Grapes of Wrath in April with a revival of Frank Galati’s dramatization of John Steinbeck’s novel, praised by Chicago’s legendary writer Studs Terkel and premiered by Chicago’s award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre 25 years ago. Studs Terkel may be dead, but the progressive prophet’s ghost—like that of Tom Joad—haunts the heart of America in the age of Occupy Wall Street, Wal-Mart wages, and workers “tractored out [Studs Terkel’s words] by the cats.” In this context the San Jose State University production made a timeless work seem particularly timely.

Image from San Jose State University revival of The Grapes of WrathWe were in the audience for the April 16 performance at the San Jose State University theater and saw for ourselves why Galati’s play caught the attention of critics and won awards when it was first produced in Chicago, London, and New York. Despite the work’s ambitious scale, casting requirements, and technical demands, San Jose State University’s Department of Television, Radio, Film & Theatre was prepared for the task; the April run reprised a production by San Jose State University students and staff in the 1990s. Undaunted, director Laura Long and director of production Barnaby Dallas capitalized on the challenge of restaging Steinbeck’s 20th century story using 21st century actors from a distinctively diverse community.

Image from The Grapes of Wrath at San Jose State UniversityStuds Terkel would have been pleased with the result of their imaginative rethinking. Long’s casting was unapologetically contemporary—multiracial, multigenerational, and a meaningful reminder that Steinbeck’s “Okies” are more than convenient stereotypes or skin-deep symbols of a bygone era. The production shots shown here courtesy of the San Jose State University theater department tell a story worth a thousand words—although Studs Terkel used fewer than 65 when we wrote this about the enduring relevance of The Grapes of Wrath during the period of Galati’s Steppewolf Theatre premiere, a time of deepening income inequality:

It is 1988. We see the face on the six o’clock news. It could be a Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange shot, but that’s fifty years off. It was a face of despair, of an Iowa farmer, fourth generation, facing foreclosure. I’ve seen this face before. It is the face of Pa, Muley Graves, and all their lost neighbors, tractored out by the cats.

Image of Tom Joad, praised by Studs Terkel and recast for the stage

From the Garden

Love-song lyrics about the types of flowers commonly found in gardens? It may sound unusual in connection with John Steinbeck, but the author who wrote “Chrysanthemums” loved to garden and grew many types of flowers and vegetables at home, even in New York. The New York actor and singer Alan Brasington liked the idea of song lyrics about the garden of love so much that he gathered, performed, and produced a medley of American love songs featuring the types of flowers Steinbeck would have known and grown a century ago. The SUNY New Paltz graduate and London-New York theater veteran sings with Alice Evans, an award-winning Broadway actress whose family descended from the American patriot Nathan Hale. 

Party! Susan Shillinglaw on Reading The Grapes of Wrath

Image of Susan Shillinglaw and her new book, On Reading The Grapes of WrathGreat books about great books are cause for celebration anytime. Thanks to the pressure of a 75th anniversary deadline—and the prodding of the people at Penguin Books—John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath now has a perfect companion in On Reading “The Grapes of Wrath”  by Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English at San Jose State University. Recently published by Penguin Books as an attractive, affordable paperback, her new book is an essential guide to a novel that was written in nine months in 1938 and still sells in six figures—further evidence, if needed, that deadlines are enlivening. A compact work of 200 pages divided into engaging topics, the project was suggested by Penguin Books and completed by Shillinglaw in 90 days. Written in clear prose for a general audience, it will still be read when The Grapes of Wrath turns 100.

Susan Shillinglaw’s new book is an essential guide to a novel that was written in nine months in 1938 and still sells in six figures.

San Jose State University’s reputation for Steinbeck studies rests largely on Shillinglaw’s 25-year record of teaching, writing, and organizing around California’s greatest author of all time; in international Steinbeck circles, perhaps three other scholars in America come to mind as quickly as she does when Steinbeck studies are mentioned. The late Peter Lisca unlocked the structure of Steinbeck’s fiction using the tools of formal analysis. Jackson Benson, another Californian, wrote the definitive biography. Robert DeMott—the first director of San Jose State University’s center for Steinbeck studies—continues to explore the sources, texts, and processes of Steinbeck’s writing with the care of a scientist and the soul of a poet.

San Jose State University’s reputation for Steinbeck studies rests largely on Shillinglaw’s 25-year record.

Shillinglaw builds on all three in her new book, combining structural, biographical, and textual approaches with features that have become her signature as a writer about Steinbeck. As in her previous publications, she brings Steinbeck out of the past into the present, connecting the context, content, and impact of The Grapes of Wrath to urgent issues of contemporary life. As she has done in essays and conferences, she brings Steinbeck’s ecology into existential focus through the writer’s relationship with Ed Ricketts, connecting The Grapes of Wrath to Sea of Cortez, their collaborative work, in what she describes as a “diptych” of two books with one theme. Most important for most readers, she brings a graceful style of expression to an author who cared more about being read than being written about. In this she emulates her subject; On Reading “The Grapes of Wrath” is further evidence of the all-too-rare virtue of readability.

Shillinglaw brings a graceful style of expression to an author who cared more about being read than being written about.

For such a book the highest praise may be the briefest: On Reading “The Grapes of Wrath” is a one-volume course in John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, efficiently organized, elegantly presented, and easily assimilated in a matter of hours. Wherever you’re headed in this summer of Steinbeck, don’t leave home without it. (Future party alert! This advice will still apply when The Grapes of Wrath celebrates its centennial. Like Steinbeck’s fiction, Penguin Books and On Reading “The Grapes of Wrath” are certain to be around for a very long time.)

“Lily” Live from Short Stories About John Steinbeck Set in and Near Salinas, California

The short stories Steve Hauk is currently writing about John Steinbeck take place in Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Salinas, California, the area where the author of The Grapes of Wrath spent more than half his life. A former newspaper reporter, like Steinbeck, Steve has an ear for dialog and an eye for detail ideally suited to his subject. That isn’t surprising. In addition to short stories, he writes stage plays and articles about fine art. The setting of his latest story—read here by the actor and writer Alan Brasington—is an antique store in modern-day Salinas, California, the town where Steinbeck was born in 1902. In it, Lily—the antique store’s owner—relives a terrifying time in the 1930s when the author feared for his safety because of his writing. Why? Following the death of his parents, Steinbeck moved on from the dark humor and social satire of his first published short stories, The Pastures of Heaven, and Tortilla Flat, his first popular novel, to three books that would rouse his enemies and assure his fame: In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. Although almost as different from one another as they are from Steinbeck’s short stories, the novels share a common theme and setting: the mistreatment of migrant workers in Depression-era California. Did the violent event recounted in “Lily” really happen? Readers of Steve’s short stories who live in Salinas, California, certainly remember the aging antique-store owner who narrates the incident: several have said so in comments made when the story was published. Approaching 90, Steve’s character is still haunted by the thought that a child could have been killed—along with John Steinbeck—at a Sunday picnic in East Salinas, California, arranged by friends. Like John Steinbeck, the real Lily is dead, but she finds a clear channel in Steve—a resident of nearby Pacific Grove who is familiar with Salinas, California—and in Alan, who once owned an antique store near Kingston, New York. Enjoy Steve Hauk’s “Lily” read by Alan Brasington below.

Was John Steinbeck the First Social Ecologist?

Image of jackrabbits fleeing Dust Bowl conditions described in The Grapes of WrathIn The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck explores social ecology—how individuals interact with each other within their natural, adopted, and built environments—in the crisis created by the Great Depression Dust Bowl. Social ecology recognizes the holistic connection of all elements and influences and how each affects the other in a social complex. Reading The Moon Is Down, Cannery Row, and The Grapes of Wrath helped me discover how the principles of social ecology can be applied in practice.

Steinbeck’s depiction of the Dust Bowl and its impact in The Grapes of Wrath clearly demonstrates his familiarity with the ecological disaster resulting from the failure to shift to dry land farming methods before drought conditions overtook large areas of America’s heartland in the 1930s. What is less apparent is the other side of the story, the social ecology disaster that occurred when Dust Bowl migrants tried to find paying work and a new home in California. In The Grapes of Wrath the author adroitly brings together both kinds of environment, social and physical.

The Phalanx in The Moon Is Down and on Cannery Row

My first exposure to John Steinbeck’s understanding of social ecology occurred when I read The Moon Is Down, the play-novelette he wrote for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942. This work—which Steinbeck is believed to have based on the Nazi occupation of Norway—exerted significant influence on the development of my thinking about social ecology. Steinbeck’s story concerns the resistance by the residents of an unnamed coastal village in northern Europe to foreign-army occupiers who invade the town in order to seize its harbor and coal mine.

Their resistance through non-compliance rests on the concept of the informal network, an element of the broader idea behind Steinbeck’s phalanx theory. The phalanx encompasses the entire environment and includes driving forces, unconscious influences, and factors that are physical, social, and cultural; informal networks are the means by which information is disseminated, issues are resolved, and environments are managed in a particular community without using formal systems.

The phalanx encompasses the entire environment and includes driving forces, unconscious influences, and factors that are physical, social, and cultural.

A later example of the function of an informal network within a specific group occurs in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row reprise Sweet Thursday, where Doc’s Western Biological Laboratories, Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower Grocery, and Ida’s Bear Flag bordello are “bound by gossamer threads of steel to all the others—hurt one, and you aroused vengeance in all. Let sadness come to one, and all wept.” Here Steinbeck’s dramatization of human interconnectedness represents much more than the dynamics between these network nodes or the individuals who comprise them. Rather, it depicts a powerful unconscious influence on the life of the community that functions as its own entity—the phalanx.

(Interestingly, the writer Malcolm Gladwell alludes to the same concept in his 2008 book about super-achievers titled Outliers: The Story of Success.  In his introductory chapter Gladwell discusses the people of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a community settled in the late 19th century by immigrants from the town of Roseto Valfortore in Italy. Noting a study 50 years earlier of the low incidence of illness in Roseto—where residents had fewer heart problems than those in towns nearby, no suicides, no alcoholism or drug addiction, little crime, and no one on welfare—Gladwell notes that ”these people were dying of old age, that is it.” When Dr. Stewart Wolfe, the author of this research, studied the health of the people of Roseto, he concluded that the “secret of Roseto was not diet or exercise or genes or location. It was Roseto itself.”)

How Owning The Moon Is Down Became a Capital Crime

In The Moon Is Down John Steinbeck describes his fictional town’s informal network system, the characters in that system and the roles they play, and the bewilderment and frustration of the invaders with the villagers, who don’t behave as expected. The following passage reflects the dramatic difference between a top-down authoritarian type in a position of power, Colonel Lanser, and the informal horizontal system represented by Mayor Orden, a community that is supposedly powerless:

Lanser: “Please co-operate with us for the good of all.” When Mayor Orden made no reply, “For the good of all,” Lanser repeated. “Will you?”
Orden:  “This is a little town. I don’t know. The people are confused and so am I.”
Lanser: “But will you try to co-operate?”
Orden shook his head. “I don’t know. When the town makes up its mind what it wants to do, I’ll probably do that.”
Lanser: “But you are the authority.”
Orden smiled. “You won’t believe this, but it is true: authority is in the town. I don’t know how or why, but it is so. This means we cannot act as quickly as you can, but when a direction is set, we all act together.  I am confused.  I don’t know yet.”
Lanser said wearily, “I hope we can get along together. It will be so much easier for everyone. I hope we can trust you. I don’t like to think of the means the military will take to keep order.”
Orden was silent.
“I hope we can trust you,” Lanser repeated.
Orden put his finger in his ear and wiggled his hand. “I don’t know,” he said.

Steinbeck’s statement about the “authority being in the town” is profound. To Lanser’s amazement, power resides not in a person but in the phalanx. Without analyzing its nature or origin, Orden articulates the insight that something beyond himself exists in the community that would make the silent decision to resist rather than capitulate. Steinbeck’s fictional representation of the power of the phalanx had political consequences. European translations of The Moon Is Down ultimately became operational handbooks for French, Italian, Norwegian, and other resistance movements during World War II. The Germans understood the book’s power. Possessing a copy was punishable by death.

“Threads of Steel” in Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath

The use of such informal networks—“the gossamer threads of steel”—as a means of empowerment and survival occurs in other works by Steinbeck as well. As noted, Mack and the Boys in Cannery Row provide a good example. So do Danny and his paisanos in Tortilla Flat. In The Grapes of Wrath the power of informal networks is described by Tom Joad’s speech about injustice in the work camps and the need to build a movement—a phalanx—that is as invisible to the formal powers that control the field workers as that of the occupied villagers in The Moon Is Down. Tom expresses this promise to his mother:

“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

Here Steinbeck defines what we now call a community organizer, a person using informal networks to mobilize people in the worlds of social welfare, social justice, political empowerment, and institutional change. But Tom is also referring to a power beyond himself. Even when he could no longer “be around,” his influence would continue in the power of the phalanx of which he had become a part.

Migrant Camp and Cannery Row “Gathering Places”

As far as I am concerned, John Steinbeck was our first social ecologist. In addition to understanding the power of informal networks, the writer realized that an informal network needs somewhere to call home—and that home is found in “gathering places” like Danny’s house in Tortilla Flat and Doc’s lab in Cannery Row, where Mack and the Boys drop in and out at will, reinforcing the importance of having a place where everyone is equal, humor presides, information changes hands, and issues are discussed and resolved in a safe setting. Steinbeck’s relationship with the real-life marine biologist Ed Ricketts, with whom the writer learned to view the world through the lens of ecology, provided the inspiration for Mack and the vocabulary for the writer to translate the principles of marine ecology into the framework of social ecology—but that is a story for another time.

For now it is important to remember that in writing The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck knew he had to learn through observation and experience about the challenges faced by Dust Bowl migrants, how they dealt with these issues, and how they related to the new environment in which found themselves. In other words, Steinbeck needed a “discovery process”—yet  another aspect of social ecology.

In addition to understanding the power of informal networks, the writer realized that an informal network needs somewhere to call home.

The writer’s mentor and guide in this process was Tom Collins, the administrator of Weedpatch, the model migrant camp built by the Farm Security Administration to which Steinbeck gained access. Here and in other outposts where migrants clustered, Steinbeck was seeking more than setting and background for his story; he became intimately involved in understanding the social organization of the people he was writing about. In the process he discovered their survival mechanisms: how they communicated, took care of one other, and managed conflicts internally, even as they appeared powerless to the outside world—like the townspeople in The Moon Is Down.

Steinbeck transforms this knowledge into a fictional migrant labor camp managed by the non-fictional Federal Resettlement Administration. This imaginary camp provides readers of The Grapes of Wrath with an opportunity to observe the migrants’ progression from the social-ecological chaos perpetrated by the Associated Farmers to the creation of social harmony, however fleeting, for families like the Joads. The camp becomes a haven where the Joads and their fellow migrants can predict, participate in, and control their environment in a way that offers stability and protection, however temporary.

Visiting Cannery Row and Applying Social Ecology

In classic “us-versus-them” tradition, Steinbeck uses the camp boundary as a way to illustrate the concept of internal control versus external threat.  Inside the camp the migrants are empowered to make decisions about how it is operated. As demonstrated when outside goons try to create a disturbance at a dance, the camp’s residents understand the importance of maintaining and protecting the camp’s boundary. Outside the perimeter they are threatened, exploited, and without power. Inside they exercise control. Preventing or absorbing boundary intrusion is essential to maintaining predictability and control of one’s environment.

Image of Joan Rensick, James Kent, and Kevin visiting Cannery RowAs with The Moon Is Down, reading The Grapes of Wrath nudged me down the path of social ecology, leading me to discover the role of “gathering places” and the importance of creating human geographic boundaries. Both concepts reflect the human need to feel secure; the recognition of how boundaries function, where they are placed, and what they mean in everyday life has become a key element of my writing about social ecology and my work as a consultant. The connection has also occasioned several visits to the current Cannery Row. (On one trip, shown here, I was photographed standing between Joan Resnick and Kevin Preister, director of the Center for Ecology and Public Policy.)

As noted, Steinbeck used the concepts of phalanx, “gathering place,” and boundaries—physical, social, and psychological—in books from Tortilla Flat to Sweet Thursday, a space of 20 years. In each he examines and employs the most basic elements of the human condition to make great stories from which I built the framework of a social ecology theory of my own: the human desire to gather together, to communicate, to feel safe, to care for one another, and to be empowered by using one’s environment creatively. This alone is sufficient cause for me to celebrate the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath.

“John and the River” Audio: Alan Brasington Reads from Steve’s Hauk’s Short Stories About Young John Steinbeck

Steve Hauk’s short stories about John Steinbeck’s life in Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Salinas, California comprise a work in progress. When we posted “John and the River,” Steve’s story attracted the attention of local readers familiar with Steinbeck’s Salinas, California childhood from memories handed down by parents, grandparents, or friends who knew John Steinbeck and his family. We thought such interest called for something more than text: Steve’s short stories about Steinbeck’s Salinas, California boyhood and early years in Pacific Grove deserved to heard as well as printed. So we reached out to an actor-singer we know in New York and asked him to record “John and the River” for His name is Alan Brasington, and he also writes short stories about children. As it happens, he reads about Steinbeck’s Salinas, California with familiarity as well as feeling. Although trained in London and living on the East Coast, he travels frequently and enjoys visiting the places in Pacific Grove, Monterey, and Salinas, California where Steinbeck started before making his Manhattan move. More important, Alan’s heart and ear are tuned to the voices of imaginative, independent children like John Steinbeck, growing up in alien worlds like Salinas, California in times of greater conformity. Enjoy “John and the River” read by Alan Brasington below.

At San Jose State University, April’s John Steinbeck Month

Image of portion of San Jose State University's Grapes of Wrath posterThis is the year of The Grapes of Wrath—its 75th anniversary—and the cause for self-reflection for readers of John Steinbeck, including me. My version is both personal and professional. I teach at San Jose State University, one of the world’s top centers of John Steinbeck research, and for the second time I am serving as interim director of the University’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies while Nicholas Taylor, the permanent director, is on leave.

John Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University

When I accepted the same post on a permanent basis in 2005, I was—to be frank—wet behind the ears, despite my apprenticeship 10 years earlier filling in for Susan Shillinglaw, the Steinbeck Studies Center director, during her sabbatical. I had a solid enough background teaching and writing about American Modernism, the era that includes John Steinbeck, although too often Steinbeck is ignored in academic discussion of his less popularly-read contemporaries such as Willa Cather, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and T.S. Eliot. But I made some embarrassing errors anyway—like revealing my lack of familiarity with the 1950 stage production of Burning Bright, Steinbeck’s third, last, and least-successful experiment with the play-novella form following Of Mice and Men and The Moon Is Down.

Of course, I had huge shoes to fill when I became the permanent director in 2005. Susan Shillinglaw’s stature as a John Steinbeck scholar was enormous when she stepped down as director of the Center at San Jose State University, where she continues to teach, and it has continued to grow. Part of my learning curve in her footsteps was to deepen my knowledge of John Steinbeck’s life and work, particularly the agony and transcendence embodied in The Grapes of Wrath—a book that continues to create more heat than light for certain readers in Oklahoma and California, and the excuse for latter-day book-banning in places where controversial classics such as Huckleberry Finn are deemed morally unwise or politically incorrect.

Image of poster featuring cover from Russian edition of The Grapes of WrathCelebrating The Grapes of Wrath in Pictures and in Words

When Viking Press published The Grapes of Wrath on April 14, 1939, John Steinbeck became a national celebrity. The following year his book won the Pulitzer Prize, John Ford made the movie starring Henry Fonda, and Steinbeck’s notoriety spread throughout a world already at war. To mark the 75th anniversary of the novel’s debut on the international stage this month, San Jose State University will sponsor a series of celebrations in honor of Steinbeck’s masterpiece—a work that is integral to California history, relevant to American society, and as well known as Huckleberry Finn to readers as far away as Russia and Japan.

As noted in an earlier post, an exhibition of colorful covers selected from foreign editions of The Grapes of Wrath is currently on display at the Center for Steinbeck Studies. The exhibit, assembled by Archivist Peter Van Coutren, is accompanied by information about the novel and its background. I recommend it to anyone visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library on the San Jose State University campus.

Thanks to the efforts of San Jose State University faculty members such as Scot Guenter, the SJSU Campus Reading Program will sponsor a Grapes of Wrath “readathon”—a public performance of the entire novel, starting at 6:00 p.m. on April 16 and ending 24 hours later, more or less. Individuals who participate as readers will receive a gift, along with listing on the Spartans Care Read-a-thon Honor Roll. (In case you’re wondering, “Spartans” is the designation for San Jose State University’s sports teams.) Signing up is easy.

Image of poster from San Jose State University's production of The Grapes of WrathReprising the Stage Version of Steinbeck’s Masterpiece

Thanks to the hard work of David Kahn, the chair of San Jose State University’s Department of TV, Radio, Film and Theater Arts, and his colleague Barnaby Dallas, the Coordinator of Productions, a main attraction will be the stage production of The Grapes of Wrath at the Hal Todd Theatre on the San Jose State University campus. The play—Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel—is directed by Laura Long and runs April 11-12 and April 15-19. The April 16 performance features a pre-performance reception and a post-play “talkback” with Susan Shillinglaw about her new book On Reading The Grapes of Wrath. Tickets can be purchased online.

Galati’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 1988 and ran for three years. It also traveled to London and New York, where it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play of 1991. Galati received two 1990 Tony Awards—Best Play and Best Direction—for his work, which also garnered a half-dozen acting award nominations for cast members Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, and Lois Smith. Galati, a former professor at Northwestern University, was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2004. San Jose State University produced his Grapes of Wrath in the 1990s, so this month’s run is a celebratory reprise.

In May there will be more—but I’ll save that for another time. Who said April was the cruelest month? At San Jose State University, it’s the coolest—thanks to John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath.

From New Paltz to Noel Coward: The Versatile Voice of the Actor Alan Brasington

Image of Alan Brasington reading short stories by Steve HaukAlan Brasington is an American actor and writer from New Paltz who trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and lives in New York City. This week he begins his latest role as the voice of Steinbeck Now, reading the first of two short stories by Steve Hauk about John Steinbeck.

The road from college at SUNY New Paltz led through training in London to roles in Hollywood and on Broadway, where Alan performed in productions including the celebrated Noel Coward musical Oh Coward! Along the way he sang and danced, recorded and directed, and built a side business providing period props and costumes for major movies, commercial shows, and name-brand retailers. His current writing project is a novel. Like Steinbeck, he loves England and returns often. Like Steinbeck, his short stories and plays reflect universal human experience from an American point of view.

Image of Alan Brasington as Noel Coward, Scrooge, and costume designerOn stage Alan has played Scrooge and Shakespeare, danced and sung Noel Coward, and developed a distinctive Vincent-Price baritone rich in resonance, range, and New Paltz neutrality—an ability to reproduce multiple characters in recorded dialog without a give-away regional accent. John and Elaine Steinbeck’s New York ascendency coincided with Alan’s years in high school and college and at the Royal Academy, so the famous couple never met the aspiring young actor from New Paltz. But if they had, it’s easy to imagine Elaine spotting Alan (shown here performing in Oh Coward!) as a talent to watch.

Thanks to Alan Brasington’s literary leaning and Royal Academy training, Steve Hauk’s California short stories have found their ideal speaking voice. It happens to belong to a New Yorker from New Paltz with an ear for dialog, an eye for design, and a hand for writing imaginative short stories of his own. Ladies and gentlemen—meet Alan Brasington, the versatile voice of Steinbeck Now. Now sit back and enjoy his performance of “John and the River“—the first of Steve Hauk’s short stories about Steinbeck posted at