Archives for May 2014

A New History of Cannery Row by a John Steinbeck Expert and Fiction Writer

Image from cover of Michael Kenneth Hemp's new history of Cannery Row

What’s the latest on Cannery Row? In the years since 1958—when Monterey, California’s Ocean View Avenue was renamed Cannery Row in recognition of John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel—Cannery Row has inspired books about Steinbeck’s characters, his friend Ed Ricketts, and members of the circle that revolved around Ricketts’ Cannery Row lab in the 1930s and 1940s, John Steinbeck’s most productive period as an author.

A primary objective of this book is to produce a vision of Cannery Row as it was, from which unfolds both its emerging and little-known ‘human history’ and a vivid background for John Steinbeck’s fiction. — From Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue

Among the best of the books is one that first appeared in 1986: Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue, by the Monterey, California area activist and writer Michael Kenneth Hemp, founder and chief historian of the Cannery Row Foundation. Fortunately for readers, an expanded new edition of Hemp’s popular pictorial history was released in January, printed on high-quality paper with a wealth of new images. But that’s only one reason to read Hemp’s book—which features attractive maps of Cannery Row and the Monterey, California Peninsula—before you visit John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

Image of Monterey, California historian Michael Kenneth Hemp

Michael Hemp, Cannery Row, and the Real Ed Ricketts

Another cause for celebration is Hemp’s command of colorful anecdote and vigorous vernacular, traits suggested by this photo in his office. Like other educated Steinbeck enthusiasts with a gift for expression, he writes in energetic English easily understood by readers of Steinbeck’s work. A published novelist and public speaker, Hemp is deeply engaged by the real Cannery Row, and his excitement is infectious. A Berkeley native and political science graduate of the University of California, he served as an Air Force Special Intelligence officer, and that shows too.

Cannery Row’s origins are a mixture of the rocky Monterey coastline and the toil and industry of the Orient. A Chinese fishing village, from which ‘China Point’ derives its name, [it] was established in the early 1850s and was devastated by fire in 1906. –  From Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue

Hemp’s story of the rise and fall of Monterey, California’s sardine industry reads like a well-written reconnaissance report—precise, concrete, and focused on the facts as they occurred on the ground. Hemp’s knowledge of Cannery Row geography makes his history of the street easy to follow, a plus for fans of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row who are unfamiliar with Monterey, California. His emphasis on Ricketts’ career as a pioneering scientist and thinker puts the marine biologist’s collaboration with John Steinbeck in context, enhancing the appreciation of Ricketts’ role in the relationship and validating Hemp’s view that none of the “Doc” figures in Steinbeck’s fiction quite does justice to the real man.

Image of Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck

New Evidence Concerning Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck

But why read the new edition of Hemp’s Cannery Row book if you already have the original? Simple. Because it contains new findings about John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, shown here, and fresh insights into Cannery Row’s past and prospects for the future. Steinbeck claimed that he first met Ricketts at the dentist’s in Monterey, California, a questionable assertion. Based on evidence from firsthand sources, Hemp identifies the actual meeting place as a private residence in Carmel-By-The-Sea, south of Pacific Grove and Monterey, California. By 1940 Steinbeck and Ricketts were predicting dire consequences for profit-driven overfishing, a major factor in Cannery Row’s postwar demise as the world’s sardine capital.

Fish cutting traditionally done manually by Chinese and Japanese and Spanish workers became cheaper and less specialized by nationality after the introduction of machine cutters. Slotted conveyors in which the sardines were placed were drawn under spinning blades that cut off the heads and tails and automatically eviscerated the fish.” – From Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue

Based on new science, Hemp provides new context for understanding the economic disaster created by rapacious technology and short-sighted greed, from the inception of the sardine industry in 1905 to its decline four decades later. Thanks to John Steinbeck, Cannery Row eventually came back as a tourist attraction, but commercial interests continue to cloud its prospects of becoming a world-class cultural destination. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row’s most prestigious nonprofit venture, nicely connects Hemp’s various concerns: John Steinbeck’s relationship with Ed Ricketts, the social and economic evolution of Monterey, California, and one-world ecology, the imaginative idea that permeates Sea of Cortez, the published record of Steinbeck and Ricketts’ most productive collaboration.

Image of the Cannery Row fire of 1936

Pictures from the Past Published for the First Time

There is more to recommend Hemp’s history of Cannery Row than new text, however. The revised edition also contains a larger selection of photographs, printed at better resolution, than earlier versions. Among the most memorable pictures introduced for the first time are dramatic black and white images from Monterey, California’s colorful past, including photos of the 1936 Cannery Row fire that destroyed Ed Ricketts’ lab, shown here, and a 1948 police photo of a mortally injured Ricketts, lying on the ground beside his stalled Buick after being hit by a train near Cannery Row.

There has been a degree of controversy over just how John Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts. John Steinbeck writes that it happened in a dentist’s office, but we know John is, on occasion, given to ‘fiction’ when it comes to Ed Ricketts. The actual location and conditions under which Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts only came to light in 1991. – From Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue

Even glimpses of lighter moments foreshadow a dark future. One image printed here for the first time is a group shot of Ricketts, his lover Toni Jackson, and her daughter Kay taken by Ricketts’ brother-in-law, Fred Strong, in the mid-1940s. Toni, who eventually left Ed, is shown touching Kay, whose death from brain cancer in 1947 contributed to the demise of the relationship and the depression that some have associated with Ricketts’ death. It’s easy to see what each person in the picture saw in the others, and it’s hard not to feel a lump in the throat when thinking about their separate fates. Another Strong photo—a portrait of Ricketts made circa 1936—is almost as painful, but for a different reason. Posed in a sport jacket, eyes open and fixed on an object or idea in the middle distance, Ricketts looks the part John Steinbeck wrote for him in Cannery Row—commanding and charismatic, but also possessed.

Image of Marilyn Monroe in the Cannery Row cult classic, Clash by Night

A Cannery Row Cult Classic Not Encountered Until Now

There were also motion pictures inspired by Cannery Row. Hemp maintains diplomatic silence about the failed 1982 feature film starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger, spliced from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday and directed by David Ward. But another movie, one that wasn’t based on Steinbeck’s fiction, contributes significantly to the conclusion of Hemp’s narrative. Shot in black and white on location in and around Monterey, California, Clash By Night is a bygone-times period piece—one that I was grateful to encounter for the first time.

Some of the filming . . . became entertaining in its own right, when an enterprising cannery worker, Jesse (‘Tuto’) Paredes, intentionally sent a can down the can chute sideways at the San Xavier cannery packing line, causing the line to be shut down—so all the cannery workers could rush to the windows to see Marilyn Monroe being filmed in a scene being shot on the street outside. – From Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue

Directed by Fritz Lang and produced by Harriet Parsons, it features Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, and Paul Douglas but became a cult classic because of Marilyn Monroe’s co-starring role as Peggy, a 20-year-old cannery worker. The story’s gritty setting is a Monterey, California coast so overfished by 1951 that Parsons and Lang had to work miracles to make a handful of sardines look like a haul. David Ward’s 1982 studio sets are elegant and drenched in color. But Fritz Lang’s fifties film noir seems truer to the crusty character of Cannery Row, at least to this viewer. Apparently Hemp agrees. His 1986 Cannery Row book mentioned Clash by Night in passing as a symbol of the street’s declining fortune. In the new edition he devotes six paragraphs, plus a photo, to the making and meaning of the sad movie shot in Monterey, California more than six decades ago.

Image from cover of Michael Kenneth Hemp's novel, End of Lies

Writing Fiction, Like John Steinbeck, from Science and Life

Hemp’s thoughtful treatment of Clash by Night stimulated my curiosity about the film; it also made we wonder what kind of fiction Hemp writes. A fascination with science, the same force that attracted John Steinbeck to Ed Ricketts, is evident throughout Hemp’s history of Cannery Row, so I turned to his 2008 scientific thriller—End of Lies: The Nadjik Pheromone—to sample his style as a writer of fiction. I’m only half-way through the novel, so its ending is safe with me. But the opening pages suggest that Hemp shares more as a writer with John Steinbeck than passion for science, Ed Ricketts, and Cannery Row.

He smiles, chuckling to himself. ‘There’s always a gang of ladies from the Monterey History and Art Association or National Steinbeck Center in Salinas that just have to see where John Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts.’ – From End of Lies: The Nadjik Pheromone

Recovering from the trauma of witnessing genocide in Bosnia, Hemp’s hero crashes at his boss’s vacation home in Carmel-By-The-Sea. Hemp’s fictional house is located next door to the actual bungalow where Ricketts and Steinbeck were introduced in 1930; the man who owns it in Hemp’s novel is an invented version of Hemp’s friend Tom Morjig, the real-life owner of the historic Carmel cottage. Like John Steinbeck—whose Cannery Row is, according to Hemp, 90 percent factual—the Monterey, California history and fiction writer uses real characters and real science to create a convincing story. Like The Grapes of Wrath, End of Lies is dedicated to the devoted wife “who made this book possible.” What greater compliment to a spouse—or homage to John Steinbeck—could any writer pay?

Period Cannery Row and Monterey, California photos reproduced from Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue courtesy of the Pat Hathaway Historical Photo Collection.


Winston Churchill Rolls, George Orwell Rejoices: American Authors Banished from Schools in Great Britain

Image of Winston Churchill and George Orwell

Winston Churchill is turning in his grave as George Orwell rejoices. John Steinbeck and other American authors, a group deeply disliked by George Orwell, are about to be dropped from Great Britain’s school curriculum. According to “Syal but no Steinbeck in English GSCE,” a BBC news report, English education bureaucrats expressed dismay at discovering that Of Mice and Men remains the most frequently read novel by British middle-school pupils. Henceforth, it is decreed, only British authors can be “taught-to-test” in government-supported schools throughout England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

As an ex-English teacher and Anglophile, I have good cause for hating edicts by education bureaucrats, American or British. Here are 10 reasons why I despise this one with a passion:

1. Winston Churchill’s mother was an American, and America came to England’s aid in its darkest hour, inspired by Winston Churchill’s Anglo-American fortitude and friendship.

2. Most of my ancestors were English immigrants. My father, an Army corporal, was stationed in England. After the war my parents named my brother David Winston (for Winston Churchill, not George Orwell’s Winston Smith). I studied a pair of British authors for my PhD degree and consider George Orwell John Steinbeck’s equal as a writer, a compliment to George Orwell.

3. A disaffected Communist who disdained American authors and refused to visit the United States, George Orwell accused John Steinbeck of being a Soviet sympathizer as the Cold War heated up. Such calumny is to be expected from right-wing British authors who came, saw, and ranted—Evelyn Waugh, for example—but it’s unforgivable in a left-wing journalist like George Orwell who never crossed the Atlantic or questioned Steinbeck to find out for himself.

4. John Steinbeck loved and lauded England and had cherished English roots on his Dickson grandmother’s side. He was a war correspondent in London in 1943 and spent much of 1958 in Somerset, the period his widow Elaine said was the happiest time in their marriage.

5. Steinbeck mined British authors from Thomas Mallory to John Milton in his writing. Unlike George Orwell, he declined to criticize other American authors, at least in public, and as far as I know he gave George Orwell a pass when Orwell said nasty things about the United States.

6. Two classics by George Orwell will be spared in the impending purge of American authors, along with British authors considered too old-fashioned, from English schools; both George Orwell books—1984 and Animal Farm—continue to be taught in American schools, along with masterpieces by older British authors from Shakespeare to Dickens.

7. Winston Churchill, a world-class writer, understood the connection between what one reads and how one thinks. So did George Orwell, despite his parochialism. English students who never read Steinbeck will be as uninformed about the Dust Bowl and Depression as young Americans who never read British authors are about, say, Winston Churchill and World War II.

8. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Arthur Miller are also Out in English, Welsh, and Irish schools. Henceforth, ideas about America will come from Hollywood, hip hop, and other sources unpolluted by American authors. Future generations in Great Britain can be expected to care as little about our cultural heritage as most Americans care about that of England.

9. Instead, Sherlock Holmes and Meera Syal, the British screenwriter of Bollywood Carmen Live, are now In. This switch is the English equivalent of replacing American authors like Steinbeck and Faulkner with Jerry Seinfeld in American public schools.

10. AQA—the educational bureaucracy that wants to banish American authors from British schools—is short for “Assessment and Qualifications Alliance.” The English equivalent of our SAT Educational Testing Service, the organization frames its ponderous pronouncements in the educational equivalent of George Orwell’s Doublespeak, a sin against meaning in every sense of the word.

In my court, that last offense may be the worst. If you can’t express yourself as clearly as Winston Churchill or George Orwell, you probably aren’t thinking straight. Notwithstanding those British authors unmolested by the ACA, the bureaucrats in Manchester aren’t qualified to banish American authors from any country, least of all Winston Churchill’s glorious land.

Readers are encouraged to submit their own reasons to dislike the idea of dropping John Steinbeck and other American authors from schools in Great Britain. Personal or professional, silly or same—feel free to express your opinion in the Comment space below.

King Arthur Quest: Search Used Book Stores for Fine John Steinbeck Books

Image of brochure for John Steinbeck biography book

Although Steinbeck claimed that he didn’t collect books as a habit, almost every John Steinbeck biography notes the writer’s enduring attachment to books on such subjects as King Arthur. Like King Arthur’s Roundtable, Steinbeck and his circle have become legend; like the author who loved King Arthur, readers who are passionate about John Steinbeck biography will find searching for John Steinbeck books at used book stores adventurous.

Book Stores Are Best for Collecting John Steinbeck Books

In Search of Steinbeck, a privately printed book by the late Anne-Marie Schmitz of Los Altos, California, is a case in point. On a recent shopping trip to Monterey area book stores, I found a copy of her limited-edition work, intact in its slip-case, signed, and priced to sell. Like other John Steinbeck books written by amateur enthusiasts, In Search of Steinbeck represents a labor of love. Using photographs by Richard S. Mayer and drawings by Wayne Garcia, Mrs. Schmitz pursues an aspect of John Steinbeck biography of particular interest to Californians: the houses that Steinbeck owned or occupied in Monterey, Los Gatos, and Pacific Grove—homes where the most memorable John Steinbeck books of the 1930s and early 1940s were written.

Mrs. Schmitz pursues an aspect of John Steinbeck biography of particular interest to Californians: the houses that Steinbeck owned or occupied in Monterey, Los Gatos, and Pacific Grove—homes where the most memorable John Steinbeck books of the 1930s and early 1940s were written.

I recommend In Search of Steinbeck to anyone, anywhere, who is serious about John Steinbeck biography and books. Reasonably-priced copies are available from booksellers online, but book stores are always more fun than Google, in part because you meet people in book stores who know things about John Steinbeck books that a computer can’t tell you. Sometimes personal connections made in book stores last a lifetime—or remind us too late what we missed along the way. Curious about Mrs. Schmitz, for example, I discovered that she was born in 1925, died in 2011, and had a happy marriage with Edwin Schmitz, the owner of the Book Nest in Los Altos, one of several bygone Bay Area book stores that I enjoyed frequenting before they closed.

Sometimes personal connections made in book stores last a lifetime—or remind us too late what we missed along the way.

Like Steinbeck in search of King Arthur, I was preoccupied by a particular quest that prevented me from asking the right question when I stopped in Los Altos to visit the Book Nest. I wasn’t interested in John Steinbeck books at the time; I was looking instead for works by Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and historian who taught creative writing at Stanford, John Steinbeck’s on-and-off-again alma mater in nearby Palo Alto. Jackson Benson, the author of the most detailed John Steinbeck biography published to date, also wrote a big book about Wallace Stegner; my transition to Steinbeck occurred when I moved from Benson’s life of Stegner to his superb John Steinbeck biography. Regrettably, by then it was too late to meet Mrs. Schmitz.

My transition to Steinbeck occurred when I moved from Benson’s life of Stegner to his superb John Steinbeck biography. Regrettably, by then it was too late to meet Mrs. Schmitz.

Like the path to King Arthur’s Avalon, the little Los Altos book store’s doors closed long ago, and that’s a shame. If I had turned from Stegner to Steinbeck a year or so sooner,  I could have asked Edwin Schmitz the right question when I visited the Book Nest: not Did you know Wallace Stegner? (he did), but Do you know anyone who has written creatively about John Steinbeck biography?  Hermes Publications, the publisher of Mrs. Schmitz’s book, was no doubt Mr. Schmitz’s enterprise. If so, the result of their collaboration reveals their eye for visual design, paper quality, and packaging and their love of fine books.

Like King Arthur, John Steinbeck Biography Never Ends

In Search of Steinbeck also reminds readers of three truths about John Steinbeck books:

(1) Book stores are better than computers for finding John Steinbeck books worth collecting . . .  but hurry—they’re closing fast.

(2) Interesting avenues to John Steinbeck biography, such as the houses where he wrote, remain open for exploration by enthusiasts.

(3) Worthy John Steinbeck books continue to be written by educated amateurs, like Mrs. Schmitz, who fall in love with Steinbeck in unexpected ways.

Anne-Marie Schmitz—reared in France and trained as a social worker—describes the beginning of her affair with John Steinbeck books in her preface to In Search of Steinbeck. The passage is a remarkable reminder of the role played by serendipity when certain people discover John Steinbeck books for the first time:

Next door to us in Los Altos lived Karl and Florence Steinbeck. They had two miniature french poodles that always managed to get lost. One morning in 1962, Karl came near our garden where one of them had wandered. I heard him tell my father that his cousin, John Steinbeck, had just received the Nobel Prize for Literature. . . .

Two years later, a friend came to visit us with her husband. We had known them in England and they had met John Steinbeck in Stockholm during the presentation of the prizes . . . . The Grapes of Wrath had deeply moved them. Soon after they left, I bought a copy of it. It kept me spellbound. It was like a great wave taking me along, away from the selfishness of everyday life, back to the wartimes when the refugees from the north covered the roads of France, when babies were born in barns along the way, and dead folks were buried in ditches. It took me back to the days when pain, poverty, and tragedy were all around us. It renewed an acute awareness of the wrongs of this world and a desire to do something about them.

Engaged from boyhood by Thomas Malory’s King Arthur, John Steinbeck encouraged readers of every age to participate imaginatively in the books he wrote as an adult. Wonderfully prepared by personal experience, Mrs. Schmitz took Steinbeck up on the invitation to enter his world and learn about his life. Thanks to her and her husband’s hard work, John Steinbeck biography gained an elegant emblem in 1978 with the appearance of In Search of Steinbeck, the fruit of careful, loving labor.

Engaged from boyhood by Thomas Malory’s King Arthur, John Steinbeck  encouraged readers of every age to participate imaginatively in the books he wrote as an adult.

Take my word for it—In Search of Steinbeck is a jewel of a book worth having whether or not you are possessed by the collecting habit. If book stores in your area have gone the way of King Arthur’s court and the Book Nest, Google the title and treat yourself to one of the copies on sale online for less than the book’s original $35 publication price. Who knows? Perhaps you too will be inspired to open a new path in John Steinbeck biography, as Anne-Marie Schmitz did 35 years ago.

Charlie and the Crow: Kids’ Story by Alan Brasington

My name is Charles A. Farley, Arlington, Charles Arlington Farley. My friends call me Charlie; Charlie Farley, it rhymes. I live in the north of New York, the State, on the Canadian border; and my best friend is a talking crow. He lives in a barn next door and says, “Hello.” Yes, he can say “Hello,” an’ does whenever I go to see him. “Hello, hello.”

My friend has a little string attached around his leg, and his wings are clipped so he can’t fly away. He can imitate an airplane too – “brrrrup, brrrr.” And he calls “Arnold” and “Leila” because they own him and are always calling each other. “Arnold!” “Leila!” But that crow never calls me.

I look in that little crow’s eyes an’ wonder who it is that’s trapped inside him. When he says “Hello,” I think someone from another time must be inside wanting to get out. “Hello.”

I say “Hello” back when he says it. An’ I tell him my name is Charlie; “Charlie Farley,” I say. “It rhymes.” But still, he doesn’t say my name.

Then I think, “Wait, I don’t know his name neither.” Maybe it’s Buster. Buster-the-Crow is a good name for a bird. You wouldn’t call a crow Spot or Poochie; those are dogs’ names. An’ Frisky is what you’d call a horse. Fluffy would be a cat. An’ teeny would be yer mouse, ha ha.

Buster’s feathers are deep deep black that change colors as ya look at him – like motor oil on top of water – ya see purple, an green and there’s gold inside ’em when the sun shines down. His feathers are all shiny too. I wonder does a bird know that about his feathers. Can he see himself from the outside? Crows like shiny things. If ya went to their nests you’d prob’ly find old silver gum wrappers, maybe a gold thumb tack, an’ a lady’s emerald ring.

I wonder does Buster look at me an’ think, “That creature out there who’s askin’ me stuff – his covering is white like milk; an’ he’s got brown spots on his feathers that don’t shine in the day light.” I don’t find his feathers interesting; they’re not shiny like mine.

Buster doesn’t have a nest. He walks back-an’-forth across the barn rafter on which he’s tied. I never seen him sitting down like he would in a nest; but he must get tired sometime. But whenever I open the door, there he is waiting – “Hello,” he says when I walk in. An’ sometimes he does the airplane – ‘brrrrr.’ When he calls “Leila” or “Arnold” I know it’s because he wants them to untie his string an’ set him free. I sometimes wonder if I should . . . if I should . . . set him free. But he wouldn’t be able to fly away anyways. He can’t fly. He’d be walkin’ in the world below an’ what would happen if a cat or a owl came along. It wouldn’t be safe . . .  so I don’t.

An’ what would Buster eat if there was nobody to give him nothin’ the way Leila an’ Arnold do? I think maybe he might like it better bein’ free . . . to be dead, instantly, like a moth that is able to set itself on fire an’ burn itself up. Buster could acshully be alive for a minute doin’ something for hisself an’ not tied to a barn where all he can do is say “Hello” to people who don’t realize there’s someone inside . . . .  “Hello!”


George Reeves Contemplates the Hollywood Sign: Poem by Roy Bentley

At dawn the actor who will become a star as Superman
looks out at Mount Lee, the sign Peg Entwistle launched
herself from in September of 1932, leaping to her death.
Reeves is depressed. He isn’t unhappy enough yet to do
what Peg Entwistle did at 24—leap from the top of the H.
Same letter Albert Kothe, blotto-drunk, destroyed in 1940
in a 1928 Model A Ford. The original Hollywoodland sign

had 50-foot by 30-foot lighted letters and was rebuilt in ’49.
This isn’t that sign. Just the same dangerous neighborhood.
George Keefer Brewer, whose real father is living in Illinois,
thinks his name is Bessolo because his mother said it was.
She said his father committed suicide. Told an elaborate lie.
Whoever he was, he’s George Reeves now. And isn’t about
to forget he had flame-orange hair in Gone With the Wind.

He’s been drinking and hangs his head out the car door.
He doesn’t think, Here’s a metaphor for how hard a life
can get. He boxed as a heavyweight and can take a punch.
This is something else. He’s thinking of rain. Needing rain.
How, when it comes, it blows across these desiccated hills
in waves that gust and trail off like the scarves of skaters
or the cape of some Promethean shouldered superhero.

John Steinbeck Explains Marco Rubio on Global Warming in Sea of Cortez

Image of Marco Rubio live on ABC

This week the issue of global warming caused embarrassing problems for Marco Rubio as the Republican Senator from Miami rolled out his unofficial entry into the 2016 presidential race. Sorry, but I couldn’t help noticing. Although I am not a Republican and no longer live in Florida, I once owned a home on the Intracoastal Waterway near Palm Beach. During hurricanes, our little beach disappeared along with half of our yard. A two-foot sea rise will leave storm water at the new owner’s front door. Another two feet will make the house, along with thousands of other coastal homes, uninhabitable. So I’ve been scratching my head over the confused case Marco Rubio tried to articulate for doing nothing to mitigate global warming—an odd position for any elected official from South Florida to take. Oops! There goes Miami Beach!

I’ve been scratching my head over the confused case Marco Rubio tried to articulate for doing nothing to mitigate global warming. Oops! There goes Miami Beach!

As usual, John Steinbeck helped me think. Because his science book Sea of Cortez is also political and philosophical, I turned to the writer’s “Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research” in the Gulf of California to help me understand politicians like Marco Rubio who (1) deride global warming data, (2) deny that fossil-fuel use is a factor, or (3) insist that it’s too late to turn back, so what the hell! During the course of speeches and interviews in New Hampshire and elsewhere, Marco Rubio denied global warming so often and so recklessly that he became the butt of a Wednesday night Stephen Colbert Show “F*ck It!” segment. What part of Rubio’s brain shut down when he opened his campaign for president? Three observations made by John Steinbeck on the biology of belief and behavior in Chapter 14 of Sea of Cortez provided clarity, but little comfort, about Marco Rubio’s recent statements regarding global warming. Hold the applause. They are nothing to laugh about.

1. Forget simplistic causation. Find provable relationships and prepare for complexity.

Sea of Cortez starts with first principles. From microbes to mankind, variation in nature is a universal principle; causative relationships are complex and outcomes aren’t always predictable. But worldwide climate disruption is a particularly violent variation with measurable relationships and very clear consequences. Denying the significance of man-made carbon emissions in accelerating global warming by implying, as Marco Rubio and others do, that . . . well, shit happens . . . is like letting a drunk drive on the theory that other things can go wrong too, so what’s the big deal? Ignition failure, bad brakes, lousy weather, all contribute to accidents on the road. But driving while drunk, like loading the atmosphere with pollutants, foolishly increases the severity and consequences of co-contributing factors.

Driving while drunk, like loading the atmosphere with pollutants, foolishly increases the severity and consequences of co-contributing factors.

“Sometimes,” John Steinbeck would have agreed, “shit just happens.” But try taking that excuse to court and see what happens there—if you survive the wreck you caused. Steinbeck was a Darwinian who tried not to judge, but deadly driving while drunk has been described by those who are less forgiving as a form of natural self-selection for stupid individuals. Unlike solitary drinking, however, global warming denial is a social disease. Following the dimwitted herd of reality-deniers, like lemmings, over the looming climate cliff? That takes systematic self-delusion and self-styled leaders like Marco Rubio. How do they operate? John Steinbeck had a theory.

2. Reality-denial is a form of adolescent wish-fulfillment. It’s most dangerous in a mob motivated by a self-appointed leader.

Sea of Cortez—co-authored with Steinbeck’s friend and collaborator, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts—develops many of the ideas Steinbeck expressed in the fiction he wrote before 1940. His 1936 novel In Dubious Battle, for example, dramatized the murderous behavior of opposing mobs, behavior worse than anything within the capacity of their individual constituents. Steinbeck’s characterization of politically-driven leaders like Mac, the novel’s Communist labor-organizer, is particularly disturbing, even today. Sea of Cortez develops both of these core ideas—the behavior of mob members and the psychology of mob leaders—using biological terms that help explain Marco Rubio and his position on global warming.

Sea of Cortez develops both of these core ideas—the behavior of mob members and the psychology of mob leaders—using biological terms that help explain Marco Rubio and his position on global warming.

Like Steinbeck’s metaphorical ameba in Sea of Cortez, Mac the Communist and Marco Rubio the Republican are political pseudo-pods who detect a mass-wish within their followers and press toward its fulfillment: “We are directly leading this great procession, our leadership ‘causes’ all the rest of the population to move this way, the mass follows the path we blaze.”  But one difference between Mac and Marco Rubio, worth noting, was apparent in this week’s events. Steinbeck’s labor agitator was a tough guy with street smarts who stayed on-message; Marco Rubio manages to look as unfixed and immature as he sounds. In right-wing global warming politics, Rick Perry—no George Bush, and take that as a compliment—seems statesmanlike by comparison. Oops! I meant Department of Education!

3. Extinction is possible. Double extinction.

John Steinbeck read encyclopedically, and in Sea of Cortez he explains what he calls “the criterion of validity in the handling of data” by citing an example from an article on ecology in the 14th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. It concerns the extermination of a certain species of hawk that preyed on the willow grouse, a game bird in Norway. Failing to note the presence of the parasitical disease coccidiosis in the country’s grouse population, the Norwegians systematically eradicated the predator that kept the infection under control by killing off weaker birds affected by the disease. The result was double extinction—hawk and grouse—caused by uninformed human behavior.

The Norwegians systematically eradicated the predator that kept the infection under control by killing off weaker birds affected by the disease. The result was double extinction—hawk and grouse—caused by unintelligent human behavior.

Like Steinbeck, I loved college biology, and the biology department at Wake Forest was very good. My freshman professor, a John Steinbeck-Ed Ricketts type named Ralph Amen, introduced us to an idea that makes Marco Rubio’s anti-global warming demagoguery more than a little scary 50 years later. “Imagine,” Dr. Amen suggested, “that the earth is an organism, Gaia, with a cancer—the human species, overpopulating and over-polluting its host. What is the likely outcome of this infection for Gaia and for mankind?” A question in the spirit of Sea of Cortez, which on reflection I’m certain he had read.

‘Imagine,’ Dr. Amen suggested, ‘that the earth is an organism, Gaia, with a cancer—the human species, overpopulating and over-polluting its host. What is the likely outcome of this infection for Gaia and for mankind?’

John Steinbeck, a one-world ecologist even further ahead of his time than my old teacher, would have answered, “things could go either way.” The cancer might kill the host or the host eradicate the cancer. But global warming presents a third possibility—double extinction. Now imagine that Marco Rubio is a soft, squishy symptom of global warming denial, a terminal disease. Then reread John Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez as I just did. Reality-based thinking is our first step toward a cure, although under a president like Marco Rubio it could also be our last. Oops! There we go—along with the planet! How in the world did we let that happen?

My Grandpa Was a Beekeeper: Sketch

Image of Alan Brasington's upstate New York ancestorsMy Grandpa was a beekeeper. He kept bees in little white bungalows with a drawer at the bottom for wax combs and honey. Grandpa searched out bees in hollow trees and when he found them, dipped a roll of damp newspaper in gasoline and set it on fire to smoking. He put the paper inside the hollow tree and it confused the bees. They didn’t know what to do. We could see them flying in circles before they lit on Grandpa. They covered his head and arms, like a crawling long-sleeve shirt and hat. His eyes peeped through a mask that kissed his face. For the bees didn’t sting, Grandpa said, “because I’m not afraid.

“And smoke makes bees calm,” he said. “It bee-wilders them.”

They buzzed when Grandpa reached his arm into the hollow tree. His hand came out with the Queen in his palm. She was long and waxy-white. I knew if bees could scream that hive of bees were for they circled Grandpa’s head before they sat on him again. I could hear them crying: “Oh Man, you touched our Queen!”

Grandpa drove their Queen home on the seat of his Plymouth car. When he got there, he set her inside an empty white bee bungalow. And all the other bees flew off Grandpa and settled about their Queen. “Anyplace their Queen is, is home,” said Grandpa. “An’ there’s no place like home.”

“Stop playing around with those damn bees!” Grandma shouted through her kitchen window over the sink. “You hafta be crazy doin’ with those creatures,” she said, but Grandpa, who loved his bees, kept on.

The day after, a bee stung my father on the hand. His eyes swelled way up and so did his throat. He fell down on the ground and couldn’t breathe, hardly, so Grandpa took him to the hospital in the very car that had carried his Queen-of-Bees. The doctors said my father was allergic and gave him a shot of something so he could breathe again. And when he could see, they sent him home.

When they reached Grandpa’s field of bees there was only a black patch where the village used to be, because before my eyes, Grandma burned Bee Town to the ground in a great conflagration.

“My bees!” Grandpa cried as he ran from the car. “You murdered my bees!”

“About time, too,” called Grandma from her window.

A few months later my father was called into the Army. He was stationed in Georgia and got poison ivy. He wrote from the hospital to tell us he was allergic. So the Army sent him to Texas.
He telephoned to say he was in the hospital again. “I’ve come down with poison oak,” he said.

So the Army sent him in Hawaii, where he developed jungle rot. He was in the hospital for a very long time after, and when he was cured, the government sent him home. I thought maybe they’d heard about Grandma’s murder of the bees.

My father and mother went shopping the day after he arrived. And when they came back my father carried a box into the house.

“You can’t look yet,” said my mother. “Close your eyes.”

When she said, “Open now!” my parents were looking at me hard as they pointed to two new shirts on hangers over our living room door.

The one on the right was light green to represent the sea. There were puckering white waves with black fish swimming below them. Men in fishing boats, with creels beside them, held onto fishing poles. One man in a red shirt, his fishing line taut, his pole bent like a hunting bow, was pulling a huge swordfish toward the boat.

The shirt on the left was bright yellow. It had coconut buttons and large white Hawaiian flowers like those you’d see in a Tarzan movie.

“Which one do you like the best?” my father asked. My parents’ eyes looked deep into me as if his question was the most important one any person had ever asked.

It really made no difference to me, but I pointed to the yellow shirt. And from that day my father was allergic to me. Following in the footsteps of his mother, he burned me to the ground every time our eyes met.

“My bees!” my Grandpa cried at Grandma. “You murdered my bees!” And in that very same way my father continually murdered me.

Poem by Roy Bentley: James Dean Commemorative Mug

Image of James Dean, start of the movie East of Eden

James Dean was driving his new Porsche to a car race when he crashed—literally East of Eden—on a back road to Salinas, California, site of the 1955 movie that made him famous and the weekend event that made him dead. Sixty years later, Roy Bentley ponders the irony of Dean’s death and its aftermath in a poem that suits the East of Eden star to a made-in-China T.

James Dean Commemorative Mug

I’d begin with the stamped instruction not to microwave
and the all-caps MADE IN CHINA messaging,

the glaze over the decal of the brooding movie star
who shot a Public Service Announcement

for safe driving then ended up a traffic statistic.
The cup makes me ask what else is detritus

bobbing against the current. Holding the gift-mug,
I consider the difference between the doomed—

those who climb into the Spyder Porsche death car
with a wish to flame to ash—and the vanishing

and coming back to vanish at last that is a life. Time
is cenotaph and memorial for a soil scent

that rises, post-rainfall, in the dark before morning
on summer farms in Salinas, California—

the image on the mug is from East of Eden, Dean
in a sweater on a boxcar roof, huddled,

shivering against the chill. Because, face it,
when are we ever in the right clothes?


President Harry Truman’s Eldest Grandson: A Poem

President Harry Truman’s Eldest Grandson Offers a Thousand Paper Cranes
    from the City of Hiroshima to a Bronx, New York High School
The high schoolers are listening to the grandson of the dead President
who dropped not one but two atomic bombs on the Japanese.

A lovely, insolent child with henna-highlighted hair raises a hand.
Asks if survivors feel any bitterness after all this time.

Three white-haired women are seated onstage in folding chairs.
There is a microphone center stage. The arithmetic

of ages in 1945 is calculated by the less math-phobic.
One of the women rises. Walks to the microphone.

Says, in English, Remember. In jeans and a Giants sweatshirt
the grandson hands off the chains of origami birds

as if time and space and memory are folded into shapes
that say what they say, which can never be enough.

From the rear of the gymnasium a rude noise and laughter
like lightning then thunder after an apocalypse.

Tips from John Steinbeck on How to Write Well

Image of John Steinbeck at his typewriterHow to write well? Some writing tips enter our consciousness formally, through the classroom door. Others arrive surreptitiously, as editors unseen hover over our hands on the keyboard. But writing tips also slip through a half-open window of the struggling writer’s mind, appearing as a bright passage in a book or needed words of encouragement from a colleague that learning how to write well is a craft worth pursuing for yet another day. John Steinbeck’s writing tips took the second and third forms.

For writers like me, Steinbeck’s books and letters are a window on how to write better that never closes.

For writers like me, Steinbeck’s books and letters are a window on how to write better that never closes. Like us, he understood that every lesson on how to write more effectively, however small, is a gift for today and for tomorrow. As Jay Parini notes in John Steinbeck: A Biography, “[John Steinbeck’s] didacticism would become an integral part of his profile as a man and writer . . . .” His lessons on how to write, whatever the context or occasion, remain a source of inspiration, instruction, and delight in my life as a writer.

The Steinbeck Model in Writing Tips from Roy Peter Clark

In the opening pages of Writing Tools, a book of writing tips by Roy Peter Clark that I highly recommend, John Steinbeck appears as a model of how to write well. Clark quotes this passage from Cannery Row as an example of the way master writers like Steinbeck “can craft page after page of sentences” by relying on simple constructions of subject and verb:

He didn’t need a clock. He had been working in a tidal pattern . . . . In the dawn he had awakened . . . . He drank some hot coffee, ate three sandwiches, and had a quart of beer.

Clark notes that “Steinbeck places subject and verb at or near the beginning of each sentence” in the example offered:

Clarity and narrative energy flow through the passage, as one sentence builds on another. He avoids monotony by including the brief introductory phrase  . . .  and by varying the lengths of sentences, a writing tool we will consider later.

Clark notes that ‘Steinbeck places subject and verb at or near the beginning of each sentence’ . . . .

A respected resource at The Poynter Institute on how to write better journalism, Clark returns to John Steinbeck in his list of writing tips, noting that in Travels With Charley Steinbeck uses passive verbs “to call attention to the receiver of the action” at just the right time.

“The best writers make the best choices between active and passive,” explains Clark:

Steinbeck wrote, “The night was loaded with omens.” Steinbeck could have written, “Omens loaded the night,” but in that case the active would have been unfair to both the night and the omens, the meaning and the music of the sentence.

John Steinbeck’s Advice to Hugh Mulligan on How to Write

A journalist for much of his life, Steinbeck sometimes applied sideways humor to prop open the how-to-write window, a trait noted by the late Hugh Mulligan, a veteran reporter covering the war in Vietnam when Steinbeck was there. In his book The Journalist’s Craft, Mulligan states that he is writing “a nuts-and-bolts book about writing, but before I attempt to get down to the basic hardware, I should note that history is rife with confusion on this subject.” Enter Steinbeck, laughing.

Later in his collection of writing tips Mulligan quotes Somerset Maugham, the English writer who was born 28 years before John Steinbeck but died only 12 months earlier than his celebrated American counterpart:

[T]hat elegant master of the Queen’s English . . . told a BBC interviewer: “There are three basic rules to good writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are” . . . . I mentioned this to John Steinbeck one night in Saigon during the Vietnam War . . . . The Nobel laureate took a stab at filling in the blanks for Maugham: “Never make excuses. Never let them see you bleed. Never get separated from your luggage.” He then added a fourth: “Find out when the bar opens and when the laundry comes back.”

Speaking as a writer who has lost his notes, a bit of his virtue, and a sport coat or two on reporting assignments, I find practical wisdom woven into Steinbeck’s mordant wit. If you write for a living and don’t find yourself grinning at this advice, you might consider taking up another profession. Your absence may be missed, but not by other writers.

Maria Povova’s “6 Writing Tips from John Steinbeck”

Fifty years after their conversation, the Internet has expedited and amplified the writing tips shared by John Steinbeck with Hugh Mulligan in Saigon. While roaming the digital byways recently, I came across Maria Povova’s “6 Writing Tips from John Steinbeck,” a set of principles on how to write well gleaned from her reading of a 1975 Paris Review article and recent Atlantic magazine blog.

Call my online discovery software-supported serendipity if you like. But Steinbeck’s advice has outlasted the manual typewriter and will no doubt survive smartphones as well.

Steinbeck’s advice has outlasted the manual typewriter and will no doubt survive smartphones as well.

Here are my favorite writing tips from Povova’s piece:

Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one.

When he talked about how to write, John Steinbeck always addressed other writers—even if he was the imagined writer he had in mind.

When he talked about how to write, John Steinbeck always addressed other writers—even if he was the imagined writer he had in mind. The process could be painful, and Steinbeck sometimes had to remind himself to follow his own advice. After the announcement in 1962 that he had won the Nobel Prize, he admitted how hard it was to write his acceptance speech in a letter to Dook Sheffield, a college friend and fellow writer:

I wrote the damned speech at least 20 times . . . .  Last night I got mad and wrote exactly what I wanted to say. I don’t know whether or not it’s good but at least it’s me.