Archives for July 2014

Celebrating Steinbeck in Sound at Carmel Mission

Image of Carmel Mission as it looked in the 18th century

The 75th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath will be celebrated in a public organ concert beginning at 7:00 p.m. on August 22 at  California’s Carmel mission. Inspired by The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, Sea of Cortez, and John Steinbeck’s admiration for the music of J.S. Bach, the literary-minded program will be performed by James Welch, California’s foremost concert organist and a fan of John Steinbeck’s fiction.

The historic Carmel mission is located at 3080 Rio Road in Carmel-by-the-Sea, several miles south of Monterey and Pacific Grove. Along with inland Salinas, the three Monterey County communities were inhabited or frequented by Steinbeck during his formative California period and appear frequently in his writing. The 1935 novel Tortilla Flat is set in Monterey, the site of Cannery Row and the launching point of Steinbeck’s 1940 Sea of Cortez expedition with his close friend Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist, to study the coastal ecology and culture of Baja California. The result of their legendary trip and writing collaboration was Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941), the book that distilled the ideas animating The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle, and Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s labor trilogy of the late 1930s.

Image of James Welch, organist for the August 22 Steinbeck concert at Carmel Mission

A native of Southern California who started college as a pre-med student, James Welch earned a doctorate in organ performance from Stanford University and lives in Palo Alto, where he has held the post of organist at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church since 1993. A member of the music department at Santa Clara University and a former faculty member at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he has researched and recorded Latin American organ music on a Fulbright grant, performed music by European and American masters at cathedrals and concert halls throughout the world, and recorded works by a variety of composers for the organ, including the four featured on his August 22 concert at Carmel Mission. (Welch will perform a program of music by British composers on the famed organ of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City on August 3.)

Music for Steinbeck from J.S. Bach to “Night in Monterey”

Welch’s Carmel mission concert will open with J.S. Bach’s mighty Toccata in C major and other selections by the composer whom Steinbeck and Ricketts described in Sea of Cortez as “breaking through” to a state of mystical sublimity in sound. It will continue with Steinbeck Suite, a five-movement work written by Franklin D. Ashdown in honor of the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath and inspired by scenes from Tortilla Flat and from Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Ashdown, who lives in New Mexico, is one of America’s most widely published living composers of music for organ and choir. Steinbeck Suite was premiered by Welch at the Santa Clara mission on February 17 and will be published in 2014 by Zimbel Press, a respected publisher of new music. Ashdown visited the Carmel mission following the Santa Clara premiere and played its pipe organ.

Also featured on Welch’s Carmel mission program will be a pair of 20th century California composers who were inspired by the Monterey Peninsula and San Francisco Bay Area in their musical writing. Richard Purvis (1913-1994), the organist and choirmaster of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco following World War II, enjoyed camping on the Monterey coast, a passion colorfully reflected in Nocturne (“Night in Monterey”), one of several Purvis pieces that will be performed by Welch, who published a biography of Purvis in 2013. Dale Wood (1934-2003), the organist and choirmaster at San Francisco’s Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the 1970s, wrote music with a distinctively California style influenced by musical forms familiar to Steinbeck, including jazz, gospel music, and the music J.S. Bach. Welch’s Carmel mission concert will include Wood’s brilliant setting of the chorale “That Easter Day With Joy Was Bright” in celebration of the seminal Easter Sunday chapter from Sea of Cortez.

Carmel Mission and Steinbeck’s Feeling for Catholicism

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission was the second California mission built under the administration of Junipero Serra, the Franciscan missionary who made the Carmel mission his headquarters from 1770 until his death in 1784. Like other California missions, it fell into disuse and decay following secularization by the Mexican government in the 19th century. By Steinbeck and Ricketts’s time, the restoration advocated by Steinbeck and others was underway, and the Carmel mission became a parish church in 1932—the original goal of the Franciscans for the missions they built along the “King’s Highway” between San Diego and Sonoma under Spanish colonial rule. Its beauty, acoustics, and location have made it a popular concert venue and tourist destination today. The Carmel mission was named a minor basilica by Pope John XXIII in 1960 and hosted a visit by Pope John Paul II during his 1987 North American tour.

Ashdown’s choral work, Missa Brevis de Requiem, is dedicated to the memory of both popes, and his Franciscan Pastorale, based on St. Francis of Assisi’s “All Creatures of Our God and King,” is among his most frequently performed works for the organ. It is tempting to imagine that John Steinbeck, who was friendly to Catholicism in his fiction and familiar with the legend and lore of St. Francis and the California missions built by the Franciscans, would be pleased.

Remembering the San Francisco Journalist Who Interviewed John Steinbeck During Travels with Charley

Image of Curt Gentry, the writer who interviewed Steinbeck during Travels with Charley

The death of the San Francisco freelance writer Curt Gentry on July 10 made me especially sad. An old-school journalist, a loyal fan of John Steinbeck, and a fearless writer about subjects close to Steinbeck’s divided heart (J. Edgar Hoover, San Francisco whorehouses), he helped me greatly when I researched Dogging Steinbeck, my true account of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck’s so-called non-fiction book. Curt Gentry was a gentleman, and one of the nicest guys I ever met.

Cover images from Helter Skelter, J. Edgard Hoover, and other books by Curt Gentry

Helter Skelter, J. Edgar Hoover, and Travels with Charley

As noted in his San Francisco Chronicle obit, Gentry made his fame and fortune co-writing Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, and a devastating biography of John Steinbeck’s dark nemesis, J. Edgar Hoover. Controversy and power never frightened Curt. Among his 13 books were histories of the downing by the USSR of an American spy plane during the Eisenhower Administration, detested by Steinbeck, and of the legendary madams who made San Francisco famous and, for Steinbeck, appealing.

From the mid-1950s until his death, Gentry lived in San Francisco’s trendy/hip North Beach neighborhood. In late October of 1960, Steinbeck pulled into town with his wife Elaine and their dog Charley on the California leg of the author’s Travels with Charley road trip to rediscover an America he said he no longer understood. Gentry deftly landed an interview with his literary hero and wrote a long piece for the San Francisco Chronicle about what Steinbeck told him.

In late October of 1960, Steinbeck pulled into town with his wife Elaine and their dog Charley on the California leg of the author’s Travels with Charley road trip . . . . Gentry deftly landed an interview with his literary hero and wrote a long piece for the San Francisco Chronicle about what Steinbeck told him.

Fifty years later, Gentry was one of the first people I tracked down when I began my research before I wrote Dogging Steinbeck, a book that reveals how Steinbeck and his editors at Viking padded Travels with Charley with fictions and fibs, then passed it off as a work of nonfiction for half a century. In The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, Steinbeck’s biographer Jackson Benson mentioned Gentry’s San Francisco Chronicle piece without giving the young journalist’s name.

Thanks to the San Francisco Public Library and the Internet, I found Gentry’s address and phone number and called him from Pittsburgh to ask for his help retracing Travels with Charley for my book. How would the man who exposed Helter Skelter and J. Edgar Hoover but admired Steinbeck react when he heard I was trying to piece together his hero’s actual (as opposed to imagined) Travels with Charley? He replied he’d be happy to meet me for lunch whenever I was in San Francisco. I met with him twice, on two separate trips, during long, memorable lunches at nearly empty North Beach restaurants.

Image of San Francisco Chronicle interview with Steinbeck about Travels with Charley

“Steinbeck Meets the Press” During Travels with Charley

Here, in this “Steinbeck meets the press” excerpt from Dogging Steinbeck, is what Curt Gentry told me about his encounter with John Steinbeck at Steinbeck’s San Francisco hotel during Travels with Charley in 1960:

“Headquartered at the St. Francis, Steinbeck hung out with old friends at some of the city’s top bars and restaurants. The local print media instantly discovered his arrival. Herb Caen, the famed city columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle and ‘the uncrowned prince’ of the city, reported in his daily column on Oct. 28 that his friend John Steinbeck had ‘chugged’ into town ‘from New York’ on the evening of Oct. 26.

“The next day local writer Curt Gentry got a tip from a Chronicle staffer. Doing what any hustling freelancer would do, Gentry called the famous visiting author in his hotel room and begged for an interview. Steinbeck was notoriously publicity shy, but he told Gentry to come to the St. Francis the next morning.

Doing what any hustling freelancer would do, Gentry called the famous visiting author in his hotel room and begged for an interview. Steinbeck was notoriously publicity shy, but he told Gentry to come to the St. Francis the next morning.

“Gentry, then 29, would go on to write more than a dozen books, including his biggest one with Vincent Bugliosi, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. But in 1960 he was a struggling writer, ex-newspaper reporter and bookstore manager. He lived in North Beach, the super-hip Italian neighborhood in downtown San Francisco. He mixed with jazz musicians, young writers and the Beats, who were headquartered at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore at the corner of Broadway and Columbus. He knew Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg in passing and novelist/poet Richard Brautigan well, but Gentry was also a serious Steinbeck fan.

“On my research trip in the spring of 2010 Gentry met me at the Washington Square Bar & Grill. In its heyday the dim, aging, wood-lined North Beach landmark was a hangout for writers, politicos, musicians and the city’s in-crowd. But the WashBaG, as Herb Caen had nicknamed it, was almost empty when I was there and in a few months would close forever. Gentry, as well known to the staff as the owner, was easy to spot at the bar, looking dapper in his brown cap. He was the real deal. Helter Skelter made him rich. His 1991 New York Times bestseller J. Edgar Hoover exposed Hoover’s paranoia, his serial abuses of power and how he created the myth of the FBI as invincible and incorruptible.

Gentry, then 29, . . . mixed with jazz musicians, young writers and the Beats, who were headquartered at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore at the corner of Broadway and Columbus. He knew Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg in passing and novelist/poet Richard Brautigan well, but Gentry was also a serious Steinbeck fan.

“At 79 Gentry was still writing tough books like the one he was working on about the Las Vegas mob. He couldn’t have been nicer, more helpful or more supportive of my Charley-retracing project. Not only did he buy me lunch and ignore our wide political divide. But he told me stories about the 1960 North Beach scene, repeated his favorite Steinbeck gossip and, when I expressed doubt about pulling off a book deal, kindly said, ‘I have faith in you.’

“On top of that moral support, Gentry gave me something else that was priceless – 10 pages of notes he had typed up after his meeting with Steinbeck. An observant record of what Steinbeck was doing and thinking in mid-Charley trip, Gentry’s account depicts a politically partisan 58-year-old at the top of his game, not lonely, not depressed, but full of piss and vinegar.

“When Gentry went to the St. Francis for his 11 a.m. interview, he said, Elaine was still in bed, Charley was in a kennel and John was hung over. ‘It looked like they both had quite a night,’ Gentry told me. A longtime admirer of Steinbeck, Gentry showed up at Steinbeck’s hotel suite with two shopping bags filled with every Steinbeck title he could carry – 21 books.

Gentry showed up at Steinbeck’s hotel suite with two shopping bags filled with every Steinbeck title he could carry – 21 books.

“He asked Steinbeck to sign the books, which he cheerfully did. Steinbeck had just finished sending Adlai Stevenson a telegram containing some silly anti-Nixon jokes and was sewing together the clasp for his walking stick. Later, after Steinbeck finished a rant about what he called the immorality of Americans, Gentry wrote that ‘he tossed the stick across the room in anger.’

“In his notes, Gentry described Steinbeck as friendly, talkative and animated. They discussed, among many subjects, the presidential election, what was wrong with America, why his friend and neighbor Dag Hammarskjold would make a great president and why Hemingway should write about people not bullfighting. Steinbeck told Gentry he was driving across the country in an attempt to find out what the American people thought about politics. ‘Everywhere he has traveled,’ Gentry wrote in his notes, ‘there is fantastic interest. People are not indifferent, or undecided. They just won’t say.’

“Telling Gentry he had lately been seeing signs of a close Kennedy victory, Steinbeck made fun of Eisenhower and bemoaned the fact that for the previous eight years the Republicans had ‘made it fashionable to be stupid.’ Gentry also noted that Steinbeck ‘had much to say on Richard Nixon, a great part of it unprintable.’ According to Gentry, Steinbeck was down on Americans for becoming soft and what he called ‘immoral.’ Previewing what he would express in his recently completed but not yet published novel The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck defined immorality as ‘taking out more than you are willing to put back.’

Telling Gentry he had lately been seeing signs of a close Kennedy victory, Steinbeck made fun of Eisenhower and bemoaned the fact that for the previous eight years the Republicans had ‘made it fashionable to be stupid.’

“Steinbeck, wrote Gentry, ‘went on to note emphatically that “a nation or a group or an individual cannot survive immorality. The individual can’t survive being soft, comforted, content. He only survives well when the press is on him. In Rome when they began taking more out than they put in they began to decay.” And then his voice grew louder, his gestures became more emphatic as he added “If a fuse blew out in the Empire State Building today a million people would trample themselves to death . . .  No one can do anything anymore. Who could slaughter and cut up a cow if they had to? No it has to be carefully cut for them, cellophane wrapped. They have lost the ability to be versatile. When either people or animals lose their versatility they become extinct.”‘

“When Gentry asked if he’d ever come back to live in California, Steinbeck said what he would later write in Travels with Charley after visiting his old haunts in Monterey. Steinbeck, according to Gentry, ‘said, sadly, “The truest words ever written were Thomas Wolfe’s ‘You Can’t Go Home Again.’ I wish it weren’t so but when I come back to California to stay it will be in a box.”‘

“Gentry had another gift for me. He gave me a copy of his original Steinbeck article, before it was edited. The piece ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, Nov. 6, 1960, under the headline ‘John Steinbeck: “America’s King Arthur is Coming.”‘ (In an eerie presaging of Jackie Kennedy’s post-assassination comment that her husband’s presidency had been ‘an American Camelot,’ Steinbeck had said, apparently in reference to JFK, that all countries have legendary King Arthur-types who show up during times of trouble.)

Gentry had another gift for me. He gave me a copy of his original Steinbeck article, before it was edited.

“In his article Gentry described Steinbeck as ‘big in body, mind, and heart’ and ‘full of humor, vitriol, compassion and strong feeling.’ What Gentry had written was printed in the paper verbatim until it came to his attempts to share some of Steinbeck’s stronger political opinions with the Chronicle’s readers. A 500-word chunk at the end of his article containing all the mean things Steinbeck had said about Nixon and Eisenhower had been simply lopped off. The newspaper, which along with the San Francisco Examiner gave its editorial support to Nixon, wasn’t going to let a famous author trash its Republican hero two days before the election.

“The edits didn’t surprise Gentry. He was very involved in politics in 1960. Like Steinbeck, he was a devout Adlai Stevenson Democrat. During the 1956 presidential year, when he was active in the Young Californians for Stevenson, Gentry was called upon to drive Stevenson around town a couple times. He also was a driver for JFK, who apparently was on his best behavior because Gentry had no sexy story to share.

A 500-word chunk at the end of his article containing all the mean things Steinbeck had said about Nixon and Eisenhower had been simply lopped off. The newspaper, which along with the San Francisco Examiner gave its editorial support to Nixon, wasn’t going to let a famous author trash its Republican hero two days before the election.

“Gentry and Steinbeck kept in touch, exchanging several letters over the next few years. After Steinbeck’s death Gentry wanted to write a book about him and his relationship with his close friend Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist and real-life model for Doc in Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s agent, Elizabeth Otis, liked the idea, Gentry said. But widow Elaine – who controlled Steinbeck’s estate with a firm hand – nixed it. Elaine was, to put it kindly, not Gentry’s favorite Steinbeck. One thing that bothered him, he said, was the closeness of Elaine to Steinbeck’s biographers, Jackson Benson and Jay Parini.

“’They automatically accepted anything she said about his first two wives, Carol or Gwen,’ he said. ‘Everything I’ve read and heard is that Elaine was a real ball-buster and a terrible person, with her ex-husband, Zachary Scott (the movie actor), manipulating her in the background.’ That was a new bit of inside-Steinbeck World gossip/dirt for me. I had no idea if it was true and didn’t care one way or the other, but it sounded like something a guy who wrote an expose of J.E. Hoover might know.

“Since Gentry had lived almost exclusively in North Beach since the mid-1950s, he was a good person to ask about how the neighborhood had changed. The biggest difference, he said, was the proliferation of striptease joints. That was pretty much all the ‘entertainment’ there was in 2010. But in 1960, the clubs and bars spinning around the intersection of Columbus and Broadway were booking stars of the present and incubating stars of the future. Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Art Tatum played in clubs. Johnny Mathis got his start in North Beach in the mid ‘50s right after high school.

“The famous North Beach nightclub the Hungry i, by itself, is said to have launched the careers of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters and Barbra Streisand. The Hungry i was owned by mad impresario Enrico Banducci, who also opened up Enrico’s Coffee House on Broadway. Upstairs was Finochio’s, the famous nightclub featuring a vaudevillian floorshow of female impersonators. Gentry knew and liked Banducci. As soon as he made enough money, Gentry said, he basically lived in Enrico’s sidewalk cafe, which by day was a Herb Caen watering hole and by night a jazzy de facto after-hours club for cops, prostitutes and scuffling writers like him.

“Enrico’s Café, now closed, still existed in 2010. But its glory days, like North Beach’s, were ancient history. The afternoon I went to check it out it was closed for lunch. Basically unchanged since 1960, its outside tables were jammed inside behind big glass doors. The sidewalk patio was showing its age, its concrete cracked and its booths worn at the corners. The three-story building needed a paint job. The top floor where Finochio’s raunchy floorshow once shocked or entertained the straight world looked vacant.

Since Gentry had lived almost exclusively in North Beach since the mid-1950s, he was a good person to ask about how the neighborhood had changed. The biggest difference, he said, was the proliferation of striptease joints.

“Enrico’s Café’s near neighbors in 2010 were strip clubs like the Hungry I Club (‘The Best Girls in Town’) and Big Al’s adult bookstore. But still on the corner of Columbus and Broadway was City Lights Books, which became world famous in 1956 after its owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl.’ The precedent-setting First Amendment test-case that followed ultimately overturned the country’s obscenity laws and allowed banned books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be published in the Land of the Free.

“For several days in the fall of 1960 Steinbeck loafed only a few hundred feet from City Lights, yet he had nothing to do with the Beats and their revolutionary scene, and vice versa. Ferlinghetti’s assistant told me Ferlinghetti and Steinbeck – the new literary generation and the old – never met then or any other time. By 2010 City Lights and the Beat Museum – a well-done retail shrine to the lives and works of Kerouac, Ginsberg and other dead Beats – were the only two reasons left for going to what was once one of the coolest, most cutting edge, most culturally important intersections in America.”

Curt Gentry’s Book Blurb for Dogging Steinbeck

“I still believe John Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest writers and I still love Travels with Charley, be it fact or fiction or, as Bill Steigerwald doggedly proved, both. While I disagree with a number of Steigerwald’s conclusions, I don’t dispute his facts. He greatly broadened my understanding of Steinbeck the man and the author, particularly during his last years. And, whether Steigerwald intended it or not, in tracking down the original draft of Travels with Charley he made a significant contribution to Steinbeck’s legacy. Dogging Steinbeck is a good honest book.” – Curt Gentry

Photo of Curt Gentry by Jim Wilson courtesy San Francisco Chronicle. Excerpt from Dogging Steinbeck courtesy Bill Steigerwald.

Summering with Steinbeck, Who Traveled with Charley: Pack The Portable John Steinbeck for Your Trip

Image of John Steinbeck with the dog made famous by Travels with Charley

John Steinbeck’s dog Charles le Chien remains a creature to be envied, having been squired across mid-20th century America by his restless owner, the author who transformed their journey together into Travels with Charley, a lyrical paean rich in social commentary that became a favorite of Steinbeck readers then and now.

As if a 10,000-mile, tree-filled experience weren’t heavenly enough reward, Elaine and John Steinbeck’s big blue Poodle also gained literary immortality, taking a star-turn in the book that records a road trip taken more than 50 years ago and continues to be read and debated. The appellation lucky dog comes to mind, but Charley was ready for his role as the author’s celebrated sidekick. Steinbeck wanted to see America on his own, but needed a companion who listened well. Charley did.

Wartime Portable Steinbeck Published BC (Before Charley)

Cover image of John Steinbeck's The Portable SteinbeckNo fan of John Steinbeck will ever be quite as lucky as Charley-dog. But may I suggest a second-best experience for two-legged vacationers half a century after Travels with Charley became a national bestseller? Take along your own copy of Viking’s The Portable Steinbeck when you travel this summer. Like John Steinbeck’s polite, attentive Poodle, this popular anthology of the author’s work travels well and fits any space.

A compact book designed for stuffing into suitcases and knapsacks, The Portable John Steinbeck remains an unsurpassed introduction for newcomers to John Steinbeck’s writing and a continuing delight for long-time lovers of The Red Pony, East of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath.  With apologies to a fellow author Steinbeck admired deeply, allow me to call The Portable Steinbeck a moveable feast for readers on the run who favor timeless prose and strong ideas over mindless literary escapism.

The Portable Steinbeck was first published in 1943 at the height of World War II as part of the Viking Portable Series—a literary brainstorm attributed to the writer-broadcaster and soldiers’ champion Alexander Woollcott. As noted at the website, “The physical characteristics of the wartime Portables owed more to practicality than anything else. The books were meant to be ‘built like a Jeep: compact, efficient, and marvelously versatile.’”

Idea by Alexander Woollcott, Introduction by Pascal Covici

Woollcott wanted the Portables produced for “the convenience of men who are mostly on the move and must travel light”—soldiers far from home fighting in both theaters of an uncertain war. John Steinbeck shared Woollcott’s belief in the democracy of books and the heroism of young soldiers, some as young as 17. The  editors at Viking echoed Woollcott’s words on the jacket of the original Portable Steinbeck, the second book they published in the series.

The Portables, they explained, were produced to present “a considerable quantity of widely popular reading in a volume so small that it can conveniently be carried and read in places where a book of ordinary format would be a hindrance.” Domestic resources were scarce, and the wartime Portables featured “light paper, small margins, and other production economies” while offering a “well and legibly printed and sturdily bound” book designed as much for durability as for literary quality and content.

Like Travels with Charley, Portable Steinbeck Still Popular

Sturdy indeed. The John Steinbeck anthology has gone through numerous editions since 1943, although this Baby Boomer patriot particularly cherishes a pair of copies published in the 1980s, each with an elegant introduction by Pascal Covici Jr., the literary son of Steinbeck’s loyal editor and friend from the prewar 1930s.

The younger Covici’s introduction to John Steinbeck’s long-lived anthology is a model of to-the-point prose:

The gusto of Homer and of Whitman is indeed here, along with the thoughtfulness of Emerson, that philosophical presence which more and more readers have been finding woven into the sturdiest standards of American literature. A humor sometimes sly and often carelessly robust finds its way onto Steinbeck’s pages too.

Contemporary cynics might anticipate a lawyerly disclaimer at this point: Individual reader’s results may vary. But the book’s content lives up to its billing as an introduction to the variety of works written by John Steinbeck, including in its pages the complete version of The Red Pony and a self-contained segment from Cannery Row, along with excerpts from The Grapes of Wrath and (in later editions) the full text of John Steinbeck’s inspired Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Portable Steinbeck—Beach Reading for the Eternal Ocean

I can think of no better way to make the inner light shine brighter for modern readers than this brilliant passage from The Grapes of Wrath:

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “We.”

Or read the sunny lines spoken in passionate hope for the future by John Steinbeck in Stockholm in 1962:

And this I believe: That the free exploring mind of the indivdiual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is I what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.

The Portable Steinbeck is a summer book for any season, but it’s far from shallow—a beach read, if you will, that plumbs that ocean of eternal wisdom. Covici in his introduction describes the progression and profundity of the excerpts selected:  “a focus of interest more implicit than realized in the very early works, then gradually emerging into sharpened consciousness until it becomes a matter of articulated intention.”

As a child of icy winters spent on the Great Lakes, I embrace summer days. Like John Steinbeck with Charley, I relish them with my favorite fellow-traveler, The Portable Steinbeck, in tow.

Minuteman Missile: A Cold War Poem for Memorial Day

In the 20th Century my father loved his government job:
maintaining the well-calibrated heart of the nuclear arsenal.
He said, We can put one of those babies through a window
in the Kremlin after a 6000-mile flight. We made that here.
And, come Memorial Day, at the open house at the air base,
he’d show me his workbench in the cleanroom where dust
held its breath. Later, he might have almost nothing to say.
Maybe: Keep it down. I’m watching fucking 60 Minutes.

How he grew to love Minuteman missiles, the stockpile
whose reliable lethality he’d chosen to take ownership of.
Meaning, he thought about the consequences of the work.
Maybe he had the moral compass of a death camp guard,
but I loved that he sharpened the blade for the American
guillotine. That he visualized ICBMs unzipping the sky.
The hum and verdict of oscilloscopes was in his voice
when he said, You’re thinking about this too much.

Aunt Eller’s Runn’d Away: From Short Stories Set in Rural Upstate New York

Image from short stories set in rural upstate New York

“I love you,” said Ella.

“I love you,” Carl answered and held her. When they kissed, their heads pushed into the hay of the mow and they could smell the sweetness of the dry grass beneath. They didn’t see the gleaming flash of moonlight across the blade of shining steel pointing at them, nor hear the pushback of the barn door, or the footsteps padding softly toward where they lay. But suddenly the light of the moon was gone.

Across the yard rose the Price House, a large two-storey 10-bedroom building planted on a square of land called the “house lot” by those who lived in it. There was a toilet perched outside its back door, shingled to match the house and barns, and a well-house, just off the porch at the front. It sat atop a pushed-up round wall of “found” stones from the surrounding fields and had the familiar faded-green shingled roof that matched every other, even the chicken coops. A loud cranky handle poked out one side with a galvanized pail at the end of a wound of thick rope.

The “house lot” was surrounded by other plots named for what was planted there each year: the corn lot, the potato lot, the bean lot, the rhubarb lot, a pumpkin lot, and far below those, the wintergreen lot of low plants with dark waxy leaves and imperfect spotty pink berries poking out like the nubs of melted birthday candles.

“Look,” my Aunt Violet cried, who wasn’t my aunt yet, as she was only nine and I had yet to be born. Violet’s father called her the “miracle baby,” for she came only four months after he was married. Her mother, who grew very religious after learning of her pregnancy, treated those four months as if hers was almost a Virgin Birth. “Violet developed very quickly,” her mother said of her miracle, which occurred on the last day of November 1933, when it was almost Christmas. The next year, in May, my mother-to-be would be 10. My father turned 11 four days earlier, and I wasn’t to arrive on earth for another seven years.

“Look!” cried my not-yet aunt, and ran to the window with her brothers and sisters following. They collected at the casing and looked out at the dark winter night. The ice and snow of the wintergreen lot was lighted bright as day by some unknown energy. It was other-worldly and occurred often in the wintergreen lot. But no one understood why there was light at night more intense than any ordinary day. The field was electrified, as if a hundred florescent lights shone upon it from above. There wasn’t a shadow anywhere. The ice sparkled off the wintergreen berries, and their shiny dark leaves, still green under the snow, reflected that light from an invisible source that wasn’t, necessarily, overhead.

The family knew it wasn’t St. Elmo’s fire, for there were no cattails in the wintergreen field to spontaneously combust, and nothing else for burning, neither hay nor straw.

There was one loud knock on the front door, and as if by magic the field went dark. Violet and her family turned from its blackness and she ran to answer. Standing there in the opening was her uncle.

“Eller’s gone!” Mel groaned. “Your Aunt Eller’s runn’d away!” He came inside, his head almost touching the ceiling, for 1800s doorways and rooves were low to keep the coal-stove heat inside. Uncle Mel sat down on the slouching brown sofa and wedged himself between its two pillows. “I wonder where she’s gone?” he asked as if to himself. “And why she’s runned away?”

Aunt Ella was never heard from again. There were rumors after, for someone else was gone away too, a man everyone talked about in whispers. His name was “Carl . . .  Carl . . . ,” and he seemed somehow attached to Aunt Ella, like a Peter Pan shadow.

A distant relative who visited a clairvoyant came back with this message: “They were murdered and buried somewhere there’s water.” Everyone took in the message and shared understanding looks, but nothing else was said aloud.

“I think they’re somewhere in the wintergreen lot,” said someone who quickly added, “But don’t quote me.”

Everyone had doubts because the night of Aunt Ella’s disappearance, Uncle Mel decided to add a bathroom to his house and water to the kitchen sink. By the light of kerosene lamps hung on beanpoles, he dug deep trenches and coupled copper pipes that snaked through his holes in the ground. Afterward, when anyone came around they commented on the talking water that flowed in his underground pipes.

This was the country, and while folks thought it was strange to dig up frozen ground in the wintertime to install plumbing, no one said anything.

Though when Violet looked through the windows at her Uncle digging and saw the copper pipes shine in the glint of lantern light as he put them together, she thought his work was as mysterious as the unexplained light above the wintergreen meadow.

The next morning Uncle Mel invited everyone in to see his running water. “Should have done this when yore Aunt Eller was still here,” he said. “I should’ve done it fer her. She would’ve liked to hear the running water. I’ll think of her whenever I turn on the faucet.”

“Would he think of Carl too?” my not-Aunt Violet wondered. She was very perceptive. She understood things other people didn’t.

“There’s a separate pipe to the bathroom,” said Uncle Mel when he saw my not-Aunt staring up at him. He winked. “I have a cesspool too.”

View from the Hill: A Poem About John Steinbeck’s Monterey, California

It was on a long so long past her midnight night,
under a scheming sky of milkbowl light and nightkissed stars,
on a night wrapped in the silver and silk of self and moon,
wrapped in a night of dream and hope,
a night of soft quiet filled
with the stippled and glazed glimmering
of the polished eucalyptus leaves
that flashed
and flushed on the naked limbs
under the moon-scarred diamonds
of an outcast and far off
forgotten heaven.
From the shores of the ripple-splashed and cold
black bottomless bay sounded the noise of the windbuoys,
came the sound of the sea, came the music addressed to unseen ships
as the sightless gray of the wind’s morning hands reached
softly down
and rattled them,
like the call of a thousands cows that pained alone
in all the frost-filled prairies and pastures and plains of the world.

Calm night, cool wind, and out there too,
in all the deep-dark valleys of the bay,
buried beneath the shadows of splashing waves and tireless rocks,
the noise of the sea lions
moaning and barking and rolling their heads, a lonely dog’s bark
that pierces the black guts of the night, their calls into the high skies
that mean, to them, perhaps passion, maybe pain;
while somewhere in the dark
the throbs and the strokes, the sounds of the motors of the early-hour boats, fishing men
aiming their restless bows over and through the waves,
while in them the Italian, the Grecian, the lonely and the sad, the
new, the ancient mariners
trod worn decks, drop mended nets
down into the depths to find pieces of their prayers
in the cool bellies of their netted fish.

Under the quiet moon I walked,
and under the sweeping arms of the black-shadowed trees I walked,
and under the stars and the limbs of the eucalyptus and pine I walked
in that early-soft morning moment of dawn
beneath a blanket of cathedral stars
in that sweet-scented moment of time
when the slightest movement of tomorrow’s winds begin to fall quietly down to earth
like soft kittens,
and in that sheltered moment of good
and greatness
and everything,
when even the stink of the earth and the sound of the water and the smell of the pines spells wonderment, I felt
my moving heart shake,
crossing over wheat-waving fields of grass,
over weed-filled meadows giving up the sounds of crickets,
and below me and below God and below the moon
and man and his sleeping world,
there, between the hills and the sea,
I looked down and saw a Monterey morning
sprinkled upon the surface of the earth like dim fireflies
in a shifting fog.

Behind me, the crickets, and in the weeds, the wind. While before me, the sea, the seals, and the sounds of the fishing boats.
Below me in repose, the town in its sound and soundless sleep, and
in a single moment of gladness,
alone in that world of mist and myth,
I found myself overcome with a feeling of grace, and I was suddenly a priest, was suddenly a monk,
was suddenly a saint,
was suddenly someone neither good nor bad. I was
everything and nothing, both whole and unwhole: a leftover piece
of some onetime great and fallen god
that had its home in the tossing grass,
that shared all of the space from here
to the darkest corner of the starlight skies.
And with my feet spreading wings over the dew-wet grass,
through the mattress of needles in the thick pine forests, the soles of my feet pounding hard upon the earth,
feeling a part of some gigantic and tremendous ancient thing, feeling part of a universe that was as close to me as the simplest stone
or as far from me as the farthest star,
I turned
and made my way home.

The Writing of Tortilla Flat and the Mysterious Missing Portrait of John Steinbeck

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by Ellwood Graham

In the late 1950s I rented a house owned by Barbara Stevenson and Ellwood Graham, artists who knew John Steinbeck when he was writing his 1935 hit Tortilla Flat, at the end of Lobos Street on Huckleberry Hill in Monterey, California. By then Graham and Stevenson—who later adopted the name Judith Deim—had decided to go their separate ways, Ellwood to San Francisco and Seattle, Barbara to live with her four young children in a cave in Spain.

What worldly goods the couple possessed, including a number of Barbara’s paintings that I found leaning against the walls of the three rooms in their small studio-home, were being left behind for the time being. As I unpacked and stored my clothing in the bedroom, I made a surprising discovery behind a pair of sliding closet doors: the now-missing and much-speculated-about portrait of John Steinbeck painted by Ellwood Graham some years earlier.

Barbara was still in the process of vacating the house when I began my move, and I mentioned that I didn’t particularly like Ellwood’s painting (shown above) because I thought Ellwood had made John look like a punch-drunk boxer. Neither agreeing nor disagreeing with my reaction to the work, Barbara told me how it came to be painted.

Barbara recalled that John did much of his early writing in the garage of the Steinbeck family cottage, located down the Hill on 11th Street in Pacific Grove. Like everyone living on the Hill, Barbara and Ellwood were aware that John and his wife Carol had made an unusual arrangement: each morning Carol locked John in the back-garden garage until late afternoon. The garage had a window or two, so there was a way out in case of  emergency, but as Barbara explained, John was easily distracted and felt he needed the kind of discipline forced on him by daily isolation when he wrote.

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by Judith Deim

As Ellwood and Barbara sat with John in their kitchen one evening, enjoying a jug of red wine at a massive hand-hewn redwood table with matching picnic table benches, John complained that he was struggling with a story he was trying to write about some of the lively characters who inhabited nearby Cannery Row. Refilling their glasses, Ellwood stated that he thought the material seemed limitless and suggested that John ought to be writing a novel, not a short story. John replied that he couldn’t imagine looking down at a blank page in another new ledger book knowing “I’d still be working on the same damn thing two years from now.”

Ellwood made a proposal: rather than sitting alone in his garage each day, John should move his writing ledgers and his sharpened pencils into their kitchen, where he could write and Ellwood and Barbara could each paint his portrait. Without hesitation, John agreed. Perhaps with the help of their good friend Bruce Ariss, the artist-author who lived next door, Ellwood hurriedly built a portable box-like platform approximately 14 inches high, large enough to accommodate John’s table and chair. It was there that John Steinbeck wrote portions of Tortilla Flat, his first commercially successful book, while Barbara and Ellwood painted their soon-to-be-famous friend from remarkably different points of view.

Today Barbara’s well-known painting, showing Steinbeck seated at his desk writing (above), can be viewed at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. What happened to Ellwood’s portrait of the writer remains a mystery.

(By the way, the similar sound of our names meant that John Steinbeck and I were frequently confused for one another in the minds of some people in Monterey, California. There were occasions when I’d receive checks made out to “John Steinbeck.” I always endorsed them, and I never had trouble cashing one. I mentioned this to John when I saw him in Pacific Grove while he was visiting his sister at some point in the 1960s—the Vietnam War was on, but I don’t remember the exact year—and he said he’d do the same if he ever got a check made out to “John Smithback.” Even-Steven.)