Archives for November 2014

John Steinbeck’s African-Americans—Author Susan Shillinglaw Clarifies the Context of the World War II Hero in “With Your Wings”

 Composite image of Susan Shillinglaw and John Steinbeck

The publication of John Steinbeck’s “With Your Wings” continues to stimulate conversation about the writer’s understanding of African-Americans and the roots and relevance of his forgotten World War II short story about a black Air Force aviator. Last week Steinbeck scholar Robert DeMott challenged assumptions about the story’s origins. This week Susan Shillinglaw, author of On Reading The Grapes of Wrath and Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage, interprets the story’s African-American hero in the context of Steinbeck’s World War II experience and writings about African-American characters and issues. Like Robert DeMott, she responded generously to my request for expert comment about “With Your Wings.”

Susan Shillinglaw interprets the story’s African-American character in the context of Steinbeck’s World War II experience and writings about African-American characters and issues.

A professor of English at San Jose State University, she teaches the only regularly scheduled college-level John Steinbeck course offered anywhere. As Robert DeMott’s successor as director of SJSU’s Center for Steinbeck Studies, she introduced previously unpublished Steinbeck works of various kinds in Steinbeck Newsletter and Steinbeck Studies. These included the short story “The Kitten and the Curtain,” “The God in the Pipes”—an early fragment of what became Cannery Row—and an omitted chapter from the novel, “The Day the Wolves Ate the Vice Principal.” She wrote introductions for popular Penguin Classics editions of Steinbeck’s fiction, co-edited John Steinbeck’s America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction, and is co-editing a major Steinbeck reference work. Her 25-year record of teaching, editing, and writing was recognized by her designation as SJSU’s President’s Scholar in 2012-13. She is also Scholar in Residence at the National Steinbeck Center and co-director of a summer program on John Steinbeck for high school teachers funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

On Reading “With Your Wings”: African-Americans in John Steinbeck’s Life and Writing in and out of World War II

Susan Shillinglaw’s enlightening comments on the cultural and historical context of John Steinbeck’s World War II character William Thatcher, the African-American hero of the newly published short story “With Your Wings,” are quoted in full:

“This aviator, a second lieutenant with gold bars on his sleeves, would have earned his flight wings in Tuskegee, Alabama, where all African-American pilots were trained during World War II. ‘To have gone through the schools they must be very good, very intelligent and alert,’ Steinbeck writes in Bombs Away, a book-length propaganda piece published in 1942 on assignment for the U.S. war department in which Steinbeck lucidly explains the training of bomber pilots.

‘This aviator, a second lieutenant with gold bars on his sleeves, would have earned his flight wings in Tuskegee, Alabama.’

“Presumably Steinbeck produced ‘With Your Wings’ after writing Bombs Away and following his stint as a war correspondent covering England, North Africa, and a daring diversionary maneuver by Allied forces off the coast of Sicily and southern Italy. It’s tempting to think he wrote his short story after he returned from the front, where he might have encountered the Tuskegee Airmen, the 99th Squadron of the Army Air Forces first posted to North Africa in April 1943—four months before Steinbeck arrived at a ‘North African post,’ as in notes in Once There was a War, a collection of his World War II dispatches. Both Steinbeck and the 99th squadron then went on to Sicily, so it’s quite possible he knew and admired men like William Thatcher in this first African-American squadron posted overseas in World War II.

‘It’s tempting to think Steinbeck wrote his short story after he returned from the front, where he might have encountered the Tuskegee Airmen.’

“This aviator wants to detach from his 16-man group, to go home to ‘get something,’ to think about himself only. ‘He had thought to come home in triumph,’ a hero, a man set apart. But instead, like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, he discovers he is a group man, buttressed by family and community and ‘every black man in the world.’ That’s ‘something’ to hang on to.

Like Tom Joad, William Thatcher discovers he is a group man, buttressed by family and community and “every black man in the world.”‘

“Steinbeck’s lean little sketch, which reminds me a little of his short story ‘Breakfast,’ relies on sharp details: the aviator’s gold bars, straightness (the men ‘rigid as cypress logs,’ the aviator behind the wheel of his car, the young cotton, the standing community), the sun. It’s such an ordinary scene—except that the man is black, an exemplar because he’s earned those wings.

Steinbeck’s lean little sketch relies on sharp details: the aviator’s gold bars, straightness, the sun.’

“Steinbeck created a dignified African-American—Crooks—in his earlier novel Of Mice and Men, made into a movie in 1939. A dignified black man also occupies the lifeboat in another Steinbeck novella—Lifeboat—made into a movie in 1944. In the 1960s Steinbeck wrote about race in a long essay, in a letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., in Travels With Charley in Search of America, and in his 1966 volume of essays, America and Americans.

Steinbeck created a dignified African-American—Crooks—in his earlier novel Of Mice and Men. A dignified black man also occupies the lifeboat in another Steinbeck novella made into a movie.’

“Throughout his career John Steinbeck was deeply concerned with the common good, a phrase I recently heard NEH Director William Adams discussing on the Diane Rehm radio show. Steinbeck’s sense of the common good, I think, had something to do with empathy, humility, and understanding—for all.”

The Facts about “With Your Wings”—Robert DeMott on An Old John Steinbeck Short Story Recently in the News

Composite image of Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, and Burgess Meredith

For decades a leading scholar of American literature taught John Steinbeck using a race-themed Steinbeck short story described as lost in news reports on its recent publication by a colorful short story magazine. Printed in The Strand Magazine for the first time since being read on the radio by Orson Welles during World War II, “With Your Wings”—Steinbeck’s inspiring portrayal of a black pilot returning home to the South as a hero—is written in the idealized style of the author’s World War II book, Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team. But Robert DeMott, Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio University, says that Steinbeck’s short story wasn’t lost—and that Steinbeck’s friend Burgess Meredith, not Orson Welles, probably got first dibs on the story when it was written for broadcast in the 1940s.

John Steinbeck and Orson Welles

According to Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, Gulli discovered “With Your Wings” among Steinbeck’s papers at the University of Texas. In his editorial for the current issue of the magazine, Gulli adds that Steinbeck’s very short story about an African-American’s heroic homecoming was recited by Orson Welles on air in 1943 or 1944, then forgotten until it was recovered from the archives at Austin. Gulli’s version of the story’s provenance provides further evidence of Steinbeck’s role as a World War II propagandist. It also suggests that a relationship existed between Steinbeck and Welles, whose classic feature film Citizen Kane is based on William Randolph Hearst, the right-wing publisher of The San Francisco Examiner and The New York Morning Journal who was disliked by Steinbeck and disparaged (though not by name) in The Grapes of Wrath.

Gulli’s version of the story’s provenance provides further evidence of Steinbeck’s role as a World War II propagandist.

As Robert DeMott notes, more documentation is required before inferring a John Steinbeck-Orson Welles relationship from Gulli’s comments. But the possibility is intriguing, particularly in the context of continuing conjecture about Steinbeck’s connection to American intelligence agencies during and following World War II. Citizen Kane was every bit as controversial as The Grapes of Wrath, and for similar reasons. Steinbeck and Welles were celebrated artists with close ties to the Roosevelt administration. More important, they were political progressives who applauded the aims of the New Deal, decried the excesses of capitalism, and distrusted newspaper reviews of their works—though Steinbeck reported briefly on World War II for The New York Herald Tribune, a competitor of Hearst’s that Steinbeck described in private as reactionary.

Steinbeck and Welles were celebrated artists with close ties to the Roosevelt administration.

Co-written, produced, and directed by Welles—who also played the lead—Citizen Kane portrays Hearst, a Californian, as an eccentric empire-builder in the cut-throat world of New York newspaper publishing. Hearst’s papers boycotted the film, and Welles was accused of being a communist or worse even before the picture was released. Steinbeck’s labor novels In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men—made into a 1938 motion picture featuring Burgess Meredith—had provoked a similar reaction when they were written. The publication of The Grapes of Wrath fueled the fire, which had become a conflagration by the time Welles’s movie appeared two years after Steinbeck’s novel.

Writer and Actor Activists in World War II

Like John Steinbeck, Burgess Meredith, and other left-leaning writers and actors of the period, Orson Welles devoted his time and talent to the American war effort in Europe and the Pacific. Broadcasting proved particularly effective at boosting morale and providing writers and performers a way to entertain the troops at home and abroad. Welles’s World War II radio broadcasts included guest-hosting four episodes of the popular Jack Benny Program in 1943 and producing and hosting several radio series of his own, including Ceiling Unlimited, the program for which Andrew Gulli says John Steinbeck wrote “With Your Wings.” If true, the assertion raises a possibility of special interest to people who think Steinbeck worked for America’s emerging national security establishment in ways not apparent at the time.

If true, the assertion raises a possibility of special interest to people who think Steinbeck worked for America’s emerging national security establishment in ways not apparent at the time.

According to Wikipedia, Ceiling Unlimited was sponsored by the World War II aeronautical giant Lockheed-Vega Corporation “to glorify the aviation industry and dramatize its role in World War II,” much as Steinbeck’s Bombs Away and “With Your Wings” did for the Air Force pilots who flew the company’s planes. If Steinbeck wrote his short story for Orson Welles, was it at the behest of Lockheed, the California aerospace pioneer founded by two brothers in San Francisco? So far evidence is lacking. Wikipedia doesn’t list Steinbeck among the writers—including Arthur Miller—who contributed to Welles’s radio show. Nor does any reference to Orson Welles, Ceiling Unlimited, or Lockheed occur in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (1975), Jackson H. Benson’s biography, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (1984), or Brian Kannard’s Steinbeck: Citizen Spy.

John Steinbeck, Burgess Meredith, and “With Your Wings”

But references to Burgess Meredith abound in the record of John Steinbeck’s life. Like Orson Welles, Meredith achieved success as a New York stage actor before becoming a Hollywood screen star. Steinbeck met Meredith around the time the actor was cast as George in the 1939 movie Of Mice and Men, and the two men hit it off. When MGM refused to let Spencer Tracey narrate the 1941 film version of Steinbeck’s documentary The Forgotten Village, Steinbeck turned to Meredith, whose serene voice was well-suited to Steinbeck’s understated narrative. Like Orson Welles, Meredith and Steinbeck shared a penchant for politics, partying, and multiple partners. For a period they were neighbors, and they remained close until 1958, when a personal quarrel ended their 20-year friendship.

Like Orson Welles, Meredith and Steinbeck shared a penchant for politics, partying, and multiple partners.

Though the John Steinbeck-Orson Welles connection remains conjectural, Steinbeck’s relationship with Burgess Meredith supports Robert DeMott’s version of the “With Your Wings”  back-story. The author of Steinbeck’s Reading (1984; 2007) and Steinbeck’s Typewriter (1996; 2012) and the editor the Library of America’s collection of John Steinbeck’s works, he taught generations of students at Ohio University how to read, write, and think with the depth of reason and empathy required to appreciate Steinbeck, his scholarly specialty. In response to my inquiry about “With Your Wings,” he pointed out that Burgess Meredith knew both Steinbeck and Orson Welles and devoted a chapter to each man in his 1994 memoir, So Far, So Good. Most important, he corrected the claim that “With Your Wings” was lost and raised the possibility that it was written by Steinbeck for Meredith, or for Welles through Meredith. His insights into John Steinbeck’s World War II short story about race in America, the Steinbeck-Welles-Meredith connection, and Steinbeck’s “radical humanism” are quoted in full:

Image of John Steinbeck scholar Robert DeMott“I’ve known about the story for several decades and in fact have a Xeroxed copy of it in my files. On occasion I’ve used it in my classes and seminars when talking about Steinbeck and race and it never failed to elicit strong, positive responses from students. The more ‘politically correct’ among them were surprised that a dead white male author could cross racial boundaries like that! The story is on the feel-good side and surely shows Steinbeck’s idealism and patriotism but even at that Steinbeck was nearly alone among his writing peers in responsibly portraying African-American characters at a time when the Armed Services were segregated. Not just the pilot in this story but the character of Joe in Steinbeck’s original narrative treatment of Lifeboat. For me, these characters link up with Steinbeck’s other cast of down-trodden or marginalized characters who people his work of the 1930s and 1940s. So propaganda or not, it seems of a piece with his radical humanism.

“But I did not know about the Orson Welles connection, and while I am happy to learn of that new thread in the carpet I am not entirely convinced that Steinbeck wrote the piece expressly for Welles and/or the Lockheed-Vega Corporation. Recently, James Cummins, a rare-book dealer in New York, offered for sale a typewritten draft of the Steinbeck story as part of a batch of Steinbeck documents in the Burgess Meredith archive. Cummins quotes a letter (ca. 1943) from Steinbeck to Meredith that accompanied the story and in which the author says, ‘A different version of the following was done for overseas broadcast to the troops by O.W.I.’ [Office of War Information], though I am not certain whether that and the Welles broadcast are the same. Steinbeck went on to offer the piece to Meredith for use in his shows, and stressed that it be read like a ‘pure mood’ piece, to be ‘delivered like soft music.’ For what it is worth, I am inclined to believe that the connection between Steinbeck and Meredith on this subject is perhaps more telling and deeper than that between Steinbeck and Welles, and certainly deserving of more investigation.”

Good Friday with No Easter: Roy Bentley’s Poem After a Death in a World of Dying

The slow sacraments of hardboiled human biology
and the butchery ordained in velveteen waistcoats.
The stenchy, unnatural criminalities revealed daily.
If lives were water, we’d love gradual expansion
or develop something like crocodile halotolerance
for what might just function for us but hasn’t as yet.
And though lives aren’t water, who doesn’t crave
the vertical razzmatazz of extension and upsurge,
a madcap theatrics the planet endorses routinely.

Mother left Kentucky to marry and settle in Ohio
with a man from the same small town in Kentucky.
Wherever light pours in, our lives are rooms. Houses
with spring yards and kids with Christmas-toy shovels,
sweatered kids deepening hard earth with both hands.
She died on Good Friday. And forget the lie of Easter,
the dead being as lifeless as stones forever. Some lives
end quietly and without benefit of clergy. Some of us
walk on the Moon and plant flags. American flags.

Dora and Flora: From Short Stories about John Steinbeck By Steve Hauk

Dora and Flora had in common being of the same species and general place of birth, but that was about all. Dora was stuffy and stiff, and her expression was glazed and artificial. Flora was svelte and sensual, quick and dangerous with alive, darting eyes.

Dora would end up on a British warship, much loved of men, often patted on her head for luck in times of stress or danger. Flora would make her home in a London zoo, beloved of men, women and children alike, but not to be patted under any circumstance.

This is the story of how they got to their respective homes and it begins with a friendly meeting between two men in Somerset in 1959–one a British Navy lieutenant named Wellesley, the other a visiting American writer named John.

On a late summer eve following dinner, John and Wellesley sat outside John’s thatched cottage enjoying a potent drink called scrumpy, and maybe that had an influence on what was to transpire.

Scrumpy is particularly popular in Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. The name derives from the word scrimp, which means (perhaps) a small withered apple, the kind that, fermented, produces cider with a hefty content of alcohol.

After his third scrumpy the lieutenant mentioned to John a pressing concern: he served aboard the H.M.S. Puma, one of four anti-aircraft vessels named for wild cats. The others were leopard, lynx and jaguar.

Wellesley found it bloody tragic that the Puma was the only frigate of the four without a wardroom mascot–in each case, a preserved head of the animal the ship was named for. John had been a war correspondent in London and North Africa and understood.

“Why, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but I come from Monterey County in California, and there are pumas everywhere, most with bodies attached to their heads. Wouldn’t you rather have a whole body than just a head? And wouldn’t you rather have the puma alive than stuffed?’’

John had an ulterior motive for bringing up the idea of a live puma, though he didn’t tell Wellesley. Naval wardrooms were for officers only, and a puma–stuffed or alive–would require a bigger space, one accessible to the ship’s entire crew. John loved the English, but he disliked clubby class distinctions.

Wellesley said he wasn’t sure a frigate involved in military maneuvers could manage a living puma, even in a cage. But he had to admit that a whole puma, stuffed and stationary, would certainly give his ship bragging rights.

The conversation continued on this elevated plane until the cider was finished. The next day John remembered in a sketchy way what he and Wellesley had discussed. Accordingly, he wrote a sketchy letter to Jimmy, a Monterey newsman and before that the driver of a Coca-Cola delivery truck.

As best Jimmy could make out from John’s morning-after letter, John wanted him to get down to Big Sur in south Monterey County and snag a live puma in the sprawling, precipitous Santa Lucia Mountains. John seemed to think it would be as easy as picking up a quart of milk at the corner grocery store. This threw Jimmy, because he knew John knew that the Santa Lucias were rough, unforgiving country.

Jimmy had recently written a story about the artist rebels of the early Beat Generation who were moving into the Big Sur of Henry Miller and Eric Barker, despite stark warnings about the tough terrain from the two older writers. “Either you live up to it or it rejects you and sends you to a purgatory,’’ said Miller. ”Sun is not all,’’ wrote Barker, a poet. “Here we drink fog like rain.’’ Jimmy recalled scrambling up a hill on one of Big Sur’s foggy days, notebook in hand, to find young men and women watching him–hands on hips, petulant yet lordly in pose. He rubbed his eyes. When he opened them they had disappeared into the mist. If they could evaporate in an instant, what was his chance of finding a puma?

Worried, he showed John’s letter to his wife Nancy, who read it and said, “John’s been drinking something, that’s for sure–but he’s serious. He wants a puma for the British Navy. He doesn’t want you to track it or capture it, Jimmy–just coordinate the effort is what I bet he means. I’m sure he will straighten it all out.’’

As Nancy had predicted a second letter bringing clarity arrived a few days later. John described the surprising power of a scrumpy, then said he would like a stuffed mountain lion if one could be found already stuffed–not one killed for that purpose–and maybe a live puma. Jimmy grew enthusiastic and wrote a story for the newspaper, emphasizing the idea of locating a stuffed puma since capturing a live puma seemed iffy.

The readers, who still held a wartime warm spot for the British, responded swiftly. Money poured in and when a Salinas hotel owner named Jeffery happened to have a puma skin and head–a big one–on the floor of his lobby, the money was used to have the tattered hide groomed and mounted on a redwood slab. Writing about this, Jimmy realized that “stuffed puma” lacked charm. He named it “Dora,” a name similar to character in one of John’s books, and it stuck.

John–if Jimmy could get it to the San Francisco airport–had arranged to have the stuffed and mounted puma flown to London and delivered to the H.M.S. Puma mooring in the port of Plymouth. Dora was loaded into his station wagon, and for a hundred and more miles stared angrily out the back window at following drivers.

At the airport Dora was posed for photos with two stewardesses, then put aboard a Pan-American flight. As Jimmy wrote in the newspaper, Dora was thought to be the first stuffed puma to come across the Polar route by air.

John and the H.M.S. Puma crew met Dora at Plymouth. A wire service photograph showed the goateed author amidst a dozen sailors reaching out to give Dora a pat. It was such a success that John wrote Jimmy again– could a live cougar be found as well? A zoo near London had promised to provide a home for such a puma that could be visited by the crew and the general public.

Starting from scratch, Jimmy let it be known that he needed a puma trapper. Hudson, a maverick rancher and politician with backcountry expertise, told Jimmy a tracker-trapper named Mathis lived deep in the mountains above Big Sur in a cabin inaccessible by car and without a phone. “You’ll have to track him,’’ Hudson warned. ”He’s hard to find.’’

Jimmy drove down the coast. Just north of the village he pulled over and asked a man walking on the shoulder of the road if he knew of a trapper named Mathis. “Trapper? I’m from Cleveland,’’ the man replied, perspiring, mouth quivering. “I’m looking for my son. Tall, brown hair–probably spouting bad poetry, plays a guitar. If you see him, please tell him his mother cries for him every day.’’

In the village everyone knew of Mathis–he hiked out of the mountains every few months to purchase supplies, they said, but no telling when. Jimmy would have to wait around or trek in to find Mathis himself. Discouraged,  Jimmy had a beer at Nepenthe, a gathering place on a hill leaning toward the Pacific with a view to the east of the mountains. He was on his second beer when a waitress yelled to the bartender, “Here comes Mathis!’’

“Where?’’ asked Jimmy.

Peering through the bar’s telescope, she replied, “He’s a few ridges over.’’

Stepping aside, she let Jimmy have a look. He made out a big man with a walking staff making his way down the mountain.

”When will he get here?’’ he asked.

“Not tonight,’’ said the waitress. “He’ll camp tonight and show up some time tomorrow–early afternoon, I’d guess.’’

“I need to talk to him.’’

“Then stay where you are. He comes here first for a few beers.’’

So Jimmy came back the next day and waited until Mathis walked through the door and dropped his backpack and had several beers. He gave the waitresses and bartender the latest backcountry news, which included some kids–bad musicians, from the sound of it, he said–moving into a nearby canyon, disturbing the peace.

After Mathis–a big man with a thick red beard and piercing green eyes–finished his third beer, he became quiet. Jimmy broached the subject of trapping a puma for Britain’s people and navy, explaining the project in full.

“What have the British done for me?’’ Mathis asked, shifting uncomfortably on his bar stool and already looking yearningly toward the hills he had just walked out of.

“We were allies in World War II,’’ explained Jimmy.

“I’d forgotten–I don’t have a television,’’ Mathis replied.

Then he thought a while.

“I’ll tell you what–you say a puma would have a good life in that zoo? Treated and fed well and given good care? Do you know that for sure?’’

“John said it would and I believe John.’’

Mathis thought, had another beer, and thought some more.

“The puma population’s lower than when . . . what’s your name anyway?’’


“Well, Jimmy, the puma population’s lower than it was when this John friend of yours was here and I don’t want to deplete it more. But . . . I have this female mountain lion less than a year old named Flora.”


“Yes, I’ve always liked the name.’’

“I’ll be damned–Flora.’’

“Yes–Flora.’ Mathis was impatient and a bit puzzled, but had always found it prudent not to let his curiosity get the best of him. “Anyway, Flora’s back in the mountains hanging out around my place. I found her as a cub. She’s not much good at hunting anything bigger than a squirrel and thinks bears are playthings, so I worry if something happens to me. I’d like to think she’ll be safe . . . even if it has to be somewhere else.’’

So they talked some more and a deal was struck. Jimmy wrote John who now arranged for a living puma to be flown from San Francisco to London. Mathis wasn’t sure when he’d get back to the village because sometimes Flora took it in her head to roam, requiring Mathis to track Flora or wait for her to make her way back, no telling when.

The following week a waitress at Nepenthe spotted Mathis and Flora in the distance, Flora on a leash. The trapper and puma arrived the next day to meet Jimmy, who had borrowed his wife Nancy’s pickup truck. Mathis said he and Flora had spent their last night together under the stars, the slim puma sleeping with her whiskered chin propped on his massive chest.

Mathis gently guided Flora into a cage, which was lifted onto the bed of the truck with the help of two village men. Mathis reached through the bars and rubbed behind Flora’s ears, saying goodbye, tears running down his cheeks into his rough red beard. He mumbled something and turned to begin the long trek back into the wilderness, then changed his mind and abruptly and swiftly turned up the hill to Nepenthe–and beer.

The distressed Flora yowled after him and all the way to the airport, causing several fender benders on the way to San Francisco.

Jimmy was relieved but saddened to pass a suddenly silent Flora on to Pan-American. To lessen the pangs he assured himself it was all for the best. He tried to imagine Flora in her new home enjoying cream teas, and John, his friend Wellesley and all England toasting her with a scrumpy. It was generally thought, Jimmy concluded in the newspaper the next day, that Flora was the first live puma to fly the Polar route.

This sketch about John Steinbeck and a pair of Monterey County mountain lions named Dora and Flora who flew the North Pole is excerpted from “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life,” a collection of short stories by Steve Hauk currently under development for print publication.