Archives for February 2015

Cannery Row Symposium Celebrates Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck’s Prince of Tides

Image of Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck's Prince of Tides

John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts’s legendary expedition from Monterey Bay to the Sea of Cortez 75 years ago was celebrated in a February 21 symposium organized by Cannery Row historian Michael Kenneth Hemp and sponsored by the not-for-profit Cannery Row Foundation. Richard Astro—an academic superstar who first identified the John Steinbeck-Ed Ricketts relationship as a reason for the enduring appeal of The Grapes of Wrath—was the opening speaker at the Pacific Grove, California event, establishing the context for a day of rediscovery, revival, and some surprising news.

Image of Richard Astro, pioneering John Steinbeck scholar

The Pioneer Who Blazed the Steinbeck-Ricketts Trail

Astro, former provost and current professor at Drexel University, finished writing his doctoral dissertation on Steinbeck the day the author died in 1968. The budding scholar’s first book, John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist, appeared in 1973, setting the stage for Steinbeck research that continues to this day. In a distinguished career as a university administrator and writer about American literature, Astro—along with his ebullient wife Betty—divides his time between Philadelphia and Florida. Their return to Pacific Grove after a 10-year absence was welcome, and the early-morning audience was energized by Astro’s straight talk about Steinbeck and scholarship, his signature as a public speaker.

Astro’s first book, John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist, appeared in 1973, setting the stage for Steinbeck research that continues to this day.

Astro got his PhD at the University of Washington and his first teaching job at Oregon State. At the time John Steinbeck was considered a has-been by critics, but Astro has a contrarian streak and choice and chance were on his side when he selected Steinbeck as his subject. An unsolicited visit from Joel Hedgepeth, a scientific colleague of Ricketts also teaching in Oregon, led to a meeting with Ricketts’s son, Ed Jr., who gave Astro letters between Steinbeck and Ricketts that no one else had seen. The senior Ricketts died in 1948, but others who knew Steinbeck well were still alive—celebrities types like Burgess Meredith and Henry Fonda, friends from Monterey Bay days, former and current wives—and Astro interviewed each.

At the time John Steinbeck was considered a has-been by critics, but Astro has a contrarian streak and choice and chance were on his side when he selected Steinbeck as his subject.

Occasionally, as with Steinbeck’s wife Carol Henning, there were moments of psychodrama that Astro learned to manage, gaining a useful ability to separate fact from fiction about Steinbeck’s complicated life. Ed Ricketts, a Monterey Bay biologist whose name was unknown to the public at the time, kept coming up in the process. Astro borrowed Ricketts’s metaphor—“breaking-through”—in describing the excitement he felt when he discovered Ricketts’s pervasive presence in Steinbeck’s best writing, including The Grapes of Wrath. As a result Steinbeck scholarship advanced rapidly, but Astro was modest about his role: “I set the table; those who followed cooked the dinner.”

As a result Steinbeck scholarship advanced rapidly, but Astro was modest about his role: ‘I set the table; those who followed cooked the dinner.’

Ricketts and Steinbeck first met in 1930, forging an intimate friendship that survived multiple partners, married and otherwise, and provided Steinbeck material for his fiction. Occasional rivalry rocked the boat, including relations with Joseph Campbell, who broke with Steinbeck after an emotional disagreement but continued to correspond with Ricketts, who possessed a knack for being loved by everybody. With money from The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck and Ricketts hired The Western Flyer in 1940 and explored the Gulf of California, describing the experience in a book, Sea of Cortez, published three days before Pearl Harbor.

With money from The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck and Ricketts hired The Western Flyer in 1940 and explored the Gulf of California, describing the experience in Sea of Cortez, published three days before Pearl Harbor.

Reissued in 1995 with an indispensable introduction by Richard Astro, Sea of Cortez comprises the core of Steinbeck and Ricketts’s collaborative thinking about God, man, and nature. In his remarks, Astro noted that the spirit of Ed Ricketts is also present in The Grapes of Wrath, where Ricketts appears as the questioning preacher Jim Casy, whose thinking about belief and behavior are essential to Steinbeck’s purpose in the novel. Other artists of the era—Oklahoma novelist Sonora Babb, New Deal filmmaker Pare Lorentz—also documented the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, but Astro observed that their works quickly became period pieces while The Grapes of Wrath, underpinned by Steinbeck and Ricketts’s collaborative philosophy, “transcends time and place, as valid now as the day it was written.”

Image of John Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw

How to Avoid Drowning in Sea of Cortez Scholarship

Perhaps no star in the current constellation of Steinbeck scholars has done more to complete the table set by Richard Astro than Susan Shillinglaw, author of Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage and On Reading The Grapes of Wrath and the writer and editor of essays on Steinbeck and Ricketts’s environmentalism. A professor of English at San Jose State University who lives in the Monterey Bay area, she spoke on “Layered Fiction and Deep Ecology: John, Ed, Carol, and The Grapes of Wrath” at the conclusion of the Cannery Row symposium. Like Astro, she has a gift for expressing ideas clearly to the non-specialist audience attracted by Steinbeck’s works. (Shillinglaw met her husband, a marine biologist at Stanford University, when he was chief scientist on a 2004 voyage that recreated the Sea of Cortez trip taken by The Western Flyer.)

Like Richard Astro, Susan Shillinglaw has a gift for expressing ideas clearly to the non-specialist audience attracted by John Steinbeck’s works.

Bob Enea, a descendant of the colorful Western Flyer crew member Sparky Enea and the ship’s captain Tony Berry, recounted the rise and fall of the Monterey Bay fishing industry, describing the day Ricketts and Steinbeck left Monterey Bay for their Sea of Cortez journey after a bon-voyage party remembered as Cannery Row’s biggest bash ever. The symposium’s energetic organizer, Michael Hemp, spoke on “Cannery Row: The Industrial Stage for John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row Fiction.” Steven Federle, a John Steinbeck scholar at Solano College, discussed the provenance of Steinbeck’s libidinous short story “The Snake,” a psychological curiosity set in Ricketts’s lab on Cannery Row. Don Kohrs, librarian at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, enumerated the obstacles Ricketts faced in finishing Between Pacific Tides, the textbook published by Stanford in 1939. Kohrs also described materials, including Ed Ricketts’s famous index-card file, from the collection at Hopkins, where Steinbeck took a summer course in biology several years before meeting Ed Ricketts.

 Image of The Western Flyer, the ship that explored the Sea of Cortez

A Pair of Cannery Row Films and Western Flyer News

In publicity for the symposium the Cannery Row Foundation promised variety and surprise and delivered both. Eva Lothar, a French medical doctor who created the 1973 cinematic poem Street of the Sardine, spoke about moving to the Monterey Bay area as a young widow shortly after the Cannery Row sardine supply collapsed. (Her story about filming Street of the Sardine, shown at the symposium, is the subject of an upcoming video special.) Monterey Bay-area filmmakers Steve and Mary Albert exhibited their impressive documentary, The Great Tide Pool, causing a viewer to say she wished Steinbeck and Ricketts were alive to see both films, one interpreting Cannery Row ecology as poetry, the other as prose.

A viewer said she wished Steinbeck and Ricketts were alive to see the pair of films, one interpreting Cannery Row ecology as poetry, the other as prose.

Two speakers not listed on the printed program provided the surprise promised before the symposium began. John and Andy Gregg, businessmen-brothers, announced that they were buying The Western Flyer to restore and return the legendary vessel to its Monterey Bay home as a permanent educational resource for students and, perhaps, visitors to Cannery Row. The Greggs operate a geophysical investigation and marine drilling business, the kind of know-how that makes success in meeting that objective seem likely. Their straight answers to cost-and-schedule questions were as impressive as their goal: to assure that the boat used by the Prince of Tides and the author of The Grapes of Wrath to explore the Sea of Cortez will survive as long as John Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts, and Monterey Bay continue to matter.

Jim Kent, Cannery Row visitor and symposium fan

Jim Kent: Symposium a Tipping Point for Cannery Row?

A frequent Cannery Row visitor who applies Steinbeck and Ricketts’s insights in his international consulting business flew from Colorado to attend the symposium. Asked for his reaction, Jim Kent expressed delight at the event’s energy and renewed optimism about Cannery Row’s future. “Don Kohrs got us excited when we learned that he has been assembling writings and other material of Ed Ricketts owned by the Hopkins Marine Station,” he explained. “Don located Ricketts’s legendary index cards,” detailing scientific specifics of unusual marine specimens from Monterey Bay tagged by the Prince of Tides as early as 1928. “Ricketts was a thinker and Steinbeck’s friend, but he was first and foremost a scientist,” Kent noted. “This dimension has been lost in academic writing about the characters Steinbeck based on Ricketts, and it’s great to see the Ricketts revival beginning here, where it all started.”

Jim Kent, a frequent Cannery Row visitor, observed, ‘It’s great to see the Ricketts revival beginning here, where it all started.’

Kent added that the symposium marked a new phase in public appreciation of John Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts, and Cannery Row. “My understanding of Steinbeck and Ricketts’s social ecology taught me how to bypass top-down thinking in working with community groups to make changes that benefit people, not just profit,” he said. “Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck understood the importance of gathering places, informal networks, affinity-relationships, and bottom-up change. What I heard today leaves old ways of conceiving Cannery Row, Monterey Bay, and Steinbeck studies in the dust. Steinbeck and Ricketts saw ecological collapse coming when nobody would listen. I am sure they could see this, too!”

Image of Ed Ricketts from the historical photograph collection of Pat Hathaway, featured in the Winter 2015 issue of Carmel magazine.

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row: The Representational Art of Sculptor Lew Aytes

Image of John Steinbeck, sculpture by Lew Aytes

John Steinbeck

A multi-tasking Monterey, California sculptor whose busy career as a musician, businessman, and installation artist would have appealed to John Steinbeck has brought three-dimensional life to famous characters from Steinbeck’s fiction in a series of bronze portraits—representational art that aptly reflects the stylized realism of Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. A Monterey, California resident who once lived near the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove, Lew Aytes read Cannery Row as a boy, and the faces in his Steinbeck series suggest a sense of fresh discovery and boyish delight. The museum-quality pieces, designed to be affordable and accessible to audiences attracted by John Steinbeck’s fiction, toured venues in Ireland, New Orleans, and other sites associated with Steinbeck’s storied life before being exhibited for the first time on Cannery Row recently.

Image of Ed Ricketts, sculpture by Lew Aytes

Ed Ricketts

The pieces shown here are part of an assembly of representational art united by a single theme—“Steinbeck: The Art of Fiction”—currently on view at the American Tin Cannery, a rehabilitated commercial building where Pacific Grove and Monterey, California merge and Cannery Row begins. Also featured are works by the painter Warren Chang and the photographer Robert Nease, area artists steeped, like Aytes, in John Steinbeck’s description of life in Salinas, Pacific Grove, and Monterey, California during the 1920s and 30s. Historic Cannery Row photos from the 1950s by the late Robert Lewis, also on display, document the gritty waterfront scene where John Steinbeck met colorful Cannery Row figures depicted in his fiction as Doc Ricketts, Dora Flood, Mack, and Lee Chong. Aytes has also sculpted characters from other books by Steinbeck: George and Lennie, the unfortunate bindlestiffs from Of Mice and Men, and two members of the equally luckless Joad family—Ma and Tom—immortalized in The Grapes of Wrath.

“Steinbeck: The Art of Fiction” runs through March 31, 2015, at 123 Ocean Avenue in Pacific Grove. The exhibition is free and open to the public 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. daily except Mondays.

Image of Dora Flood from Cannery Row, sculpture by Lew Aytes

Dora Flood

Image of Lee Chong from Cannery Row, sculpture by Lew Aytes

Lee Chong

Image of Mack from Cannery Row, sculpture by Lew Aytes


Image of George from Of Mice and Men, sculpture by Lee Aytes


Image of Lennie from Of Mice and Men, sculpture by Lew Aytes


Image of Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath, sculpture by Lew Aytes

Ma Joad

Image of Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath, sculpture by Lew Aytes

Tom Joad

Hollister, California, the San Benito County Town Where The Other Steinbecks Lived

Image of historic Hollister, California brewery

In East of Eden John Steinbeck wrote imaginatively about the Salinas Valley Hamiltons—grandparents, aunts, and uncles on his mother’s Scots-Irish side. But his father Ernst Steinbeck’s people, solid Central California farmer-entrepreneurs living east of Salinas, were also important in the writer’s early life. Folks in Hollister, California, the San Benito County village where the family migrated from New England in the 1870s, like to remind visitors that Steinbeck Country starts in their city, a peaceful farming community set among the rolling hills near historic Mission San Juan Bautista. When John Steinbeck was growing up in Salinas, Hollister was a day’s ride over the steep San Juan Grade, so the Hollister Steinbecks weren’t around as much as the familiar Hamilton clan. But the dramatic story of how they came to Central California is, if anything, even more memorable than that of the Hamiltons, and Steinbeck wrote about it in the 1960s.

Image of highway exit to Hollister, CaliforniaPresent-day Hollister—the San Benito County, California seat—is a 10-minute drive east off Highway 101 north of Salinas, a must-make side trip whether your primary destination is San Juan Bautista, Monterey, or Salinas, 20 miles to the south on 101. In a curious episode of Steinbeck Country history, the creation of San Benito County was the result of Salinas ambition, and a certain Hollister-Salinas-Monterey rivalry can still be felt when the subject comes up in conversation. The Central California coastal mission settlement of Monterey—California’s first capital—was the original seat of Monterey County, which extended east to include San Benito County when California became a state in 1850. But Salinas Valley farming grew fast following the Civil War and civic boosters in Salinas got ambitious, winning a referendum in 1874 that moved the Monterey County seat to their town. Votes from Hollister and San Juan Bautista—so goes the story—were influenced by the promise to carve out a new San Benito County with a Hollister, California seat.

Image of John Steinbeck, grandson of Central California settlersJohn Adolph and Almira Ann Steinbeck, young John’s Hollister grandparents, grew apricots and operated a dairy, eventually moving into town once their five sons (John Steinbeck’s father Ernst among them) had families of their own. But their roots were in Puritan New England, where Almira’s pious father was known as Deacon Dickson, and Protestant Prussia, where John Adolph and his brother were wood-craftsmen before packing up for Palestine in 1850 with a sister and her husband, a Lutheran missionary. There they met the daughters of Deacon Dickson, a Massachusetts farmer on a mission to the Holy Land, marrying two of the girls in Jerusalem in 1856. Murder, rape, and escape ensued, and the third Dickson sister eventually settled in Hollister, California, too, along with Adolph, Almira, and their five sons. The future novelist was familiar with the family’s story of violence and flight from Palestine to America, and he admired his father’s hardworking people, from whom he inherited hands that liked to garden, fabricate, and repair things. His writing in the 1960s expresses the abiding connection he felt with the prolific San Benito County branch of the Steinbeck family tree.

Image of the San Benito County Historical Society Museum Call the San Benito County Historical Society Museum before your next trip to Central California and see for yourself. The not-for-profit facility is open by appointment only, but the hospitable volunteers who make it run are proud of their heritage and know a lot that isn’t in books about John Steinbeck. Hollister, California is right: “Steinbeck Country starts here!”

It’s His Party; You’re Invited: Celebrate at Doc’s Lab in San Francisco, Carol and John Steinbeck’s Kind of Place

Poster image of John Steinbeck's birthday bash at Doc's Lab in San Francisco

“Lovebattles: Carol and John Steinbeck in the 1930s” is an odd theme for a party, but the author’s 2015 birthday celebration in San Francisco perfectly embodies the bohemian lifestyle of John Steinbeck, his wife Carol Henning, and the colorful circle around Doc’s Lab, Ed Ricketts’s legendary gathering place down the coast on Cannery Row. The new Doc’s Lab—a San Francisco club and restaurant with a storied past of its own—will feature spoken word, food and drink, and songs by Woody Guthrie beginning at 7:00 p.m. on February 28. Dramatic entertainment includes the writer Susan Shillinglaw as Carol Henning, the actor Taelen Thomas as John Steinbeck, and the music of Woody Guthrie (The Ballad of Tom Joad) performed by Steve Mortenson.

Image of Susan Shillinglaw, author of John and Carol Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage

Susan Shillinglaw will also read excerpts from Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage, the popular book she wrote that inspired the idea for the unusual evening. Doc’s Lab’s intimate cellar—former home of the famous Beat-era club, Purple Onion—is party-central for the February 28 event, and City Lights Books, the Beats’ literary home just down the street, is the co-sponsor. Doc’s Lab is located at 124 Columbus Avenue on the western edge of San Francisco’s Jackson Square Historic District. But remember: Carol and John Steinbeck were always casual, even when they argued, so come as you are.

Only Connect!—James Franco’s Upcoming Film of John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle Full of Coincidences

Image of James Franco, John Steinbeck fan

According to Hollywood’s Variety magazine, the actor James Franco and the screenwriter Matt Rager have teamed up to adapt John Steinbeck’s 1936 labor-movement novel In Dubious Battle as a 2015 motion picture featuring Franco and a constellation of interconnected stars. Neglecting Tortilla Flat (1935), Variety incorrectly identified In Dubious Battle as “Steinbeck’s first major work” in its news flash about the film. But casting details corroborated by other sources reveal coincidences and connections to John Steinbeck reminiscent of E.M. Forster’s advice in A Passage to India: “Only connect!”

Casting details reveal coincidences and connections to John Steinbeck reminiscent of E.M. Forster’s advice in A Passage to India: ‘Only connect!’

James Franco grew up in Palo Alto, California, where John Steinbeck attended Stanford University in the early 1920s. As a PhD student at Yale, Franco met Rager, a former English teacher, and the pair went on to collaborate in film adaptations of two novels by William Faulkner—As I Lay Dying (2013) and The Sound and the Fury (2014). Franco starred in both movies; each featured another young actor, Danny McBride, who will appear in Franco and Rager’s adaptation of In Dubious Battle. The comedian Seth Rogen—James Franco’s co-star in the controversial 2014 flick The Interview—appeared with Franco in The Sound and the Fury and portrays Steve Wozniak in the upcoming Silicon Valley bio-pic, Steve Jobs. Coincidentally, the real Steve Wozniak lives in Los Gatos, the upscale town where John Steinbeck wrote his labor-movement masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, in 1938.

James Franco grew up in Palo Alto, California, where John Steinbeck attended Stanford University in the early 1920s.

In another Steinbeck connection, James Franco played George Milton in the recent stage revival of Steinbeck’s 1937 novella-drama Of Mice and Men. The 1938 Broadway production of the labor-movement play, directed by George S. Kaufman, won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play Award. The 1939 film version, directed by Lewis Milestone, featured Lon Cheney as Lenny and Burgess Meredith as George, the role that helped make Meredith famous. It also introduced Meredith to Steinbeck, and they became close friends. Six years later Meredith starred as the legendary reporter Ernie Pyle—another friend of John Steinbeck—in the World War II bio-pic, The Story of G.I. Joe.

In another Steinbeck connection, Franco played George Milton in the recent stage revival of Steinbeck’s 1937 novella-drama.

A 35-year-old actor named Henry Fonda also became Steinbeck’s friend following the Fonda’s break-out performance as Tom Joad in John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Like John Steinbeck, Burgess Meredith, and James Franco, Fonda was a political liberal with progressive social views. Like Meredith, he visited Steinbeck in Los Gatos, a 20-minute drive from Franco’s hometown of Palo Alto. Hollywood sources reported that Steven Spielberg had plans to produce and direct a remake of The Grapes of Wrath. If he doesn’t, James Franco might. The 37-year-old clearly connects with John Steinbeck. E.M. Forster, who appreciated the importance of such empathy, would approve.

Poem: Great Britain’s Stonehenge—Sun-Worship Or End-of-World Prophecy?

Image of Stonehenge in Great Britain


It’s all we have, he said, he said.
He said it’s all we have
anything, to leave behind:
a mark, a song, a word, a deed,
a stone overturned,
a monument.

But alas, he said, alas and alas,
that, too,
it shall not be.
Concentric forms upon a plain
or geometrical tombs at Giza,
all of it, he said, he said,
are nothing, are nothing to me.

Put there by
a man,
they will not last,
will see to that.


Explore John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row with the Experts on February 21

Image of Cannery Row in Monterey, California

Monterey California’s historic Cannery Row, the setting of great books by John Steinbeck, is a deep subject. That’s why the not-for-profit Cannery Row Foundation invites you to explore Cannery Row’s past, present, and relevance to John Steinbeck’s life and writing at a February 21 symposium featuring scholars, filmmakers, and artists from the United States and France. The all-day event will take place in the Monterey Boat Works Auditorium of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, where John Steinbeck took college courses and first learned about the unique ecology of the Monterey, California Bay.

Image of Michael Hemp and historic photos of Monterey, California

Michael Hemp, the energetic author of a popular book about Cannery Row, is the organizer, so expect to be entertained as well as educated. Along with Hemp, speakers include John Steinbeck scholars Richard Astro, Susan Shillinglaw, Steven Federle, and Donald Kohrs; Monterey, California fishing historian Robert Enea; and filmmakers Eva Lothar and Steven and Mary Albert. Historic images showing Monterey, California’s sardine industry from the Pat Hathaway photo collection will be on display, along with paintings and sculpture inspired by John Steinbeck’s great books and Cannery Row characters.

Sign up at The 9:00-5:00 event costs only $25 and space is limited.