Archives for March 2015

National Anthem? “What the Lead Guitars in Hotel California Say and Do Not Say”: Poem by Roy Bentley

Image of Hotel California remagined

Who would believe ultra-rich Hollywood
would slander itself? This dilapidated hotel
has mirrors on the ceilings, pink champagne
effervescing 24/7 in lighted fountains—
all right, it’s California and, by extension,
the republic of sunlight and worn-out souls.
If you listen, what you hear is the vox populi
of Failure. Hear it? You could do worse

than remember the message of some music
is the truth because what it says, in any case,
is We Have Blown It. Which is accurate and
true. And so after “you can check out anytime
you like but you can never leave” breaks off,
that other national anthem, beautiful light,
plays and the wrecked world assumes
an ordinary but recognizable shape.

John Steinbeck Inspires “An American Experience,” Music By Lothar Bandermann

Image from "An American Experience" by Lothar Bandermann

John Steinbeck continues to inspire exciting music by living composers. The latest example is Lothar Bandermann’s “An American Experience: Reflections on a Theme,” an 11-minute set of variations depicting American characteristics and dedicated to John Steinbeck. The orchestral version of the composition—premiered by California’s Silicon Valley Symphony in 2013—will be performed by the Saratoga Symphony at Union Church of Cupertino, California, on May 3. Organ and orchestral versions of “An American Experience” can be heard on the composer’s website. The work is also arranged for symphonic band.

John Steinbeck continues to inspire exciting music by living composers. The latest example is Lothar Bandermann’s ‘An American Experience: Reflections on a Theme.’

Image of Lothar Bandermann, composer of "An American Experience"Lothar Bandermann shares traits with John Steinbeck beyond the German heritage evident in both names: working-class roots and a love of organ music. Born into a coal miner’s family near Dortmund, Germany, the Cupertino, California-based composer came to the U.S. in 1958 at the age of 24, graduating from the University of California with a major in physics and receiving a doctorate in space physics from the University of Maryland. After conducting astronomy research and teaching at the University of Hawaii—where he met and married Billie Lanier Reeves, a singer and choir director—he worked as an aerospace scientist in Palo Alto, California, before retiring in 1998 to devote his time to writing and performing sacred music.

Bandermann shares traits with Steinbeck beyond the German heritage evident in both names: working-class roots and a love of organ music.

Like John Steinbeck, he took piano lessons as a boy, playing the organ at his Catholic church when he was 15, a lifelong practice he continues as organist for St. Joseph of Cupertino Catholic Church near his California home. Although he has composed numerous sacred works for piano, voice, and choir—including a Latin Requiem for solo, chorus, organ, and orchestra—he concentrates on writing and arranging organ music, 400 examples of which he can be heard performing on his website. The organ original of “An American Experience” will be published by Zimbel Press in 2015, and new projects are in the works. Piano, organ, orchestra, choir, symphonic band: John Steinbeck would admire the versatility of this industrious German-born scientist-musician in tune with the American experience celebrated (and criticized) by John Steinbeck, a sophisticated music lover who liked new music.

John Steinbeck would admire the versatility of this industrious German-born scientist-musician in tune with the American experience.

Union Church is located at 20900 Stevens Creek Boulevard in Cupertino, California. The May 3 concert, a Sunday event, begins at 3:00 p.m.

John Steinbeck’s Short Story “The Snake”: Context, Sources, and Process

Image of illustration from Carl Jung's Red Book

As Steven Federle demonstrates in this paper on “The Snake”presented at the Cannery Row symposium held four weeks ago at Pacific Grove’s Hopkins Marine StationFreudian analysis is frequently applied to John Steinbeck’s short story about Ed Ricketts and a disturbing incident at Doc’s Lab. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist who fell out with Freud and probed the unconscious using a different theory about dreams, provides another dimension. John Steinbeck was familiar with the dream theories of both men, and his and Ricketts’s friend, the mythologist Joseph Campbell, was deeply influenced by Jung’s version. This illustration from the Red Book—the handwritten record of Jung’s personal dreams and fantasies—suggests why Steinbeck, who liked to draw, was also attracted to Jung, an adept artist with a poet’s soul. As Campbell noted in a later context, Jung’s serpent is a powerful archetype, and Jung’s German inscription can be translated as “Endless Road,” an apt metaphor for John Steinbeck’s fiction. Like Jung, Steinbeck had German roots, supernatural encounters, and an artist’s eye, so Jung’s depth-theory holds as much water as Freud’s when thinking about “The Snake.” After you finish Steven Federle’s helpful account of the sources and writing of “The Snake,” listen to Steinbeck discuss and read the short story and decide for yourself. —Ed.

Writers are not like most people. They observe and record what they see and hear, and then they process that raw material of life through their imaginations, their own bright hopes and dark fears, to create fiction. Writers take the stuff of life as their source and transform it into something completely new.

John Steinbeck was, indeed, a writer, first and foremost, and he transformed the people he knew into characters, the places he knew into settings, and the events he witnessed, through his own struggling creativity, into the plots of the stories we are discussing today. Of course, we are in this beautiful place today because John Steinbeck lived and wrote here. Although Cannery Row is very much different than it was in 1934 (wouldn’t he be amazed?) it does not require much of an imagination to see Steinbeck walking past the Wing Chong Market on his way to the lab . . . and, as I can tell you, walking up the wooden steps into the Pacific Biological Laboratories, it is not hard to imagine Ed and John conversing inside, cold beers in hand.

Clearly, the years 1933 and 1934 were seminal for John Steinbeck. Living with Carol in his father’s cottage in Pacific Grove (desperately poor, both were the classic “starving artists”), he wrote nearly all the stories of The Long Valley, anticipating themes and settings he would later develop into his most important works.

The short story “The Snake” is my subject for today. In this story we see a marine biologist, young Dr. Phillips, modeled on Ed Ricketts. This is the first of many characters who in some way reflect Steinbeck’s good friend.

In this story we see a marine biologist, young Dr. Phillips, modeled on Ed Ricketts. This is the first of many characters who in some way reflect Steinbeck’s good friend.

Many of these short stories were drafted in manuscripts contained in hardbound, ledger notebooks; two are housed in San Jose State University’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.

The inside cover of the ledger-book containing “The Snake” features some fancy brushwork (John’s or Carol’s?) stating that the ledger book was “marvelously revived” as a manuscript. The facing page features a handwritten table of contents . . . one imagines Steinbeck carefully writing in the title as he finished each draft. Before each story, Steinbeck wrote journal pages, personal notes where he would converse and even argue with himself. In these pages he wrote commentaries on stories recently written, agonized over his struggles with loneliness and self-doubt, and even engaged in small talk. In the notes before “The Snake,” for example, he wondered about the ink he was using. He had been watering it down (no doubt to save money) and wondered if so doing would affect its drying. These were private and never intended for public view. Because of this, the journals provide a valuable window into not only his state of mind but his writing process as well.

The inside cover of the ledger-book containing ‘The Snake’ features some fancy brushwork (John’s or Carol’s?) stating that the ledger book was ‘marvelously revived’ as a manuscript.

John Steinbeck wrote “The Snake” in the summer of 1934, and it was first published in the June 1935, issue of The Monterey Beacon, a small experimental literary magazine run in conjunction with horse stables. In payment for his story, Steinbeck received six month’s use of a steeplechase horse named Cochise. The editor of The Monterey Beacon noted this “horse trade” at the head of the story, and in his letter of July 30, 1935, to Mavis McIntosh, Steinbeck notified his agent of the deal and offered her “ten percent of six month’s riding . . . .”  In February of 1938, Esquire published the story under the title “A Snake of One’s Own,” preserving, for the most part, the text of the earlier publication. Later that year, Viking published its most popular version under its original title in The Long Valley.

The plot of “The Snake” remained notably constant throughout its composition and publication, following for the most part Steinbeck’s account of the incident in his memorial essay, “About Ed Ricketts”:

Mysteries were constant at the laboratory. A thing happened one night which I later used as a short story. I wrote it just as it happened. I don’t know what it means and do not even answer the letters asking what its philosophic intent is. It just happened. Very briefly, this is the incident. A woman came in one night wanting to buy a male rattlesnake. It happened that we had one and knew it because it had recently copulated with another snake in the cage. The woman paid for the snake and then insisted that it be fed.  She paid for a white rat to be given it. Ed put the rat in the cage. The snake struck and killed it and then unhinged its jaws preparatory to swallowing it. The frightening thing was that the woman, who had watched the process closely, moved her jaws and stretched her mouth just as the snake was doing. After the rat was swallowed, she paid for a year’s supply of rats and said she would come back. But she never did come back. What happened or why I have no idea. Whether the woman was driven by a sexual, a religious, a zoophilic, or a gustatory impulse we never could figure.

The protagonist of “The Snake,” young Dr. Phillips, has “the mild, preoccupied eyes of one who looks through a microscope a great deal.” He returns to his  “little commercial laboratory on the cannery street of Monterey” after a day of collecting starfish. While busily engaged in two types of activity—preparing dead specimens (the cat and starfish zygotes) and feeding live ones (including himself)—he is interrupted by a knock on the door. A mysterious, tall woman with black eyes and a “soft, throaty” voice enters and sits motionless while the doctor continues his scientific procedures. Her apparent lack of interest irritates him, and in an effort to shock her into attention, he allows her to watch as he slits a dead cat’s throat and drains its blood. This has no effect on the woman, who calmly asks to purchase a male rattlesnake. She demands that he feed the snake, compelling the now frightened and confused doctor to place a white rat into the snake’s feeding cage. The woman dispassionately watches the kill while the scientist cries, “It’s the most beautiful thing in the world . . . it’s the most terrible thing in the world.” He glances at the entranced woman and sees that she is weaving like the attacking snake, “not much, just a suggestion.” After the snake’s jaws completely engulf the rat, the now relaxed woman leaves the emotionally exhausted doctor to “comb out his thoughts” and try to make sense out of his irrational terror. He is unable to do this, however, for all theories about “psychological sex symbols” do not seem adequate. He never sees the woman again.

The plot of ‘The Snake’ remained notably constant throughout its composition and publication, following for the most part Steinbeck’s account of the incident in his memorial essay, ‘About Ed Ricketts.’

A second account of the source incident can be found in Martha Heasley Cox’s interview with Webster F. Street, who was present in Ricketts’s laboratory that day. According to Street, the strange dark woman was “just a girl that was on the circuit” who “took a fancy to Ed.” Like the lady of Steinbeck’s story, this girl watched in fascination as the snake stalked and devoured the white rat, but unlike the fictional woman, she did not purchase the snake or the rat. Significantly, in Street’s account, it was Ricketts, not the woman, who decided to feed the snake.

In a 1993 recorded interview with Michael Hemp, the writer and philosopher Joseph Campbell described the incident in a decidedly more lighthearted way:

One day [Ricketts] invites us down to see the rattlesnake, puts this little white rat or mouse (I don’t know which it was) and the languid rattlesnake in the other box with the snake in it, the cover on top of it . . . a wire . . . and the little mouse gets in there, and there’s John standing around feeling deep about it, and the little mouse starts sniffing along the length of the rattlesnake and then suddenly seems to have gotten the idea that this isn’t a good place to be, and went over there. The rattlesnake looks over and starts to move, comes over in his direction and then (claps) like that, hits him right here. Two little red spots and the little mouse just spun around and (claps). Then came the next thing. First you’re on the little mouse’s side, you know. Now the mouse is dead so you’re on the rattlesnake’s side. He’s going to eat the thing. The rat was bigger around than the rattlesnake, but Ed said, “now watch him, he’s going to unhook his jaw.” So we watch him unhook his jaw and he comes in and begins taking this thing in and Ed said, “now see, see? He’s being digested right there . . . the saliva can digest him,” and he said, “He’s changing the shape inside there.” The most absurd moment was when all there was left was two legs and a tail sticking out. The rattlesnake got a little tired at that point and just rested a little while and then finally took it all in. This comes out as one of Steinbeck’s stories, “The Snake.”

Although Campbell’s account includes no mention of a woman who wished to see the snake eat a rat, he does corroborate that Ricketts, as in Street’s account, initiated the feeding and explained it to the observers as it proceeded. Perhaps the most significant detail in Campbell’s account, though, is the image of John Steinbeck, “standing around feeling deep about it,” while the others were humorously rooting first for the mouse/rat and then for the snake. There is, however, no sense of horror or mystery in Campbell’s memory of this “absurd” incident.

In a 1987 letter to Michael Hemp, Grove Day, Steinbeck historian and friend, described the incident this way:

[Ed’s] father had caught a rattlesnake on the golf course and put it in a cage. A young lady with us was handling a white mouse and dropped it. Somebody suggested that we feed it to the snake, which had not eaten since captivity. The snake enjoyed its lunch, eating the mouse head-first. Toward the end, the tail made the snake look as if it were smoking a cigarette. John made a Freudian story out of the incident, changing everything around.

Several times in “About Ed Ricketts,” Steinbeck insisted that he wrote the story “just as it happened,” but clearly, as Grove Day said, he changed “everything around.” The story he told in “The Snake” differs significantly in both detail and mood from these eyewitness accounts. The degree to which Steinbeck altered the incident in “The Snake” is, in fact, significant. A careful analysis of the textual variants between the version published in The Long Valley and the handwritten text, located at San Jose State University’s John Steinbeck Center, reveals Steinbeck’s writing process, transforming source materials into the unique product of his individual creativity.

A careful analysis of the textual variants between the version published in ‘The Long Valley’ and the handwritten text, located at San Jose State University’s John Steinbeck Center, reveals Steinbeck’s writing process, transforming source materials into the unique product of his individual creativity.

Steinbeck’s process was one of internalizing and personalizing the events and personalities surrounding him; thus, the incident, described in vastly more matter-of-fact ways by Webster Street, Joseph Campbell, and Grove Day, became something deeply mysterious in Steinbeck’s mind. In his unpublished working notes preceding the handwritten draft of “The Snake,” Steinbeck wrote this:

The story of the snake must be written. I don’t know what it means but it means something very terrible to my unconscious. And I’ll write it slowly out of my unconscious. It’s a terrible story. It’s a damnable story. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know. I’ll write the frightful thing though . . . Carol disapproves of it on the grounds that it is horror for its own sake. I don’t think that is the case at all. And it does have to be written. It would eat me up otherwise.

The most significant substantive variants between the manuscript and the published versions deal with the development of the scientist’s and the woman’s characters, and the psychologically devastating effect on the doctor of their momentary encounter. Changes from the manuscript to the published text serve to emphasize Steinbeck’s intent to show the doctor as a logician who loses his scientific aloofness when confronted with unreasoning, demonic vitality.

In the earlier part of the story, Steinbeck carefully deleted from the final text emotionally charged phrases describing the doctor’s actions. When, for example, the young man was interrupted by a knock on the door, his reaction in both the manuscript and published versions was a “grimace of annoyance,” but in the manuscript the young man “walked to the door and threw it open.” In the published text this act is not so violent; he simply goes “to open” the door. In both the manuscript and The Long Valley, evidence of the doctor’s unemotional, objective manner is abundant. He simultaneously feeds and strokes the cats while calmly gassing one of them in the “killing chamber.” Steinbeck removed all emotional references from the published versions when describing the scientist’s quarters; even the laboratory work light, a “painful white light” in the manuscript, becomes a more neutral “pouring white light” in the published text. With the introduction of the woman, however, the scientist becomes more emotional, a movement clearly seen in Steinbeck’s revisions. In the manuscript Dr. Phillips “felt it was wrong to do the thing, but he didn’t know why.” In the revised text, however, Steinbeck introduced the subjective element of sin and guilt into the doctor’s consciousness: “He felt that it was profoundly wrong to put a rat into the cage, deeply sinful, and he didn’t know why.”

The most significant substantive variants between the manuscript and the published versions deal with the development of the scientist’s and the woman’s characters, and the psychologically devastating effect on the doctor of their momentary encounter.

The dark and irrational presence of the woman causes him to become fearful, and in response to his growing fear, Dr. Phillips attempts to form a rational construct to conceal his terror. The manuscript states: “Lots of people have dreams about the terror of snakes making the kill; I think it’s because it is a subjective rat. The rat is a persona. Once you see this through, the rat is only a rat and you are free from the terror.”

In the revised text, Steinbeck changes the young man’s words to, “Once you see it the whole matter is objective. The rat is only a rat and the terror is removed.” With this revision, Steinbeck is intensifying Dr. Phillips’s attempt to rationalize what is taking place, thereby concealing his irrational core of fear that he will metaphorically become the rat/victim of the metaphorical snake (the woman). Steinbeck emphasizes the doctor’s fall from objectivity into irrational fear through other revisions from the manuscript. In the manuscript, he wrote: “’It’s the most beautiful thing in the world,’ the young man cried. His veins were throbbing.’” In the published text, the added words“It’s the most terrible thing in the world”bring an even greater passion to the scientist’s formerly objective perception.

Steinbeck emphasizes the doctor’s fall from objectivity into irrational fear through other revisions from the manuscript. . . . In the published text, the added words—’It’s the most terrible thing in the world’bring an even greater passion to the scientist’s formerly objective perception.

Unlike Dr. Phillips, the woman remains consistently two-dimensional throughout the story; all revisions from the manuscript to published text serve to strengthen her symbolic force by depersonalizing and flattening her character. The woman seems sensually motivated in Steinbeck’s handwritten draft, but key descriptive words giving her an air of sexual intensity were consistently deleted from the published version. In the manuscript, for example, her eyes “glittered with controlled excitement,” while in the published version her eyes simply “glittered in the strong light.” Later in the manuscript, Steinbeck used the adjective “feverish’ to describe her eyes, a word conspicuously absent from the finished text. While the woman certainly displays a curious identification with the snake, her emotions are never revealed by Steinbeck’s choice of descriptive wording; she remains throughout a faceless mystery. Her presence can be seen to derive from the dynamic interaction of Dr. Phillips’s logical function as a scientist and his emotional, poetic function as a human being. She is perceived as an evil or threatening force as a result of the young man’s refusal to acknowledge that dark, chaotic part of himself. It is interesting that Steinbeck noted this same internal contradiction in his essay “About Ed Ricketts”: “I have said that his mind had no horizons, but that is untrue. He forbade his mind to think of metaphysical or extra-physical matters, and his mind refused to obey him.”

Dr. Phillips’s movement from rational calm to illogical terror is understandable. Far from being a Freudian contest between two distinct individuals, culminating in the young man’s seduction, the process can rather be seen as the psychic rebellion of the doctor’s unconscious. His terror comes from his refusal to accept the unknowable and unexplainable.

Steinbeck’s revision of the story’s end forcefully reveals its mythic basis. In the manuscript, when the doctor tries to comb out his thoughts after the woman has gone, he sarcastically contemplates prayer: “He thought of his life and grinned. ‘Mother Biology, save me from this evil,’ he said. ‘Holy Science! protect me.'”

The satirical tone demonstrates an attempt to dismiss the intrusion of the mythic as a bizarre joke. Steinbeck deleted this passage from his final text because it was inconsistent with the dark tone of the story. In the published work, Dr. Phillips is unable to dismiss the mythic through either logic or ridicule but remains terrified and baffled by the strange encounter.

In the published work, Dr. Phillips is unable to dismiss the mythic through either logic or ridicule but remains terrified and baffled by the strange encounter.

“The Snake” is surely one of Steinbeck’s darkest stories. Several clues as to the source of its dark tone become apparent in the journal entry prior to the start of “The Snake.” One is his fear that he will fail in his goal to become a serious writer:

I work hard enough but nothing happens. When Carol works something happens. I seem to be a bad son, and a bad brother, and a bad husband and a bad citizen all for the sake of being a good writer. If I should turn out to be a bad writer then it’s complete and I have nothing to fall back on. It’s a gamble of not only my own life but the lives of everyone with whom I come in contact. I wish I knew.

Fear of failure is a recurring theme in many of his journal entries; however, before writing “The Snake,” Steinbeck pondered another, deeper, more existential fear. This centers on an undefined event or incident in his life he describes this way:

[Like a] mounting pile of sorrows outside the door. If I open the door, the sorrow would come piling in like a night snowdrift. Oh falling house, crumbling away, rotting. We believe fervently that the event has run its cycle and has come back to nothing, that when the event . . . is gone, that will be done. And we do not want to start it again. We know that by taking this course we will build loneliness in the future against ourselves, but we have seen loneliness among those who should be able to dissipate it and cannot. And the last kind seems so much the worst. We know that when we grow old we shall be grieved by a lasting loneliness, that we will have substituted nothing of any value to ourselves, but at least we will not have provided new instruments to bitterness and to loneliness. Perhaps it is selfishness. But how can one be selfish toward the unborn?

Steinbeck reveals his profound fear of separation and loneliness, both in the present and the future. He refers to a bitter old age when he (and Carol?) will be “grieved by a lasting loneliness,” resulting from “taking this course” that substitutes “nothing of value to ourselves.” What is Steinbeck talking about here? That, of course, is a matter of speculation. His final question, though—“how can one be selfish toward the unborn?”—is compelling. He often spoke of his stories as his children; could he be lamenting stories that would never find life in publication? Or perhaps does he refer to an actual, unborn child? The question is open. In the dark tone of these notes, however, we see the darkness present in “The Snake,” a story he planned to write “slowly out of my unconscious.”

In the dark tone of these notes, we see the darkness present in ‘The Snake,’ a story he planned to write ‘slowly out of my unconscious.’

Clearly, for John Steinbeck, “The Snake” was a “damnable story”; he did not want to write it but felt compelled. In the journal entry written immediately before he began composing “The Snake,” Steinbeck wrestles with personal demons: fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy to make good on his passion to become a successful writer, and, perhaps, a deep sense of loneliness and loss. Characteristically, he uses his writer’s tools, metaphor and imagery, to work through this gloom:

The mind plays. And the gulls are sweeping off the sky. And I wish I knew. Last night the sky was clear and the story was . . . deep, buried in the sky. I was lonelier than I’ve ever been. Sky over ocean is so black. It isn’t when you are out on the ocean. Not nearly so. Then you feel a rhythm with the sky.

Steinbeck identifies his fear with the black sky over the ocean, perhaps representing separation and loneliness, but fear is powerful only if not confronted. When he is on the ocean he again feels connected, and his fear is replaced by a sense of acceptance and oneness with “a rhythm“ of the sky.

This is the road out of the darkness. Just before beginning to write “The Snake,” he describes a “dark silence from the east . . . . A list of [publishers’] rejections.” Unlike Dr. Phillips, John Steinbeck found in his sheer force of will to connect a way to write his way out of the lethargy and fear he felt when he created the disturbing short story that continues to captivate readers, despite the psychological puzzle it still presents. It was a pattern that recurred throughout his troubled career:

. . . the silence is very wearing on the soul. I just have to break this deadlock with a hammer effect. I’ve done that before and I’ll do it again.

A Winter’s Tale: Lyric Poem By Roy Bentley

Image of a harsh winter's tale moment in Eastern Kentucky

A Woman Hanging Out Her Family’s Washing
During the Harsh Winter in Eastern Kentucky

Like my grandmother, the dress doesn’t fit her.
And it’s thick sweaters instead of an overcoat.

Like my dead mother, she has wild black hair
and props up a clothesline with a yew branch.

A dark moves by the creek. A snake perhaps.
Ice stalactites from the eaves of a row house

testify to what’s necessary to survive here:
to let pain melt then forget to summon it

even once as the sound of a slow freight.
When she was a fleur-de-lis too beautiful

for the snapshot moment, she showed up
the sun and moon. Now, she is filigreed

with tattooing and scarring and starlight
in laceless, newspaper-filled work shoes.

Soon, she’ll glimpse herself in a mirror:
a ghost straight out of Dorothea Lange.

The place is a heaven of snakes, though
seeing one in winter is always a bad sign.

Fine Art by Nancy Hauk on Show in Pacific Grove, John Steinbeck’s Favorite Place

Image of "Near Harmony," John Steinbeck Country painting by Nancy Hauk

The magical landscape of John Steinbeck’s beloved Monterey, California Peninsula continues to inspire fine art with broad appeal. “Loving Watercolor, Paintings by Nancy Hauk’’—an exhibition opening on April 17 at the Pacific Grove Public Library—is an impressive example. “Near Harmony” (above) was painted just off Highway 1 on the Central California coast. John Steinbeck worked on the highway construction crew as a young man before becoming the state’s most famous writer.

Image of Steinbeck Country scene by Pacific Grove painter Nancy Hauk

John Steinbeck’s Pacific Grove

Steinbeck did much of his early writing in Pacific Grove, the quaint, colorful town south of Monterey, California, where Cannery Row starts and a slender street running past the Steinbeck family cottage bears the name of Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist and model for Jim Casy and other characters in John Steinbeck’s most memorable fiction. As it happens, Nancy Hauk’s home is the former abode of Ricketts and his first wife—also named Nancy—on Pacific Grove’s legendary Lighthouse Avenue. Holman’s Department Store, instantly recognizable to readers of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row fiction, isn’t far. Hauk Fine Arts, the gallery owned by Nancy and her husband Steve, is also located nearby. Pacific Grove is a walking town, like Sag Harbor, the Long Island village that became Steinbeck’s Pacific Grove East when he lived in New York later in life.

The Fine Art of Nancy Hauk

Image of Nancy Hauk, fine artistNancy Burtch Hauk made the opposite journey, majoring in art history at Connecticut College before moving to Pacific Grove with her husband Steve and pursuing the important career of breaking down test biases for CTB–McGraw Hill, traveling the country and working with the late Ross Green, a national pioneer in the field of educational test assessment and publication. When she could find the time as a busy professional with two children, she painted scenes of Monterey, California and France, studying with Sam Colburn—who arrived on the Monterey Peninsula in the 1930s and knew and associated with many of the same artists John Steinbeck did—as well as National Academicians Gregory Kondos and Don Nice, Claire Verbiest, Gerald Brommer, Katherine Stock and Jann Pollard. Her friend Marty Clarke was her constant painting companion.

Image of "Reflecting Reeds,' zen-like watercolor by Nancy Hauk

Capturing Essence, Like John Steinbeck

Most of the works in the Pacific Grove Library exhibition were painted between 2000 and 2010. They include French vignettes, scenes from Steinbeck Country, gardens of ancient adobes in Old Monterey, California, and innovative studies of Spanish missions integrating the decorative motifs that distinguish Mission San Juan Bautista and other churches built by Franciscan missionaries 200 years ago. Some of the selected paintings are incomplete, with the artist’s notes and practice brushstrokes illuminating her creative process as a fine artist. “Reflecting Reeds” (above) demonstrates her Zen-like mastery of meditative line and visual economy.

“Loving Watercolor, Paintings by Nancy Hauk” was curated by Julianne Burton-Carvajal and runs through May 30 in recently restored library gallery space located at 550 Central Avenue, a block from Lighthouse Avenue in downtown Pacific Grove. (Note to Steinbeck lovers visiting Monterey, California in April or May: don’t miss the experience of seeing Steinbeck Country through the eyes of a contemporary fine artist with a talent for capturing the essence of every scene—just as John Steinbeck did when writing about his favorite places from the comfort of his Pacific Grove cottage years ago.)

Beyond Russell Brand and Naomi Klein: William Blake, John Steinbeck, and the Politics of Poetic Power

Image of William Blake

William Blake

A summary of recent books by Russell Brand and Naomi Klein about current events, global conflict, and corporate accountability associated their views with John Steinbeck and William Blake, the English poet and artist admired by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. But how accurate is it to compare literary artists like Blake and Steinbeck with activists like Naomi Klein or Russell Brand, cultural critics whose appeal is topical and in the moment? It’s true that all four writers oppose oppression and speak truth to power in their work. But the similarity ends there, and the earlier discussion ignored another English poet: John Milton, a writer who has more in common with John Steinbeck and William Blake than Russell Brand or Naomi Klein.

Image of William Blake's "Ancient of Days"

William Blake’s “Ancient of Days”

William Blake’s dramatic etched and painted images—drawn from the Bible, world mythology, and Blake’s imagination—have been speaking powerfully since he died in poverty in 1830 and are sampled here for readers unfamiliar with his extraordinary art. His reach is cosmic, and the significance of his work is symbolic, not local or literal like modern writers. Likewise, John Steinbeck’s fiction, even at its most realistic, transcended the time and place in which it was set and tells a universal story applicable to every age. I consider both Blake and Steinbeck to be prophetic poets, like John Milton, who explored the human spirit and who will be read for years to come. Klein is an accomplished journalist and Brand’s jeremiads are often amusing, but neither achieves the depth or breadth to justify comparison with John Steinbeck or William Blake. The Bible and John Milton tell me so.

Image of William Blake's "House of Death"

William Blake’s “House of Death”

John Steinbeck, William Blake, and the Politics of Poetry

Blake and Steinbeck championed the downtrodden and called out the kings and corporations responsible, in their view, for pervasive poverty, inequality, and political corruption when they were alive. The context of Blake’s writing included the three great revolutions of his time—the political revolutions in America and France, which he praised, and the industrial revolution in England that created the “dark Satanic mills” he decried. Volumes have been written about the political origins and implications of Blake’s work within the framework of the English Romantic movement of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Like Byron and sometimes Shelley, Blake was a rebel with a cause. But Blake was also a religious visionary, and the Bible inspired his art, not political pamphlets, love affairs, or misadventures in foreign lands.

Image of William Blake's "Nebuchadnezzar"

William Blake’s “Nebuchadnezzar”

Wordsworth started in the same radical vein, supporting the French Revolution and opposing urbanization, commodification, and the industrial revolution’s displacement of England’s agricultural poor. If this sounds familiar, it’s because John Steinbeck tells a similar story in The Grapes of Wrath (a Biblical title with a Blakean ring). But Wordsworth became a conservative in old age, writing sonnets praising duty and domesticity that promoted comfort with the status quo. Likewise, John Steinbeck defended America’s intervention in Vietnam, causing various liberal friends and literary critics to view him as a turncoat against progressive principles. As with Wordsworth, Steinbeck’s late-life change damaged his reputation as a public figure. At a minimum it complicates matters when comparing him to William Blake, Naomi Klein, or Russell Brand—a passionate ranter whose first name should be Fire. Unlike Steinbeck, Klein, or Brand, Blake was involved in a lifelong project of deconstructing social theory into metaphysical truth, ridiculing parties and politicians until the day he died. Like Steinbeck, however, he distrusted polemics and rejected identification with any ideology.

Image of William Blake's "Newton"

William Blake’s “Newton”

Why do we continue to read William Blake and John Steinbeck with a shock of recognition at old truths made new? Because their politics of poetry transcends time and place and speaks to every age. (We’ll see whether Naomi Klein and Russell Brand have the same appeal for readers generations from now.) Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath portray the Biblical symbol of a barred Paradise following a human Fall, an ancient archetype that powerfully the expresses the human condition. Like William Blake, John Steinbeck discovered the origin of evil in the Snake within each of us: the self-divided consciousness that conflicts every person who is truly alive. Tip O’Neill, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, claimed that “all politics is local.” Russell Brand appears to agree, while Naomi Klein thinks global politics matter most. Neither point of view pierces the human heart where Blake and Steinbeck find the beginning of all conflict, global or local. Today we don’t read William Blake as counterpoint to John Stuart Mill, or John Steinbeck as ally or antidote to Karl Marx. Connecting Brand and Klein to Marx and Mill makes more sense than wishful thinking about “channeling” John Steinbeck.

Image of William Blake's "Satan Smiting Job"

William Blake’s “Satan Smiting Job”

Russell Brand, Naomi Klein, and the Ideology of Politics

But differences between the art of John Steinbeck and that of William Blake are worth noting. The Grapes of Wrath depicts the triumph of predatory capitalism over family farming as a fight between political interests with conflicting ideologies. While denying that he was an ideologue, Steinbeck supported the New Deal and (to his credit) took sides in the fight. Russell Brand and Noami Klein, on the other hand, don’t pretend to be above politics, interpreting current events as a clash of ideologies, not cultures or faiths. In an era of even bloodier revolution, William Blake saw every ideology as a form of mental tyranny, “mind-forg’d manacles” that tie down the soul and perpetuate the cycle of conflict among individuals, interest groups, and nations. It was the spirit, not the ideology, of revolution that engaged Blake’s imagination as a writer.

Blake believed that the work of the artist and poet is to help free individual consciousness from conceptual chains, like the prophet Ezekial in “A Memorable Fancy.” Blake’s reference to native cultures sounds very modern:

I then asked Ezekiel why he ate dung, and lay so long on his right and left side. He answer’d, ‘The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite: this the North American tribes practise, and is he honest who resists his genius or conscience only for the sake of present ease or gratification?’

John Steinbeck’s version of Blake’s Ezekial figure is the preacher Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, a prophet who endures pain to “cleanse the doors of perception” and achieves salvation through self-denial, self-sacrifice, and self-transcendence. Jim Casy dies in Steinbeck’s story but, like Tom Joad, his holy ghost lives on. In Dubious Battle presents a similar pattern of questioning introspection and self-transcendence in the character of Doc, the doubting physician who sees beyond the conflicting ideologies of capitalism and communism to a cosmic vision worthy of William Blake: Group Man as godlike, a corrupted version of Blake’s “human form divine.” Ed Ricketts has been identified by scholars as the inspiration for each of these characters in John Steinbeck’s fiction; it’s worth noting that Ricketts deeply distrusted ideology and rejoiced in reading William Blake, one of a handful of ageless poets he identified as “breaking through” to higher vision and cosmic consciousness in their art.

Image of William Blake's "The Witch of Endor"

William Blake’s “The Witch of Endor”

John Steinbeck, William Blake, and their Poetic Prophets

Blake always called his poetic vision “prophetic.” Steinbeck presents both prophetic figures—In Dubious Battle’s physician Doc, The Grapes of Wrath’s preacher Casy—in the same mode of thought and speech. Each is a seer in two senses, like Blake’s Old Testament prophets: they see into the human soul and they see into the immediate future. Doc speaks of “the Blood of the Lamb.” Casy’s dialog becomes increasingly poetic as the novel progresses, as when he prays reluctantly over a woman dying on the exodus to the Promised Land of California. Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost must also be kept in mind to complete the picture. Blake and Steinbeck were intimately familiar with Milton’s great narrative of human fall from grace, innocence, and Paradise. Blake considered Satan the true hero of Milton’s poem because Satan, not God, represents energy, imagination, and “breaking through,” and Steinbeck was familiar with Blake’s radical reinterpretation of Milton’s moral message. It clearly colors Casy’s rejection of religion and helps us understand Doc’s prophecy about the ambiguous outcome of the “dubious battle” (a phrase borrowed from Paradise Lost) between the strikers and police.

Image of William Blake's "Job"

William Blake’s “Job”

Which brings us back to Russell Brand and Naomi Klein. Neither writer has John Milton, William Blake, or John Steinbeck’s grounding in the prophetic literature or language of the Bible, and the gap is apparent. As a result, reading either one feels a bit like skating on thin ice. Firebrand rhetoric (Brand) and statistical analysis (Klein) fail to convey the sense of depth and permanence about politics found in John Steinbeck, who has far more in common with William Blake and John Milton than with Russell Brand or Naomi Klein. It might be better to describe Steinbeck as channeling these writers than to assert that Klein or Brand has channeled John Steinbeck in books that, however relevant they seem today, are too busy taking the pulse of the body politic to get to the heart of the matter.

The Road from The Grapes of Wrath to Ferguson, Missouri: How Current Events Keep John Steinbeck Relevant

Image of Ferguson, Missouri police confrontation

In the 1980s, it was E.M. Forster. In the 90s, Jane Austen and Henry James. Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway had their turn, along with writers of B-list bestsellers whose names have faded, like the films made from their books. In 2015, Hollywood’s Favorite Author is the American Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck. Again.

Image from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

The Roots of the Recent John Steinbeck Renaissance

Interest in Steinbeck is surging. Steven Spielberg is reportedly preparing a remake of The Grapes of Wrath. Jennifer Lawrence has signed on to play the lead in East of Eden. Recently the actor James Franco, who starred on Broadway last year as George in Of Mice and Men, announced that next month he will start filming an adaptation of Steinbeck’s little-known 1936 novel In Dubious Battle.

Interest in Steinbeck is surging. Steven Spielberg is reportedly preparing a remake of The Grapes of Wrath.

This isn’t Steinbeck’s first trip to Hollywood. Between 1939 and 1957, eight of his books were made into movies, and he wrote original scripts for four more. The best of these films became classics, like John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath; Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men; and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden.

This isn’t Steinbeck’s first trip to Hollywood. Between 1939 and 1957, eight of his books were made into movies.

But these films were made more than half a century ago. When John Ford’s movie of The Grapes of Wrath debuted in 1940, just a year after Steinbeck’s novel was published, the Dust Bowl was still in the news. How do we explain the Steinbeck Renaissance of 2015? What is it about Steinbeck’s work that resonates with us today?

Image from 1963 civil rights protest in Greensboro, N.C.

From The Grapes of Wrath to Ferguson, Missouri

The answer is a sad comment on our times. Many of the issues Steinbeck addressed in novels like The Grapes of Wrath are as relevant today as they were 75 years ago. Police abuse, for example, continues to be a major problem in America. As we demonstrate solidarity with the victims in Ferguson, Staten Island, and too many other communities, it’s hard not to think of Tom Joad’s famous line from his farewell speech: “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.”

Many of the issues Steinbeck addressed in novels like The Grapes of Wrath are as relevant today as they were 75 years ago.

Our society also still discriminates against migrant laborers. The undocumented workers who harvest our fruits and vegetables are today’s “bindlestiffs,” as Steinbeck called the laborers George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Our politicians talk about immigration reform, but nothing ever happens, and as we argue, produce rots in the fields and those laborers who dare to remain here illegally live in constant fear of deportation. I wouldn’t be surprised if this surprisingly modern conundrum is what drew James Franco to In Dubious Battle, a novel about a farmworkers’ strike in California.

Our society also still discriminates against migrant laborers. The undocumented workers who harvest our fruits and vegetables are today’s ‘bindlestiffs.’

But there’s one more reason Steinbeck resonates today. He famously said that his job as a writer was “to reconnect humans to their own humanity.” In this era of braggy Christmas letters and sanitized Facebook personas, it’s easy to forget that when we suffer, we are not alone. Steinbeck showed us humanity in all its forms, not only the happy family on vacation, but the poor and dispossessed, the filthy, the starving, and the mad. It’s no subject for a Facebook post, but it never goes out of style.

Everybody Loves Travels with Charley! Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Lifelong Learning Affair with John Steinbeck

Image of John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley map with dog

John Steinbeck loved all dogs and certain humans, and Travels with Charley continues to travel well with people of every age. My experience teaching senior citizens in an Ann Arbor, Michigan-area lifelong learning program called Elderwise proves that energetic seniors are eager to read Steinbeck books, watch Steinbeck movies, and discuss life issues—loneliness, companionship, alienation and affection—explored in Travels with Charley, Tortilla Flat, and The Grapes of Wrath. I’d like to share what I’ve learned from my experience for the benefit of Steinbeck lovers everywhere.

Lifelong Learning Rekindles John Steinbeck’s Appeal

Surprisingly, I found that lifelong learning discussions of John Steinbeck are often livelier than the university classes I taught as a college professor. This is particularly good news for the Steinbeck renaissance declared by Steinbeck scholars following the widely-publicized anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath. Recent declines in college course enrollment, scholarly publications, and Steinbeck’s presence in American anthologies have depressed Steinbeck aficionados in this country, so I was glad when I learned that the Steinbeck Society decided to focus on the author’s globalism in the international conference being planned for 2016. Meanwhile, Elderwise provides a practical example of how lifelong learning programs keep the flame alive as the torch passes to a new generation of scholars, readers, and fans in places throughout the world where John Steinbeck remains popular.

Elderwise provides a practical example of how lifelong learning programs keep the flame alive as the torch passes to a new generation of scholars, readers, and fans in places where John Steinbeck remains popular.

Established by an energetic group of volunteers in 1992, Elderwise outgrew its start-up space last year, relocating to Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Red Cross Building, where audio-visual equipment—a must for effective lifelong learning—is available and classroom space is ample. Ann Arbor, Michigan is a college town, and universities, corporations, and nonprofit organizations around the area provide an abundant supply of teachers who are passionate and knowledgeable about a variety of subjects. As a result Elderwise course offerings are impressively diverse. Current topics include the composer Shostakovich, the history of the Huron River, and the automaker Henry Ford as an educator. Pat Butler coordinates enrollment and schedules efficiently, supported by volunteers such as Elsie Orb and Ruth Shabazz, who provide able assistance to the classes I’ve taught since 1999. Elderwise began as a membership organization with a dedicated core—another must for lifelong learning programs designed to attract interest and build participation.

“GOWers” Like to Learn by Watching Movies, Too

To succeed today, lifelong learning programs also need novelty. Most people like movies, and Elderwise’s innovative  “Books into Movies” sessions partner reading books by John Steinbeck with viewing and evaluating film adaptations. As far as I know, Travels with Charley has yet to be made into a dog picture by Disney, but The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men are cinema classics, and new productions of both books are under way or discussion by the actor-director James Franco and the director-producer Stephen Spielberg. Most of my Elderwise students are what I call GOWers—they read The Grapes of Wrath in high school, perhaps saw the John Ford film, but aren’t necessarily familiar with other works by John Steinbeck such as Tortilla Flat or Travels with Charley. Movies are a good way to attract seniors’ attention, a characteristic they share with today’s college students, who prefer watching to reading before committing to any author.

Movies are a good way to attract seniors’ attention, a characteristic they share with today’s college students, who prefer watching to reading before committing to any author.

GOWers who took the Steinbeck leap in my Books into Movies series soon discovered what they had been missing. A particular topic is typically covered in a two-session course in which students read and discuss a novel, then view and comment on its film translation. My first Steinbeck selection for this series was Tortilla Flat, a better book than movie. Ann Arbor, Michigan-area GOWers shared the enthusiasm of Californians who read Steinbeck’s bestseller when it was published in 1935, praising Steinbeck’s vivid and affectionate portrayals of Monterey and its exotic, offbeat paisanos. MGM’s 1942 film adaptation forced a Hollywood ending onto Steinbeck’s bohemian narrative, and my students noted that Steinbeck’s colorfully ethnic characters were played by studio actors with an obvious Anglo-Saxon appearance. Hollywood’s racism bothered Steinbeck—a good way to connect cultural currents of our time with Steinbeck’s progressive views when teaching students who think that, since he’s dead, he’s outdated.

Hollywood’s racism bothered Steinbeck—a good way to connect cultural currents of our time with Steinbeck’s progressive views when teaching students who think that, since he’s dead, he’s outdated.

Last year I followed up with a Books into Movies class on The Grapes of Wrath in honor of the novel’s anniversary. This timing was fortuitous. The same week I taught the class, PBS aired an episode of The Roosevelts by the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, winner of the Steinbeck Society’s 2013 humanitarian award. Most GOWers are children or grandchildren of the Great Depression, so Burns’s documentary provided familiar context for Steinbeck’s portrayal of poverty, dislocation, and despair in the economic collapse of the 1930s. Participants who had never seen Ford’s film treatment of Steinbeck’s masterpiece agreed with those who had: the 1940 movie is an exquisite distillation of Steinbeck’s 455-page Pulitzer Prize-winner that Stephen Spielberg’s effort, if it ever happens, will be challenged to exceed.

Less Is Sometimes More in Lifelong Learning

Like today’s college students, lifelong learning participants can have limited attention spans. I confronted this challenge with a class I called “Short Steinbeck,” choosing Travels with Charley in Search of America and Steinbeck’s 1947 novel The Wayward Bus as examples of Steinbeck’s short-form style. Travels with Charley has been a personal favorite ever since my mother introduced me to Steinbeck’s man-drives-dog memoir 50 years ago. Including the name of the Steinbecks’ poodle in the title appealed to me at the time, and my current dog Corey (shown above) shares my admiration for the gesture. Steinbeck’s prescient commentary on American social and environmental degradation drew a more serious response from my lifelong learning class, which recognized the warning signs posted by Steinbeck about America’s cultural decline. Like readers and critics when The Wayward Bus was published, class members held conflicting opinions about the earlier book, though participants who experienced the post-war period enjoyed Steinbeck’s nuanced portrayal of the American Dream as defined by the novel’s ensemble of diverse, conflicted characters.

Travels with Charley has been a personal favorite ever since my mother introduced me to Steinbeck’s man-drives-dog memoir 50 years ago.

Long-form and short-form, fiction and non-fiction, reading and viewing: after exploring the available avenues to John Steinbeck, what is the consensus of lifelong learners about the author’s continued relevance as a writer? In brief, both positive and encouraging. One participant praised Steinbeck’s optimistic portrayal of teamwork and camaraderie among family, friends, and community, citing The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row as examples, though Tortilla Flat should be added to the list. Others emphasized the timelessness of Steinbeck’s message, whatever form it took: as everyone noted, the experiences of the so-called Okies in The Grapes of Wrath transcend the time and place in which the story was set and the novel was written. But the final verdict on John Steinbeck at Elderwise can easily be boiled down to a sentence: Steinbeck remains a great author, and today his work is more meaningful, not less, than when he was alive. Yes, the hoped-for Steinbeck renaissance has begun. Who guessed it would start with a group of senior citizens in Ann Arbor, Michigan?

Short Story by Roy Bentley: “How Sweet to Have a Home in Heaven”

Image of New Orleans red-light district historic marker

John Steinbeck’s love affair with New Orleans was brief. Guests and couple got drunk when he married his second wife in the city they call the Big Easy. The marriage wasn’t easy and didn’t last. East of Eden reflects the bitterness that did. Violent white response to civil rights for blacks when New Orleans schools finally integrated infuriated him. He wrote about that in Travels with Charley. But if he ever visited the brothels of the Big Easy and heard jazz piano in the parlor played the way he liked it, he probably felt right at home. Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday are the evidence. In this short story set in the red-light district for which New Orleans was once famous, Roy Bentley steps back into John Steinbeck’s era, a period when political correctness meant passing your poli-sci exam and the n-word was considered acceptable speech. Bentley’s language may be tough, but his short story’s center is sweet—much like John Steinbeck’s fiction, where whores with hearts of gold work and sometimes die in towns, such as Salinas and New Orleans, without pity. Civil rights inch along in America, but Hurricane Katrina showed the world that blacks were still considered second-class citizens in New Orleans, 50 years after Travels with Charley was written. Big Easy indeed. John Steinbeck would be appalled.—Ed.  

Cherry Vanover was staring out the room’s one long Victorian window, naked except for a pair of red-and-white striped six-dollar-a-pair stockings, and seated in a ladder back chair beside the high four-poster bed. Whatever it was she saw, I thought it likely had nothing to do with what she’d been doing with a sport I’d passed in the hall. Cherry’s red hair had come undone and hung down her back. A moon-coming-through-clouds shown in the window, the glass of its top half, though the room was lit by the orange flame of a pair of gas lamps on the opposite wall. That light held her like a knife, just so.

She hadn’t turned when I opened her door.

“Miss Cherry.”

“Yes?” she asked without looking in my direction.

“Countess said to get you when you were through with your last boarder,” I said, moving to where she could see me.

When she turned her face I caught sight of a look unlike the mask of tiredness most of the women in our house wore at the end of a night’s business.

“Hello, Professor.”

I was used to the name they used for all the piano player-greeters in the District, though it wasn’t my name. I’d been called Professor for sometime. The name I was given on Amelia Street, where I was born, was Antonio Jackson, Jr.

“I passed Mr. John Douglas in the hall. He seemed pleased ‘bout something.”

She nodded and crossed her breasts with her arms, rubbing the opposite shoulder with the fingers of each of her hands. Long, thin fingers. Like a piano player’s, I thought.

“What does she want with me?” Cherry asked.

“Can I sit down?”

“Something wrong?”

I sat at the foot of the bed’s white-sheeted mattress.

“Did you know the Countess had another go-round with Max James?”

I regret not having the ability to make small talk. It causes me to get to the point too quickly. In a house of pleasure you’d think getting to the point would be the stock and trade of customer and lady alike. But making it seem like what you’re about to do is an experience as rare as a voodoo charm is a skill, too. The best sporting women have it. This was one of those times when it would have been nice to have some of that talent at delaying to offer up.

“I left him in the parlor,” she said. “Along with that sailor.”

“He claims you gave him a hard time instead of what he paid his two dollars for.”

The woman in the chair by the window with the moon in it glanced at me.  She must have seen I wasn’t her problem, or that I wasn’t the source of her problem, only the bearer of bad news. Of the madams in Storyville—some of the boarders and sailors called the District that—Countess Piazza was one of the fairest, but she could flash mad. Warning came, when it came, if it did, with her fingering the diamond choker around her slim neck.

“You can figure she’ll slap you a time or two. She might kiss you, but I wouldn’t count on it.” I stopped talking and a horse whinnied up the street by Gipsy Shafer’s.

It wasn’t I didn’t like Cherry Vanover or was unconcerned about what might happen. It was just I couldn’t have much sympathy for any woman in Cherry’s situation cheating a man. She was a whore, a live one. And I figured she might want to stay that a while.

“Are you thinking it may be worse, Professor? Because if she’s got it in her head to make an example out of me again—”

Cherry dropped her arms and leaned forward in the chair. Her breasts hung in the shadow her head and neck made in the gaslight but with still a glow to the skin. She was the sort of woman Countess Willie V. Piazza preferred for her house at 317 North Basin Street: an octoroon. Like the Countess herself. Dark but not too dark. With hair that could be made to graze a white man’s skin—any man’s, for that matter—and make a believer of him.

Her hands were in her hair, combing. She moved to rest them at her sides, finally gripping the wood seat her naked skin was pedestaled on.

“She didn’t lay into you that bad,” I said.

“I guess I been beat worse.”

“What was it you called Mr. James?” I asked.

“A bastard,” Cherry said. “Because’a his hatin’ niggers, seeing us as cursed and little better than animals. How was I to know he didn’t know who his father was?”

I nodded and smiled. I reached over to place my hand on hers but she pulled away.

“You better get down there. And put something on.”

“Of course I’ll put something on. But she better not beat me over this. I’ll scratch out Max James’ eyes if she does. It ain’t nothing to call a man what he is, is it?”

“No, but sass and talk like that will get you sent back to the dollar cribs,” I said.

The dollar cribs—Bienville Street’s five blocks—were the lower regions of Hell.

I raised up on the bed and Cherry stood up. I could see the tangle of hair above her “womanhood”—as the books I learned to read called it, books nice people would have no part of being seen buying but read. Books they would send a house servant to buy for them.

Cherry stepped to a three-drawer bureau, reached in and took out a white drape she threw over her shoulder and cinched in the back. Her womanhood was left exposed.

She moved to the door and turned a crystal knob.

I got up to follow her from the room. I’d done my job.

It was Cherry’s room, her place of business, the place she’d slept since she’d come to Basin Street the year before, but I was the one to close the door. In the hall a line of lamps the color of grapefruit pulp guttered as she walked to face the Countess, who Jelly Roll Morton said was the only madam in the District with sense enough to keep a piano tuned.

. . . . .

Jelly Roll had a nickname by the time we met. Winding Boy—“winding” like you wind a watch, I thought. He explained it was because of the walk he sort of put on, a hip swivel for the ladies. He was a dresser, had a diamond in a front tooth, but it was his piano playing he was known for. I had my own style, but I liked it considerable whenever I heard his. Which wasn’t all that often since he mostly played Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall by that time. Lulu wasn’t likely to let no nigger hang out with the swells. Why, a dark-skinned black man in a shiny suit in New Orleans—the Port of Missing Men—or anywhere in the South, took his life in his hands just to walk down the streets. Let alone to be putting on airs by expecting to be allowed in a tenderloin parlor with white folks.  The times I caught Jelly’s act he was playing for the Countess.

First time I saw him play Jelly asked me what the word “jazz” meant. He said some magazine he picked up in the train station depot had used the word. I told him I’d never heard it. I said the word out loud. Jelly said a magazine writer had given “jazz” as a Negro word meaning “particularly good sex.” He flashed a satin smile and we both laughed.

“Just like a white man to cheat us out’a namin’ our own music,” I said.

“Yeah, but it’s a good word. A good name for the music.”

“A white name for a thing black as you and me.”

It became our joke, mine and Jelly’s. Part of a shorthand sort of talk we used till we found a piano and could communicate with one another on a whole other level.

. . . . .

Countess Piazza had a mute white cockatoo she kept in a rosewood cage. The bird hadn’t always been mute. Its first month in the house it had talked up a storm, spouting obscenities and the nicknames of sports the girls talked about in their off hours. One afternoon the bird called out Madame Beelzebub! and the Countess took a shoe to it. The bird, named Mr. Roosevelt after Teddy Roosevelt, ceased speaking from that moment on.

I knocked on the rosewood door. Then I knocked again. The Countess didn’t often answer on the first or second knock and I could hear a raised voice the other side.

The door came open. A tall woman in a low-cut black dress was standing there before me, the diamond choker at her throat. Dressed like a suffragette-starlet, the Countess reminded me of Olga Nethersole, a Broadway vamp who scandalized the New York theatre in Sappho. The Countess was, however, her own one-woman production of Sappho.

Mr. Roosevelt preened himself in his cage to one side of the gaming wheel on the wall. The gaming wheel was a walnut wood circle with black numbers on alternating red, white and blue backgrounds. The wheel rested on the number nine, as it had from the day the Countess and I had hung it.

“What?” she asked.

Cherry was standing by a fireplace with black andirons. The room was perfumed by the fire behind the andirons. Cherry’s head was turned to the wall and a pair of rosewood-handled Colt revolvers in a display box of wood and glass. A gift from Wyatt Earp. The smaller woman slouched as if she might be trying to crawl inside herself and disappear.

I said, “I thought I might have a word with you.”

“Come in. I’m almost finished with Miss Tease the Renowned Cleric’s Nephew.”

I stepped into the large room. It was almost half of the whole second floor of the three-story house. The oak floor glowed darkly from the light of gas lamps. The room’s furnishings reflected my employer’s affection for rosewood. I walked over to an armchair of laminated and carved rosewood. The chair, done in a pattern the Countess had once said was commonly referred to as “cornucopia,” was rumored to have been stolen from the offices of Alderman Sidney Story who authored the Story ordinance creating the District. A second chair sat near a rosewood music cabinet I knew contained an Edison phonograph.

The Countess carried herself with authority which made you quickly decide to treat her with the respect she demanded. Mr. Roosevelt fluttered his white wings as the tall figure shadowed past his cage. The Countess’s hand searched for the choker as she walked.

Cherry turned toward the Countess as she approached her.

The Countess stopped a few feet from the whore and struck her.

“Do you understand me?” she said. The madam’s light-skinned face flushed.

Cherry didn’t cry but was smart enough to keep her gaze on the floor. Her cheek had reddened. It looked like flesh under a freshly broken blister.

“Now git.

I watched the bird’s tufted head follow Cherry as she walked from the room. With Cherry gone, the door closed, the Countess stepped to the mate of the chair I was sitting in.

She seated herself. Breathed. And breathed again. Then she smiled.

“Always the deliverer, Antonio. I wouldn’t have hurt her.”

I said, “No, I didn’t s’pose you would,” and waited for her to speak again. If I had trouble with small talk with most folks I found it almost impossible with the Countess. In the firelight her seen-everything-twice eyes were their own fire. Her bun of pinned-up blue-black hair looked lacquered. She reached in the bosom of the low-cut dress and pulled out a cigar. She chewed the end and spat a piece of tobacco. She reached over to one of a pair of ebony cherry pedestals for a match, which she took from a running gold tiger. She struck the match on the tiger’s backside and brought the flame to the end of the cigar. The lit end glowed and she waved the match-flame to a line of smoke.

When she exhaled, cigar smoke rose toward the tinned ceiling of the room.

“You wanted something else?” she said. She puffed the cigar as she spoke.

I told her I’d written a new piece of piano music, a song. I said it was bawdy. I made up a story about hearing a “wild earnestness” in the rhythms of horses hooves and carriage wheels on Basin Street. It was, I guess, a good story because she seemed to like it.

In those days, women were to be enjoyed; ladies were to be married. If I’d been pressed I’d have marked the Countess a bit of both. But whatever she was, she was royalty in a kingdom that counted among its subjects two thousand harlots in a sixteen-square-block area.

She said, “You’re welcome to try it on the sports when you feel the time’s right.”

“I want you to hear it before you make up your mind, Countess,” I said. “I honestly hope you won’t take offense because’a the title— I calls it ‘Rosewood Rag.’”

The Countess coughed smoke. Then she laughed. “I’m sure I’ll love it,” she said.

I had a tune, a new one, in ragtime tempo, I thought I might could snap up some.

I lied, “It’s lively. Full of what goes on in this house, ma’am—”

“The livelier the better.”

. . . . .

Most days, whores in the District slept till late in the afternoon. New Orleans was a loud town with calliope music and steamboat sounds and the constant racket of horse-and-carriage traffic raining down ‘round the clock. But there was an hour or two of let up in the heat of the day when only the cries of deliverymen like Meatball Charley would split the air with I gots sweet potatoes! I gots onions! Sporting women need their sleep. It wasn’t unusual to see one shake her titties at Charley from an open window and hear her shout down her own strings of I-gots: I gots your squirrel nuts in my hand and I’s ‘bout to squish ‘em! Which might be followed by a basinful of dirty water hurled, from on high, at the offending vendor.

I was always up before the whores. Part of my job as a greeter was to deal with deliveries—laundresses, apothecaries, coal men—and to see to payoffs, which I handled in daylight by answering the summoning of bagmen who collected on schedules as regular as clockwork. On any given day I would referee a squabble the madam didn’t need to be no part of and make sure the Trick Babies were cared for. Trick Babies are the result of Nature playing a surprise on a sporting woman and her getting pregnant. There were half a dozen of various ages living at the Countess’s around that time, all feisty little packages.

I might get in four hours of sleep and a couple of hours to practice my playing, but whatever I was doing at the moment was subject to constant interruption. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the knock at the door preceded the Renowned Cleric’s Nephew, Max James, blowing in the Basin Street front door like a hurricane. He was loud as the French Quarter at Mardi Gras and pushing his way past me. I slipped a cane from a rack by the parlor door.

Max James was very thin. So much so that his eyes looked sunken into a core-skull rather than a face. His clothes had the look of having been slept in. After taking in his appearance I thought the man had likely not been to bed from the night before. Drunk or ablaze with anger, as Mr. James clearly was, even an afterthought of a man can be a handful.

And I’d have hit him, a white man, was about to, but the Countess came swooping down from nowhere and took to slapping his chalky face. A couple whacks and it was clear, even at four in the afternoon, he was doped to the gills. I slipped her the horse head cane.

The Countess put his lights out with the ferocity of a plantation foreman.

I dragged him to the parlor and laid him out.  Then I sent someone for a cop.

The District was carnivorous and the One Who Fills the Room with the Promise of Sex was its steak. The Countess was, by that time, over forty.  But she still had looks could siphon the world away. Men stammered in her presence night in and night out. The policeman who came to collect Max James was by no means immune to the patchouli-wake followed her or the stirring red dress she filled out or the way the gaslights caught in the diamonds of her choker. He walked, dazed and compliant, behind her as if he too had been struck. He was her conquest by virtue of the fact their eyes had met. I was her statue, ready to croak out the whole story of how she had felled a man, a white man, with the down stroke of a cane. I trailed her and the policeman into the parlor.

Max James was attempting to sit up on a striped silk sofa.

“This is Mr. James,” she said as if he had become a curiosity and little more.

The policeman looked from her to Max James and back again. “On your feet, you.”

It was that simple: One minute Max James was a threat to the peace of 317 North Basin Street and the next he was being shown the front door. I know because I was the doorman slipped the constable a One Visit Free lilac-scented card he accepted and glanced at (and pocketed) without changing the rough, theatrical pace of his handling of Mr. James.

. . . . .

It was around four in the morning and I was at the piano picking out blues and ragtime tunes. Cherry came into the room. She was a whore for reasons known only to her and I was a piano player in a whorehouse because I had, at thirteen, fashioned a crude sort of harpsichord on which I played a hymn that a neighbor on Amelia Street, a saloon keeper, heard and liked enough to let me wash dishes for the privilege of practicing on a real piano, mornings before the saloon opened for business. I had banged out the notes of “How Sweet to Have a Home in Heaven” as if visits to and from Paradise were a daily occurrence on Amelia Street. Cherry smiled and said good night to a boarder with a black hat in his hand. She then walked over to the piano and stood, naked as the day she was born, beside the piano stool. Before I finished playing she leaned over my shoulder and whispered my name—Tony—and “I’d like it if you came up to my room.” I nodded like she had asked me for a match to light a cigarette. I knew not to follow her. Not in front of a handful of drunk white gents would take offense at the idea of a nigger getting him some under the same roof they got them some. I started in playing a song while she left the room, making out like Cherry had requested it. My hands weren’t tired and I spanked out a lively cadenced “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” snapping it up, though it was late and the few left in the room wouldn’t have known the difference if I’d played it as a dirge.

After the song, I picked up my pearl gray derby and excused myself.

I got to the door to Cherry’s room and tapped on the wood. She answered and held the door open for me. I stepped inside. Her room smelled of cigars and sweat and other things you come to expect in a whorehouse. All the lilac water and jasmine incense in the world can’t cover up the stink of men. The Countess once called it the smell of money.

Cherry closed the door and asked me if I wanted a drink of whiskey. I said “Sure,” and she went to a bureau and opened it and took out glasses and a bottle. She was still mostly naked but she had a sheer black drape over her shoulders. Cherry didn’t have a beautiful face. It would have been plain except for a glow she had when she turned it on you. It was a great asset for a whore. I knew the Countess was pleased with the sort of earner Cherry was. As it was she probably had her pick of the sports down in the parlor waiting. I tried not to think about Cherry’s power over men. It wasn’t like the control the Countess had, where she could handle a man like a horse, beat him whip-blind before he knew what hit him. Cherry’s power was a younger, softer version of the sheer force of personhood the Countess had. It occurred to me humiliation, the threat of it, had to fit in somewhere. Along with chasing the Almighty Dollar like a rag in a windstorm.

Cherry poured a drink. Another. Then she stoppered the bottle and picked up both glasses. She stepped toward me, giving me a face I hadn’t seen before.

“I wanted to thank you for what you did for me. With the Countess.”

I took the drink and watched her step to the bed and sit. She patted the sheet beside her, motioning for me to sit. I took a drink of whiskey then hung my hat on the bed and sat.

She took a swallow from her glass.

“And for what you did with Max James—handing her the cane. One of the others said she saw you.”

“What else was I going to do?” I took a drink, letting the whiskey do its work.

“Almost anything,” she said. “Nothing.”

I hadn’t had a woman in sometime and it was clear if I thought too hard about what was happening then it might not happen. I took another drink.

Cherry drained her glass then kissed me. I had watched this whore work a room of high rollers. I’d seen her with other men but suddenly I was in her company. I’d been invited in and offered a drink and gifted with a look said she was mine if I wanted her.

After she broke off the kiss I said, “You don’t have to thank me like this, you know. I get paid to watch out for you.”

“You get paid to play piano. Everything else is a kindness, or didn’t you know that? The others know it. The Countess knows it.”

“If you think that, maybe then that’s what it is,” I said.

I downed the last of the whiskey Cherry had poured for me.

Then I bent down and sat the empty glass on the floor. When I raised up, I kissed her. The kiss was hard, lacking in the small talk of most kisses I’d observed, and with it I had begun to deliver myself to that other falling down set in motion by a gesture of gratitude.

. . . . .

The next afternoon I was at the piano, mapping out a rhythm without a song to go with it. I wasn’t alone. One of the younger of the Trick Babies was clapping his hands. He was probably three. Cherry was watching him, though she wasn’t his mother. They sat side by side on the sofa where we had deposited the unconscious Max James the previous day. The child had on a smock-type garment appeared to have been a feed sack laundered until a portion of the roughness of the cloth had been taken out. His curly black hair was cut in bangs, stringing an archway around a face filling out its own dimensions with an out pour of smile. The Countess called him Randy, referring to his deceased mother’s excessive appetite for sex. I played one-handed, gliding the fingering, a thing I was known for, which made Randy clap his hands as soon as I was finished. He squealed, Do again, do again, Tony!

It being late autumn, the air as comfortable as it gets in the Delta, windows were open in the parlor.  Sweet jasmine and open sewers scented the breeze. I was starting in on another song, had played the first notes, when I heard a loud sound so close at hand that I couldn’t place at first. It might have been a whore, pissed off about something, in the entrance to the parlor slamming one of two heavy walnut doors. But it wasn’t that.  No one was near the doors. Then there were two more sounds—crack! crack!—and Cherry stood up on nearly steady feet and turned her back on me as if to attend to the child who sat, still, on the sofa. Before I could get to her Cherry fell in a heap at the feet of the boy. When I took hold of her and turned her over her eyes were open and big and looking at whatever she saw before the light went out of them for good.

The Countess found me, the chocolate skin of my hands covered in blood. She had hold of me, was lifting. I knew her other strengths but I remember thinking, She’s not strong enough to lift a grown man. Then I started to cry. I could feel I’d been expecting something.

. . . . .

I couldn’t bring myself to play at the funeral. Jelly Roll Morton, my friend, stood in for me. Everyone in the District had heard. They showed up to pay respects to one of their own and to a body in a smaller casket whose only offense was being born in a whorehouse.

The Countess had services in the parlor. A maid had scrubbed at the bloodstains and gotten up what she could. Whores from the dollar cribs on the lake side of Marais, between Conti and St. Louis streets, filed in. Lulu White was there. I don’t recall a lot about the day. The Countess served booze and I hit the bottle. Numb was what I was shooting for and it was what I got. But I broke down if someone so much as touched my shoulder.

Music had been my shield from monotony and loneliness but it couldn’t shield me from the ache. I knew Randy was in a better place. His life would have been hell: son of a whore and just enough dark blood to make him one of us forever.  But Cherry I saw as someone robbed. She likely wouldn’t have been lucky enough to wind up as well situated as the Countess or Lulu White but that was her dream. She had confessed as much the night before. And I knew she was saved from the slow death at least half the whores in the District knew they would someday see from disease, one of the costs of doing business.

After a time we loaded the bodies into the hearse for the short ride to St. Louis Cemetery No 1. I rode beside the Creole driver, a courtesy for a Negro man in those days. The Countess had made the arrangements and walked, with the others, beside the horses.

Balconies along Basin and Conti streets were packed with the women of the District. Some had their titties out. A few were naked and waved scarlet handkerchiefs.

. . . . .

The Countess called me in to see her a few days after Cherry and Randy were in the ground. She was smoking a cigar and offered me a drink. I told her I thought I’d pass on the drink. She then offered me a cigar, which was unusual for her. Mr. Roosevelt was showing off in his cage like he was glad to see me but I was feeling about the same hollow feeling I knew I’d have for a while, maybe a long while. I stood by the fireplace where I remembered Cherry had stood. A pitiful fire in the hearth had nearly burned itself out.

The Countess said she knew who had done the killings. She said it like she had discovered the secrets of powered flight or Edison’s phonograph.

“I was thinking I might have Max James killed,” she said.

“What for?” I said and looked down.

I kept looking down.

“Isn’t that what you want?  It’s what I want.  Someone should shoot the bastard.”

Then, plain as day, I thought I heard: Do again, Tony!

The voice had a low quality like the notes of a trumpet played with a mute cup.

I’m sure I expected to hear it again, but the room was quiet.

I looked in the direction of the Countess. Her face was a map I couldn’t read.

She said, “Jelly Roll would look you dead straight in the eye like that.”

I stared at the floor the way a sporting woman does when she’s been slapped and knows there’s not a thing she can do about it. Another man would have said a bird had made him consider that we might be more than wayfaring strangers. Bags of sadness and plantation-white bones spawned by a big-enough God. I had chills running up my spine. I wasn’t crying but I was sure I would be any minute. I wanted to get back to being able to hold back such shows. I knew that to be a day some ways off. I had always taken a great pleasure in being a man who could control a few things—notes to a song, the traffic of swells in and out of a room, my reaction to being called boy or shine or worse. I needed that about the way a dope fiend needs fixed. Everyone is hoping to feel safe somewhere. And if you can’t feel safe in the world you move about in—say, the streets of a city in the South—then your world has to shrink a little. Maybe to the size of a house or a room in that house.

Cherry or no Cherry, this was the world I’d grown accustomed to, had lived in, and I knew I’d live in it a while longer. I looked up. I said, “Will that be all, ma’am?”

The Countess looked at Mr. Roosevelt then at me as cigar smoke rose toward the tinned ceiling in a cloud that winged upward until it might as well have been ceiling. She didn’t have anything else to say, not at that moment and neither did I. What else was there to say? I left her and went to the piano to pick out a few tunes before traffic started up again.

“How Sweet to Have a Home in Heaven” first appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. Used with permission of the author.

Big Sur’s “Dark Watchers” Subject of Sumptuous Book By Thomas Steinbeck and Artist Benjamin Brode

Cover image of In Search of the Dark Watchers by Thomas Steinbeck and Benjamin Brode

John Steinbeck’s short story “Flight” is haunted by “dark watching men” whose gaze must be avoided if encountered in the mysterious mountains of Central California’s Big Sur. The writer Thomas Steinbeck, the author’s son, has collaborated with Benjamin Brode, the Big Sur landscape artist, in a beautiful word-and-picture book about these curious creatures out of some Jungian archetypal dream. Published in 2014 by Steinbeck Press, In Search of the Dark Watchers: Landscapes and Lore of Big Sur proves that some pictures really are worth a thousand words when they come from the collective unconscious.

Image of painting by Benjamin Brody from Big Sur book with text by Thomas Steinbeck

As an adult, John Steinbeck read Carl Jung and understood archetypes. But according to Thomas Steinbeck, the idea was first planted in John’s imagination by his mother Olive, a true believer who—like Mama in “Flight”—warned her son to respect the Dark Watchers’ sovereignty over Big Sur’s dangerous terrain. Thomas Steinbeck wrote a short story called “The Dark Watcher” that further embellished the Steinbeck family fable, inspiring Benjamin Brode’s moody, mystical paintings in pursuit of the elusive spirit-beings said to inhabit Big Sur. Don’t worry. You won’t need Carl Jung to appreciate the art or text in this coffee-table delight. But follow Olive Steinbeck’s advice. Exercise care if caught—like Pepe in “Flight”—alone in the Big Sur woods at night. As Carl Jung discovered, disturbing dreams can come true.