Archives for November 2015

Why Steinbeck Matters: Bernie Sanders’s Bill of Rights Speech at Georgetown University Recalls Franklin Roosevelt

Image of Bernie Sanders as a student and Franklin Roosevelt as President

Google “Bernie Sanders-Georgetown University” for proof that John Steinbeck still matters. Sanders, the progressive Senator from the State of Vermont who is running for President of the United States, echoed Steinbeck’s greatest novel and channeled Franklin Roosevelt, Steinbeck’s favorite President, during a passionate speech to students at Georgetown University on November 19. Advertised as “Sanders on socialism,” the hour-long address called for the enactment of an “economic bill of rights” for all Americans, first envisioned in 1944 by Franklin Roosevelt in a speech delivered not long before Roosevelt died. In it Roosevelt said that true freedom requires economic security for everyone: the right to a decent job at a living wage, adequate housing, and guaranteed healthcare. Sanders agrees, adding freedom from corrupt campaign financing to Roosevelt’s litany of change. Steinbeck, a lifelong Democrat, met Franklin Roosevelt on several occasions, and Eleanor Roosevelt became an ally and, later, a friend. But in 1944 Steinbeck felt disappointed with America and depressed about the future. His experience reporting from Italy on World War II shook him badly, his domestic life was a mess, and his best period as a writer of socially conscious fiction lay in the past. His siblings were Republicans and he was trying to go home again.

Bernie Sanders, the progressive Senator from the State of Vermont who is running for President of the United States, echoed Steinbeck’s greatest novel and channeled Franklin Roosevelt, Steinbeck’s favorite President, during a passionate speech to students at Georgetown University on November 19.

Still, Steinbeck’s writing of the 1930s is evidence that, if asked, he would have supported Roosevelt’s economic bill of rights in 1944. Steinbeck’s 1939 masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, dramatizes the same Depression-era America that Roosevelt described in his 1937 inaugural address as “ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.” Sanders quoted Roosevelt’s 1937 line at Georgetown University, building his case on Roosevelt’s policies and employing statistics to back up his assertion that Americans are underemployed, over-incarcerated, and sicker than they should be, despite unprecedented national wealth. Alone among the current crop of candidates in either party, he views the growing gap between rich and poor as a moral outrage equivalent to the Great Depression, one that requires legislative remedy through political revolution. Sanders began his hour-long speech at Georgetown University in anger but closed in hope. He called for political revolution on the Franklin Roosevelt model, but he also gave shout-outs to Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon Johnson, and King Abdullah of Jordan in his position statements on foreign and domestic affairs. Judging by audience response, his listeners got the message, and his biggest applause lines were worthy of John Steinbeck: black lives matter, social injustice is evil, and immigrants make America strong.

Image of Bernie Sanders at Georgetown University

“Corporate media” ranks high on Bernie Sanders’s list of oligarchies to be overthrown by breakup, along with Wall Street banks, drug manufacturers, and the billionaires who buy elections. As a result, the mainstream coverage of his campaign to date has been biased, misleading, and focused on surface rather than substance. Despite its depth and drama, his Georgetown University address—the most detailed articulation of his views so far—was no exception. News stories about the speech the next day were as scarce as copies of The Grapes of Wrath in Kern County, California. When TV talking heads deigned to mention Sanders’s revival of Roosevelt’s economic bill of rights, most mumbled “socialism” before moving on to friendlier content: Hillary Clinton’s emails, Donald Trump’s demand for the deportation of undocumented Mexicans, and Ted Cruz’s call for closing America’s borders to Muslims in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, Bernie Sanders’s campaign has stirred deep animosity within power structures that control the system. They hate being exposed, and as Steinbeck learned they fight back.

Like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, Bernie Sanders’s campaign has stirred deep animosity within power structures that control the system. They hate being exposed, and as Steinbeck learned they fight back.

They called Steinbeck a communist. Sanders, like Roosevelt, they dismiss as a socialist. A plum-toned aristocrat sometimes described as a traitor to his class, Roosevelt fought “economic royalists” from both parties and welcomed their scorn. Sanders, who comes from Brooklyn and faults Democrats for acting like Republicans, admires Roosevelt’s attitude and quotes him frequently, as he did at Georgetown University. Compared with Roosevelt, however, Sanders is a roughneck speaker who still sounds like a New Yorker. He said “crap” early in his remarks at Georgetown University and admitted that, like Steinbeck at Stanford, he didn’t apply himself as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s (see photo). In the 1950s Steinbeck supported Adlai Stevenson, a polished and erudite Illinois progressive who lost two elections to Dwight Eisenhower, a man with a vocabulary so limited that Steinbeck said it disqualified him from being President. During the period Bernie Sanders was demonstrating for desegregation rather than doing his homework at the University of Chicago, Steinbeck’s political affections moved on to Lyndon Johnson, an unpolished President who talked tough while reviving Roosevelt “socialism” in landmark legislation—civil rights, Medicaid, Medicare—that Sanders praised in his November 19 address. The dead no longer vote, but if Steinbeck were alive today I think his big heart would be with Bernie Sanders. Watch the video of Sanders’s Georgetown University speech and see if you agree:

Speak English! Melvyn Bragg’s BBC Documentary Is The Best Film Made to Date About John Steinbeck

Image of Melvyn Bragg, host of BBC documentary on John Steinbeck

The vibrant “Voice of America” BBC documentary on John Steinbeck first broadcast in 2011, featuring historic photo footage and refreshing commentary delivered in ear-pleasing English, has finally made it to YouTube. Melvyn Bragg, the show’s host—a British broadcast personality with working class roots and a passion for John Steinbeck—follows Steinbeck’s footsteps from Salinas, The Grapes of Wrath, and Sea of Cortez to East of Eden, Travels with Charley, and the rebellious American writer’s fight with the New York critics. Filmed on location in the U.S. with a perceptive eye for Steinbeck people, places, and events, the BBC’s survey of the writer’s life and work entertains while educating, in that effortless way English TV does better than, well, anyone. Scholarly Steinbeck aficionados will be pleased with the trio of American Steinbeck experts Bragg interviews intelligently, and at satisfying length: Susan Shillinglaw, Rick Wartzman, and Susan’s spouse William Gilly, a scientist at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. Compared with domestic films about John Steinbeck, the BBC documentary rates five stars, two thumbs up, and an enthusiastic recommendation, especially for teachers, students, and fans of literature increasingly irritated by the sloppy speech of what passes for American journalism. Steinbeck, a lifelong anglophile, loved the landscape, lore, and language of Britain and extolled all three in his writing. Bragg returns the favor, explaining Steinbeck’s relationship to American history and culture with insight, imagination, and stiff-upper-lipness that suits Steinbeck, who liked his wit served dry. Viewing time less than an hour. English impeccable.

“José Clemente Orozco in New York”: Roy Bentley’s Poem about Political Art

Image of Gods of the Modern World, by Jose Clemente Orozco

José Clemente Orozco in New York

It’s like this, light spills at a time
and place, and we cheer it as beautiful.
We jaywalk crowded streets that bum-rush us
into pulse stutters of traffic, which we do not cheer.
Why doesn’t a candle-white building with the late sun
gilding it stay that way, gilded, the watcher wonders—
rain sheeting down but stopping so gladness can rise
into pastel clouds, a democratic republic of runoff
founding governments-in-exile in the storm drains.
All the biographers agree Orozco dressed oddly,
that he was distracted and talked loudly to himself
on the street where, walking Brooklyn, day or night,
he learned that, in America, faces of the hopeful
constantly turn away since seeing obligates the seer.
Crossing from Mexico that first time, border guards
seized 60 of his paintings, as if brown naked human beings
were not a proper subject matter or art itself was illegal
or there were two kinds of hearts in Gringoland.
In the years just after the Great Crash,
and working in the shadow of Diego Rivera,
Orozco painted Gods of the Modern World
where the bones of dead ideas like Democracy
give birth to—what else?—more dead ideas.
Orozco’s “birthing” occurs on a bed of books
in a room of robed men where skeletal fetuses
ask, Where is the hope in repeating their mistakes?
The artist has painted faces that aren’t turned away.
Slits for eyes. In Modern Migration of the Spirit
a piss-yellow Christ has descended the cross, afoot
and wild-eyed, and sporting an ax. Later, in Mexico,
he creates wall murals with tanks and dive bombers—
his way of reminding the Afflicted who’s to blame.
When he falls in love with an American ballerina
named Gloria, it’s because the heart that fails
and fails trumps that other heart any day.

The 1960 Election and Steinbeck’s Pacific Grove Stay in Travels with Charley

Image of Bill Steigerwald's timeline of Steinbeck's Travels with Charley

Fifty-five Novembers ago this week, as the historic 1960 election between Nixon and JFK was coming to a photo finish, the Steinbecks–John, Elaine, and their dog Charley–were laying over at the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove on California’s Monterey Peninsula.

In time and distance, Steinbeck was a little more than halfway through his 11-week Travels with Charley road trip. He and Charley had left Sag Harbor, New York in his pickup/camper combo, Rocinante, on September 23, 1960, and would return to New York City around December 5-6. Their 75-day journey covered about 10,000 miles of mostly two-lane highway.

Based on clues found in letters and the Monterey Peninsula Herald, the Steinbeck family relaxed at the Pacific Grove cottage with Steinbeck’s sister Beth for about two weeks. They were quickly discovered by the local press.

Cover image of Dogging Steinbeck, by Bill Steigerwald

As I write in my ebook Dogging Steinbeck:

In 1960 the Traveling Steinbecks were at the cottage for only a day or two when the Monterey Peninsula Herald dispatched a writer and photographer to do a story. The resulting feature, which ran in the Nov. 4 paper, was very well written by Mike Thomas and included a photo of Steinbeck standing in the garden with a cigarette in his mouth.
Thomas found Steinbeck fixing a wooden front gate, which the author said he had probably built himself 30 years earlier. Describing Steinbeck as a big man with broad features, piercing blue eyes, graying hair and small goatee, Thomas said he was wearing corduroy pants and a shapeless green sweater.
His fingers were nicotine stained and he had a Zippo cigarette lighter on a string around his neck. Wife Elaine was there. So was “an aging poodle sitting in a car at the curbside.” When Thomas asked if he would ever move back to the Monterey area, Steinbeck said he felt like a stranger on the peninsula and repeated his Thomas Wolfe mantra – “You can’t go home again.”

1960 Monterey Peninsula Herald story about Steinbeck's Pacific Grove stay

While relaxing at his old “P.G.” home, Steinbeck saw the remnants of the once-thriving sardine fishing industry he described in Cannery Row, and he apparently revisited some of his old haunts on Alvarado Street, including the Keg, which was owned by his friend Johnny Garcia.

He also cast an absentee ballot for Kennedy, who lost California to Nixon by 35,000 votes in the 1960 election, a race that was too close to call until results from Illinois gave Kennedy the edge. (JFK was actually ahead in California for about a week until the absentee ballots were counted.) JFK lost to Nixon in then-heavily Republican Monterey County by a whopping 56-43 percent majority.

Image of the 1960 election debate between Kennedy and Nixon

Steinbeck’s ambitious search for America, which he acknowledged in Travels with Charley and in private letters was largely a failure, resumed around November 15. He drove on to Amarillo, Texas, where Elaine caught up with him for a Thanksgiving feast at a massive cattle ranch owed by the family of her ex-husband, the movie star Zachary Scott. From Texas, Steinbeck and Charley drove home alone to New York by way of New Orleans, where Steinbeck witnessed the ugly protests against the integration of the city’s public schools described so powerfully in Travels with Charley.

Image of the New Orleans desegregation protest described in Travels with Charley

He kept no expense records and took virtually no notes. His book Travels With Charley in Search of America, the fictionalized account of his trip and the people he met on it, came out in the summer of 1962. Published by Viking Press, it was a huge commercial and critical success. In late October it touched the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for a week and stayed on the Top 10 nonfiction list for more than a year.

For Dogging Steinbeck and my website Truth About Charley. I tried to create a definitive timeline of where Steinbeck was on each day of his trip. It wasn’t easy and it has some holes that probably never will be filled. It’s based on the unedited first draft of Travels with Charley; letters Steinbeck wrote from the road to his wife Elaine and others; biographies, newspaper articles, and interviews; and best-guesses. It’s as accurate as I could make it.

Image of Adlai Stevenson

The results of the 1960 election pleased Steinbeck. A lifelong partisan Democrat, he despised Richard Nixon, a fact he repeatedly made that clear in letters to his hero Adlai Stevenson in the summer of 1960 and in the first draft of Travels with Charley, before most of his political slights were deleted by Viking’s editors. In 1968, as Steinbeck’s health was getting worse, he had to endure Nixon’s political resurrection and watch him defeat Hubert Humphrey. But, as I say in Dogging Steinbeck, “Luckily, he died that year on Dec. 20, so he never had to witness his hated Tricky Dick being sworn in as president.”

Illustration showing where John Steinbeck was at various times during Travels with Charley by Stacey Innerst, courtesy Bill Steigerwald.

“Bill”: Monterey, California Short Story by Steve Hauk

Portrait image of Bill of Monterey, California by the artist CKline (Caroline)



Bill has swept back blond hair, lazy blue eyes, sucked in cheeks, a gaunt, leathery look from years of house painting. He spent decades balancing on ladders braced by collapsing gutters or rotting sideboard, but never fell far or broke a bone. Other than part-time bartending in a place called Segovia’s in Monterey, California, Bill’s retired now. He still drives the paint-smeared pickup truck he used in his work. Though he’s working less, he’s still gaunt.

Bill’s from Philadelphia and grew up hearing stories about an uncle he never met, Philly fighter Eddie Cool. Eddie squandered his talent, falling down drunk in the city’s gutters. He once said his father died a drunk, and he would, too. So for a lot of years Bill steered away from alcohol. He remembered meeting and getting to know the old Philly trainer Sam Solomon, and openly crying as Solomon described again and again the handsome Cool’s demise at the age of thirty-five due to careless living and drinking.

Still, Bill was naturally sociable so he took a drink now and then, and then a few more. After a stint in the Navy, he roamed the country, hoisting beers along the way. In New Mexico he decided he’d like to live in Alaska and packed up his pickup truck. When he hit the California coastline he turned north. When he came to Monterey he pulled over and watched the waves breaking on the shore. This gave him a kind of peace. He decided to put Alaska on hold.

Bill walked away from a hotel room for twenty-seven dollars a night, got one for seventeen, then a few days later found an affordable, thin-walled fisherman’s cottage just above Cannery Row. Rent included a chair, a cot, a black and white TV – he picked up a fridge at the dump. He found piecemeal labor jobs. He installed braces and boards on the sides of his pickup truck bed and made money hauling stuff. When someone asked him if could paint, he did that, too, and graduated from interiors to more dangerous exteriors.

At a pizza bar he met an older couple, Bruce and Jean, who had been friends – young protégés back then – of the late author John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Bruce, a painter, and Jean, a writer, liked a good time to dull some dark memories. Being with people they liked helped, so their house up on Huckleberry Hill was often wide open for guests. One day, not having seen him for a time, Bruce and Jean showed up at Bill’s cottage with a bottle of Chianti.

This surprised Bruce and Jean’s other friends. They said, “Bruce and Jean don’t visit you – you visit them. What’s going on?’’ Bruce told Bill, “Do you know why we like hanging out with you? You don’t treat us like old people.’’

Bill attributed that to his relationship with the Philly trainer Sam Solomon. Bill hadn’t treated Sam as old either, he loved him too much.

Bruce and Jean had seen a lot of life – violence in the valley’s agricultural fields, Steinbeck’s life threatened, and the much-loved Ricketts killed when his car stalled on the train tracks, standing by as his broken body was lifted onto a stretcher. They’d also seen artists and writers and poets fail, while they themselves had struggled to establish themselves; they did better than most though recognition was long in coming. For every local artistic success story, there were many more of failure, a few suicides sprinkled among them.

Through Bruce and Jean, Bill became a regular at Ricketts’ old laboratory on Cannery Row. A kind of men’s club had established itself of artists, cartoonists, judges, writers, professors, business types, all of a slightly raffish bent.

Hanging over them were the memories of Steinbeck and Ricketts, giving the place an exhilarating though sometimes haunted quality. In the good times, people swore you could get high just breathing the air, simply by stepping into the lab. The lab could also be unpleasantly aromatic. Rotting kelp and dead sea life would wash ashore on the rocks just below the concrete deck that extended out behind the lab. Still, that just added to the character of the place.

Eventually Bill left the board and batten cottage and rented a larger house in nearby Pacific Grove. It was a short walk to the shoreline, a middling one to the Row. When a friend lost his job, Bill rented him a room for almost nothing. When another separated from her husband, Bill rented her a room. And so on. Bill couldn’t say no, though granted he liked receiving rent – but, he told himself, it wasn’t much and included full kitchen privileges as long as people cleaned up after themselves.

The house at various times held seven or eight people, including a charming but luckless scholar in a frayed blue blazer living in the garage, made more comfortable by carpet remnants Bill gathered from painting jobs. Bill’s became a social center to rival Bruce and Jean’s.

One night the tenants and Bruce and Jean were sitting around Bill’s half watching the Academy Awards while sipping cocktails when Bill noticed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was winning all the awards but its author wasn’t on hand. Bill asked Bruce and Jean if, in the day, Steinbeck showed up when his books made into films were up for awards.

“That wouldn’t have been like John,’’ said Jean, and Bruce nodded.

Bill sipped his cocktail and pondered. He knew Ken Kesey lived in Springfield, Oregon. So though he realized it was a long shot, he turned down the television and called information. He not only got a number, when he dialed Kesey himself answered in his crystalline voice: “Ken here.’’

Surprised, Bill said, “Bill here.’’

“Bill who?’’

“Bill of Monterey.’’

After a pause, “Well – Bill of Monterey – what can I do for you?’’

Bill explained he’d heard Kesey had had a falling out with the film’s producers and guessed that’s why he wasn’t in Hollywood, and what did he think of what was going on so far?

“Well, I‘m in the backyard shed editing a magazine article, no TV, so I don’t know what’s going on down there. But since you ask me how I feel about it . . . have you ever suddenly remembered you have something important in your pocket, but when you reach in all you find is a hole big enough to match the growing pit in your stomach? That’s how I feel. Something important to me . . . part of me . . . is missing.’’

Bill felt tears coming to his eyes.

“Like after a shock treatment?’’

“Yeah, maybe so . . . .’’

“Or a lobotomy?’’

“You don’t feel anything after a lobotomy, Bill of Monterey – that’s why they do them.’’


When Bill got off the phone, he confused Kesey and shock treatments and lobotomies in his head with Sam Solomon and Uncle Eddie Cool lying in a Philly gutter – and wiped the tears from his eyes. Bruce and Jean comforted him. He was becoming like a son to them.

Portrait image of Bill, Ken Kesey, and Jean and Bruce Ariss by the artist CKline (Caroline)


Bill met a woman and fell in love and they had a daughter and the tenants had to go. When the marriage ended the tenants began returning and the daughter had many adults looking after her and getting in the way in the kitchen. There were only so many burners and pots and pans.

Cannery Row was eventually and predictably appropriated by developers. Work began on a sprawling luxury hotel project then was stalled by money problems. Cyclone fences couldn’t hide concrete pilings and rusting rebar. The lab guys didn’t mind eyesores from the past littering vacant lots – fish hoppers and caved-in boilers had character and echoes of Steinbeck and Ricketts – but contemporary pilings and rebar were another matter.

A restaurateur had the inspiration of hiding the fences and what was behind them with murals depicting Monterey life. With the city’s blessing, Bruce put out word anyone with the artistry and vigor to paint a vision of Monterey on sheets of plywood was welcome to try.

The city provided a hundred boards. Bruce coerced Bill into priming them on the lab’s deck, wisely hiring an attractive masseuse to keep Bill and the other volunteers – who delivered the primed plywood boards to artists and picked up the murals when completed – on the job. When a major earthquake struck on a fall afternoon, Bill tumbled off the masseuse’s table and some of the already installed murals collapsed. But they could be repaired and nobody on the Row was killed and the lab held together.

The mural project miraculously transitioned from an attempt to artistically cover up pilings and rebar into a symbol of the rebuilding spirit of mankind. Bruce was lionized. A walkway leading to the lab was named for him.

A year later Bruce and Jean’s house burned down. Bruce gathered himself for a final project – designing and constructing a new house for Jean. There was no shortage of volunteers to help. When the house was completed – a minor masterpiece of stone and arching wood beams – Bruce declined quickly.

On his deathbed Bruce said to Bill, “I love you – dance in the streets all night long.’’ He was prophetic. The city shut down Cannery Row traffic in his honor and people danced all night to the live music of Jake Stock and the Abalone Stompers, none longer than Bill.

Jean went on for another decade. She worried to friends that often when Bill called late at night to talk about the old times, he’d had too many cocktails. It tore at her heart. Bill wondered about this because when he visited it was usually Jean who brought out the Jack Daniels.

When someone young and smooth arrived from Los Angeles and talked an aging Jean out of important papers relating to life at the lab, Bill had to be dissuaded from traveling to Los Angeles and throttling the man. When Jean died, Bill regretted not having done it.

Portrait image of Carnnery Row by the artist CKline (Caroline)


Two men knocked on Bill’s door. They were wearing suits, loose ties and carried clipboards. They showed Bill identification. “We’re from the city. We’ve had complaints. Your tenants are living here illegally, have been for years. They have until four this afternoon to vacate the premises.’’

Bill worried most about the scholar in the frayed blue blazer in the garage. Over the next few weeks Bill found temporary shelter for most of his tenants. A few found housing on their own. A friend allowed the scholar to room with him across town. Bill’s daughter was already independently in her own place, so that was not a concern.

A week later Bill was evicted from the house. He became depressed, drank a little but not a lot. Memories of his uncle, Eddie Cool, and old Sam Solomon’s stories were always there to make him think hard. He would push it to the edge, but never cross a particular line he had unconsciously but firmly set in his head.

Even when Bruce and Jean had worried about him, he knew he would be okay. He would not die in some gutter like Eddie Cool. If he hadn’t learned abstinence or moderation, he had learned a kind of control.

One other thing he knew – he had to leave, he could no longer afford Monterey, the city’s rising cost of living. Philly was out. He cast about. He fondly remembered a dusty border town in New Mexico he had paused in decades earlier on his way to – he thought then – Alaska.

Portrait image of Bill of Monterey, California by the artist CKline (Caroline)

He made calls, he talked to people, he was told he could live cheaply in this town, which had changed little in the decades since. Through an agent he found for almost nothing a miner’s hut with paper-thin walls overlooking the desert. Like the sound of the breaking waves, he decided, the silence would bring him a kind of peace.

Illustrations by CKline (Caroline), who is happy to report that she is creatively pursuing multiple projects in the arts.

California’s Wild Edge: History, Poetry, and Art of Steinbeck’s California Coast

Cover image of California's Wild Edge, by Tom Killion with Gary Snyder

The Central California coast from Big Sur to Monterey Bay has become synonymous with John Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers, the iconic poet of the California coast who lived in Carmel from 1913 until his death in 1962 and influenced Steinbeck’s writing in the 1930s. In California’s Wild Edge: The Coast in Poetry, Prints, and History, the California artist Tom Killion reinterprets the landscape of Jeffers and Steinbeck’s California coast in image, poetry, and narrative uniquely suited to today’s ecology-minded audience. Influenced by the East Coast artist and author Rockwell Kent, a contemporary of Jeffers and Steinbeck, and by the art of Japan, a country that Steinbeck wrote about and visited, Killion has developed over a period of four decades a distinctive style of wood and linocut printmaking that perfectly serves the subject of his most recent book. Like Kent, he is a visionary artist with an eye for arresting image, lyrical text, and their marriage in beautiful books with popular appeal. In California’s Wild Edge, the Pulitzer Prize-winning California poet Gary Snyder—Killion’s mentor, friend, and collaborator—continues to be an essential source of inspiration, ideas, and information about the mystical topography and extraordinary ecology of the state celebrated in Killion’s art.

Image of Pt. Lobos, Carmel Bay, 2014, by Tom Killion

The Perspective from Point Reyes

Image of Tom KillionRockwell Kent’s work was inspired by the rugged terrain of Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine, where Kent lived from 1905 to 1910. Tom Killion has a similar relationship to Mount Tamalpais in California’s Marin County, where he grew up in the 1950s and 60s, and to Point Reyes, the isolated preserve on the Marin coast where he now lives and works. He became interested in book printing and poetry as a history major at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1970s. After graduation he traveled in Europe and Africa, returning to Santa Cruz to establish Quail Press before earning a PhD in African history at Stanford, the university Steinbeck attended but never finished. His first book, 28 Views of Mount Tamalpais, was published in 1975. Fortress Marin, his second, appeared in 1977, and The Coast of California: Point Reyes to Point Sur, his third, in 1979. During the 1980s he conducted historical research in Africa, administered a medical relief program in Sudan, traveled with nationalist rebels in Eritrea, and completed his fourth book, Walls: A Journey Across Three Continents (1990), which combines travel narrative with woodcut illustrations, as Rockwell Kent did in his books about wild, unpopulated places. In retrospect, Killion’s purpose as an emerging artist was clear early in his career: celebrating the human and natural ecology of people and places outside the mainstream of modern society, like Kent, an equally intrepid explorer.

Image of Big Sur Spring Sunset, 1990, by Tom Killion

Gary Snyder, Poet Laureate of Deep Ecology

Image of Gary SnyderKillion taught history at Bowdoin College in Maine from 1990 to 1994, traveled to Eritrea as a Fulbright scholar in 1994, and returned to California in 1995 to teach at San Francisco State University. His collaboration with the San Francisco Renaissance writer and environmental activist Gary Snyder, “the poet laureate of deep ecology,” resulted in three volumes of art and text devoted to California’s legendary landscape, all published by San Francisco’s Heyday Books: The High Sierra of California (2002), Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Print (2009), and California’s Wild Edge (2015).  Like John Steinbeck, Gary Snyder is a California native of Scots-Irish, German, and English ancestry with a worldwide reputation as an author and advocate on global issues. His progressive politics and activism, like Steinbeck’s, angered officials in Washington, D.C., and caused similar problems in his life. Like Steinbeck, he used his experience as a manual laborer in his early writing. Later he studied East Asian art and literature, lived and traveled in Japan, and became associated with the Beat movement centered in mid-century San Francisco. He received the 1975 Pulitzer Prize in poetry following the publication of Turtle Island, a book of poems and essays exploring humanity-in-nature from a holistic perspective similar to Steinbeck’s in Sea of Cortez. The spiritual dimension of environmentalism, East Asia, and the California coast and landscape informs his seven-decade career as a writer, one that bridges the generations of John Steinbeck and Tom Killion.

Image of Monterey Bay from Santa Cruz Pogonip, 2012, by Tom Killion

The California Coast from Big Sur to Cape Mendocino

Image of Point Reyes from McClure's Beach, 1979, by Tom KillionThe art of California’s Wild Edge, Killion and Snyder’s third collaboration, is breathtaking. Its text—a fusion of natural and human history, poems and journal entries by various writers, and personal memoir—constitutes a mini-course in California culture that delights and surprises at every turn. Before “Anglo-Californian” coastal poetry there was “the poetry of naming,” colonial Spain’s greatest contribution to California, and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, “the finest account of the coast ever written from the perspective of the sea.” The story of Big Sur, the most dramatic episode in the history of the California coast, is told through the life and writing of the colorful character Jaime de Angulo, and literary figures—including Robinson Jeffers, Jack London, and the poet George Sterling—attracted to Carmel, north of Big Sur, after the 1906 earthquake. Largely forgotten today, Sterling was born in Sag Harbor, New York—where Steinbeck later lived—and committed suicide by swallowing the cyanide pill he kept for the purpose, like Cathy in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, during a depression caused by his decline in fame and fortune in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, San Francisco serves as source, context, and symbol for much of Killion’s history of California coastal poetry, from the native peoples of the coast to Bret Harte and Robert Duncan, the “mystical poet and pioneer of gay civil rights” who, with Snyder and other San Francisco literary lights, created the city’s modern literary renaissance.

Image of Cape Mendocino, 2014, by Tom KillionBut personal memories, not literary history, comprise the heart of Killion’s narrative—of a grandmother who left lonely Eureka, California for San Francisco in 1906 and survived the earthquake; of hiking Mount Tamalpais as a boy and biking from his parents’ home in Mill Valley as far north as Eureka and as far south as Santa Cruz; of helping clean up the 1971 Golden Gate oil spill that sparked Marin’s successful anti-development movement; of attending college in Santa Cruz, the embodiment of California coast culture, north and south; of returning to Marin County to live and work near unspoiled Point Reyes, “which projects father into the sea from the main axis of the California coast than any other point.” The “redwood coast” from Big Sur north to Humboldt Bay dominates Killion’s story because, he says, it’s less populated than Southern California and more dramatic. It’s the same California coast that engaged John Steinbeck in his much of his writing. The original setting of his second novel, To a God Unknown, was Mendocino County, and the 1955 movie adaptation of East of Eden was filmed in Mendocino—a stand-in, as Killion notes, for Monterey. Steinbeck liked to say he could take or leave the mountains, but had to live near the sea—the setting for his first novel, Cup of Gold, and for The Winter of Our Discontent, his last. Though neither novel is about California, each one has the unforgettable feel of the California coast between Santa Cruz and Big Sur where Steinbeck spent his happiest years—a rich source of history, poetry, and art from pre-Spanish times to the present. California’s Wild Edge captures the subject splendidly.

Images from California’s Wild Edge ©Tom Killion 2015.