Archives for December 2017

An Essential History of John Steinbeck’s American West

Image of "Boomtown," 1928 painting by Thomas Hart Benton

Like Jackson Benson’s 1980 biography of John Steinbeck, the essential book on Steinbeck’s storied life, David Wrobel’s new history of the American West in Steinbeck’s formative period is an essential read for fans of the writer whose fiction brought the region to life for audiences everywhere. Designed for use by students and published by Cambridge University Press as part of the Cambridge Essential Histories series, America’s West: A History, 1890-1950 is compact, comprehensive, and compelling, organizing facts and creating patterns the way Steinbeck did in The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, historical novels written in part to educate readers about movements of people, power, and ideas that made the American West first a beacon, then a bellwether, and finally a warning. Like Steinbeck, Wrobel presents the region’s history as a morality play we’re invited to watch about the sins of exceptionalism, expansionism, and economic domination.

Like John Steinbeck, David Wrobel presents the region’s history as a morality play we’re invited to watch about the sins of exceptionalism, expansionism, and economic domination.

Steinbeck’s history in this regard began before he was born. The economic cycles and social problems of of the 1890s affected his young parents, who settled in Salinas, where he was born in 1902, the year Teddy Roosevelt became president. The remedies for Gilded Age corruption put in place under Roosevelt, a New York blue blood who reinvented himself as a Dakota cowboy, brought good government to Washington and new attention to the West. Places like Salinas prospered, but they typified the paradox of progressive politics in America between the two Roosevelts. The same movement that broke up corporate monopolies, created national parks, and enfranchised women also imposed draconian social controls, including Prohibition, union-busting, and mass deportation. The Red Peril paranoia that became federal policy following World War I eventually led Salinas to experiment with what Steinbeck called fascism. He tore up the novel he wrote about the militarization of local government during a strike by lettuce workers, but by 1935 he had discovered his subject and set his course, reporting on migrant labor for the San Francisco News and writing The Grapes of Wrath, the protest novel that put into words the suffering and shame shown in Dorothea Lange’s photographs of migrant mothers and children.

Steinbeck tore up the novel he wrote about the militarization of local government during a strike by lettuce workers, but by 1935 he had discovered his subject and set his course.

Roosevelt progressivism at both ends of the period covered in America’s West gave Steinbeck the ideals, and events in California the ideas, expressed in The Grapes of Wrath. His upbringing in Salinas gave him the sense of empathy for people, animals, and nature that sympathetic readers recognize and respond to on first reading. When examining the beliefs and behaviors at work in the background, however, it’s also helpful to understand the sense of detachment from events and emotions he had to develop, with changes of subject and venue, in the novel’s aftermath. When he wrote about marine biology or war or the history behind the legend of King Arthur, he had the benefit of distance from his personal past and perceptions. Europeans since De Tocqueville have written about the United States with the same outsider’s advantage that Steinbeck enjoyed in England and David Wrobel has in writing about Steinbeck’s America.

Europeans since De Tocqueville have written about the United States with the same outsider’s advantage that Steinbeck enjoyed in England and David Wrobel has in writing about Steinbeck’s America.

Image of David WrobelA native of London with a yen for America, David Wrobel brought his coals to Newcastle by enrolling at Ohio University, where he immersed in Steinbeck under Robert DeMott and received his PhD in American studies. His understanding of the history behind The Grapes of Wrath and the intellectual currents of Steinbeck’s time has benefited immensely from his tenure at Oklahoma University, where he teaches, researches, and writes about Steinbeck and the American West and was recently appointed acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Oklahoma and California are his coordinates and Steinbeck is his moral compass in the case he makes for America’s West to 1950, the first of two volumes planned by Cambridge University Press. He has the English virtue of  readability, along with Steinbeck’s eye for victims and losers, and Cambridge University Press designed the book to last, with just enough charts and graphs and not too many footnotes, placed at the bottom of the page where they belong. Its value is enhanced for followers of Steinbeck’s thinking by the author’s focus on the hidden costs of the West’s ascendancy and the line leading from the triumphalism of the past to the politics of the present. Five stars.

Cover image from America's West: A History, 1890-1950The cover illustration is Thomas Hart Benton’s 1928 Western Regionalist painting “Boomtown.” Of special interest is the section on the Great Depression and the demographic shifts, racial divisions, and labor unrest dramatized in The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and In Dubious Battle. It recalls the contributions made to the cause by Steinbeck’s co-workers Dorothea Lange, Carey McWilliams, and Pare Lorentz and explains the epic campaign of Upton Sinclair for governor in 1934 against the same forces that later waged war on The Grapes of Wrath. The author’s essay on California social protest literature, Steinbeck, Sinclair, McWilliams, and the WPA Guide to California appears in American Literature in Transition: The 1930s, an anthology edited by Ichiro Takayoshi.

Steinbeck Review Invites Papers from Non-Specialists

Image of John Steinbeck at home in Pacific Grove

The new issue of Steinbeck Review, the biannual journal focusing on John Steinbeck’s life and work, includes literary criticism, book reviews, and a change in editorial policy of interest to fans of Steinbeck’s fiction. A Penn State University Press publication, Steinbeck Review was limited in the past to literary criticism, history, and news about Steinbeck from and for teachers and scholars. Acknowledging events in Charlottesville and Alabama and online writing about Steinbeck, the editors invite contributions from non-specialists applying their understanding of Steinbeck to political developments, constitutional rights, and social justice, as well as personal essays about Steinbeck’s impact outside the classroom. Articles of literary criticism in the current issue address formal and thematic aspects of Steinbeck’s writing in To a God Unknown, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Winter of Our Discontent. Literary history and biography are represented by a piece on Steinbeck’s screenplay for the 1944 movie Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and a 2001 letter from Steinbeck’s son Thom about his father’s relationship with the portrait artist William Ward Beecher. Book reviews include a summary and opinion on Linda Wagner-Martin’s 2017 biography, John Steinbeck: A Literary Life.

Text of Tribute to Geert Mak At Award Event in Holland

Image of Bill Steigerwald, Geert Mak, and Queen Maxima at award event in Holland

Bill Steigerwald (at left), the American journalist who wrote Dogging Steinbeck “to expose the truth about Travels with Charley,” accepted the invitation to address an audience in Holland that included Queen Máxima (right) when his friend Geert Mak (center), the Dutch journalist who wrote In America—Travels with John Steinbeck, was awarded the 2017 Prince Bernhard Cultural Prize. “My appearance at the ceremony for Geert Mak on November 27 in Amsterdam was a total surprise to Mak,” says Steigerwald. “It was like the old time TV show This is Your Life.” The text of the tribute to a friendship that started with Steinbeck is published here for the first time.—Ed.

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me.

Though Geert and I were born an ocean apart, and though he’s much smarter and far more accomplished than I’ll ever be, we have some things in common.

We’re both 70-year-old Baby Boomers.

We both started out life with lots of hair.

We both grew up to be journalists and writers.

And we both specialized in the kind of drive-by journalism that he used so masterfully in 2010 for what became his American history book, In America—Travels With John Steinbeck.

In America is a great mix of big-picture history, on-the-road journalism and progressive opinion. The Guardian newspaper called it “witty, personable and knowing”—and it is.

But perhaps the most impressive thing about it is that it reads like it was written by a lifelong  American, not a longtime citizen of Europe.

As a way to show how big America is and how much it had changed in the previous 50 years, Geert came up with idea to follow the same route around the United States that John Steinbeck took in 1960 for his famous road book Travels with Charley.

It was a really good idea—and I had thought of it too.

That’s why early on the morning of September 23, 2010, exactly 50 years after Steinbeck left on his iconic 10,000-mile road trip, Geert and I each drove to the great novelist’s former house on Long Island, New York.

We didn’t bump into each other at Steinbeck’s place.

I left to catch the ferry to New England an hour or so before Geert and his wife Mietsie arrived in their rented Jeep Liberty.

For nearly two months, from Maine to California and down to New Orleans, the Maks and I traveled to the same places and even interviewed some of the same people.

For the record, as we journalists like to say, the Maks traveled like adults.  They stayed in motels and drove responsibly.

I drove alone, as fast as a runaway teenager, often sleeping in my Toyota RAV4 in Walmart parking lots or beside the highway.

We never did meet on the road, but before Geert got out of New England he discovered that I was a day or so ahead of him.

He also saw I was posting a daily road blog on a newspaper website and slowly proving my case that Steinbeck had fictionalized large chunks of what was supposed to be a nonfiction travel book.

Geert, who already had his own suspicions about Steinbeck stretching the truth, realized he had to include me in his book.

Two years later, after a Dutch reader alerted me that my name was in In America, Geert and I were exchanging friendly transatlantic emails–in English.

We compared notes on Steinbeck and the road trip we shared.

I confessed to him that I was a lifelong libertarian, someone he’d call “a radical individualist.”

He confessed to me that he was “a typical latte-drinking, Citroën-driving, half-socialist European journalist and historian.”

Someday, we promised each other, we would meet in Holland over a Heineken and have a friendly debate about the two very different 2010 Americas we found along the same stretch of highway.
I never made it to Amsterdam–until now.

But in May of 2014, when Geert was in New York at a writers conference, he jumped on a plane and flew to Pittsburgh for three hours just to meet me and buy me lunch.

His visit was both an honor and a special treat.

He was even nicer in person than he was online. In addition to being a renowned European journalist and historian, he was clearly a great guy, a regular guy.

That’s a high compliment from an American, but I don’t think that’s news to many people in the Netherlands.

Hello, Geert. I’m a little bit over-dressed. But I’m here to buy you that beer.

Opposites Attract in Pursuit Of Travels with Charley

Composite cover image of Dogging Steinbeck and In America

John Steinbeck delivered the speech of his life after taking the road trip described in Travels with Charley in Search of America, the last book he wrote before being awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. Fifty-five years following Steinbeck’s acceptance speech in Stockholm, a pair of journalists who retraced Steinbeck’s route across America, and wrote separate books simultaneously, came together at a literary award event in Amsterdam attended by Queen Máxima of the Netherlands and broadcast on Dutch TV. Like their books, Bill Steigerwald and Geert Mak differ in background, language, and style. But they agree on issues, including Steinbeck’s accuracy in Travels with Charley, and their accord led to friendship. Like Steinbeck’s relationship with Bo Beskow, the Swedish artist who helped arrange Steinbeck’s speech in Stockholm, it flourished despite distance, and it led to Steigerwald’s speech in Amsterdam on November 27, when Mak was awarded the 2017 Prince Bernhard Cultural Prize for lifetime achievement as Queen Máxima looked on.

Image of Bill Steigerwald, Geert Mak, and Queen Máxima

Bill Steigerwald, Geert Mak, and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands

Writers Celebrate Meeting on John Steinbeck’s Trail

Bill Steigerwald, the investigative reporter from Pittsburgh who wrote Dogging Steinbeck “to expose the truth about Travels with Charley and celebrate Flyover America and its people six years before they elected Donald Trump,” is an American journalist with a rough edge and an independent streak. Geert Mak, the author of In America: Travels with John Steinbeck and the recipient of the award, is a Dutch journalist with European polish who writes popular history books that have drawn criticism from academics in Europe. When scholars in America downplayed or took offense at Steigerwald’s charges in Dogging Steinbeck, Mak emailed “to express my personal admiration for the job you did [and] to tell you that you became a kind of journalistic hero in my travel-story about Steinbeck.” He cited Steigerwald in the book he wrote to help readers in Europe, where John Steinbeck became a hero for writing The Moon Is Down, better understand contemporary America, where recent events have made the social criticism in Steinbeck’s American novels more relevant than ever. Mak inscribed a copy of his book to Steigerwald when it was translated from Dutch into English.

Image of Bill Steigerwald and Geert Mak's book about John Steinbeck and America

Bill Steigerwald and Geert Mak’s Book about John Steinbeck and America

Colleague Writes Postscript to Speech in Amsterdam

The speech Bill Steigerwald gave about Geert Mak was short, like John Steinbeck’s address in Stockholm, and it left time to socialize, as Steinbeck did with Bo Beskow in 1962. The irony in this description of meeting Mak in America and paying tribute in Amsterdam sounds a bit like Steinbeck, who favored satire when he reported from Europe after World War II:

Geert Mak is my age, 70, and a masterful practitioner of drive-by journalism. In America sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in Holland, as most of his history books do. It was reviewed favorably by the Guardian newspaper, which liked both Mak’s fine writing and his left wing Euro-politics.

Mak, who calls himself a proud “half-socialist,” has visited America many times and lived for a while in Berkeley. In the fall of 2010, when he and his wife were a week into their 10,000-mile Charley road trip, in New Hampshire, he learned that I was traveling a day or two ahead of him.

Mak also soon learned I was posting a daily road blog to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and slowly revealing my charges that Steinbeck had fictionalized significant parts of Charley—which for half a century had been marketed, reviewed and taught as a nonfiction book.

Our relationship flourished online and two months ago I was suddenly asked to be a surprise guest at an elaborately produced and televised ceremony in Amsterdam honoring Mak for his impressive lifetime work. He is a household name in Holland and because he praised me in In America the people there were led to think I’m an important American journalist/author. As I wrote in an email to friends from Amsterdam after my speech, “I represented our great country with as little dignity as possible and I am proud to say that in my four-minute address—my world debut as a public speaker—I did not once bash America or use the T-word, though of course our dear leader was the embarrassing elephant in the room/country/continent.”

Mak’s prize was a crazy-looking necklace and 150,000 euros, but I was told by half a dozen people that the big hug he gave me during the event after my speech was the emotional high point of the show, which to a supposed hard boiled ex-newspaperman like me is a hilarious thought.

The American mode of mocking humor started with Mark Twain, the American drive-by journalist who invented “creative nonfiction,” and the idea of Innocents Abroad, when he wrote about his first trip to Europe. Thanks to Bill Steigerwald’s dogged pursuit, Travels with Charley has now been reassigned to the in-between category pioneered by Mark Twain 150 years ago. Thanks to Steigerwald’s long distance friendship with Geert Mak, Steinbeck was on stage again at another award event in Europe held to honor the achievements of a popular writer with mixed feelings about America.

Mission Art by Nancy Hauk Mirrors Steinbeck’s History

Image of Mission San Juan Bautista painting by Nancy Hauk

An exhibition of art in the California mission town of San Juan Bautista by the late Nancy Hauk, whose home in Pacific Grove was once the residence of the man Steinbeck mythologized as “Doc,” will have special meaning for readers curious about the history behind Steinbeck’s California fiction. Thirty years before Steinbeck was born to the west, in Salinas, voters in eastern Monterey County, including the Mexican Californians of San Juan Bautista and Yankee settlers in Hollister, were promised their own county if Salinas became the seat of Monterey County instead of Monterey, the mission town that was California’s first capital. One outcome of this political decision was the emotional geography that came to define Steinbeck’s social sympathies and sense of place. Salinas boomed, Monterey languished, and in 1874 the County of San Benito was born, named for the river the Spanish called after St. Benedict when they built the mission they named for John the Baptist. Hollister, the nearby town where Steinbeck’s father’s family farmed and raised five sons, became San Benito’s county seat.

Image of Nancy HaukSteinbeck’s mother’s family lived in Salinas before the county split, and she returned to live there with her husband in 1900. He became Monterey County treasurer following a political scandal. She became the kind of local activist who took sides on civic issues like the vote of 1874. Their son’s feelings about Salinas ran in the opposite direction and eventually became material for his writing. The family’s cottage in Pacific Grove was a refuge from Salinas when Steinbeck needed one, and the Hauk house where “Doc” Ricketts once lived is nearby. So is the Monterey lab that attracted artists, misfits, and other characters celebrated by Steinbeck in his Cannery Row fiction. The conflict between Salinas and Monterey epitomized in the San Benito vote 50 years earlier was emblematic of a deeper division explored in East of Eden, the book Steinbeck wrote for his sons. Steinbeck’s art reflected his sympathies in this fight and caused controversy. Nancy Hauk’s art reminds us of the history behind the fiction.

“Paintings of the California Missions,” an exhibition of work by Nancy Hauk (in photo), includes the Mission San Juan Bautista image shown here. It opens in San Juan Bautista on Sunday, December 17 and runs through March 2018.

Women in John Steinbeck’s Life on Display in San Jose

Image of John Steinbeck quotation about women

Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Cathy/Kate in East of Eden. Elisa Allen in “The Chrysanthemums.” Such women from John Steinbeck’s fiction are unforgettable. So, on examination, are the women in Steinbeck’s life, as this quotation suggests. Steinbeck’s mother Olive Hamilton and first wife, Carol Henning, were both from San Jose, California, and San Jose State University is celebrating each (and the two wives who followed) in a special exhibit of documents and photographs on the 5th floor of the MLK Library, located on the San Jose State University campus, through January 20, 2018.

Image of exhibit on John Steinbeck's women at San Jose State University

MLK Library Exhibit through January 20

To paraphrase the man who bragged about failing his way to success in marrying for the third time, the success of John Steinbeck’s marriage to Elaine Scott, from 1950 until his death in 1968, was possible only because the strong willed mother and wives who preceded her prepared him for their partnership. Some say he married his mother. Steinbeck doubted Freud and disliked psychoanalysis, but he’d be happy to see the women in his life get the credit they deserve for the roles of educator (Olive), editor (Carol), and manager (Elaine) without which his writing wouldn’t be so quotable.

The exhibition may move next to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, where the theme of the 2018 Steinbeck Festival (and the inspiration for the MLK Library show) is “The Women of Steinbeck’s World.” The May 4-6, 2018 festival will be held at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, where John Steinbeck and his sister Mary studied biology when they were students at Stanford University. Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English at San Jose State University and director of the National Steinbeck Center, is the author of Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage,





Canadian Of Mice and Men Clowns with John Steinbeck

Image of Morro and Jasp's Redo of Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men as feminist farce from a Canadian point of view? The November 10, 2017 Winnipeg, Canada Free Press review of Of Mice and Men and Morro and Jasp, the restaging of John Steinbeck’s novella-play by Canadian clown-duo Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee, says the idea started in 2012, when the Canadian government reduced cultural spending and the pair got busy. In the show-within-a-show, “the clown sisters are enduring hard times due to cutbacks in arts funding” and hit on Steinbeck’s story as a vehicle for self-survival and self-expression. Morro, the Lenny sister, “hasn’t read all the way to the end and gamely proceeds without a grasp of what’s in store for her character,” and Curly’s wife is represented as a sex doll, “[layering] a feminist sensibility on the masculine-centred story.” Would John Steinbeck appreciate the purposeful appropriation? It probably helps to be Canadian, though the Winnipeg, Canada review admits the acting and humor are “a hit-and-miss proposition.”