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?