James Kent

About James Kent

James A. Kent is a consultant and writer about social ecology and John Steinbeck who was featured in the book Doc’s Lab: Myth & Legends of Cannery Row by the late Ed B. Larsh. His pioneering application of Steinbeck’s insights into social ecology includes work with the International Right of Way Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University.

John Steinbeck’s Gathering Places and This Year’s Presidential Campaign

Image of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in Iowa

If you follow presidential campaigns, as John Steinbeck did after writing Cannery Row, you’ve probably noticed that candidates like being photographed with regular folks in places where locals gather to meet, talk, and exchange ideas. Coffee shops are a prime example of the phenomenon. In my work with communities facing disruptive change, I seek out these “gathering places,” which exist everywhere—a habit resulting from my long reading of John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s life and writing are full of local gathering places, beginning with his Cannery Row fiction, set in California. They include the coffee shop on Long Island where he met with old timers when he lived in Sag Harbor, the setting for The Winter of Our Discontent, his last novel. As the recent photo of Hillary Clinton in Iowa shows, this year’s presidential campaign is being played out in informal gathering places where “winter” and “discontent” often seem synonymous.

Cover image of Ed Larsh's book about Doc's lab

My personal gathering-place journey began 25 years ago with the writing of Doc’s Lab: Myths and Legends of Cannery Row by the late Monterey resident and Cannery Row expert Ed Larsh, a member of the second-owner group that bought Doc’s lab after Steinbeck died. During the phase of research in which I was involved, I discovered a vibrant gathering place in Carmel, California, the town south of Monterey where John Steinbeck spent time at various stages in his California career. What I learned there helped me understand the social ecology of Steinbeck’s gathering places, knowledge that I have applied in my continuing work as a consultant to government and business clients seeking public support (like political candidates) for their plans and aspirations.

Image of Gus Arriola and Eldon Dedini

Gus Arriola and Eldon Dedini

The Pine: Gathering Place for Carmel, California’s Artists

Carmel, California has always had its share of artists, writers, and characters. Two of the most colorful—the syndicated cartoonist Gus Arriola (“Gordo”) and the New Yorker-Playboy cartoonist Eldon Dedini—were part of the Cannery Row circle that Ed Larsh and I needed to interview for Ed’s book about Cannery Row. In those days, if you wanted to meet Gus or Eldon you didn’t make arrangements by phone. Instead, you ventured to the Carmel post office, a gathering place with a storied past, and to The Pine, a coffee shop located a short walk away.

If you wanted to meet Gus or Eldon, you didn’t make arrangements by phone. Instead, you ventured to the Carmel post office, a gathering place with a storied past, and to The Pine, a coffee shop located a short walk away.

Early in the history of Carmel—a bohemian community almost from the beginning—residents decided that houses wouldn’t have street numbers and that mail would be picked up rather than delivered. The Carmel post office became the village center, and a famous gathering place was born. Eldon and Gus would walk to the post office to get their mail at noon, then head for the coffee shop attached to Il Fornaio Restaurant, not far from the nearby Pine Inn. I would show up at the post office at noon, catch Eldon and Gus, and go have coffee where they and their friends gathered—an efficient system that saved the time and trouble of trying to make an appointment, with the added benefit of introducing me to other locals who became part of my network in Carmel.

Early in the history of Carmel, residents decided that houses wouldn’t have street numbers and that mail would be picked up rather than delivered.

Except for a smattering of Carmelites who weren’t artists and tourists staying at the Pine Inn, the coffee shop was sparsely occupied before noon. Starting at 12:00 the pace accelerated, as artists and writers arrived and the tables filled.  An outsider, I wondered why people gathered for morning coffee so late in the day; like candidates in presidential campaigns, I usually I go for coffee early in the morning to catch locals I need to meet in new places during the course of my work. Eldon’s answer to my question about Carmel, California’s unusual noontime coffee habit made sense. “It’s foggy and cool here in the mornings,” he explained, “so we artists work in our studios first thing. Once the sun burns off the fog, it’s time to go and get the mail and catch up on the news.”  If I wanted to see writers and artists, the best time to go for coffee was 1:00 p.m.

Except for a smattering of Carmelites who weren’t artists and tourists from the Pine Inn, the coffee shop was sparsely occupied before noon. Starting at 12:00 the pace accelerated, as artists and writers arrived and the tables filled.

There is a family-like routine in such places, and Carmel was no exception. Special people had special seats at The Pine, which can be entered from the bar area of Il Fornaio or through a side door from one of Carmel’s charming hidden walkways. R. Wright Campbell, author of the book Where Pigeons Go to Die (made into a movie by Michael Landon), occupied a position along the wall right next to the main entrance. It was his seat at The Pines until he passed away in 2000. Today, an autographed photo of Campbell hangs on the wall above his table, with a plaque bearing his name. Like families, gathering places often honor members with such signs of affection after they’re gone.

There is a family-like routine in such places, and Carmel was no exception. Special people had special seats at The Pine, which can be entered from the bar or through a side door from one of Carmel’s charming hidden walkways.

Most days, Wright would hold court for a couple of hours starting at 1:00. Other writers would join in, too, talking about their projects, offering words of encouragement, and reflecting sympathetically on the problems of publication in a way familiar to John Steinbeck. The advice given and received in this informal gathering of writers would have cost money if provided in a more formal setting, and it came with a valuable support system. Like similar places in Steinbeck’s fiction—notably Doc’s lab in Cannery Row—there was no agenda, no schedule, and no pecking order beyond the respect shown to longevity on the scene. People dropped in, hung out, and interacted, plotting and strategizing together. It was democratic, organic, and free.

Like similar places in Steinbeck’s fiction—notably Doc’s lab in Cannery Row—there was no agenda, no schedule, and no pecking order beyond the respect shown to longevity on the scene.

But there’s a process for accepting new arrivals into the informal networks of most gathering places, and one was observed at The Pine, where newcomers sat at a large round table in the middle of the room—a neutral area—rather than running the risk of taking a regular’s seat at one of the booths. From the chair I occupied at the middle table I could watch and hear the group gathered around Wright Campbell. From time to time I would offer a respectful comment from the edge of the action; after several visits, they made room for me at one of the tables assigned by custom to regulars. Eldon and Gus had vouched for me, and I was in. As Eldon put it, I had become “part of the myth.”

Image of Judith Deim's portrait of John Steinbeck

Presidential Campaigns Miss the Point of Gathering Places

The gathering places described in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row fiction—like the coffee shop he frequented in Sag Harbor, New York, and the one I discovered in Carmel, California— represent epicenters of an informal culture around which people learn from, care for, and communicate with one another spontaneously. They do so without rehearsal, regimentation, or self-consciousness, developing mutual trust over time. Candidates dropping in along the presidential campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire may be tolerated at coffee shops, but they never really belong because their presence violates this principle. John Steinbeck understood the inviolable nature of gathering places from experience. I learned much from reading his Cannery Row fiction, and from my own experience in Carmel, California. Today, I have Steinbeck to thank for the core concept that continues to inform my work in communities throughout America: the enduring social ecology of gathering places like Doc’s lab on Cannery Row, the Carmel, California post office, and the coffee shop known as The Pine.

(To learn more about how gathering places can be used to solve major community issues, read about an example in Colorado.)

Was John Steinbeck the First Social Ecologist?

Image of jackrabbits fleeing Dust Bowl conditions described in The Grapes of WrathIn The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck explores social ecology—how individuals interact with each other within their natural, adopted, and built environments—in the crisis created by the Great Depression Dust Bowl. Social ecology recognizes the holistic connection of all elements and influences and how each affects the other in a social complex. Reading The Moon Is Down, Cannery Row, and The Grapes of Wrath helped me discover how the principles of social ecology can be applied in practice.

Steinbeck’s depiction of the Dust Bowl and its impact in The Grapes of Wrath clearly demonstrates his familiarity with the ecological disaster resulting from the failure to shift to dry land farming methods before drought conditions overtook large areas of America’s heartland in the 1930s. What is less apparent is the other side of the story, the social ecology disaster that occurred when Dust Bowl migrants tried to find paying work and a new home in California. In The Grapes of Wrath the author adroitly brings together both kinds of environment, social and physical.

The Phalanx in The Moon Is Down and on Cannery Row

My first exposure to John Steinbeck’s understanding of social ecology occurred when I read The Moon Is Down, the play-novelette he wrote for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942. This work—which Steinbeck is believed to have based on the Nazi occupation of Norway—exerted significant influence on the development of my thinking about social ecology. Steinbeck’s story concerns the resistance by the residents of an unnamed coastal village in northern Europe to foreign-army occupiers who invade the town in order to seize its harbor and coal mine.

Their resistance through non-compliance rests on the concept of the informal network, an element of the broader idea behind Steinbeck’s phalanx theory. The phalanx encompasses the entire environment and includes driving forces, unconscious influences, and factors that are physical, social, and cultural; informal networks are the means by which information is disseminated, issues are resolved, and environments are managed in a particular community without using formal systems.

The phalanx encompasses the entire environment and includes driving forces, unconscious influences, and factors that are physical, social, and cultural.

A later example of the function of an informal network within a specific group occurs in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row reprise Sweet Thursday, where Doc’s Western Biological Laboratories, Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower Grocery, and Ida’s Bear Flag bordello are “bound by gossamer threads of steel to all the others—hurt one, and you aroused vengeance in all. Let sadness come to one, and all wept.” Here Steinbeck’s dramatization of human interconnectedness represents much more than the dynamics between these network nodes or the individuals who comprise them. Rather, it depicts a powerful unconscious influence on the life of the community that functions as its own entity—the phalanx.

(Interestingly, the writer Malcolm Gladwell alludes to the same concept in his 2008 book about super-achievers titled Outliers: The Story of Success.  In his introductory chapter Gladwell discusses the people of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a community settled in the late 19th century by immigrants from the town of Roseto Valfortore in Italy. Noting a study 50 years earlier of the low incidence of illness in Roseto—where residents had fewer heart problems than those in towns nearby, no suicides, no alcoholism or drug addiction, little crime, and no one on welfare—Gladwell notes that ”these people were dying of old age, that is it.” When Dr. Stewart Wolfe, the author of this research, studied the health of the people of Roseto, he concluded that the “secret of Roseto was not diet or exercise or genes or location. It was Roseto itself.”)

How Owning The Moon Is Down Became a Capital Crime

In The Moon Is Down John Steinbeck describes his fictional town’s informal network system, the characters in that system and the roles they play, and the bewilderment and frustration of the invaders with the villagers, who don’t behave as expected. The following passage reflects the dramatic difference between a top-down authoritarian type in a position of power, Colonel Lanser, and the informal horizontal system represented by Mayor Orden, a community that is supposedly powerless:

Lanser: “Please co-operate with us for the good of all.” When Mayor Orden made no reply, “For the good of all,” Lanser repeated. “Will you?”
Orden:  “This is a little town. I don’t know. The people are confused and so am I.”
Lanser: “But will you try to co-operate?”
Orden shook his head. “I don’t know. When the town makes up its mind what it wants to do, I’ll probably do that.”
Lanser: “But you are the authority.”
Orden smiled. “You won’t believe this, but it is true: authority is in the town. I don’t know how or why, but it is so. This means we cannot act as quickly as you can, but when a direction is set, we all act together.  I am confused.  I don’t know yet.”
Lanser said wearily, “I hope we can get along together. It will be so much easier for everyone. I hope we can trust you. I don’t like to think of the means the military will take to keep order.”
Orden was silent.
“I hope we can trust you,” Lanser repeated.
Orden put his finger in his ear and wiggled his hand. “I don’t know,” he said.

Steinbeck’s statement about the “authority being in the town” is profound. To Lanser’s amazement, power resides not in a person but in the phalanx. Without analyzing its nature or origin, Orden articulates the insight that something beyond himself exists in the community that would make the silent decision to resist rather than capitulate. Steinbeck’s fictional representation of the power of the phalanx had political consequences. European translations of The Moon Is Down ultimately became operational handbooks for French, Italian, Norwegian, and other resistance movements during World War II. The Germans understood the book’s power. Possessing a copy was punishable by death.

“Threads of Steel” in Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath

The use of such informal networks—“the gossamer threads of steel”—as a means of empowerment and survival occurs in other works by Steinbeck as well. As noted, Mack and the Boys in Cannery Row provide a good example. So do Danny and his paisanos in Tortilla Flat. In The Grapes of Wrath the power of informal networks is described by Tom Joad’s speech about injustice in the work camps and the need to build a movement—a phalanx—that is as invisible to the formal powers that control the field workers as that of the occupied villagers in The Moon Is Down. Tom expresses this promise to his mother:

“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

Here Steinbeck defines what we now call a community organizer, a person using informal networks to mobilize people in the worlds of social welfare, social justice, political empowerment, and institutional change. But Tom is also referring to a power beyond himself. Even when he could no longer “be around,” his influence would continue in the power of the phalanx of which he had become a part.

Migrant Camp and Cannery Row “Gathering Places”

As far as I am concerned, John Steinbeck was our first social ecologist. In addition to understanding the power of informal networks, the writer realized that an informal network needs somewhere to call home—and that home is found in “gathering places” like Danny’s house in Tortilla Flat and Doc’s lab in Cannery Row, where Mack and the Boys drop in and out at will, reinforcing the importance of having a place where everyone is equal, humor presides, information changes hands, and issues are discussed and resolved in a safe setting. Steinbeck’s relationship with the real-life marine biologist Ed Ricketts, with whom the writer learned to view the world through the lens of ecology, provided the inspiration for Mack and the vocabulary for the writer to translate the principles of marine ecology into the framework of social ecology—but that is a story for another time.

For now it is important to remember that in writing The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck knew he had to learn through observation and experience about the challenges faced by Dust Bowl migrants, how they dealt with these issues, and how they related to the new environment in which found themselves. In other words, Steinbeck needed a “discovery process”—yet  another aspect of social ecology.

In addition to understanding the power of informal networks, the writer realized that an informal network needs somewhere to call home.

The writer’s mentor and guide in this process was Tom Collins, the administrator of Weedpatch, the model migrant camp built by the Farm Security Administration to which Steinbeck gained access. Here and in other outposts where migrants clustered, Steinbeck was seeking more than setting and background for his story; he became intimately involved in understanding the social organization of the people he was writing about. In the process he discovered their survival mechanisms: how they communicated, took care of one other, and managed conflicts internally, even as they appeared powerless to the outside world—like the townspeople in The Moon Is Down.

Steinbeck transforms this knowledge into a fictional migrant labor camp managed by the non-fictional Federal Resettlement Administration. This imaginary camp provides readers of The Grapes of Wrath with an opportunity to observe the migrants’ progression from the social-ecological chaos perpetrated by the Associated Farmers to the creation of social harmony, however fleeting, for families like the Joads. The camp becomes a haven where the Joads and their fellow migrants can predict, participate in, and control their environment in a way that offers stability and protection, however temporary.

Visiting Cannery Row and Applying Social Ecology

In classic “us-versus-them” tradition, Steinbeck uses the camp boundary as a way to illustrate the concept of internal control versus external threat.  Inside the camp the migrants are empowered to make decisions about how it is operated. As demonstrated when outside goons try to create a disturbance at a dance, the camp’s residents understand the importance of maintaining and protecting the camp’s boundary. Outside the perimeter they are threatened, exploited, and without power. Inside they exercise control. Preventing or absorbing boundary intrusion is essential to maintaining predictability and control of one’s environment.

Image of Joan Rensick, James Kent, and Kevin visiting Cannery RowAs with The Moon Is Down, reading The Grapes of Wrath nudged me down the path of social ecology, leading me to discover the role of “gathering places” and the importance of creating human geographic boundaries. Both concepts reflect the human need to feel secure; the recognition of how boundaries function, where they are placed, and what they mean in everyday life has become a key element of my writing about social ecology and my work as a consultant. The connection has also occasioned several visits to the current Cannery Row. (On one trip, shown here, I was photographed standing between Joan Resnick and Kevin Preister, director of the Center for Ecology and Public Policy.)

As noted, Steinbeck used the concepts of phalanx, “gathering place,” and boundaries—physical, social, and psychological—in books from Tortilla Flat to Sweet Thursday, a space of 20 years. In each he examines and employs the most basic elements of the human condition to make great stories from which I built the framework of a social ecology theory of my own: the human desire to gather together, to communicate, to feel safe, to care for one another, and to be empowered by using one’s environment creatively. This alone is sufficient cause for me to celebrate the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath.