About William Ray

William Ray is a Steinbeck scholar living in Santa Clara, California. He received his PhD in English from the University of North Carolina.

Curing Verbal Tic Disorder On MSNBC’s Evening News

Image of Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, and Chris Matthews

Last week I channeled my inner English teacher by urging greater attention to grammar in blog posts about John Steinbeck. As with Steinbeck, however, I had issues with my high school English teacher. Like Mrs. Capp, the Salinas High teacher who underestimated Steinbeck’s need for praise, a teacher named Margaret Garrett used negative attention against adolescent error at Page High School in Greensboro, N.C. Once a month in our senior English class each of us had to give a short speech without notes, facing the class and Mrs. Garrett’s gorgon gaze. Filler words—I mean, like . . . umm, you know—were sharply received. Uh . . . kind of, sort of, in any event—mumbling, cliché, butchered syntax produced a steep frown, and the noisy clap! clap! of Mrs. Garrett’s hard, red hands. The technique she used to cure teenage verbal tic-disorder was practiced and perfected and frightening. In my case it was effective, engendering a hypersensitivity to sloppy speech that makes the talking heads on MSNBC, my preferred purveyor of cable news, increasingly hard to watch and hear.

Composite image of Chris HayesCompare the slow legato of John Steinbeck’s archived radio voice with the rapid staccato of Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Hayes, who may be the most extreme example of stop-start arrhythmia on mainstream cable news. Close your eyes and count the filler words, clichés, and redundancies uttered by hosts and guests in an average on-air minute: I mean, you know, sort of, kind of, like . . . um, take a listen, tweet out, frame out, report out, break down, knock down, at the end of the day, now look . . . . Try to diagram the sentence that begins with this typical guest response: “Yeah, Chris, you’re absolutely right, yeah, but look [or take a listen to] . . . .” Imagine what John Steinbeck—a political sophisticate who thought bad syntax disqualified Dwight Eisenhower—would make of Donald Trump as president today, or of the contagious verbal tic disorder that has become the broadcast norm, corrupting discourse and advancing group-think. It’s the oral analog of thoughtless writing, caused by three attitudes Steinbeck abhorred: haste, inattention, and lazy following.

Image of Catherine RampellExceptions stand out because they’re both rare and promising at MSNBC. My favorite example is a young Washington Post opinion writer named Catherine Rampell, a frequent guest on Hardball with Chris Matthews and The Last Word, Lawrence O’Donnell’s marginally more listenable show in the slot behind Matthews, Hayes, and Maddow. As a communicator Catherine is like John Steinbeck: she speaks as she writes, clearly and carefully. I’m thrilled with her because she tickles my testy inner English teacher—and because I first met her when she was a high-achieving high school student in Palm Beach, Florida, where her father Richard Rampell, a culturally-attuned accountant, was my friend and fellow in the fight for local arts funding. In the past I’ve complained about Palm Beach, about the Trumpettes of Mar-a-Lago who worship Donald Trump and his dumbing down of everything. Now it’s a pleasure to praise the place for producing his opposite: a splendid writer and speaker with a career in journalism that John Steinbeck would admire and probably envy. Look for Catherine Rampell on MSNBC. And listen. You’ll be hearing about her.

Grammar-Check Your Blog Post About John Steinbeck

Image of John Steinbeck with dog Charley

Though he occasionally misused or misspelled words, John Steinbeck wrote to be understood, often revising sentences, paragraphs, and whole chapters before publishing. Unfortunately, blog posts written about Steinbeck for online magazines, ostensibly with grammar-checking editors, frequently confuse readers with sentences so ill-considered that their meaning is unclear or absent. Recent examples of both errors in online writing about Steinbeck’s greatest fiction can be found in a pair of blog posts published by two online magazines that, except for sectarianism and under-editing, couldn’t be less alike.

How Did The Forward Get John Steinbeck So Wrong?

The first post in question is by Aviya Kushner, the so-called language columnist of The Forward, a respected Jewish publication started in New York five years before Steinbeck was born. The “news flash from the distant land of real news” on offer in Kushner’s May 8 blog post—“How Did John Steinbeck and an Obama Staffer Get the Bible So Wrong?”—is the misspelling of timshol in East of Eden, old news to Steinbeck fans of all faiths or no faith at all. Kushner’s charge—that Steinbeck’s spelling error was an offense against language, culture, and morality—is undermined by her syntax. “It comes down to caring about language,” she writes in conclusion, “and insisting that words have meaning, which is, frankly, a hot contemporary topic that is not just political but also moral.” Ouch and double ouch.

Faith Is No Excuse When Blog Posts Make No Sense

The second example of online magazines writing badly about John Steinbeck comes from Pantheon, a site that bills itself as “a home for godly good writing,” apparently without irony. “Dreaming of Steinbeck’s Country”—the May 6 blog post by a self-identified minister named James Ford—means well but also proves that sententious praise, like captious criticism, collapses when style fails subject in sentences describing Steinbeck. “I consider the Grapes of Wrath [sic] one of the great novels of our American heritage,” writes Ford. “Currents of spirituality and spiritual quest together with a progressive if increasingly that agnostic form of Christianity feature prominently in Steinbeck’s writings. And no doubt it informs his masterwork the Grapes of Wrath.” [Sic] and [sic] again.

Is Your Piece Ready to Publish, or Does It Escape?

The lesson to be learned from this week’s examples of bad online writing? When blogging about John Steinbeck, take time to spell- and syntax- and grammar-check before posting. Online magazines have editors, but contributed posts are like the morning newspaper in Florida whose editor I once overheard describe this way: “Our paper isn’t published. It escapes.” Websites with a sectarian purpose, like The Forward and Pantheon, often make the mistake of allowing sentiment to overwhelm sense when publishing blog posts by sincere writers with a pro or con ax to grind. Steinbeck agonized over The Grapes of Wrath. East of Eden took years to write. Travels with Charley didn’t, and it shows. Is taking time to self-edit when writing about John Steinbeck for any website, secular or religious, asking too much?

No Room in Donald Trump’s Inn for Arts and Humanities

Image of Donald Trump and daughter at Washington, D.C. hotel groundbreaking

In 1965 John Steinbeck was a member of President Johnson’s council on the arts when Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency charged with “bringing the arts to all Americans” and “providing leadership in arts education.” Steinbeck died before efforts in Congress to kill the infant agency got underway, in earnest, in 1981. Today, 35 years after arts-friendly Reaganites foiled that attempt, the ascendancy of Donald Trump appears to have handed anti-arts Republicans in Washington, D.C. the ammunition they need to finish the job. According to the website The Hill, “the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely” if the radical plan prevails.

In 1965 John Steinbeck was a member of President Johnson’s council on the arts when Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency charged with ‘bringing the arts to all Americans’ and ‘providing leadership in arts education.’

It’s easy to imagine how John Steinbeck would react to the latest threat against the arts and humanities. He supported FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, applied “arts for all” as a principle in his writing, and—brought up on books, music, and art—demonstrated the value of arts and humanities education in almost every aspect of his life. Nearly 50 years after his death, his name and his novels continue to be cited when creativity is under attack by politicians, fanatics, and latter-day Mrs. Grundys. In an op-ed entitled “What Art Under Trump?” the novelist Margaret Atwood gives The Grapes of Wrath as an example of enduring art that outlasts the evils it was created to expose. Colson Whitehead, the 47-year-old author of The Underground Railroad, credited the research he did for his first high school term paper—on John Steinbeck—when he accepted the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction at yesterday’s meeting of the American Library Association.

Image of Donald Trump hotel at Old Post Office in Washington, D.C.

Rationalizing hatred of the arts and humanities of the kind on view in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C. is harder than guessing where Steinbeck would stand. I know—I’ve tried—because at one time my job actually depended on it. Like John Steinbeck, I have an education in the arts and humanities to thank for whatever may be of value in my 35-year career as as a nonprofit executive and fundraiser for organizations in Florida and California. Unlike Steinbeck, I’m a middleman, not a creator. But the Washington, D.C. experience  I had while running the Palm Beach County Cultural Council gave me a preview of the arts under Donald Trump that I’m confident Steinbeck—who honored memory, history, and preservation—would appreciate.

Rationalizing hatred of the arts and humanities of the kind on view in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C. is harder than guessing where Steinbeck would stand.

Image of the Old Post Office Pavilion in 1920When I visited Washington, D.C. during the 1980s and 90s, I usually stopped by the Old Post Office, famous for its soaring atrium, to listen, learn, and lobby. In the 1970s Nancy Hanks, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts under Nixon, saved the century-old building from demolition, and for 30 years—until Donald Trump signed the lease to turn it into a hotel—the Old Post Office served as a symbolically appropriate home for her agency. Some of my appointments were with successors to Nancy Hanks appointed by Republican presidents after Nixon. Frank Hodsoll, chair of the NEA under Reagan, was key to the regional initiative that advanced art creation, education, and marketing in my bailiwick, South Florida. Later on, in Miami, I interviewed John Frohnmayer, George H.W. Bush’s NEA chair, for a weekly public radio program I hosted in West Palm Beach. The subject of our talk was Leaving Town Alive, the book that Frohmayer (a Stanford-educated lawyer) wrote about his fight for survival in D.C.

In the 1970s Nancy Hanks, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts under Nixon, saved the Old Post Office from demolition, and for 30 years—until Donald Trump signed the lease to turn it into a hotel—the historic building served as a symbolically appropriate home for her agency.

Forced out of the home they helped save when it was closed to make way for Trump’s hotel, the NEA and NEH moved to Constitution Center, a modernist monstrosity in Washington, D.C. designed by the architect of the equally hideous Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Today Trump International Hotel occupies the historic building at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, Donald Trump occupies the historic house at 1600, and the agencies evicted from the Old Post Office in 2014 are experiencing the threat of their lives. The dreadful death cycle dramatized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath—eviction and attack followed by extinction—faces the arts and humanities in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C., where a great public building is now operated for private profit and the public agency responsible for preserving it is about to leave town permanently.

The Winter of Our Discontent Deepens as Trumpettes Party

Image of Trumpettes with portrait of Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago

It’s doubtful either Donald Trump or the minority of Americans who just elected him ever read The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck’s prophetic fiction about public and private corruption in America 60 years ago. But for fans of the novel the parallels with our winter of discontent today are troubling. Cheating and self-dealing, inequality and incivility, anti-immigrant hatred and hysteria—is the USA less or more selfish today than it was when Steinbeck wrote his cautionary tale? For Donald Trump and his fans among America’s fraction-of-one-percent, personal profit is the golden rule and goodness can measured in tax cuts and capital gains. Add one word to the line from Richard III quoted in Steinbeck’s title—“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of New York”—and Shakespeare’s metaphor for an English tyrant’s mood aptly expresses the ardor felt by the Trumpettes of Mar-a-Lago, the palatial club in Palm Beach where Trump now holds winter court. I don’t know if John Steinbeck visited Mar-a-Lago. or encountered Donald Trump before he died, but I’ve had the pleasure of both and I’m pretty sure Steinbeck would take a very dim view.

John Steinbeck’s View of Donald Trump and Mar-a-Lago?

Image of Donald Trump's Palm Beach estate Mar-a-Lago

Before I moved to California and discovered Steinbeck Country I lived in West Palm Beach, where I ran a prominent nonprofit and played the organ at St. Edward’s Catholic Church, “the Kennedy church,” in Palm Beach. Once I substituted at Bethesda-by-the Sea, the Episcopal church where Trump reportedly received applause from attendees on Christmas Eve. I knew Ralph Wolfe Cowan, the artist who painted the Dorian Gray-like portrait of Trump shown in the lead photo of this post. My home in West Palm Beach wasn’t far from the bridge connecting with Palm Beach near Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s spacious domain, so named because it stretches from Lake Worth to the Atlantic. I passed by often on my way to church, and I was a luncheon and gala guest on those occasions when doing my job entailed hobnobbing.

Image of Marjorie Merriweather PostIt’s even possible I toured Mar-a-Lago before Donald Trump, who bought it at a discount from descendants of Post cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1985. A year or so earlier a friend of mine arranged for a private look-see at the estate where Post entertained lavishly when John Steinbeck was alive. By the 1980s the mansion’s faded interior resembled Norma Desmond’s living room in Sunset Boulevard—aging, abandoned, populated by the ghosts of parties and partners past—and John Kennedy was the only ex-president with a known Palm Beach address. To fill this gap, Post willed Mar-a-Lago to the government as a presidential retreat when she died. But the property lies under the flight path of Palm Beach airport, adding to security issues, and before Trump came along the Palm Beach social scene had attracted few of Kennedy’s successors. Johnson wasn’t the Palm Beach type, Nixon and Ford and Reagan enjoyed Walter Annenberg’s hospitality in Palm Springs, and the George H.W. Bushes had close ties to the old money on Jupiter Island, a less pretentious winter enclave an hour north of Palm Beach.

Image of memorial plaque at Mar-a-LagoPalm Beach prejudice presented another problem. Kennedy wasn’t welcome everywhere, even as president, and top-tier social clubs like the one across the road from Mar-a-Lago excluded Catholics and Jews from membership as recently as my time. To his credit, Donald Trump thumbed his nose at this tradition when he opened Mar-a-Lago Club for those with sufficient cash and cachet, regardless of race or religion, in 1995. As a marketing strategy his open-door policy was a winner, attracting socialites and business leaders and making Mar-a-Lago a popular venue for black-tie charity events. Trump’s inauguration committee may be having trouble signing talent, but name entertainers like Vic Damone loved playing Mar-a-Lago, and the evening I spent chatting with Diahann Carroll, Vic’s wife at the time, is my warmest memory of the place. Vanity Fair covered Mar-a-Lago favorably almost from the start, though the tone changed after the editor of the magazine described Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian.” (“How Donald Trump Beat Palm Society and Won the Fight for Mar-a-Lago was a source of images for this post.)

Image of Christopher HitchensIn 2003 my organization was celebrating its 25th anniversary when the publisher and a retinue from Vanity Fair flew to town in preparation for an expose of Palm Beach social mores. One of the writers in the group—the late Christopher Hitchens, a regular contributor to Vanity Fair—invited me to tag along when a Republican billionaire with a household name hosted dinner at a Palm Beach club that still banned Jews. Rather late in life Hitchens had learned that his maternal grandmother was Jewish, a topic of conversation as we waited outside the club, so I suggested that he ask for a kosher menu once we were inside and seated for dinner. The next day I got a call from the head of the Palm Beach cultural venue where my organization’s anniversary event was about to be held. It happened that his board chairman was an officer of the club—a thin-skinned millionaire who learned, almost instantly, about our quiet indiscretion the night before. I wrote the requisite letter of apology and agreed to keep my mouth shut about the incident, but Christopher seemed gratified when I reported the result to him. He said it proved our point perfectly.

Image of Roy Cohn and Donald TrumpLike John Steinbeck, a writer he admired, Christopher Hitchens was politically astute, egalitarian, and courageous under fire from bullies, Left or Right. Like Steinbeck, he supported America’s pursuit of an unpopular war (in Hitchens’s case, Iraq; in Steinbeck’s, Vietnam) and bravely paid the price. Like Steinbeck, he distrusted power, disliked braggadocio, and detested xenophobia, insult, and incitement to mob violence of the kind seen more than once during Donald Trump’s campaign for president. Roy Cohn, the McCarthy-era lawyer who taught Trump how to play New York hardball, was anathema to Hitchens, as he’d been to Steinbeck when The Winter of Our Discontent was written. The odious combination of compulsive mendacity, obsessive opportunism, and pathological aggression that repelled Steinbeck advanced Cohn’s career and attracted clients. One of them was Donald Trump, the billionaire developer described by Hitchens in 1997 as a “bankrupt real-estate monarch [who] can treat the skyline as his own without any hint of a nasty creditors’ meeting at any of his numerous and lenient banks.” Trump’s Palm Beach ascendancy might have amused Hitchens. But I think it would offend Steinbeck, who ridiculed small-town ambition and conspicuous consumption in The Winter of Our Discontent.

Steinbeck’s California Dreads What Palm Beach Celebrates

Image of John SteinbeckI am unacquainted with the four Trumpettes who posed for Vanity Fair in front of Ralph Cowan’s painting of Donald Trump. But I recognized names from the past when I read reports about holiday festivities at Mar-a-Lago. An outspoken Trumpette quoted by national media outlets once worked for the Democratic county commissioner from West Palm Beach. On New Year’s Day the Palm Beach daily newspaper published an admonishing letter to readers in which she promised that “President-elect Trump will make us financially secure again” and described “the days of massive government waste and corruption” as a thing of the past caused (presumably) by Democrats. Today, more than 30 years after I first met this woman and a decade after leaving Florida for California, I feel about Donald Trump’s Palm Beach as John Steinbeck felt about Salinas, his home town. I’m grateful for the memories but sad for the “dear little town” I used to know. As Mar-a-Lago celebrates and Washington gets ready, the winter of our discontent grows darker by the day here in his home state.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Stephen King’s Alternate History of America

Image of Stephen King

John Steinbeck wasn’t a fan of science fiction, but Stephen King, the reigning master of the form, is a fan of Steinbeck and his books, including Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s 1937 novella about George and Lennie plays a particularly important role in 11/22/63, King’s alternate history of America, published on November 8, 2011, five years to the day before Americans elect their 45th president. The TV adaptation of King’s novel downplayed Of Mice and Men but mentioned Steinbeck and starred James Franco, who played George on Broadway and Mac in the 2016 movie adaptation of In Dubious Battle. Like Steinbeck’s 1936 novel about the conflict between modern labor and capital, King’s horror-history of America after 1963 is powerful projection of a political divide that Steinbeck regretted but understood.

Image of James Franco in Stephen King's 11/22/63

Of Mice and Men aside, the major alteration made in Hulu TV’s version of 11/22/63 is in the chain of events set in motion by Franco’s character, a high school English teacher from Maine who time-travels to Dallas to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John Kennedy. While underscoring the danger of messing with the past, which like Texas resists interference, King’s story also deals with complexities of cause, effect, and unintended consequences around issues that preoccupy Americans from both political camps today—terrorism, race relations, and climate change, whether acknowledged (Hillary Clinton) or denied (Donald Trump).

Image of alternate history newspaper from Stephen King's 11/22/63

In King’s alternate history of America, Kennedy lives to serve two terms but fails to enact civil rights legislation, end the escalating war in Southeast Asia, or prevent the election of George Wallace in 1968. President Wallace—a proto-Trump figure with a trigger-happy VP—firebombs Chicago, goes nuclear in Vietnam, and leaves an apocalyptic mess for a series of feckless, one-term successors that includes Humphrey, Reagan, and Clinton (Hillary, not Bill). Skipping this intervening narrative, the Hulu miniseries fast-forwards to a post-apocalyptic America populated by alien “Kennedy camps” and terrorist street gangs with dirty bombs—a version of alternate history certain to offend people who revere Kennedy while fulfilling the worst fears of those who revile Donald Trump.

Image of nuclear blast in Stephen King's alternate history of America

Both groups include fans who will be disappointed in the diminished attention paid to John Steinbeck in the TV version of 11/22/63, where Of Mice and Men is basically limited to a favorite-book comment made by Franco’s character to the librarian who becomes his love interest. In the novel, long but not too long at 850 pages, Of Mice and Men provides dramatic depth, character development, and thematic amplification absent from the eight-part miniseries. Early in the book Franco’s character ponders the challenge of “exposing sixteen-year-olds to the wonders of Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Shirley Jackson.” Later, while teaching in Texas, he directs Of Mice and Men in a high school production that provides a dimension of joy sadly missing from the miniseries: “At that moment I cared more about Of Mice and Men than I did about Lee Harvey Oswald . . . . I thought that Vince looked like Henry Fonda In The Grapes of Wrath.”

Image of George MacKay and James Franco in 11/22/63

Of Mice and Men Helps 11/22/63 Connect with America

Image of Stephen King's Derry, MaineStephen King, who co-wrote and produced the Hulu series, must share the blame—if that’s the word—for shortchanging John Steinbeck in the interest of narrative compression. The loss is regrettable, and in light of another change unnecessary as well. The first incidence of time travel in the novel takes place in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, a nightmare venue familiar to Stephen King fans from his other books. This episode is important, and it includes a character named Bill Turcotte, a slow-moving, middle-aged loser who threatens Franco’s character and gets left behind in Derry. In the TV version, the Derry action takes place in Kentucky and Turcotte—a wound-up ingénue—stays in the story as a sidekick, all the way to Dallas and the confrontation with Oswald. Unlike Derry and its scary clowns, Turcotte’s Kentucky feels tame. And the time devoted to his character, played by a 23-year-old English actor with a lousy Southern accent, would have been better invested in keeping Of Mice and Men, an essential piece of Americana, in the picture.

John Steinbeck, Donald Trump, and the King of Horror

Image of Donald Trump scary clownBut that’s a quibble. More important is the attention drawn to the phenomenon described years ago by the historian Richard Hofstadter as the paranoid style in American politics. During a recent interview with the book editor of The Washington Post, Stephen King confessed that “a Trump presidency scares me more than anything else.” Exercising and exorcising paranoia is what King does in his writing, of course, so whatever the outcome of this week’s election, it’s safe to assume that a scary-Trump novel will be making us scream soon. Maybe an alternate history of America since 2011? With John Steinbeck as a modern-day time traveler on a mission, like James Franco’s character in 11/22/63, to rewrite the record and save us from ourselves?

 

What The New York Times, The Charlotte Observer, and Christianity Today Had to Say About John Steinbeck

Image of the New York Times newsroom in 1942

Three recent newspaper stories served as reminders that John Steinbeck remains relevant to readers, and useful to editors, experts, and leaders who make policy in his name. Of Mice and Men dominated the August 22 New York Times report on a Texas death penalty case working its way to the Supreme Court. The Grapes of Wrath appeared in the headline of a report on Syrian refugees published the same day in Christianity Today. The 1939 novel was used by a college professor with conservative ideas about government in an August 20 editorial for The Charlotte Observer. The New York Times and Christianity Today articles reflected Steinbeck’s values. The editorial in The Charlotte Observer showed why he took a dim view of academics.

The New York Times and Christianity Today articles reflected Steinbeck’s values. The editorial in The Charlotte Observer showed why he took a dim view of academics.

The New York Times piece by Adam Liptak explored the legality and ethics of the so-called Lennie standard, named for the character Lennie Small and used to decide when a person of limited intelligence should or shouldn’t be executed for murder. (Barbara A. Heavilin, who writes frequently about John Steinbeck, explains the immorality of this misreading of Steinbeck”s novel in a related blog post.)  Jeremy Weber’s Christianity Today report on refugees in the Bekaa Valley—“Grapes of Wrath: Refugees Face Steinbeck Scenario in Lebanon’s Napa Valley”—compared conditions there with California during the Great Depression. In his editorial for The Charlotte Observer“Addressing the problems of the modern-day Joads“—Professor Clark G. Ross misrepresented Steinbeck’s intentions in The Grapes of Wrath, just as those justifying the death penalty do in misreading Of Mice and Men.

Why The Charlotte Observer Got John Steinbeck Wrong

Professor Ross describes teaching The Grapes of Wrath to a group of students who are studying the Depression for the first time. His detached view of the Joads as a “fundamentally Christian, not over-educated family” dependent on government support for survival suggests that the wrong lesson was learned about the present. While faulting both Republicans and Democrats for failing workers losing their jobs to foreign labor, he claims that politicians can’t save these “modern-day Joads” anyway, because government isn’t the solution to social problems. Steinbeck thought it was and Weedpatch, the federal camp where the Joads get help, was his proof. Unconvinced by Steinbeck’s example, Ross characterizes Steinbeck’s vision as  “centered on a benevolent government within a communist society, one that would provide employment and shelter, as well as self-governance.” The commie charge isn’t new.

Steinbeck thought government was the solution to social problems. Weedpatch, the federal camp where the Joads get help in The Grapes of Wrath, was his proof.

Conservative critics raised the specter of communism to discredit Steinbeck and his novel when it was published more than 75 years ago. Critics in California denied that Okies like the Joads even existed, or if they did were as numerous as Steinbeck claimed, and they failed to feel the Joads’ or Steinbeck’s pain. Professor Ross expresses sympathy, but it’s distant and distorted by doctrine. Like that of Joad Deniers at the time, his claim that Steinbeck’s version of good government can’t succeed requires a belief that government can’t be the solution because it’s the problem. “History has proven,” he says of Steinbeck’s dream, “that such public provision of goods and services really cannot work.” Arvin, the migrant camp known as Weedpatch, proved the opposite.

How John Steinbeck Did Research and Described Experts

“History has proven” is a sad tautology, and economics remains a dismal science. That’s why Steinbeck’s joyful art is useful in putting a human face on social and economic abstractions, as The New York Times and Christianity Today did last week. Steinbeck put a human face on every subject when he wrote, and the effort often hurt. He lost his first newspaper job because he got bogged down in the human side of the stories his editor assigned. He researched The Grapes of Wrath in person, by doing, reporting on Dustbowl refugees in the field for the San Francisco Examiner, staying at Arvin to learn how it worked, making mercy runs to migrants stranded by floods in the Central Valley. Of Mice and Men was similarly inspired by actual people and events; as Barbara Heavilin notes, Lennie Small was based on a real person.

Economics remains a dismal science. That’s why Steinbeck’s joyful art is useful in putting a human face on social and economic abstractions.

Years after writing these books Steinbeck had a chance meeting on a train with a boyhood friend from Salinas. By then the author was back in the journalism business, producing a syndicated newspaper column that allowed him personal privilege, which he used, to speak his mind. Tongue in cheek, he tacked the meeting onto a tall-tale column about religion, describing his old friend, now grown, as a “professor of anthropology . . . or some such vermin.” Vermin seems a strong word to describe an expert, even if the friend was in on the joke. On the other hand, the misinterpretation of Steinbeck’s meaning by authorities in Texas, and by an academic in North Carolina, suggests why he used it.

W.H. Auden and His Kind: Christopher Isherwood on The Grapes of Wrath in 1939

Image of Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden in 1939

Off to America: Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden

Shortly after emigrating to America in 1939 with the poet W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, the British author of Berlin Stories, wrote a review of The Grapes of Wrath for Kenyon Review, the new American literary magazine that—like John Steinbeck—quickly gained prestige and influence with readers and critics in the United States. Intimate friends since school days in England, Isherwood and Auden arrived in New York in January. Isherwood moved on to California, and in July confided this to his diary: “I forced myself to write—a review of The Grapes of Wrath and a short story called “I Am Waiting”—but there was no satisfaction in it.” Despite his mood, Isherwood’s review of The Grapes of Wrath was upbeat and positive; like the diaries, novels, and plays that he produced over five decades in America, his insights (and criticism) seem as fresh today as they were in 1939. What made Christopher Isherwood, an adoptive American, so receptive to John Steinbeck’s all-American novel when it was published? Temperamentally and socially the two men were opposites. Steinbeck preferred privacy and solitude to self-confession and self-promotion, the distinguishing features of Isherwood’s career as the main character in his books. Steinbeck’s people were middle-class, immigrant, and self-made; Isherwood came from landed gentry with deep roots in English history. But both men believed in the power of sympathy and synchronicity, and coincidence can be as important as difference in life, as in literature.

John Steinbeck, Christopher Isherwood, and Synchronicity

Both writers were born in the decade prior to World War I, when America—like England—was outgrowing Victorianism. Both were christened (and later confirmed) into the Anglican Church, an experience that effected their prose style, if not their souls. Each was an elder or only son in a family dominated by an ambitious mother: Isherwood’s father was a British infantry officer who was killed at Ypres in 1915, leaving behind a wife and two sons, an older brother who inherited the Isherwood fortune, and three younger siblings with Steinbeckian names—John, Esther, and Mary. From childhood, John Steinbeck and Christopher Isherwood were imaginative storytellers with a drive to write that drove them to drop out of college to follow their muse. By 1940 both had achieved success in their calling and hobnobbing with film-world celebrities and hangers-on in Hollywood. Despite holding opposite views about the value of autobiography, both worked well in various forms, writing novels, play-novelettes, travel books, and war correspondence that attracted a following. Each loved the warmth of the sun and the sound of the seaunlike W.H. Auden, who stayed behind in New York in 1939 when Isherwood left for Los Angeles, where Isherwood remained until he died in 1986. (He became an American citizen in 1946.) Oddly, though Hollywood was a village and they had mutual friends in the business, neither Isherwood’s dairies not Steinbeck’s biographers suggest that they ever met.

W.H. Auden and His Kind Weren’t John Steinbeck’s

Nature and nurture conspired to keep them apart. Like other members of W.H. Auden’s circle, Isherwood was openly gay from an early age. Steinbeck grew up in small-town Salinas, where deviance was closeted; the Isherwoods were cosmopolitan provincials with property in London (Isherwood’s Uncle Henry was homosexual, and a jurist ancestor signed King Charles’s death warrant). Unlike Steinbeck, who struggled at the start and stayed in America until established, Isherwood inherited position, connections, and cash that helped pave his way, traveling extensively in Europe before settling in America. His exploration of Berlin’s pre-Nazi gay underground provided material for the 1930s Berlin fiction later adapted for stage and screen as Cabaret. His early novels—All the Conspirators (1928), The Memorial (1932), Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935)—sold better than Steinbeck’s books—Cup of Gold, The Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown—published in the same period. Above all, his relationships with other writers differed dramatically from those of Steinbeck. Isherwood was a born extrovert who wrote poetry and plays with W.H. Auden and nourished friendships with other famous authors, including Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann. Steinbeck took a disliking to Alfred Hitchcock, the quintessentially English snob who directed the war movie (Lifeboat) scripted by Steinbeck. Isherwood’s collaboration with the Austrian director Berthold Viertel was so gratifying that he wrote a novel (Prater Violet) about their friendship.

A Neglected Grapes of Wrath Review, Still Relevant Today

Christopher Isherwood had a reputation as a ready reviewer when he arrived in America with W.H. Auden, so the Grapes of Wrath assignment made sense. Although the piece he produced for The Kenyon Review is mentioned in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews (Cambridge University Press, 1996), that helpful anthology omits the full text, which seems a shame. Fortunately, it can be found in Exhumations (Simon and Schuster, 1966), a collection of Isherwood’s stories, articles, and verse that also includes reviews of authors (Stevenson, Wells, T.E. Lawrence) of interest to Steinbeck and Isherwood, two writers with more in common than their differences suggest. Here are four samples, still relevant, from the 1939 review of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath:

(1) On the Promise of Steinbeck’s California

“Meanwhile, the sharecroppers have to leave the Dust Bowl. They enter another great American cycle—the cycle of migration towards the West. They become actors in the classic tragedy of California. For Eldorado is tragic, like Palestine, like every other promised land.”

(2) On Participating in Steinbeck’s Story

“It is a mark of the greatest poets, novelists and dramatists that they all demand a high degree of co-operation from their audience. The form may be simple, and the language as plain as daylight, but the inner meaning, the latent content of a masterpiece, will not be perceived without a certain imaginative and emotional effort. . . . The novelist of genius, by presenting the particular instance, indicates the general truth [but] the final verdict, the ultimate synthesis, must be left to the reader; and each reader will modify it according to his needs. The aggregate of all these individual syntheses is the measure of the impact of a work of art upon the world.”

(3) On Didacticism in Fiction

“Mr. Steinbeck, in his eagerness for the cause of the sharecroppers and his indignation against the wrongs they suffer, has been guilty, throughout this book, of such personal, schoolmasterish intrusions upon the reader. Too often we feel him at our elbow, explaining, interpreting, interfering with our independent impressions. And there are moments at which Ma Joad and Casy—otherwise such substantial figures—seem to fade into mere mouthpieces, as the author’s voice comes through, like the other voice on the radio.”

(4) On Art vs. Life in Novels

“If you claim that your characters’ misfortunes are due to the existing system, the reader may retort that they are actually brought about by the author himself. Legally speaking, it was Mr. Steinbeck who murdered Casy and killed Grampa and Granma Joad. In other words, fiction is fiction. Its truths are parallel to, but not identical with, the truths of the real world.”

Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway Lead John Steinbeck in Search for Single-Author Websites

Screen shot of the official Mark Twain website

If author websites are any indicator of continued popularity in American literature, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway are the current winners. According to my count of websites devoted to 82 American authors represented in panel titles at this week’s meeting of the American Literature Association, just a handful of writers come close to Hemingway or Twain in the number of author websites with their name in the URL. Happily, John Steinbeck is among them. Like Mark Twain (at six sites), Ernest Hemingway (nine), and John Steinbeck (four), William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac are the subject of at least four sites each, including one or more blog sites connecting their life and work to contemporary issues.

Just a handful of writers come close to Hemingway or Twain in the number of author websites with their name in the URL. Happily, John Steinbeck is among them.

By my count, 65 writers in this year’s American Literature Association lineup are the subject of single-author websites of one kind or another. Most are societies, study centers, or collections devoted to the author’s writing. Some are houses or museums associated with the author’s life, and 28 are blog sites that foster popularity by recording reader passion and encouraging public conversation about the author’s ideas. Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Kerouac have sites representing each category, but with four separate blog sites devoted to his life and writing, Ernest Hemingway holds the record for blog volume about an American author. Uniquely (but unsurprisingly) among the American authors I checked, Mark Twain is also the subject of a website representing the interests of an author’s estate.

With four separate blog sites devoted to his life and writing, Ernest Hemingway holds the record for blog volume about an American author.

But if blogging also equals attention span in American literature, at least a quarter of the writers on the American Literature Association marquee continue to have meaning in the lives of readers. Besides Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Kerouac, the list of American authors with an active blog site in their name includes Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Bishop, E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Theodore Dreiser, Margaret Fuller, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Olson, Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, and August Wilson. Another, Thornton Wilder, is the subject of a blog site started by family members—an idea for John Steinbeck that is, due to circumstances, unlikely to see the light of day.

Critics, Craft Beer, and Fans Toast John Steinbeck in San Jose and Salinas, California

Image of John Steinbeck beer served in Salinas, California

“There is nothing like the first taste of beer” (John Steinbeck)

Literary critics and conferences gave John Steinbeck a pain, but he liked beer and enjoyed parties, so it’s easy to imagine him making an exception for the literary conference and the festival held in his name earlier this month in San Jose and Salinas, California. Each event was scheduled with the other in mind, and the planning paid off: star Steinbeck scholars appeared at both, attendance was up from previous years, and Sea of Cortez got the attention it deserved on its 75th anniversary (several experts said it was their second favorite book by Steinbeck). The May 4-6 John Steinbeck conference at San Jose State University attracted scholars, students, and fans from as far away as Israel and Japan and featured keynote addresses by Steinbeck stars who flew in from points east and midwest for the conference, and for the May 6-8 Steinbeck Festival in Salinas. During the opening address in San Jose, Richard Astro recalled his experience as a visiting professor during early Solidarity days in Poland, where Steinbeck was remembered for providing words of comfort to Warsaw after John Kennedy was killed, and where the author of The Grapes of Wrath remains more popular than his contemporaries (“John Steinbeck is more international than Faulkner, Hemingway, or Fitzgerald by far”). The next day, Robert DeMott described his experience of discovery in the 1970s and 1980s exploring the untapped “archival biography” he found in various Steinbeck collections around the U.S. His 1989 edition of the double journal Steinbeck kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath has become a classic, adding to our understanding of Steinbeck and complementing the epistolary journal published in 1969 in connection with East of Eden (“John Steinbeck’s great subject was family”).

Image of John Steinbeck scholar Gavin Jones

Gavin Jones

Something for Every Taste at Steinbeck Festival in Salinas

The morning after his talk to followers at the San Jose conference, DeMott fanned the flame of Steinbeck worship for attendees of the 35th Steinbeck Festival, hosted by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. The Salinas organization is under new management, and it showed in the festival’s quality, energy, and diversity. Susan Shillinglaw, the new director, is an entrepreneurial scholar and impresario who shares Steinbeck’s love of travel (Sea of Cortez; Tibilisi, Georgia) and liquid refreshment (festival craft beer courtesy of the Salinas Steinbeck Rotary Club). Adding fuel to the spark set by DeMott was a pair of inspired speakers with a new approach to the subject of John Steinbeck. William Souder, the Minnesota journalist who has written brilliant biographies of John James Audubon and Rachel Carson, told his listeners how and why he chose to write a new life of John Steinbeck that focuses on global themes like ecology and social justice. Gavin Jones also views Steinbeck through a large lens, and he explained the book he is writing, one with the working title “Race, Species, Planet: Steinbeck and the Western World.” A native of the Welsh-English border country explored by Steinbeck in his search for King Arthur, Jones is a Stanford University professor with a capacious vocabulary and a novel perspective on Steinbeck as a writer of “anthropocene fiction,” in which human behavior affects and is influenced by drought, flood, and other portents of climate change. Heavy going for a Friday in May perhaps, but the crowd in Salinas didn’t flag. Like Steinbeck after writing nonstop or collecting specimens on the Sea of Cortez, they knew a beer was waiting in the cooler the next day.

Photo of John Steinbeck beer by Eric Mora, National Steinbeck Center.

Notes from a Broken Nation: Carmel, California’s Michael Katakis Shatters the Myth of American Exceptionalism

Cover image from "A Thousand Shards of Glass," by Michael Katakis

Good news from Down Under. A Thousand Shards of Glass, a collection of essays, letters, and journal entries by the travel writer-photographer Michael Katakis, has been published in paperback and eBook by The Author People, an Australian outfit with a pioneering approach to book publishing. Founded in 2015 by Lou Johnson and Tom Galletta, the firm is dedicated to connecting authors with their audiences, wherever they may be around the world.

The most recent collection of essays, letters, and journal entries by the travel writer-photographer Michael Katakis has been published in paperback and eBook by The Author People, an Australian outfit with a pioneering approach to book publishing.

I first read A Thousand Shards of Glass in 2014, the year Simon & Schuster released a hardback edition of the book in Australia and the United Kingdom while ignoring its intended market—the United States. Since then, I’ve met Michael Katakis in Carmel, California, his part-time home, and I admire his perceptiveness as a thinker, writer, and photographer. Like John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, he’s an American author with a distinctive point of view, writing for a country described by Gore Vidal as “the United States of Amnesia.”

Image of Michael Katakis

Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Vidal come up frequently in conversation with Katakis, an imposing figure with a similar intensity. In his talk, as in his career, his range of knowledge and engagement is impressive. He’s the manager of Hemingway’s literary estate, and an expert on the author. He knows much (but, diplomatically, says little) about Carmel, California, a place Steinbeck once characterized as a haven for hacks. During a chance meeting with Vidal in Los Angeles when Katakis was a warm-up singer for the Herb Alpert band, the young musician felt his life change, and he became a photographer and writer with a Vidalian urge to explore, and to question.

Katakis’s famous photo of Maya Lin, the artist of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, became contentious when he challenged an act of censorship by the National Portrait Gallery and asked for the picture’s return.

His famous photo of Maya Lin, the artist of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, became contentious when he challenged an act of censorship by the National Portrait Gallery and asked for the picture’s return. His books include Photographs and Words with Dr. Kris Harden, co-authored with his late wife, a beloved anthropologist and ideal life-mate. Traveller: Observations from an American in Exile, published in 2009, has a foreword by Michael Palin, a fellow traveler and friend.

Image of Maya Lin by Michael Katakis

Like Vidal, Katakis thinks that the myth of American exceptionalism is not only foolish, but dangerous. Like Vidal, he favors living abroad and seeing Americans as others see us: self-involved but unreflective; self-righteous, but also hypocritical; militantly religious and religiously militant; obsessed by money and addicted to oil; shrewd in deal-making, yes, but easily duped by flag-pin politicians.

Like The Grapes of Wrath, Katakis’s book telegraphs its message through the metaphor contained in its title.

Like a Hemingway novel that anchors the ideas expressed in experience, A Thousand Shards of Glass consists of a series of episodes—9/11, Kris’s death, meeting Gore Vidal—described in short sentences and simple words to convey their meaning. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Katakis’s book telegraphs its message through the metaphor contained in its title. As the author explained it to an Australian interviewer in 2014, “In order to understand America one must realize that it is not a country, it’s a store where everything is for sale, every principle, ethic and friend.” The job of a serious writer, then—like that of the photojournalist—is to reveal the face under the makeup, the reality behind the myth.

Image of John Steinbeck

Katakis’s picture of America, like Steinbeck’s, isn’t always pretty. Kris, diagnosed with a brain tumor in the prime of life, becomes a tragic victim of the pre-Obama American health care horror show. Vidal is first encountered on a TV set decades earlier, talking with Eugene McCarthy about America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam. Since then the US has doubled down, a nation of true believers where (to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens) religion ruins everything and (Vidal again) history teaches nothing. Clint Eastwood, the former mayor of Carmel, California, insults an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention, an embarrassment Katakis recalls when he passes Eastwood in a hospital hallway.

Like a Hemingway novel that anchors the ideas expressed in experience, A Thousand Shards of Glass consists of a series of episodes described in short sentences and simple words to convey their meaning.

Bush’s phony Iraq war is fought in the name of Americans by 1% of the population living at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from Wall Street’s 1%. Hitchens, a guiding light to Katakis, loses his luster after 9/11, buying into Bush’s war in the Middle East for reasons Katakis ascribes to Hitchens’s upbringing as the son of a World War II vet. Katakis’s journal entry on 9/11 begins “. . . today hard terrorism hit soft terrorism.” Another, written four years later, describes Bush’s Rasputin, Karl Rove, dancing at a White House Correspondents’ dinner to the delight of reporters who are still high on the Bush & Company cool aid. Eventually, even the Beltway woke up and smelled the coffee, but Karl Rove’s victory dance is a useful reminder of how madness overtook America before Iraq imploded and sobriety set in.

Image of Ernest Hemingway

Which raises the challenge posed by the book: do Americans never learn? Katakis explores the problem of American amnesia with people he meets in London, Paris, and Italy; like Hemingway and Vidal, he has perfect pitch in conversation, and he records what others say us with an infallible ear. His diagnosis of America’s mania for guns is framed by a fraught encounter with a woman from Eastern Europe, in London, following the Newton, Connecticut school shooting. “I think we Americans are afraid of each other, of everything,” he explains, despite “the fictional narrative of America that we have been selling for some time now.”

Quoting Hemingway, Katakis compares the global dominance of America’s ‘consumer corporate state’ with Britain’s East India Company two centuries ago—an undertaking of naked power wearing the fig leaf of moral righteousness.

Savoring Paris as Hemingway did decades earlier, he celebrates “the poetry of living” encountered abroad, the daily joie de vivre Americans have lost in “our obsession with our devices.” Quoting Hemingway, he compares the global dominance of America’s “consumer corporate state” with Britain’s East India Company two centuries ago—an undertaking of naked power wearing the fig leaf of righteousness. He and Kris move to Europe to protest Bush’s war, and to enjoy the poetry of living now lost in America, “the land of lists.” Their idyllic life abroad is interrupted by her father’s death; her diagnosis prevents their return. Numbed by her death, Katakis writes, “I have come to know that most Americans are sleepwalking.”

Image of Gore Vidal

Like Vidal and Hitchens, Katakis is hard not to quote, and A Thousand Shards of Glass contains equally memorable sentences in abundance. So does a conversation with Katakis, as I learned over lunch in Carmel, California late last year, when I asked him if he thought the Bernie Sanders insurgency showed that Americans are finally waking up. He said yes, repeating the comment, quoted earlier, that he made to the Australian interviewer about America’s self-illusion in 2014. When his wife died he lost the “true north” in his life, but he’s getting his bearings again, and a note of hope for an awakening has emerged in his writing.

Cover image from "Why Orwell Matters," by Christopher Hitchens

Fans of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Orwell, Vidal, and Hitchens—the bright constellation in Katakis’s dark sky—will delight in his references and allusions to their writing in A Thousand Shard of Glass. Bernie Sanders supporters will discover that, on almost every issue, Katakis was there first, before the presidential campaign brought American exceptionalism into question on problems of foreign and domestic policy. In response to my followup question about presidential politics before writing this review, Katakis said this:

I have often wondered what it means to be moral or how to live an ethical life in accelerated and morally ambiguous times which have seemingly allowed for rationalizations of thoughts and conduct by individuals and institutions, that just a short time ago, would have been considered unacceptable and injurious to the common good. Marcus Aurelius wrote that “the soul becomes dyed with the color of it’s thoughts,” suggesting one of the steps toward morality was the self control of our darker selves. Gore Vidal wrote that ‘we’ Americans, ” learn nothing because we remember nothing.” That is painfully demonstrated by any objective observer watching the 2016 Republican presidential primary. We have lost our way. If we remembered our own history, we would hear in the voice of Donald Trump, and his supporters, the voices of Father Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy. They would hear the fear mongering and the insults that have been the tried and true tactic of scoundrels who have never offered anything but a scorched earth.  But we Americans, in our ignorance and conceit, do not know our history and, as a collective, are not a good people. To those dark voices among us I can think of no more eloquent response than that of Mr. Joseph Welch to Senator Joseph McCarthy on June 9, 1954: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

John Steinbeck invited his readers to participate in his fiction. Overhearing Gore Vidal changed Michael Katakis, helping him to become a writer. Participate in the result of that inspiration by reading A  Thousand Shards of Glass. You’ll change, too.