2018: Year of the Women in The World of John Steinbeck

Image of 2018 John Steinbeck festival poster

Three sisters. Three wives. Three novels with female characters who are larger than life. Inspired by Ma Joad’s enduring example in The Grapes of Wrath, this year’s Steinbeck Festival will celebrate the women in John Steinbeck’s life and fiction over three days in May, at three venues associated with women Steinbeck cherished or invented. Sponsored by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, the festival opens on Friday, May 4, and features an afternoon of seminars at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Center in Pacific Grove—where Steinbeck and his sister Mary studied biology as undergraduates—tours of the nearby “Doc” Ricketts lab where female visitors from Dora Flood’s place were always welcome in Cannery Row, and a full day of speeches and fun in the town where Steinbeck was a born and grew up, a slightly spoiled only son, and Cathy runs her brothel in East of Eden, without Dora’s kindness, Ma Joad’s goodness, or the nurturing instinct of Steinbeck’s mother, sisters, and wives (save one). Speakers include Richard Astro, the author of John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts; Mimi Gladstein, an expert on women in American fiction and the author of a study of Steinbeck’s female characters with the intriguing title “Maiden, Mother Crone”; and Susan Shillinglaw, director of the National Steinbeck Center and author of Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage. A full schedule of events and information about tickets and logistics can be found on the National Steinbeck Center’s festival page.

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.

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.

Donald Trump and Ajit Pai’s Plan to End Net Neutrality

Image of Ajit Pai, Donald Trump's pick for FCC chairman

Ajit Pai, the former attorney for Verizon who was appointed by Donald Trump to chair the Federal Communications Commission, recently announced that the administration’s plan to deregulate internet providers and end the policy of net neutrality are on the agenda of the next FCC meeting. Pai, a Republican lawyer-lobbyist of Indian heritage who has long advocated the idea, is likely to have his way when the board meets on December 14. Deregulation is a Republican mantra, and Republicans are a majority on the five-person commission, created in 1934 to insure fairness in interstate communications through regulations such as net neutrality, which prohibits internet carriers from making accessibility to some websites faster than others.

Net neutrality prohibits internet carriers from making accessibility to some websites faster than others.

If you’ve ever exceeded the monthly minutes on your iPhone, you already know what ending net neutrality will mean when you sit down at your computer and type SteinbeckNow.com or CommonCause.org into the search box. Once Verizon and other internet providers get the go-ahead to reserve the digital fast lane for commercial sites with cash for the gate keeper, or the right political views, accessing nonprofit websites and those with opposing opinions will be like calling your grandmother back in the old country when pay phones and long-distance operators prevailed: slow, frustrating, and conducive to the infrequency and ignorance that isolates families and cultures. Without net neutrality the online interstate open to all will become a toll road with a fast-lane fee.

 Without net neutrality the online interstate open to all will become a toll road with a fast-lane fee.

Who stands to benefit? Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and other internet providers with the power to charge websites a premium for access, like minutes on your iPhone, plus corporate-friendly politicians like our current president, who is delivering on his promise to reverse the policies of his predecessor, including net neutrality. The surge in online pay-for-placement ads supporting internet deregulation since the 2016 election is unsurprising to close observers. So is the volume of computer-generated bot traffic timed to overwhelm the FCC’s inbox and block complaints about the proposal from actual Americans. Pay-for-play politics produced Ajit Pai, whose chairmanship of the FCC ends in five years, and Russian bot traffic helped elect Donald Trump, whose time as president seems certain to end sooner. But their joint legacy—FCC deregulation and pay-to-play internet access—has lasting potential to harm the free flow of information and ideas along the digital highway. It will certainly hurt this website.

Photograph of Ajit Pai courtesy of The Washington Post.

John Steinbeck’s Warning in Playboy about Donald Trump

Image of Donald Trump with Playboy magazine

The long relationship between Playboy magazine and Donald Trump, America’s playboy-in-chief, is old news. But the recent death of Hugh Hefner unearthed some surprising Playboy connections, including a list of major authors—among them John Steinbeck—who wrote for the serious men’s magazine that paid well and reached readers otherwise untouched by serious literature. In light of our president’s tweets and threats to bomb America’s enemies back to the Stone Age, Steinbeck’s satirical “Short Short Story of Mankind,” first published in the April 1957 issue of Playboy, has a message as relevant today as it was 60 years ago, when the golf-loving Dwight Eisenhower was president and the Cold War was on in earnest.

Image of John Steinbeck's Short Short Story of Mankind in Adam magazine

An allegory in the style of Mark Twain, Steinbeck’s account of human progress from savagery to civilization has a cartoon quality picked up by the illustrator for Adam, which republished Steinbeck’s Playboy piece in 1966 (images above and below). But like the “poisoned cream puff” of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row fiction, the mirth of “A Short Short Story of Mankind” is meant to be sobering. At every step, Steinbeck suggests, our progress as a species has faced resistance from a constant and terrifying tribal stupidity which, unchallenged, would lead to our extinction. “It’d be kind of silly if we killed our selves off after all this time,” he concludes. “If we do, we’re stupider than the cave people and I don’t think we are. I think we’re just exactly as stupid and that’s pretty bright in the long run.”

Image of John Steinbeck's Short Short Story of Mankind in Adam magazine

To my knowledge “A Short Short Story of Mankind” has never been anthologized, but it’s time it was. Living in the daily shadow of Donald Trump’s presidency, we need its dark warning and its ray of hope, the somber and uplifting counterpoint that echoes Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech and later writing. Today, six decades after Playboy magazine published John Steinbeck for the first and only time, it’s useful to remember that the author died a month after the election of Richard Nixon, whose dishonesty and demagoguery he deeply distrusted. It’s easy enough to imagine what he’d have to say about Donald Trump if he were still alive. The warning he’d have for a nation under Trump is implicit in the imagery and tone of his Cold War admonition to America under Eisenhower—an incurious president who also preferred golf but, unlike Trump, read the occasional book and avoided Stone Age rhetoric. Read the piece and judge for yourself.

The Passing of Frank Wright And the Men’s Clubs of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row

Image of Frank Wright at Doc's Lab on Cannery Row

The recent death of Monterey, California businessman Frank Wright at age 98 served as a reminder that the life of Doc’s Lab—Ed Ricketts’s marine biology laboratory on Cannery Row—had two distinct phases. The 1930s and 1940s were the period of John Steinbeck and Ricketts and the artists and poets and philosophers who gathered around them. The 1950s began the Lab’s second incarnation as a men’s club of painters, cartoonists, teachers, journalists, lawyers, and business people founded by Frank and his friends—all with a passionate interest in Steinbeck and Ricketts and a way of life that was already fading into the past. Like the earlier, even more casual men’s club, Frank’s group met and socialized and partied in the Lab’s raffish rooms and outdoor concrete deck and holding tanks overlooking Monterey Bay. In the process they kept the Lab largely as it was, preserving it for posterity.

Image of Hank Ketcham in 1953

The Men’s Club That Saved Doc’s Lab

Frank met Ricketts after joining the Army in 1942, and they remained close until Ed died. In the early 1950s, Frank and two other men bought the Lab as a meeting place for their circle of artists, educators, and fellow enthusiasts. For a slim sampling of this second generation Cannery Row men’s club, there was Gus Arriola, the brilliant creator of the comic strip Gordo. Eldon Dedini, the farm boy from South Monterey County who became a successful and sophisticated cartoonist for Esquire and Playboy. Morgan Stock, the teacher and director who spearheaded the drama department at Monterey Peninsula College, which in turn named a theater for him. The irrepressible, crusading attorney Bill Stewart. The Dennis the Menace cartoon creator Hank Ketcham (in photo), also a serious painter. Like Steinbeck and Ricketts, they were creative types drawn together by a love of talk, drink, and music. The Monterey Jazz Festival grew from their collaboration. So did the idea of making Doc’s Lab a living museum, now under management by Monterey, California’s department of cultural affairs.

Image of Nancy Hauk and friends in front of Doc's Lab

The End of an Era on Cannery Row

A personal memory: Years ago my late wife Nancy and I were walking along Cannery Row with Sue and E.J. Eckert (in photo to Nancy’s right). When we stopped in front of the Lab we got lucky. Frank Wright was standing on the stairs with Dennis Copeland, cultural affairs director for Monterey, California. Frank offered to give us a tour. He was a natural storyteller, warm and personable and charming, and when we left, walking out onto the bright morning sunlight of Cannery Row, the Eckerts said, “Boy, that was something!” They’ve never forgotten the experience. It was Frank’s gift to many when he was alive, and he was active well into his 90s. His death was indeed the end of an era.

Photo of Frank Wright courtesy Monterey County Weekly.

At Home with John Steinbeck

Composite image of John Steinbeck's California

I was nine when I discovered Google Maps. I was a demure little thing, sporting wispy baby hairs and crooked front teeth, but I sat in front of our family computer with the omnipotence of a goddess. I could go anywhere in the world; see the tip of the Great Pyramid of Giza or the cascading grandeur of Niagara Falls. After just a few clicks, I could declare proudly to my mom that I was a world traveler.

I sat in front of our family computer with the omnipotence of a goddess. I could go anywhere in the world.

But what I loved best was to zoom in on the United States. I zoomed to California, zoomed to the Central Coast, and zoomed to my hometown of Salinas, wondering if the suburban sidewalks and neatly lined lettuce rows of my life looked different from the sky. “Of course, people are only interested in themselves,” as John Steinbeck’s character Lee says in East of Eden. “The strange and foreign is not interesting – only the deeply personal and familiar.”

Image of main street Salinas, California

From Salinas, California to Stanford, Like the Steinbecks

By the time I turned 16, I was trying to make myself fall in love with places I did not know. Places that were not far away, but foreign nonetheless. What would it be like to live in San Francisco? San Jose? Los Angeles? How would I fare deciphering a train timetable or navigating the concrete capillaries of a city that scrapes the sky?

By the time I turned 16, I was trying to make myself fall in love with places I did not know. Places that were not far away, but foreign nonetheless.

In short, I wanted out of Salinas. I think that was the general feeling of my peers as well. The mountain ranges rising from the dark soil of the valley seemed a macro-enclosure, a way to trap us. As Steinbeck notes in “The Chrysanthemums,” “the high grey-flannel fog . . . closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world,” making us feel as though we were stuck in the belly of a large “closed pot.” Scribbling away at SAT prep books felt like clawing at the walls. I knew a college acceptance was my ticket out, as it was for Steinbeck when he left Salinas for Stanford, followed later by his sister Mary.

Image of John Steinbeck and sister Mary as children

In Journal of a Novel, Steinbeck’s record of writing East of Eden, he explained to his editor Pat Covici that he wanted to tell the story “against the background of the country I grew up in and along the river I know and do not love very much. For I have discovered that there are other rivers.” I knew that the Salinas is, as Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden, “not a fine river at all.” It wasn’t worth boasting about. Neither was the city of Salinas. When traveling out of town and answering the where-are-you-from question, I would quickly say “Monterey,” then quietly add “area.” Technically this face-saving half-truth wasn’t a lie, and when I entered Stanford as a freshman it also saved time. “I’m from Salinas.” Where? “Ever heard of Monterey?” Oh. Right.

I knew that the Salinas is, as Steinbeck wrote, ‘not a fine river at all.’ It wasn’t worth boasting about. Neither was the city of Salinas.

At Stanford, however, my relationship with my hometown started to improve. I suppose that to some degree all college students who flee the nest feel this way, but I think the proximity of Salinas to Palo Alto amplified the experience for me. I felt a wistful longing when I looked at photos of the rolling, golden hills that surround the Salinas Valley. Like Steinbeck, I missed the comforting landscapes of home.

Image of Stanford University English Professor Gavin Jones

The Stanford Course on Steinbeck That Opened My Eyes

One day in the dining hall during my second quarter at Stanford a friend from my dorm leaned over and said, “Jenna, you have to take the Steinbeck course with me.”

A friend from my dorm said, ‘Jenna, you have to take the Steinbeck course with me.’

Gavin Jones, the English professor my friend had a class with that quarter, was teaching a new course on Steinbeck in the spring. I had mentioned that East of Eden was one of my favorite books because—as Frank Bergon notes in Susan Shillinglaw’s collection of Steinbeck essays, Centennial Reflections—it made “the ordinary surroundings of my life become worthy of literature.” When I described Salinas to my friend, I realized I had strong feelings about the issues of socioeconomic inequality, gang violence, and racial tension that plague my hometown. I also saw that, like Steinbeck, my Salinas childhood shaped how I perceived Stanford and its surrounding community, from the groomed neighborhoods near campus to East Palo Alto, the other, poorer Palo Alto across Highway 101.

Image of Salinas, California mural of John Steinbeck with books

Although East of Eden wasn’t on the reading list for the Steinbeck course, a number of familiar titles were. The Red Pony, Cannery Row, The Pearl, The Grapes of Wrath: these were the school books with yellowed paper and dog-eared pages that I had read at Salinas High. When I was preparing for third quarter during spring break at home, I mentioned to my dad that I was ordering new copies of Steinbeck books for delivery to our address. “Don’t,” he protested. After rummaging in the garage, he emerged with a dusty box saved from his school years. Almost all of the Steinbeck books selected by Gavin Jones for the course had been languishing since my father used them, waiting to be rediscovered.

Almost all of the Steinbeck books selected by Gavin Jones for the course had been languishing in our garage since my father used them, waiting to be rediscovered.

On the first day of class I failed to arrive at the lecture hall early. My previous English classes had been small, quiet affairs, so I was surprised to see more than 120 students, buzzing with anticipation, already in their seats for Gavin’s course on John Steinbeck. As I readied my notebook I pondered Steinbeck’s reach. I knew he spoke out against injustice in his day and won the Nobel Prize in 1962, but not that he resonated with so many people more than a half-century later. I wondered how many lives he had touched over time, how many students in my Steinbeck class had seen the country of my childhood, and Steinbeck’s, through the golden lens of Steinbeck’s prose. Never thinking beyond the “closed pot,” I always assumed that my teachers had thrust his books into our hands just because we were in Salinas, not because we were part of the universal story Steinbeck told.

Composite image of Susan Shillinglaw and book about John Steinbeck

Over the course of the quarter I looked forward eagerly to class with Gavin. He embraced unconventional ideas, tracing behaviorism in The Red Pony and linking plants and humans in unexpected ways in “The Chrysanthemums.” He also brought in guest lecturers who expanded upon these themes and others. One of the lecturers was Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English at San Jose State University and director of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, who discussed Steinbeck’s relationship with his first wife, Carol. Parts of her talk helped me better contextualize Steinbeck’s relationship with Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula.

One of the guest lecturers was Susan Shillinglaw. Her talk helped me better contextualize Steinbeck’s relationship with Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula.

Once I began to grasp Steinbeck’s central role in creating the region’s identity, I wanted to know more. The name Steinbeck was everywhere when I was growing up, attached to real estate companies, hotels, streets, and highways. How had the man behind the name shaped Salinas and the region? How had they changed since he roamed the hills of the Salinas Valley 100 years ago? What could characters like Lee and the stories of Steinbeck’s “valley of the world” teach me about growth, about spirit, about understanding and embracing human differences? I had a lot to learn.

Image of entrance to National Steinbeck Center

The Summer Internship in Salinas That Opened My Heart

In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck returns to the Monterey Peninsula to revisit his California past one last time. Hoping for joy, he experiences disillusionment edged with despair. Slumping over a Monterey bar with his friend “Johnny,” he laments: “What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. . . . We’re the ghosts.” When I returned to Salinas for my first summer home, I decided to look toward the future instead of the past.

When I returned to Salinas for my first summer home, I decided to look toward the future instead of the past.

Thanks to Community Service Work Study, a Stanford program that funds internships at nonprofit organizations for eligible students, I was able to take an internship at the National Steinbeck Center, the museum and cultural center on Main Street in downtown Salinas. Over the course of the summer I wrote grant applications, learned about marketing and management, worked with Susan Shillinglaw on a new publication for Penguin’s Steinbeck series, and planned a poetry slam for the NEA Big Read, forging a deeply felt bond with my community. I can’t say where the winds will take me after college, or if I will ever live in Salinas again, but I hope I never have the sense of loss that overwhelmed Steinbeck’s homecoming in Travels with Charley. I hope I can return to the landscape that raised me with joy, tapping into the sense of deep belonging I feel when I see the soft sunlight falling on Mount Toro or inhale the mild breeze from Monterey Bay.

Over the course of the summer I wrote grant applications, learned about marketing and management, worked with Susan Shillinglaw on a new publication for Penguin’s Steinbeck series, and planned a poetry slam for the NEA Big Read, forging a deeply felt bond with my community.

Steinbeck echoed the novelist Thomas Wolfe in Travels with Charley: “you can’t go home again.” Nostalgia is hard to reconcile with new names and faces, with the attachment to growth and “progress” that Steinbeck came to distrust in America and Americans. Yet elements of Steinbeck’s California remain, and I have faith that pieces of my California will survive too. During my summer in Salinas I combed the streets around the Steinbeck family home on Central Avenue. I sipped chai tea in the Main Street coffee shop that was once a feed store owned by Steinbeck’s father. I ate lunch at the little café Steinbeck is thought to have frequented. In Monterey I lingered outside Doc’s Lab and listened to the sloshing of the sea and the distant cries of gulls swooping in the sky.

Image of John Steinbeck book on Fremont's PeakBefore Steinbeck left home for the last time in Travels with Charley he did “one formal and sentimental thing.” He climbed Fremont’s Peak, the highest point in the Salinas Valley, and contemplated the places he loved—where he “fished for trout” with his uncle; where his mother “shot a wildcat”; the “tiny canyon with a clear and lovely stream” where his father burned the initials of the girl he loved on an oak tree.

I followed John Steinbeck to the top of Fremont’s Peak on a warm Saturday in July. I felt the breeze cool the back of my neck as I contemplated the checkerboard of farmland below, the sun-kissed “valley of the world” celebrated in East of Eden and other books and stories. Close to the clouds, the air seems sacred up there, offering something bright and righteous to the open heart. Something pure. Something deeply personal and eternally familiar.

The Salt Has Kept its Savor For the Reader Who Finds Religious Meaning in John Steinbeck’s Land and People

Image of Day's End painting by Warren Chang

Although I have read and enjoyed most of John Steinbeck’s published writing, I am not a Steinbeck scholar and claim no special expertise. But I have lived in California’s Monterey County since 1950, and for many years I taught and coached in Salinas, the town where Steinbeck was born, went to school, and found religious meaning attending a local church. In a sense he never left, and my interpretation and appreciation of his work are colored by the land he lived on—the Salinas Valley and the Monterey Peninsula—and the people he wrote about: the poor and “the salt of the earth,” many of whom (to quote the Sermon on the Mount in the King James Version that Steinbeck read) had “lost their savour.”

In a sense Steinbeck never left Salinas or Monterey, and my interpretation and appreciation of his work are colored by the land he lived on and the people he wrote about.

Walking the hills and observing the vistas of Monterey County—from Fremont’s Peak in the Gabilans east of Salinas, to Mount Toro and the Corral de Tierra (the “pastures of heaven” where I now live), to Presidio Ridge in Monterey—these places have affected me deeply as I think they did John Steinbeck. Likewise, looking at the underground Salinas River from the East Garrison bluffs on the site of the former Fort Ord, where Steinbeck may have walked, suggests to me an undercurrent in the lives of the people who have lived on the surface of this land. Unavoidable, and taken for granted in Steinbeck’s time, were the sounds and smells and sights of Monterey Bay, of Cannery Row, of Fisherman’s Wharf, of lower Alvarado Street, of the Rodeo grounds in Salinas during Big Week, which he always enjoyed. Each one added to the grist and flavor of the characters and stories Steinbeck created or recreated in his fiction. I keep coming back to this all-encompassing environment when I read about his characters. These people were close to the earth.

I keep coming back to this all-encompassing environment when I read about his characters. These people were close to the earth.

As an impressionable boy in Salinas, Steinbeck observed poor Mexicans doing stoop labor in the fertile fields of the Long Valley near town, often alongside their children, who should have been in school. This  experience prepared him to empathize with the legions of poor Americans looking for jobs in California in the 1930s—with the Dust Bowl farm families displaced by drought and economic depression who populate The Grapes of Wrath, with the unemployed single men moving from ranch to ranch and harvest to harvest in Of Mice and Men and In Dubious Battle.

Image of Landscape with Red Pony painting by David Ligare

In the End Melancholy Lifts, Like the Monterey County Fog

During my time teaching and coaching in the schools of Steinbeck’s home town, I interacted with the children and grandchildren of these people. I don’t see “Okies” anymore, but increasingly I do see down-and-out people standing on the corner in downtown Salinas with cardboard signs asking for work or money. The harsh realities faced by rural and small town Americans prior to World War II—the displaced Americans poignantly painted on Steinbeck’s word canvases—seem to have returned. Other vestiges of Steinbeck’s California can be found if one takes the time to walk, look, and listen to the land and the people on whose behalf Steinbeck’s books still bear witness: the emigrants and the immigrants, the homeless and the lonely, the powerless, and those whose lives lack spiritual or religious meaning.

Vestiges of Steinbeck’s California can be found if one takes the time to walk, look, and listen to the land and the people on whose behalf Steinbeck’s books still bear witness.

Read the books, then walk the land—the Monterey County of The Red Pony, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, The Pastures of Heaven, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden and The Long Valley; the sister valleys of The Wayward Bus, In Dubious Battle, and To a God Unknown. The living land evoked by Steinbeck largely remains. So does the emotional and thematic undercurrent that runs like a river through the lives of his characters. Many are spiritually, educationally, economically, or socially disadvantaged, unhinged, or bereft. Some find religious meaning. Most do not.

The living land evoked by Steinbeck largely remains. So does the emotional and thematic undercurrent that runs like a river through the lives of his characters.

My reading reveals a human dynamic in Steinbeck’s characters mirroring that of the land they inhabit, sometimes barely: drought followed by flood; summers of suffering followed by winters of discontent; deserts of isolation broken by moments of sustaining humanity that I would call Christian charity. Often melancholy rolls in like the morning fog. But the fog breaks eventually, and Steinbeck’s endings, though rarely happy, always seem hopeful to me.

Day’s End, oil on canvas by Warren Chang, 20” x 30” (2008), courtesy of the artist. ©Warren Chang.

Landscape with a Red Pony, oil on canvas by David Ligare, 32” x 48” (1999), courtesy of the artist. ©David Ligare.

Steinbeck Now Publishes First Print Book and eBook

Cover image from Steinbeck: The Untold Stories

Steinbeck: The Untold Stories, a book of short stories about John Steinbeck’s life, family, and friends, has been published by SteinbeckNow.com in print and eBook format. Written by Steve Hauk, a playwright and fiction writer from Pacific Grove, California, the 16 short stories dramatize incidents in Steinbeck’s life—some real, some imagined—that take place over six decades, from the author’s childhood in Salinas, California to the years in New York, where his circle of family and friends included Burgess Meredith, Joan Crawford, and Elaine Steinbeck, the widow with whom Hauk had a memorable conversation 30 years after John Steinbeck’s death. Illustrated by Caroline Kline, an artist on California’s Monterey Peninsula, Steinbeck: The Untold Stories represents a milestone in the mission of SteinbeckNow.com to foster fresh thinking and new art inspired by Steinbeck’s life and work. If you are in a position to review or write about the book for publication in print or online, email williamray@steinbecknow.com for a review copy. Please identify the print publication or website, the date when your print piece or post will appear, and whether you prefer print or eBook format. Steinbeck: The Untold Stories is available through Amazon.com, in Monterey-area bookstores, and at Hauk Fine Arts in Pacific Grove and the National Steinbeck Center and Steinbeck House in Salinas, California.

Steve Hauk will autograph copies from 11:30 a.m. till 12:15 p.m. on Saturday, November 25, 2017, at the Pilgrim’s Way Community Bookstore on Dolores Street between 5th and 6th Streets in Carmel, California.