The Monterey Peninsula and John Steinbeck’s Myna Bird

Image of John Steinbeck sculpture in Monterey

Although I think he eventually changed his mind, in 1972 I was able to empathize with John Steinbeck’s dislike of being interviewed when a writer from National Geographic magazine came to California’s Monterey Peninsula to do a cover piece on the region. His name was Mike Edwards, and he phoned me to set up an interview. I had been a reporter for the Monterey Peninsula Herald, as it was called then, and had left there and was now working over the hill for the Carmel Pine Cone. Interviewing people was the same for both newspapers and I felt at ease with it. Being on the other side of the desk, being interviewed myself instead of doing the interviewing, seemed a natural, so I said yes when Mike called.

National Geographic Captured “Interesting Times” in 1972

Image of hippie near MontereyThese were interesting times in our region. The hippie movement was in full flux and kids were getting in trouble smoking weed and running away from Cleveland or Denver and hiding out from frantic parents on the Monterey Peninsula or down in Big Sur. I did a story for the Herald about a local mayor riding with the police to root out the hippies. The next day I encountered the mayor and, his eyes big, he said, “My God, that story you did on me—people are furious with me!’’ That reflects the way Monterey Peninsula people could be in those days. There was a lot of conservative money, yes, but most of the citizens believed in individual rights. They didn’t want a mayor to be a cop hassling hippies. When an oil company threatened to drill in Monterey Bay, protestors included hippies and others from the left, along with marchers from the right, joining in common cause. The oil company backed off.

When I met with Mike Edwards at my desk at the Pine Cone I was surprised to discover that, while interviewing others was easy, being interviewed made me uncomfortable. Though Mike was a gentleman, polite and professional, I was a nervous wreck. I was used to asking the questions, not answering them, and I was relieved when the November National Geographic appeared and I saw that Mike had been merciful. I was neither quoted nor mentioned in “A Land Apart – The Monterey Peninsula,’’ though I hoped I’d at least provided him with some decent background for his story.

Cover image from November 1972 National Geographic

Mike had come to the Monterey Peninsula deeply interested in the region through reading John Steinbeck. He wrote in his piece that he was drawn to the “derelict sheds – part corrugated metal, part masonry, part rusting clutter – that stand along the seven blocks of Cannery Row’’ by reading Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s friends Bruce and Jean Ariss helped him understand the area even more. The Arisses were on their way to becoming local legendary figures themselves, in part because of their friendship with Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, but also because they were talented artists of great strength and character. Bruce was a painter and writer. Jean was the author of two novels—The Quick Years and The Shattered Glass.

“Being Quotable” About the Title of The Grapes of Wrath

Cover image from "The Grapes of Wrath"“I spent an interesting afternoon in the company of Jean,” Mike wrote, “and her husband, Bruce, a writer, editor, and artist well known for his murals,” explaining that “they saw Steinbeck often in Edward Ricketts’ laboratory on the Row.‘’ After describing Steinbeck as “a large, thickset man, usually wearing jeans and a shabby sheepskin coat,” Jean told Mike about spending a day in 1939 with John Steinbeck, his wife Carol, and Ed Ricketts, going over the manuscript of John’s new novel, not yet titled. “She remembers Ricketts saying to Steinbeck, ‘This is a fine book – your best. It will win you the Nobel Prize.’ . . . The group spent the afternoon trying to think of a title, finally agreeing on ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ “

That’s what you call being quotable. John Steinbeck gave Carol credit for the title, so perhaps it was on the day Jean recalled in her interview with Mike Edwards. I wish Jean had been more specific. If she were, I’m sure Mike would have reported it. He went on to a distinguished career, writing 54 articles from around the world for National Geographic. He was honored by the Foreign Correspondents Association for his writing on the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl—something Steinbeck would have admired, the courage to cover that story—and he retired as a senior editor at National Geographic in 2002. He died last year in Arlington, Virginia.

Cover image from "Conversations with John Steinbeck"Why do I think John Steinbeck eventually changed his mind about being interviewed? Because of a collection of 26 articles, all quoting Steinbeck, titled Conversations with John Steinbeck, edited by Thomas Fensch and published by the University of Mississippi. At times Steinbeck comes across as taciturn and uncooperative. At others he really seems to be enjoying himself. My wife Nancy and I picked up a copy several years ago in a little shop on Lighthouse Avenue in New Monterey, which used to have a half-dozen bookstores specializing in collectible editions. At the time I was working on a play about Steinbeck, setting him in his New York apartment at night, the only other characters a ghost, a talking myna bird, and a whirring tape recorder.

I got the idea for the myna bird from a Steinbeck letter I traded for some years ago, a handwritten missive to Fred Zinnemann, the director of High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and other fine films. In the letter Steinbeck is giving the myna bird to Zinneman, and describes the bird’s character and required care. The tape recorder in the play was, I think (one can never be quite sure about these things) my own invention, perhaps inspired by reading that Steinbeck liked tinkering and “gadgets.”

The Imaginary Myna Bird With the Meaningful Name

Nancy and I took Conversations with John Steinbeck home, sat down on the couch, and opened it. One of the first interviews we read was a 1952 piece by New York Times drama critic Lewis Nichols interviewing Steinbeck in the author’s Manhattan apartment. They seemed to get along well as Steinbeck discussed work on the book that would become East of Eden. Steinbeck proudly mentioned having a writing room, something that—echoing Virginia Woolf—he considered of paramount importance. “This,” Nichols wrote, “is the first room of his own he ever has had.’’ Then: “It is a very quiet room. For companionship, Mr. Steinbeck would like to get a myna bird. With a tape recorder he would teach this to ask questions, never answer, just ask.’’

Representational image of myna birdWhen we read that, Nancy looked at me and we laughed. We felt we were channeling John Steinbeck, though to this day I still haven’t finished the play. Neither have I given up. Someday. And someday I’d like to elaborate on Steinbeck’s charming myna bird letter to Zinnemann. Steinbeck, incidentally, called the myna bird “John L.”

For the fighter John L. Sullivan? Or the labor leader John L. Lewis? Either one would be meaningful.

 

Birds Do It, Bees Do It, and John Steinbeck Did It, Too

Poster image of Migrations, theme of 2017 John Steinbeck festival

Movement was a major feature of John Steinbeck’s life and writing, and migration—human, animal, vegetable—is the focus of this year’s John Steinbeck festival in Salinas, California, scheduled May 5-7 to coincide with Cinco de Mayo, a favorite fiesta of the country Steinbeck visited often in the 1930s and 40s. Like the author himself, the 2017 John Steinbeck festival is peripatetic, moving between Salinas, Monterey, and Cannery Row, as Steinbeck did when he was writing the California books that made him famous. A three-day pass costs $180 and covers most Friday, Saturday, and Sunday events. A special concert in honor of the late Carol Robles—a frequent flyer and legendary tour planner—is free and features Dixieland music, an appropriate choice for a festival dedicated to John Steinbeck, a traveling man who loved jazz.

Image of 2017 John Steinbeck festival scheduleImage of 2017 John Steinbeck festival scheduleImage of 2017 John Steinbeck festival schedule

John Steinbeck Saw “Fake News” Coming When Donald Trump Was Still In Diapers

Image of "fake news' invasion

Did John Steinbeck discover “fake news” seven decades before President Donald Trump? Based on what he wrote about the mainstream media of his day in A Russian Journal, the author of The Grapes of Wrath came pretty close.

Cover image from John Steinbeck's 1948 book A Russian JournalA Russian Journal is Steinbeck’s first-person journalistic account of the trip he took with photographer Robert Capa in 1947 to the war-battered Soviet Union. In Chapter 1, before he sets off for Russia, Steinbeck describes why he and Capa mistrusted the way the news in America was being gathered, edited, and disseminated by the dominant print and electronic media of their day. It has a familiar ring:

We were depressed, not so much by the news but by the handling of it. For news is no longer news, at least that part of it which draws the most attention. News has become a matter of punditry. A man sitting at a desk in Washington or New York reads the cables and rearranges them to fit his own mental pattern and his by-line. What we often read as news now is not news at all but the opinion of one of half a dozen pundits as to what that news means.

Steinbeck didn’t call it “fake news.” And he was complaining about bias in the media from a partisan New York liberal Democrat’s point of view. But anyone whose politics are not located in the dead center of the political spectrum today can feel his pain.

Claims of political bias or slanted news coverage from the left and right were nothing new when A Russian Journal was published in 1948, and they’ve been with us ever since. Conservatives have complained about the liberal East Coast media for half a century. In the babble of our Talk Radio/Cable News/Digital Age the mainstream media is criticized 24/7 from a thousand sane and insane places. No faction is happy with the spin of the news. In 2016 a Bernie supporter or a lifelong Nation magazine subscriber was just as likely to be unhappy with CNN’s coverage of the election as a member of the Tea Party.

Composite image of John Steinbeck on journalism

The Mainstream Media’s Loss was Literature’s Gain

Though the young John Steinbeck was sacked as a New York City newspaper reporter because he couldn’t stop using his literary skills to improve on the facts, he was basically a journalist. A literary journalist. He had a love-hate for the journalism profession and its practitioners. He envied the ability of reporters to parachute into a strange place and quickly come up with the basic facts for a news story. But he also knew from experience that no journalist or writer—no matter how great—ever gets the whole story or captures more than just a glint of what really happened in a bank robbery, a presidential campaign, or a world war. He wrote this in A Russian Journal:

Capa came back with about four thousand negatives, and I with several hundred pages of notes. We have wondered how to set this trip down and, after much discussion, have decided to write it as it happened, day by day, experience by experience, and sight by sight, without departmentalizing. We shall write what we saw and heard. I know that this is contrary to a large part of modern journalism, but for that very reason it might be a relief. . . . This is just what happened to us. It is not the Russian story, but simply a Russian story.

Cover image from John Steinbeck's 1962 book Travels with CharleySteinbeck’s journalism was super-subjective–sometimes to a fault. Russian Journal was his story about the backward, unfree, monstrous USSR he glimpsed in 1947, just as Travels with Charley was his subjective story about the 1960 America he saw on his iconic 10,000-mile road trip. Both books started out as works of nonfiction–as ambitious acts of serious, albeit personal, journalism. In Charley the many fictions Steinbeck slipped into his story about America overwhelmed the “true” facts, and after 50 years its publishers had to admit that it was so fictionalized Charley could not be considered a credible account of how he traveled or whom he really met.

A Russian Journal has suffered no such loss of credibility. It’s a great work of subjective journalism—a rare glimpse into a dark and alien world by a keen observer. Anyone teaching college students how to report and write in a precise, interesting, and powerful way would be smart to have them study how well Steinbeck did it—his way, and under trying circumstances .

An Artful Reminder of Japanese American Internment 75 Years Ago

Image of George Matsasaburo Hibbi's painting from Topaz camp

The forced internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor distressed John Steinbeck, who admired Franklin Roosevelt, the president who signed the internment order. Today, exactly 75 years later, the memory of Executive Order 9066 continues to burden American history. An anniversary article on the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in the January 2017 issue of Smithsonian Magazine leads off with a profile of Jane Yanagi Diamond, a vibrant internment survivor I happen to know.

Image of Dorthea Lange's Photograph of young Jane Yanagi and family

The 1942 photograph taken by Steinbeck’s ally and contemporary Dorothea Lange (above) shows Jane as a sorrowing child holding on to her pregnant mother’s hand, moments before the Yanagi family boards a bus on the way to the emergency assembly center hastily set up by the federal government at a California racetrack. The family was then sent to Topaz, an internment camp in Utah that would also house two exceptional California artists, Chiura Obata and George Matsusaburo Hibi. Obata, an art instructor at UC Berkeley, and Hibi, a prolific painter from Hayward, California, founded an art school at Topaz that uncovered hidden talent and helped internees cope until the war ended and they could go home.

Image of George Matsasaburo Hibbi's painting of Topaz camp

Obata eventually returned to his teaching post at Cal and became famous for his Yosemite scenes. Hibi’s paintings included internment camp scenes like the one shown here. He was also magnanimous, donating 50 of his and his family paintings to the Hayward community before being sent to Topaz. Michael Brown, the author of Views from Asian California – 1920-1965, quotes Hibi as saying this about the gift: “There is no boundary in art. This is the only way I can show my appreciation to my many American friends here.’’ Obata died in 1975, Hibi in 1947, two years after his release from Topaz.

Image of Jane Yanagi Diamond at home in Carmel today

How Creating Art Helped Japanese Americans Survive

Obata and Hibi were part of a remarkable art movement in the Japanese American camps, most of which included professional artists who realized the importance of establishing a creative outlet for the internees. The work they produced–both professionals and students–was so moving, so powerful that in 1992 the Japanese American National Museum, the Wight Art Gallery at UCLA, and UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center assembled a landmark traveling exhibition, “The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps 1942-1945.” Hibi’s colorful painting of four Topaz internees seated at easels is testimony to the spirit of the movement he and Obata helped create.

Obata and Hibi were part of a remarkable art movement in the Japanese American camps, most of which included professional artists who realized the importance of establishing a creative outlet for the internees.

I was a reporter at the time, and I wrote several articles about the exhibition. My interest was initially stirred when I learned that a Japanese American artist named Miki Hayakawa was taken from my town of Pacific Grove, California, to an internment camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I knew Hayakawa was a superb artist because several of her exquisite paintings had come into the art gallery that my wife Nancy and I owned there. Hayakawa lived in Pacific Grove from 1939 until her removal to the camp and may well have known—or known of—John Steinbeck, who was in Pacific Grove off and on during that period. Hayakawa died in Santa Fe in 1953.

I was a reporter at the time, and I wrote several articles about the exhibition, ‘The World From Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945.’

I met Jane Yanagi Diamond (shown above at home) several years ago when she and her husband Tony came into the gallery. They live in Carmel and had a painting by Hibi that had hung at Topaz and that Hibi gave to Jane’s father when the family was released. Jane wanted to find a good home for the work and together we decided that it should return to Topaz, where a museum had been established to memorialize the internment of Japanese Americans like Jane. The piece was dramatic. Painted on four panels, it depicts three tigers stalking a brave antelope or gazelle, head down, determined to hold its ground in the face of an approaching threat. I wondered at the time if Hibi painted it to give children like Jane the courage they needed to go on.

I met Jane Yanagi Diamond when she and her husband Tony came into the gallery. They live in Carmel and had a painting by Hibi that had hung at the Topaz camp.

Jane developed a love of art, favoring the freedom of California plein air painting—work painted out of doors in an Impressionistic manner—and attending frequent art openings in and around Carmel with her husband. When an exhibition of Nancy’s paintings opened at the Pacific Grove Library several years ago, Tony and Jane were there. She recently shared a story about her father. “After Topaz,” she said, “whenever my father would get angry about something–sometimes something I might have done–I could always redirect his anger by mentioning Franklin Roosevelt because it brought back memories.”

Jane developed a love of art, favoring the freedom of California plein air painting and attending frequent art openings in and around Carmel with Tony. She recently shared a story about her father.

The Yanagi family also had the three tigers and the gazelle to help them hold onto a piece of personal history made less painful by art. But Hibi’s painting has now returned to Topaz, where it will continue to tell the story of artful courage and coping from a troubling episode in American history.

Photograph of Jane Yanagi Diamond by Paul Kitagaki Jr. courtesy Smithsonian Magazine.

Why John Steinbeck Matters In Donald Trump’s America

Image of Donald Trump as George Orwell's Big Brother

“Steinbeckian” hasn’t achieved the currency of “Orwellian” as a term of obloquy for despotic language or behavior, but a cheerfully statistical item in The Atlantic reports that sales of John Steinbeck’s novel The Winter of Our Discontent—like George Orwell’s 1984—have spiked under the authoritarian shadow of Donald Trump, a bully and a blowhard of Steinbeckian, if not Orwellian, stature. While less apocalyptic than George Orwell’s nightmare dystopia, the world of The Winter of Our Discontent seethes with rancid resentment, greed, and xenophobia of the noisy, feculent variety increasingly associated with Donald Trump’s resurgent, alt-right America. The Atlantic article explains: “If the links between the events of the recent year and Steinbeck’s last book don’t seem entirely clear, The Atlantic’s review, published in 1961, is illuminating: ‘What is genuine, familiar, and identifiable [about the book] is the way Americans beat the game: the land-taking before the airport is built, the quick bucks, the plagiarism, the abuse of trust, the near theft, which, if it succeeds, can be glossed over—these are the guilts with which Ethan will have to live in his coming prosperity, and one wonders how happily.’” Steinbeckian is a good term for a bad leader who beat the American game, achieving personal prosperity and political power through means that can only be described as Orwellian.

What I Learned from The Winter of Our Discontent

Image of high school students Googling

I’m a small-town high school teacher and newspaper columnist, and every month I pick a new book, usually a literary novel, to read and recommend to my followers, who seem to enjoy what I have to say. Recently I chose The Winter of Our Discontent, and I confess it was because of the title rather than the content. But John Steinbeck’s novel is an apt expression of what I see as the winter of our discontent in the United States today, and it reflects the reality I face every day in my classroom.

When I chose The Winter of Our Discontent, I confess it was because of the title rather than the content.

As John Steinbeck fans know, The Winter of Our Discontent tells the story of a simple grocery store clerk, an outwardly respectable man named Ethan Allen Hawley, and his moral descent into corruption and crime. Steinbeck’s moral tale gave me plenty of “ah-hah” and “why, yes” moments—the kind of experience one expects from excellent literature, and the reason I recommended it in my column. As Steinbeck notes in the novel, “A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it. Only then can he accept wonders.”

Steinbeck’s moral tale gave me plenty of ‘ah-hah’ and ‘why, yes’ moments—the kind of experience one expects from excellent literature, and the reason I recommended it in my column.

Though written years before the invention of the internet and social media, Steinbeck’s cautionary words are well-suited to our digitally-driven era. At this point in Steinbeck’s narrative, Ethan is thinking about how he has to shape his stories, or lies, to fit his hearers, and about a king in another story who told his secrets down a well because “It only receives, and the echo it gives back is quiet and soon over.” If only that were true today. For every tweet sent, there is usually a careless reader who misunderstands, misinterprets, or misappropriates the sender’s message, creating a backlash that becomes a raging beast that takes on a life of its own.

For every tweet sent, there is usually a careless reader who misunderstands, misinterprets, or misappropriates the sender’s message.

I don’t spend much time reading the comments people leave below online news stories or Facebook posts, but when I do I’m amazed at how far they wander from the point of the story or post. As Steinbeck knew, we take things out of context and add our own prejudices when we read or listen, and while I enjoy friendly banter as much as he did, I’m tired of the nastiness to which people increasingly resort when they don’t understand or approve of someone else’s point. I’m especially disgruntled when negative comments come from leaders who ought to know better and set an example for others.

As Steinbeck knew, we take things out of context and add our own prejudices when we read or listen.

As a school teacher, I recognized the truth in John Steinbeck’s unflattering portrayal of Ethan’s teenage children, particularly Ethan’s son Allen, and this line from the novel really made me laugh: “Three things will never be believed–the true, the probable, and the logical.” Often my students don’t believe me when I tell them something that is demonstrably true, then give instant credence to the next rumor they hear or read online, repeating it as if it were gospel truth. Fewer and fewer adults seem capable of logical thinking, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised. If you’re a teenager who isn’t capable of sound reasoning, you’re unlikely to believe someone who uses it. Like their parents, too many adolescents today are prepared to accept negative surface propaganda while doubting deeper truths.

Like their parents, too many adolescents today are prepared to accept negative surface propaganda while doubting deeper truths.

Is this because people want to take the easy way out of every problem, as Steinbeck suggests in The Winter of Our Discontent? Ethan is appalled when he learns that the patriotic essay for which Allen has won a cash award has been plagiarized. But Ethan’s reaction is hypocritical, because by this point in the story he has stooped pretty low himself. Unlike his father however, Allen shows no remorse, defending his behavior in much the same way my students defend their reliance on the internet so that they don’t have to do any thinking for themselves. Instead, when Allen’s plagiarism is exposed he gets mad at the person who ratted on him and utters the rallying cry of all cheaters and thieves: “‘Who cares? Everybody does it.’” Like John Steinbeck, I care, and I care very much. I’m weary of calling out cheaters like Allen in my classroom. Like Ethan in the novel, I sometimes think about throwing in the towel and calling it quits.

I’m weary of calling out cheaters like Allen in my classroom. Like Ethan in the novel, I sometimes think about throwing in the towel and calling it quits.

Ethan has had his own “Who cares?” moments growing up, but he had the advantage of a perfect teacher in his Aunt Deborah, a character I liked because I love words, grammar, literature, and everything associated with language, just as she does. When Ethan comes across the word talisman and asks her what it means, she tells him to look it up. As a result, he recalls, “So many words are mine because Aunt Deborah first aroused my curiosity and then forced me to satisfy it by my own effort. . . . She cared deeply about words and she hated their misuse as she would hate the clumsy handling of any fine thing.” When he finds the definition of talisman he discovers new words that he is forced to look up, too. “It was always that way,” he says. “One word set off others like a string of firecrackers.”

Aunt Deborah is a character I liked because I love words, grammar, literature, and everything associated with language, just as she does.

I highlighted the passage in the novel because I love the simile, and I love the way Steinbeck manages to incorporate his passion for words into an otherwise depressing story. Now, more than ever, we need Aunt Deborahs in our lives to make us aware of the beauty and magic of words at an early age. No doubt this idea impressed me because of the prejudices I bring with me to when I read John Steinbeck: others might roll their eyes because they don’t share my experience. Steinbeck fully understood the limitation we bring to our reading, and he wrote The Winter of Our Discontent in part, I believe, to help readers participate in the remedy he offers. Much has changed since The Winter of Our Discontent was written, but the deep truths to be discovered in Ethan’s story apply today. The winter of our discontent in the United States will end eventually, I hope sooner rather than later , but The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck will always have lessons for us—if we have ears to listen and love words enough to understand.

Of Mice and Men In the News

Image of Weekend Update anchor Colin Jost on Saturday Night Live

The January 21 episode of Saturday Night Live gave a shout-out to John Steinbeck during the weekly fake-news feature “Weekend Update,” further substantiating Steinbeck’s pop-culture standing and sending Of Mice and Men students back to the book to find out what George really says to Lennie at the end. Two-and-a-half minutes into the skit, faux news-anchor Colin Jost compares Barack Obama’s parting comment about Donald Trump (“it’s going to be ok”) with the assurance George gives Lennie before he shoots Lennie in the head. It’s a safe bet that the latest Of Mice and Men moment on TV will be seen by millions of schoolkids, and by hipper teachers too.

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.

Truth or Twitter? Why Donald Trump Is No John Steinbeck

Image of Donald Trump

Donald Trump bragged that someone once called him the Ernest Hemingway of Twitter. Unfortunately for us, the new president possesses neither the courage nor the self-control of Hemingway, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature for writing unforgettably about bravery under fire. And as the problems created by Trump-tweets pile up, the source of Trump’s addiction to Twitter has become clear. Eugene Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist, described it in words worthy of John Steinbeck: “Trump’s Twitter tantrums are a message of weakness.”

‘Donald Trump’s Twitter tantrums are a message of weakness.’—Eugene Robinson

When I read Trump’s recent Twitter attack on Congressman John Lewis, the venerated civil rights leader who, despite vivid memories and bloody images to the contrary, Trump had the temerity to write was “[a]ll talk, talk, talk – no action or results,” I was reminded of the lecture Toni Morrison gave when she won the Nobel Prize in 1993. Like the speeches of two previous Nobel Prize-winners, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, her lecture extolled the power of language in explaining and validating human experience. “We die,” she observed. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’—Toni Morrison

Echoing George Orwell, Morrison warned that “the systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forego its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation.” Foreshadowing Donald Trump’s grade school twitter-burns, she described “language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.”

‘Language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.’—Toni Morrison

At her popular blog BrainPickings.org, Maria Popova praised Toni Morrison’s lecture as “perhaps our most powerful manifesto for the responsibility embedded in how we wield the tool that stands as the hallmark of our species.” I agree with this assessment, and with Morrison’s Orwell-like admonition. “Whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities,” she said, “it must be rejected, altered and exposed.”

‘Whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, it must be rejected, altered and exposed.’—Toni Morrison

I also agree with Kyle Sammin, the lawyer and writer from Pennsylvania who advised Donald Trump to delete his Twitter account, quoting Calvin Coolidge: “[t]he words of the President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.” As Toni Morrison noted, Abraham Lincoln provides an even better example of presidential brevity: “When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, ‘The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here,’ his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war.”

‘The words of the President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.’—Calvin Coolidge

By the time Republicans convened in Cleveland last summer, I had already blogged that the Republican nominee for president was the antithesis of Abraham Lincoln. He’s no Coolidge either. Hell, he may not be as good as Dan Quayle, who at least had the sense to stop explaining when he misspelled “potato” at a Trenton, New Jersey elementary school during the 1992 campaign. As Arthur Delaney pointed out in a recent Huffington Post headline, “Donald Trump Can’t Stop Tweeting Mean Things About People.” America’s new president is like a gambler on an all-night binge in Atlantic City, compulsively feeding nickel-and-dime tweets, retweets, and mentions into the slot-machine of his ego.

‘Donald Trump Can’t Stop Tweeting Mean Things About People.’—Huffington Post headline

Since he shows no sign of stopping, Trump would do well to follow the example of John Steinbeck, whose son Thom—also a writer—had this to say about the virtue of authorial self-control during a 2012 interview with Alexander Jaffee. “Ultimately,” he noted, “the greatest amount of time in all writing is spent editing. My father said there’s only one trick to writing, and that’s not writing, that’s writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. Like sculpture. I mean, the first thing off the top of your head isn’t the most brilliant thing you ever thought of. And then when you’re writing about it, when you want others to understand what you’re still talking about, then it really requires that you edit yourself really, really well, so that other people can comprehend it.”

‘My father said there’s only one trick to writing, and that’s not writing, that’s writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.’—Thom Steinbeck

Sadly, Donald Trump has a problem in this area that no amount of self-editing can fix. Describing John Steinbeck’s honesty, Thom wrote: “[e]verything he wrote had truth to it. That’s what he was addicted to. He was addicted to the truth.” As demonstrated by Twitter attacks on true American heroes like John Lewis, Donald Trump has the opposite addiction.

 

The Hour of the Pearl: John Steinbeck’s America and the Election of Donald Trump

Image of "The Hour of the Pearl," oil on canvas by Ron Clavier

Donald Trump’s upcoming presidential inauguration is seen by many as ushering in a bizarre and unprecedented era, not only for Americans, but also for citizens of other countries. Yet, like similar ceremonies elsewhere, the presidential inauguration is merely a point on a timeline that began decades ago and culminated in the 2016 election. Because the trend is longstanding and disturbing, the outcome at hand threatens to take the course of history in a dangerous direction. Indeed, it might be said that deep beliefs of the American people, and profound principles of American democracy, are at the heart of an evolutionary process which, perhaps inevitably, produced the society reflected in the 2016 election.

For me, chief among the past thinkers who foresaw this most clearly is John Steinbeck, the writer who has most inspired my thinking and my art. For four decades he wrote of his love for America and his hatred of what his countrymen were doing to their country. Though the 2016 election might have been worse, past political campaigns have had their share of ugliness, as Steinbeck wrote in America and Americans, the last book he wrote. In it Steinbeck described the scars left by elections which he observed closely as a citizen, and in which he frequently participated by giving advice and drafting speeches on behalf of Democratic candidates for president. I would like to quote passages from Steinbeck’s writing, starting with America and Americans, to help readers of all cultures and all ages today comprehend Steinbeck’s moral genius in the context of the 2016 election and the upcoming presidential inauguration.

Once the nominations are completed, the campaigns for election begin—hurtful, libelous, nasty, murderous affairs wherein motives are muddied, names and reputations beshitten, families tarred and tawdried, friends and associates mocked, charged and clobbered. . . . In fact, the rules of nonsense are suspended during a Presidential election, as well as memories of honesty and codes of decency. (America and Americans, 1966)

While campaigning in 2015-16, Trump not only bragged about his repeated abuse of women, he also took advantage of campaign speeches to mock and blame women, as stupid men always have, for the infidelities of their men. How any woman could have voted for so misogynistic a man is beyond all reason. But this is only one example of his breathtaking disregard for the necessity and sanctity of societal rules. While insisting on law and order for others, he repeatedly flouted fundamental rules of engagement in past election discourse. In ignoring the traditional imperative of constructive and respectful debate—ridiculing the infirm, insulting opponents, disdaining other races and religions—he highlighted the very worst characteristic of the human species: cruelty.

It is the race, the species that must go staggering on . . . our ugly little species, weak and ugly, torn with insanities, violent and quarrelsome, sensing evil—the only species that knows evil and practices it—the only one that senses cleanliness and is dirty, that knows cruelty and is unbearably cruel. (Burning Bright, 1950)

Over the millennia most of us have learned to obey the rules or suffer punishment for breaking them. But most important, even the rule-breaker knew he was wrong and the others right; the rules were understood and accepted by everyone. . . . Could this be our difficulty, that gradually we are losing our ability to tell the difference? The rules fall away in chunks and in the vacant place we have a generality: ‘It’s alright because everybody does it.’ (America and Americans)

It is a rare morning when our newspapers do not report bribery, malfeasance, and many other forms of cheating on the part of public officials who have used the authority vested in their positions for personal gain. Of course we don’t hear of the honest men, but the danger lies not in the miscreants but in our attitude toward them. Increasingly we lose our feeling of wrong. (America and Americans)

It is probable that here is where morals–integrity, ethics, even charity–have gone. The rules allowed us to survive, to live together and to increase. But if our will to survive is weakened, if our love of life and our memories of a gallant past and faith in a shining future are removed–what need is there for morals or for rules? Even they become a danger. (America and Americans)

In promoting his violent version of authoritarian populism, Donald Trump used outrageous lies, frequently disproved, to foster fear and anger in the American electorate. For example, last August he accused President Obama and Hillary Clinton of “founding” the Islamic State, the same method used by McCarthy to smear citizens and officials he accused of aiding Russia.

. . . as Joseph McCarthy proved, the more ridiculous the charge, the less possibility there is of defense. (America and Americans)

Now for many years we have suckled on fear and fear alone, and there is no good product of fear. Its children are cruelty and deceit and suspicion germinating in our darkness. And just as surely as we are poisoning the air . . . so we are poisoned in our souls by fear, faceless, stupid, sarcomic terror. (Once There Was a War, 1958)

The job insecurity and looming poverty that threatens many Americans has placed real fear in their hearts. Trump succeeded by exploiting this unrest, as well as claims about “illegal immigrants” that are as effective today as they were when Steinbeck used them to plot The Winter of Our Discontent.

Men don’t get knocked out. . . . What kills them is erosion; they get nudged into failure. They get slowly scared . . . It rots your guts. . . . I can’t think beyond next month’s payment on the refrigerator . . . I hate my job and I’m scared I’ll lose it. . . . But I know when you’re sick you need medicine or maybe an operation or maybe a shock. Our people were daring men. You know it. They didn’t let themselves get nibbled to death. And now times are changing. There are opportunities our ancestors never dreamed of. And they’re being picked up by foreigners. Foreigners are taking us over. Wake up . . . . (The Winter of Our Discontent, 1961)

And those who believe that these elements of the 2016 election were without precedent, or are likely to go away soon, are kidding themselves.

Ideas are not dangerous unless they find seeding place in some earth more profound than the mind . . . .they are ineffective without the black earth of discontent to grow in . . . . In each case, the idea is dangerous only when planted in unease and disquietude. But being so planted, growing in such earth, it ceases to be an idea and becomes an emotion. . . . (Sea of Cortez, 1941)

Meanwhile, Donald Trump claimed he was “smart” for avoiding paying taxes without admitting that he did.

If a man has money, he doesn’t ask, ‘Can I afford this?’ but, ‘Can I deduct it?’ Two men fight over a luncheon bill when both of them are going to deduct it anyway—a whole nation conditioned to dishonesty by its laws, because honesty is penalized. (Sweet Thursday, 1954)

There are, I am told, rich men who are willing to be dishonest. I believe I am safe in saying there are none who are willing to admit they are fools. (The Short Reign of Pippin IV, 1957)
We know about our tycoons only when they are giving something away, and their gifts and foundations are usually a means of keeping their money out of the hands of the tax collector. (America and Americans)

Trump also promised to reverse some of America’s most progressive legislation and to “drain the swamp” in Washington, blaming media, political opponents, and intellectual elites for the unrest and suspicion about government that he exploited more effectively than other candidates.

. . . we seem to be in a state of turmoil all the time, both physically and mentally. We are able to believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and at the same time we are deeply convinced that it is the best government in the world, and we would like to impose it on everyone else. (America and Americans)

We shout that we are a nation of laws, not men—and then we proceed to break every law we can if we can get away with it. (America and Americans)

Continuing his assault on progressive government, Trump used anxiety and anger about Islamic terrorism to churn up fear and marginalize Muslims, forgetting one of the most fundamental aspects of America’s success—tolerance, acceptance, and the willingness to help others.

Americans are remarkably kind and hospitable and open with both guests and strangers; and yet they will make a wide circle around the man dying on the pavement. Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence. (America and Americans)

Trump’s repeated vow as a candidate to name conservatives to the Supreme Court far enough right to satisfy religious fundamentalists is a violation of a core principle guaranteed by the U.S. constitution: the separation of church and state.

We constantly rediscover the excellence of the architecture of our government. It has been proof not only against foreign attack but against our own stupidities, which are sometimes more dangerous. (America and Americans)

The narcissism of Trump’s claim that only he can fix things is clinical in nature, and will prevent him from doing what doesn’t benefit him personally. E pluribus unum: does he know what America’s founding motto means?

The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. (America and Americans)

In the past, unless a president acted illegally, Americans respected both the office and the office holder. This civility has been shredded.

We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him. (America and Americans)

But it isn’t enough for those who oppose Donald Trump to blame those who supported him. Americans, all of them, must recognize their own contribution to, and accept responsibility for, the situation in which they find themselves.

In the present climate of whining self-pity, of practiced sickness, of professional goldbricking, of screaming charges about whose fault it is, one hears of very few who do their own time, who take their rap and don’t spread it around. It is as though the quality of responsibility has atrophied. (America and Americans)

Unfortunately, a sense of entitlement to leisure and luxury at impossibly low cost has led to an obese, lazy, solipsistic, violent, substance-dependent population in some sectors of the United States. Blaming foreigners for illegal drugs, to take one example, is unacceptable. If there were no market, there would be no importation.

I strongly suspect that our moral and spiritual disintegration grows out of our lack of experience with plenty. Once, in a novel, I wrote about a woman who said she didn’t want a lot of money. She just wanted enough. To which her husband replied that just enough doesn’t exist. There is no money or not enough money. A billionaire still hasn’t enough money. . . . Having many things seems to create a desire for more things, more clothes, houses, automobiles . . . . We are trapped and entangled in things. (America and Americans)

As a Canadian who has lived in the USA and benefited from its largess, it pains me deeply to witness this insanity. But the truth is that for too long America has touted success without admitting failure—and ignored the existence or validity of cultures in other countries, including Canada.

We in the United States . . . should be taken as a horrible example and our methods avoided by any government and people enlightened enough . . . . (Sea of Cortez)

As a scientist, I’m particularly concerned about a president-elect who ignores science when convenient and who makes frequent unfounded assertions based on hearsay rather than provable fact.

. . . the most dangerous tendency in the world is the desire to believe a rumor rather than to pin down a fact. (A Russian Journal, 1948)

Perhaps the most serious example of this ignorance is Trump’s denial of global warming, which he appeared to take back slightly after being elected. Unfortunately his cabinet appointments confirm the inconvenient truth that, for purposes of governing, he doesn’t believe the climate is really changing—or if it is, that human waste and carbon-dependency is a contributing factor than can or should be checked.

With our own resources we have been prodigal, and our country will not soon lose the scars of our grasping stupidity. (Sea of Cortez)

[The] tendency toward irresponsibility persists in very many of us today; our rivers are poisoned by reckless dumping of sewage and toxic industrial wastes, the air of our cities is filthy and dangerous to breathe from the belching of uncontrolled products from combustion of coal, coke, oil, and gasoline. Our towns are girdled with wreckage and the debris of our toys—our automobiles and our packaged pleasures. Through uninhibited spraying against one enemy we have destroyed the natural balances our survival requires. All these evils can and must be overcome if America and Americans are to survive; but many of us still conduct ourselves as our ancestors did, stealing from the future for our clear and present profit. (America and Americans)

Above all, Donald Trump is a bully’s bully. His blatantly hyperbolic claims during the campaign callously played on the economic fears of Americans while exploiting their pain for his gain. His campaign rhetoric and behavior since winning have made me fearful, too. As a foreigner, I now fear that by setting foot in America I will be subject to the kind of disrespect and violence sanctioned, for the first time in my memory, by the highest office in the land.

Until I have evidence that this fear is unwarranted—and for as long as Donald Trump is president—I have decided not to re-enter the United States. I regret this because I have close friends and family members in America I will miss seeing. But when Americans say they want to be “great again” it sounds to me as if they will only be comfortable when they are once again the dominant “winners” of the world. It reminds me of the bully who tweets almost daily that those who disagree with him are “losers.” Such disrespect makes me feel unwelcome and unsafe in Donald Trump’s America.

When I joined the Advisory Board of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University two years ago, I hoped my work as a Canadian artist, scientist, and humanist would offer a helpful perspective and foster the values espoused by John Steinbeck in his life and writing. As a result of the 2016 election, however, I now fear that America will drift even farther from Steinbeck’s hopeful daylight into the darkness of anger, cynicism, and crude mockery embodied by the president-elect.

I briefly considered resigning my duties on the Steinbeck center’s board; but because I’m an optimist, like Steinbeck, I have decided to stay. I am confident that the pall over America will lift eventually, as day follows night. Meanwhile, technology makes it possible for me to participate in meetings, and Steinbeck’s delicate metaphor of the “hour of the pearl” reminds us that the transition from darkness back to light is a fundamental truth of science, art, and the arc toward justice of human history.

Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter. . . . It is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest . . . the air is cool and fresh. . . . Very few people are about, just enough to make it seem more deserted than it is. . . . the hour of the Pearl—the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself. (Cannery Row, 1945)

Today, on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, I urge self-examination on others, and the resolution to forsake all that Steinbeck felt was the worse in us.

I have named the destroyers of nations: comfort, plenty, and security—out of which grow a bored and slothful cynicism, in which rebellion against the world as it is or myself as I am are submerged in listless self-satisfaction. (America and Americans)

On behalf of SteinbeckNow.com, to which I will continue to contribute, I also urge readers of this post to respond by commenting, or by sharing their thoughts in a guest-author post of their own. Whether or not you agree with my decision to stay away from America until the madness passes, engagement with American values and principles embraced by Steinbeck during his lifetime is to participate in the books he wrote in the way he wanted: actively, with empathy, imagination, and faith that the Hour of the Pearl will come again to our world.

The Hour of the Pearl, oil on canvas by Ron Clavier.