“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.
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.
John Steinbeck wasn’t a fan of science fiction, but Stephen King, the reigning master of the form, is a fan of Steinbeck and his books, including Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s 1937 novella about George and Lennie plays a particularly important role in 11/22/63, King’s alternate history of America, published on November 8, 2011, five years to the day before Americans elect their 45th president. The TV adaptation of King’s novel downplayed Of Mice and Men but mentioned Steinbeck and starred James Franco, who played George on Broadway and Mac in the 2016 movie adaptation of In Dubious Battle. Like Steinbeck’s 1936 novel about the conflict between modern labor and capital, King’s horror-history of America after 1963 is powerful projection of a political divide that Steinbeck regretted but understood.
Of Mice and Men aside, the major alteration made in Hulu TV’s version of 11/22/63 is in the chain of events set in motion by Franco’s character, a high school English teacher from Maine who time-travels to Dallas to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John Kennedy. While underscoring the danger of messing with the past, which like Texas resists interference, King’s story also deals with complexities of cause, effect, and unintended consequences around issues that preoccupy Americans from both political camps today—terrorism, race relations, and climate change, whether acknowledged (Hillary Clinton) or denied (Donald Trump).
In King’s alternate history of America, Kennedy lives to serve two terms but fails to enact civil rights legislation, end the escalating war in Southeast Asia, or prevent the election of George Wallace in 1968. President Wallace—a proto-Trump figure with a trigger-happy VP—firebombs Chicago, goes nuclear in Vietnam, and leaves an apocalyptic mess for a series of feckless, one-term successors that includes Humphrey, Reagan, and Clinton (Hillary, not Bill). Skipping this intervening narrative, the Hulu miniseries fast-forwards to a post-apocalyptic America populated by alien “Kennedy camps” and terrorist street gangs with dirty bombs—a version of alternate history certain to offend people who revere Kennedy while fulfilling the worst fears of those who revile Donald Trump.
Both groups include fans who will be disappointed in the diminished attention paid to John Steinbeck in the TV version of 11/22/63, where Of Mice and Men is basically limited to a favorite-book comment made by Franco’s character to the librarian who becomes his love interest. In the novel, long but not too long at 850 pages, Of Mice and Men provides dramatic depth, character development, and thematic amplification absent from the eight-part miniseries. Early in the book Franco’s character ponders the challenge of “exposing sixteen-year-olds to the wonders of Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Shirley Jackson.” Later, while teaching in Texas, he directs Of Mice and Men in a high school production that provides a dimension of joy sadly missing from the miniseries: “At that moment I cared more about Of Mice and Men than I did about Lee Harvey Oswald . . . . I thought that Vince looked like Henry Fonda In The Grapes of Wrath.”
Of Mice and Men Helps 11/22/63 Connect with America
Stephen King, who co-wrote and produced the Hulu series, must share the blame—if that’s the word—for shortchanging John Steinbeck in the interest of narrative compression. The loss is regrettable, and in light of another change unnecessary as well. The first incidence of time travel in the novel takes place in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, a nightmare venue familiar to Stephen King fans from his other books. This episode is important, and it includes a character named Bill Turcotte, a slow-moving, middle-aged loser who threatens Franco’s character and gets left behind in Derry. In the TV version, the Derry action takes place in Kentucky and Turcotte—a wound-up ingénue—stays in the story as a sidekick, all the way to Dallas and the confrontation with Oswald. Unlike Derry and its scary clowns, Turcotte’s Kentucky feels tame. And the time devoted to his character, played by a 23-year-old English actor with a lousy Southern accent, would have been better invested in keeping Of Mice and Men, an essential piece of Americana, in the picture.
John Steinbeck, Donald Trump, and the King of Horror
But that’s a quibble. More important is the attention drawn to the phenomenon described years ago by the historian Richard Hofstadter as the paranoid style in American politics. During a recent interview with the book editor of The Washington Post, Stephen King confessed that “a Trump presidency scares me more than anything else.” Exercising and exorcising paranoia is what King does in his writing, of course, so whatever the outcome of this week’s election, it’s safe to assume that a scary-Trump novel will be making us scream soon. Maybe an alternate history of America since 2011? With John Steinbeck as a modern-day time traveler on a mission, like James Franco’s character in 11/22/63, to rewrite the record and save us from ourselves?
Shortly after emigrating to America in 1939 with the poet W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, the British author of Berlin Stories, wrote a review of The Grapes of Wrath for Kenyon Review, the new American literary magazine that—like John Steinbeck—quickly gained prestige and influence with readers and critics in the United States. Intimate friends since school days in England, Isherwood and Auden arrived in New York in January. Isherwood moved on to California, and in July confided this to his diary: “I forced myself to write—a review of The Grapes of Wrath and a short story called “I Am Waiting”—but there was no satisfaction in it.” Despite his mood, Isherwood’s review of The Grapes of Wrath was upbeat and positive; like the diaries, novels, and plays that he produced over five decades in America, his insights (and criticism) seem as fresh today as they were in 1939. What made Christopher Isherwood, an adoptive American, so receptive to John Steinbeck’s all-American novel when it was published? Temperamentally and socially the two men were opposites. Steinbeck preferred privacy and solitude to self-confession and self-promotion, the distinguishing features of Isherwood’s career as the main character in his books. Steinbeck’s people were middle-class, immigrant, and self-made; Isherwood came from landed gentry with deep roots in English history. But both men believed in the power of sympathy and synchronicity, and coincidence can be as important as difference in life, as in literature.
John Steinbeck, Christopher Isherwood, and Synchronicity
Both writers were born in the decade prior to World War I, when America—like England—was outgrowing Victorianism. Both were christened (and later confirmed) into the Anglican Church, an experience that effected their prose style, if not their souls. Each was an elder or only son in a family dominated by an ambitious mother: Isherwood’s father was a British infantry officer who was killed at Ypres in 1915, leaving behind a wife and two sons, an older brother who inherited the Isherwood fortune, and three younger siblings with Steinbeckian names—John, Esther, and Mary. From childhood, John Steinbeck and Christopher Isherwood were imaginative storytellers with a drive to write that drove them to drop out of college to follow their muse. By 1940 both had achieved success in their calling and hobnobbing with film-world celebrities and hangers-on in Hollywood. Despite holding opposite views about the value of autobiography, both worked well in various forms, writing novels, play-novelettes, travel books, and war correspondence that attracted a following. Each loved the warmth of the sun and the sound of the sea—unlike W.H. Auden, who stayed behind in New York in 1939 when Isherwood left for Los Angeles, where Isherwood remained until he died in 1986. (He became an American citizen in 1946.) Oddly, though Hollywood was a village and they had mutual friends in the business, neither Isherwood’s dairies not Steinbeck’s biographers suggest that they ever met.
W.H. Auden and His Kind Weren’t John Steinbeck’s
Nature and nurture conspired to keep them apart. Like other members of W.H. Auden’s circle, Isherwood was openly gay from an early age. Steinbeck grew up in small-town Salinas, where deviance was closeted; the Isherwoods were cosmopolitan provincials with property in London (Isherwood’s Uncle Henry was homosexual, and a jurist ancestor signed King Charles’s death warrant). Unlike Steinbeck, who struggled at the start and stayed in America until established, Isherwood inherited position, connections, and cash that helped pave his way, traveling extensively in Europe before settling in America. His exploration of Berlin’s pre-Nazi gay underground provided material for the 1930s Berlin fiction later adapted for stage and screen as Cabaret. His early novels—All the Conspirators (1928), The Memorial (1932), Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935)—sold better than Steinbeck’s books—Cup of Gold, The Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown—published in the same period. Above all, his relationships with other writers differed dramatically from those of Steinbeck. Isherwood was a born extrovert who wrote poetry and plays with W.H. Auden and nourished friendships with other famous authors, including Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann. Steinbeck took a disliking to Alfred Hitchcock, the quintessentially English snob who directed the war movie (Lifeboat) scripted by Steinbeck. Isherwood’s collaboration with the Austrian director Berthold Viertel was so gratifying that he wrote a novel (Prater Violet) about their friendship.
A Neglected Grapes of Wrath Review, Still Relevant Today
Christopher Isherwood had a reputation as a ready reviewer when he arrived in America with W.H. Auden, so the Grapes of Wrath assignment made sense. Although the piece he produced for The Kenyon Review is mentioned in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews (Cambridge University Press, 1996), that helpful anthology omits the full text, which seems a shame. Fortunately, it can be found in Exhumations (Simon and Schuster, 1966), a collection of Isherwood’s stories, articles, and verse that also includes reviews of authors (Stevenson, Wells, T.E. Lawrence) of interest to Steinbeck and Isherwood, two writers with more in common than their differences suggest. Here are four samples, still relevant, from the 1939 review of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath:
(1) On the Promise of Steinbeck’s California
“Meanwhile, the sharecroppers have to leave the Dust Bowl. They enter another great American cycle—the cycle of migration towards the West. They become actors in the classic tragedy of California. For Eldorado is tragic, like Palestine, like every other promised land.”
(2) On Participating in Steinbeck’s Story
“It is a mark of the greatest poets, novelists and dramatists that they all demand a high degree of co-operation from their audience. The form may be simple, and the language as plain as daylight, but the inner meaning, the latent content of a masterpiece, will not be perceived without a certain imaginative and emotional effort. . . . The novelist of genius, by presenting the particular instance, indicates the general truth [but] the final verdict, the ultimate synthesis, must be left to the reader; and each reader will modify it according to his needs. The aggregate of all these individual syntheses is the measure of the impact of a work of art upon the world.”
(3) On Didacticism in Fiction
“Mr. Steinbeck, in his eagerness for the cause of the sharecroppers and his indignation against the wrongs they suffer, has been guilty, throughout this book, of such personal, schoolmasterish intrusions upon the reader. Too often we feel him at our elbow, explaining, interpreting, interfering with our independent impressions. And there are moments at which Ma Joad and Casy—otherwise such substantial figures—seem to fade into mere mouthpieces, as the author’s voice comes through, like the other voice on the radio.”
(4) On Art vs. Life in Novels
“If you claim that your characters’ misfortunes are due to the existing system, the reader may retort that they are actually brought about by the author himself. Legally speaking, it was Mr. Steinbeck who murdered Casy and killed Grampa and Granma Joad. In other words, fiction is fiction. Its truths are parallel to, but not identical with, the truths of the real world.”
Henry David Thoreau, Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck liked to fish, and the pantheon of American literature is populated by a legion of other sports-loving authors who celebrated the pleasures of fly fishing—like writing, a solitary pursuit requiring patience, persistence, and skill. Few scholars of American literature have made the connection between fly fishing and writing in their careers as convincingly as the poet-scholar Robert DeMott, Kennedy Distinguished Professor Emeritus of American Literature at Ohio University. The author of essential studies of John Steinbeck’s reading and writing, DeMott is also the editor of Working Days, the collection of journals kept by Steinbeck while writing The Grapes of Wrath, and of an anthology, Astream: American Writers on Fly Fishing. All this makes the title of his new book—Angling Days: A Fly Fisher’s Journals—doubly poetic, particularly for fans of John Steinbeck. “No matter how deeply and obsessively I go into fly fishing for trout, a passion of mine for 60 years,” DeMott says, “I try never to lose sight of John Steinbeck’s comment in a lovely little essay of his called ‘On Fishing,’ that ‘any man who pits his intelligence against a fish and loses has it coming.’” Angling Days will be released by Skyhorse Publishing on June 28. Whether or not you love fly fishing like DeMott, it belongs on your John Steinbeck shelf.
“Your only weapon is your work.” That was John Steinbeck’s advice to writers in a 1957 letter to Dennis Murphy, the son of Steinbeck’s boyhood pal John Murphy. Like Steinbeck’s mother, the Murphy family of Salinas had Irish roots, and Irishness figured later in Steinbeck’s autobiographical writing. So it’s appropriate that Colum McCann—the Irish author (shown here) who posts a weekly letter of advice to young writers on his website—makes such a point of comparing New York Times investigative reporter Dan Barry to John Steinbeck in blurbs and interviews about Barry’s new book, The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland. Listen to Colum McCann’s May 23 New York Times Insider interview— “The Closest We Have to Steinbeck” —and learn how Dan Barry’s expose of one recent case of human exploitation in Iowa echoes Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath—the weapon John Steinbeck used to expose living conditions for victim labor in California 80 years ago.
From The Grapes of Wrath to Cesar Chavez: A New Life of Fred Ross, Social Activist And Community Organizer
Barack Obama’s time as a community organizer was brief. But the long career of Fred Ross, the legendary community organizer who followed Tom Collins and Harold Tefft at the migrant camp portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath, extended from the 1930s to the era of Cesar Chavez, the California labor leader who made boycott a household word in America, 25 years after Steinbeck wrote his novel. The versatile life and lasting influence of Ross—a teacher, social worker, and activist for workers’ rights—are the subject of America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century by the journalist Gabriel Thompson, published this week by the University of California Press. The following excerpt from the book was chosen by the author and is used with his permission.—Ed.
On his first day at the Arvin camp, Ross was shown around the camp by departing manager Harold Tefft. When a drunk resident approached and let loose with a string of curses, Tefft shoved the man to the ground and began pummeling him in the face.
Ross had unknowingly walked into a firestorm. Several weeks earlier, more than a hundred residents had signed a handwritten petition requesting the removal of Tefft and sent it to the FSA [Farmer Security Administration] headquarters in San Francisco. They accused him of entering the women’s bathroom without warning, ignoring decisions made by the camp council, and “beating the Osborne child with a handsaw.”
It was an ironic turn of events at what had been considered the crown jewel of the migrant camps. The first manager of Arvin was the brilliant Tom Collins, a slight man with a square jaw and finely trimmed mustache who took the Okies’ cause as his own. Raised in an orphanage, Collins had trained for the priesthood, managed a school system in Guam, and aspired to write novels (one of his unfinished books was titled “Oklatopia”). “He is one of the most unusual persons I have ever met,” wrote one FSA director, “with infinite capacity for good work and at his best when he is nearly killed with work.”
The first manager of Arvin was the brilliant Tom Collins, a slight man with a square jaw and finely trimmed mustache who took the Okies’ cause as his own.
When John Steinbeck visited the camp while gathering material for The Grapes of Wrath, he was impressed by what Collins had accomplished. “I want to thank you for one of the very fine experiences of a life,” he wrote. “I hope I can be of some help.” Collins became Steinbeck’s “migrant liaison,” with the pair traveling the valley to visit and assist desperate farmworkers. (It was while traveling with Collins that Steinbeck helped families who had been washed out during the tremendous floods of 1938.) Steinbeck would partially dedicate The Grapes of Wrath “to Tom who lived it,” and he portrayed the Arvin camp as a utopian paradise.
In the book, the Joads have fled a squatter camp to arrive at Weedpatch in the middle of the night, exhausted and filthy. A security guard welcomes them and explains the basics: the camp has running water and toilets; police aren’t allowed inside without a warrant; an elected committee of workers makes the rules. The Joads, who have thus far suffered one misfortune after another, are incredulous. Tom asks the guard, “You mean to say the fellas that run the camp is jus’ fellas—camping here?” The guard replies, “Sure. And it works.”
That utopia, no doubt idealized by Steinbeck, was in shambles when Ross arrived. The elected council was moribund and most of the recreational events, which Collins believed so central to creating a sense of community, had been scrapped. In his last report, Tefft did hit one positive note, writing that he had been warmly received after addressing a group of farmers, who appreciated his efforts “to cooperate with them in furnishing labor at the established wage scale.” The established wage scale was miserly. Tefft, essentially, was being thanked by growers for convincing camp residents to work for low wages without complaint.
That utopia, no doubt idealized by Steinbeck, was in shambles when Ross arrived.
Ross set out to repair the damage done by Tefft. Although the manager held ultimate power at the camp, on both a personal and professional level Ross needed the residents to like him. “I wouldn’t have been happy if even one person had been against me,” he later said. After moving into the manager’s quarters, he began to visit residents at the crack of dawn, before they headed out to the fields, moving from tent to tent, making small talk, and drinking huge amounts of coffee. It was the perfect training ground for an organizer. The camp had its share of stubborn folks—it took a certain amount of stubbornness to keep going after the hardships they’d endured—and while they appreciated good company as much as the next person, they were weary of patronizing attitudes. “Hypocrisy, pretense, insincerity, lack of interest in their problems and in them—these evils we can never hide from them,” wrote Collins, who wasn’t immune from occasionally striking patronizing tones himself. While sympathetic to the plight of the migrants, some in the FSA viewed them as stunted creatures unable to grasp basic concepts, or mounds of so much clay that reformers needed to reshape in their image. The buzzword of the day was “rehabilitate,” which captured the arrogance of this position. One supervisor, visiting Arvin in 1936, wrote that the migrants “seem almost childlike at times, as indeed they are.” They weren’t childlike, of course. They were poor.
Like Collins, Ross was fascinated by the migrants. “What started out as a way to win them [over],” Ross later said, “almost immediately became a driving interest to be around them, learn about them, pick up their stories. If you are really interested, listening comes naturally.” As he had with Mulligan, Ross chatted for hours, soon becoming a member of what he called the “spit and argue” club, an informal group that held long, rambling discussions. His curiosity and sympathy won many over. One resident called the previous managers at Arvin “educated men, who have never done any real work,” and likened them to “dictators.” He considered Ross, on the other hand, “an educated man but when he came here he acted as one of the boys. . . . He didn’t act one bit better than his staff or the people in the camp. And he’s always got time to say a few words to you.”
Within months, the visits were bearing fruit. “Practically all traces of the recent difficulties at Arvin Camp have disappeared,” wrote a supervisor after visiting. “Mr. Ross is doing an excellent job of promoting camper recreation and activities.” By the fall, communal events were held every night of the week, a new council was elected, a co-op store was formed, and a camp newspaper, the Tow Sack Tattler, was being published.
Luke Hinman showed up at Arvin in early September, just as the cotton harvest was getting under way. Tall and skinny, wearing a ragged leather jacket and driving a junk heap of a car, he looked every bit the hardened radical he was. Five years older than Ross, the ex-Wobbly had joined the Communist Party, volunteered for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and returned from Spain to fight on behalf of farmworkers. He was coming off a weeklong stint in jail, the result of supporting striking workers in Marysville, and asked Ross if the camp’s community hall was available.
Hinman was the statewide director of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). Established in 1937 and affiliated with the upstart
Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the union sought to organize the “unskilled” field workers long ignored by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Had he arrived earlier in the year, Hinman would have been sent packing: under Tefft, the camp council had banned union meetings and forbidden the posting of union material on the bulletin board. But the arrival of
Ross signaled a change in politics. When growers publicly burned The Grapes of Wrath and Kern County pulled it from libraries and schools, residents at the camp sent a letter of protest, while passing a well-worn copy of the banned book from tent to tent. The editor of the new camp paper was a CIO activist, and he filled the pages with militant slogans—“An Injury to One Is an Injury to All”—and poems with unsubtle titles like “Join the Union.” The council voted to allow the CIO inside, and soon Hinman and another organizer, Wyman Hicks, were spending their nights talking union with residents in their tents. Ross often poked his head in to listen, amazed at the audacity of their project: two broke but fearless organizers, responsible for the entire state, were itching for a fight against the powerful growers. When it got late, Hinman and Hicks bedded down on the patch of grass beneath Ross’s window.
The battle lines being drawn were over what constituted a “fair wage” for cotton pickers. California’s newly elected liberal governor, Culbert Olson, had pegged muckraking journalist Carey McWilliams to be the state’s commissioner of immigration and housing. McWilliams, no friend of big growers, moved quickly, tripling the number of labor inspectors and hosting a public hearing in Fresno, where he determined that a fair cotton rate for the season was $1.25 per hundred pounds picked. The growers balked, offering 80 cents. While the state couldn’t enforce the higher wage, McWilliams promised that any worker who refused to work for less wouldn’t be cut from the relief rolls. Big growers “screamed like banshees,” but McWilliams didn’t back down. It was such policies, and his hard-hitting exposé of big agriculture, Factories in the Field, that would cause the Associated Farmers to label McWilliams “Agricultural Pest No. 1 in California, outranking pear blight and boll weevil.” In the coming years, the paths of Ross and McWilliams would frequently intersect, with Ross coming away deeply influenced by McWilliams’s analysis of farm labor. Decades later, Ross would insist that United Farm Workers volunteers read Factories in the Field to better appreciate the nature of the beast they were up against.
The battle lines being drawn were over what constituted a ‘fair wage’ for cotton pickers.
UCAPAWA launched a strike in Kern County on October 9, 1939, calling for the $1.25 wage rate. The strike, coming soon after publication of The Grapes of Wrath, caught the attention of the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Agricultural Organization, which was chaired by Helen Gahagan Douglas, a future congresswoman and wife of movie star Melvyn Douglas. Members of the committee raised money for UCAPAWA and traveled to the Arvin camp to hand out clothing and shoes. Also visiting was a frizzy-haired, guitar-toting Woody Guthrie, who, along with movie star Will Geer, became a frequent guest at the camp. Guthrie was coming off a stint as the “hobo correspondent” for a newspaper called the Light, for which he had traveled the state to visit migrant camps. Many of the migrants knew him from his radio program in Los Angeles, The Oklahoma and Woody Show, and at Arvin he stood in front of a crowd, strummed his guitar and belted out, “I ain’t gonna pick your 80 cent cotton / Ain’t gonna starve myself that way.”
Before long, Geer and Guthrie were sleeping on the grass under Ross’s window, alongside the two union organizers. Ross was enthralled with Guthrie, admiring his natural ease with the campers and the way he used his songs to stiffen the backbones of the strikers. That fall, when Ross began writing a weekly segment in the camp paper, he titled it “The Feller Sez,” taking inspiration from Guthrie’s “Woody Sez” column published in the People’s Daily World, a Communist paper out of San Francisco. During the strike, Ross asked Guthrie to write a letter for the camp paper. “Go tell the Ass Farmers and the vigilantes I said go take a long, tall, flying suck at a sunflower,” wrote Guthrie, with characteristic bravado. “Tell ’em I said go ahead and pay you guys that $1.25.”
In Arvin, the walkout began promisingly, with workers shutting down a number of fields. It was an exhilarating experience for Ross, who reported that nearly every camp resident refused to scab. Relief work had been eye-opening but ultimately frustrating: Ross had witnessed the grinding poverty of his clients, but there was little to do but express sympathy and make sure their meager checks arrived on time. But in the strike people were fighting back. Ross ignored orders from the West Coast director of the FSA, Laurence Hewes, to remain neutral. In the camp paper, Ross used his column to stress the need for cooperation, criticizing the “man who’ll work for less wages than all of his neighbors.” The Tow Sack Tattler announced that a picket line would be thrown up around every cotton field, reminding readers of the “very unpleasant word for those who cross the line.” Ross woke early each morning to watch caravans of strikers leave the camp and chase scabs from the fields. His partisanship was so overt that one resident would pen a letter to Ross’s supervisor complaining that the camp was “practically run” by the union, that Ross was a “strong member” of the CIO, and that the camp was no longer a place “for us honest and non-communists to live in.”
In Arvin, the walkout began promisingly, with workers shutting down a number of fields.
Hewes, the FSA director, didn’t consider the strike a “legitimate labor dispute” but instead saw it as a “put-up job” by Communists, whose only goal was violence. But Ross had no such cynicism. He had been to the fields and watched growers cheat workers out of their already pitiful wages, claiming the cotton they picked wasn’t “clean.” He knew many went hungry, and he heard reports of frustrated parents who, driven mad by the constant whimpering of their malnourished children, beat them into silence. This was no manufactured crisis, and the Communists who helped organize the strike were heroes to Ross. Yvonne, too, became swept up in the cause, serving as the secretary of the Bakersfield chapter of the Steinbeck Committee.
But Hewes was certainly right about one thing—attempts at organizing farmworkers were often met by violence. The strike centered around five cotton-growing areas: Arvin, Corcoran, Pixley, Visalia, and Madera. In the Arvin region, strikes were called at 150 ranches, but growers had little problem finding replacement workers, and the strike was effectively broken within two weeks. The same pattern played out elsewhere, with the notable exception of Madera, north of Fresno, where 90 percent of the workers struck. In response, two hundred growers attacked unarmed strikers at the city park, swinging pick handles and clubs. With strike leaders bloodied and Governor Olson refusing to intervene, the union put on a brave face. “Clubbed, But Still We Strike” ran a leaflet headline, promising more action. But the crackdown had done the trick.
Although unsuccessful, the strike left a deep impression on Ross, who considered his two years at Arvin among the most “supercharged” periods of his life. In his writings, Ross later claimed that the strike was the largest in the history of the San Joaquin Valley, but it wasn’t: a far larger cotton strike occurred in 1933, made up overwhelmingly of Mexican workers. The 1939 strike was instead the last notable conflict of the 1930s, a tumultuous decade that saw more than 127,000 California farmworkers engage in at least 140 strikes. Ross knew this history very well and likely exaggerated the size of the strike to dramatize the experience. But this exaggeration also likely reflected an emotional truth: for someone with a front-row seat, the strike was an exhilarating and unforgettable experience, at once cautionary and inspiring.
Notes from a Broken Nation: Carmel, California’s Michael Katakis Shatters the Myth of American Exceptionalism
Good news from Down Under. A Thousand Shards of Glass, a collection of essays, letters, and journal entries by the travel writer-photographer Michael Katakis, has been published in paperback and eBook by The Author People, an Australian outfit with a pioneering approach to book publishing. Founded in 2015 by Lou Johnson and Tom Galletta, the firm is dedicated to connecting authors with their audiences, wherever they may be around the world.
The most recent collection of essays, letters, and journal entries by the travel writer-photographer Michael Katakis has been published in paperback and eBook by The Author People, an Australian outfit with a pioneering approach to book publishing.
I first read A Thousand Shards of Glass in 2014, the year Simon & Schuster released a hardback edition of the book in Australia and the United Kingdom while ignoring its intended market—the United States. Since then, I’ve met Michael Katakis in Carmel, California, his part-time home, and I admire his perceptiveness as a thinker, writer, and photographer. Like John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, he’s an American author with a distinctive point of view, writing for a country described by Gore Vidal as “the United States of Amnesia.”
Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Vidal come up frequently in conversation with Katakis, an imposing figure with a similar intensity. In his talk, as in his career, his range of knowledge and engagement is impressive. He’s the manager of Hemingway’s literary estate, and an expert on the author. He knows much (but, diplomatically, says little) about Carmel, California, a place Steinbeck once characterized as a haven for hacks. During a chance meeting with Vidal in Los Angeles when Katakis was a warm-up singer for the Herb Alpert band, the young musician felt his life change, and he became a photographer and writer with a Vidalian urge to explore, and to question.
Katakis’s famous photo of Maya Lin, the artist of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, became contentious when he challenged an act of censorship by the National Portrait Gallery and asked for the picture’s return.
His famous photo of Maya Lin, the artist of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, became contentious when he challenged an act of censorship by the National Portrait Gallery and asked for the picture’s return. His books include Photographs and Words with Dr. Kris Harden, co-authored with his late wife, a beloved anthropologist and ideal life-mate. Traveller: Observations from an American in Exile, published in 2009, has a foreword by Michael Palin, a fellow traveler and friend.
Like Vidal, Katakis thinks that the myth of American exceptionalism is not only foolish, but dangerous. Like Vidal, he favors living abroad and seeing Americans as others see us: self-involved but unreflective; self-righteous, but also hypocritical; militantly religious and religiously militant; obsessed by money and addicted to oil; shrewd in deal-making, yes, but easily duped by flag-pin politicians.
Like The Grapes of Wrath, Katakis’s book telegraphs its message through the metaphor contained in its title.
Like a Hemingway novel that anchors the ideas expressed in experience, A Thousand Shards of Glass consists of a series of episodes—9/11, Kris’s death, meeting Gore Vidal—described in short sentences and simple words to convey their meaning. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Katakis’s book telegraphs its message through the metaphor contained in its title. As the author explained it to an Australian interviewer in 2014, “In order to understand America one must realize that it is not a country, it’s a store where everything is for sale, every principle, ethic and friend.” The job of a serious writer, then—like that of the photojournalist—is to reveal the face under the makeup, the reality behind the myth.
Katakis’s picture of America, like Steinbeck’s, isn’t always pretty. Kris, diagnosed with a brain tumor in the prime of life, becomes a tragic victim of the pre-Obama American health care horror show. Vidal is first encountered on a TV set decades earlier, talking with Eugene McCarthy about America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam. Since then the US has doubled down, a nation of true believers where (to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens) religion ruins everything and (Vidal again) history teaches nothing. Clint Eastwood, the former mayor of Carmel, California, insults an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention, an embarrassment Katakis recalls when he passes Eastwood in a hospital hallway.
Like a Hemingway novel that anchors the ideas expressed in experience, A Thousand Shards of Glass consists of a series of episodes described in short sentences and simple words to convey their meaning.
Bush’s phony Iraq war is fought in the name of Americans by 1% of the population living at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from Wall Street’s 1%. Hitchens, a guiding light to Katakis, loses his luster after 9/11, buying into Bush’s war in the Middle East for reasons Katakis ascribes to Hitchens’s upbringing as the son of a World War II vet. Katakis’s journal entry on 9/11 begins “. . . today hard terrorism hit soft terrorism.” Another, written four years later, describes Bush’s Rasputin, Karl Rove, dancing at a White House Correspondents’ dinner to the delight of reporters who are still high on the Bush & Company cool aid. Eventually, even the Beltway woke up and smelled the coffee, but Karl Rove’s victory dance is a useful reminder of how madness overtook America before Iraq imploded and sobriety set in.
Which raises the challenge posed by the book: do Americans never learn? Katakis explores the problem of American amnesia with people he meets in London, Paris, and Italy; like Hemingway and Vidal, he has perfect pitch in conversation, and he records what others say us with an infallible ear. His diagnosis of America’s mania for guns is framed by a fraught encounter with a woman from Eastern Europe, in London, following the Newton, Connecticut school shooting. “I think we Americans are afraid of each other, of everything,” he explains, despite “the fictional narrative of America that we have been selling for some time now.”
Quoting Hemingway, Katakis compares the global dominance of America’s ‘consumer corporate state’ with Britain’s East India Company two centuries ago—an undertaking of naked power wearing the fig leaf of moral righteousness.
Savoring Paris as Hemingway did decades earlier, he celebrates “the poetry of living” encountered abroad, the daily joie de vivre Americans have lost in “our obsession with our devices.” Quoting Hemingway, he compares the global dominance of America’s “consumer corporate state” with Britain’s East India Company two centuries ago—an undertaking of naked power wearing the fig leaf of righteousness. He and Kris move to Europe to protest Bush’s war, and to enjoy the poetry of living now lost in America, “the land of lists.” Their idyllic life abroad is interrupted by her father’s death; her diagnosis prevents their return. Numbed by her death, Katakis writes, “I have come to know that most Americans are sleepwalking.”
Like Vidal and Hitchens, Katakis is hard not to quote, and A Thousand Shards of Glass contains equally memorable sentences in abundance. So does a conversation with Katakis, as I learned over lunch in Carmel, California late last year, when I asked him if he thought the Bernie Sanders insurgency showed that Americans are finally waking up. He said yes, repeating the comment, quoted earlier, that he made to the Australian interviewer about America’s self-illusion in 2014. When his wife died he lost the “true north” in his life, but he’s getting his bearings again, and a note of hope for an awakening has emerged in his writing.
Fans of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Orwell, Vidal, and Hitchens—the bright constellation in Katakis’s dark sky—will delight in his references and allusions to their writing in A Thousand Shard of Glass. Bernie Sanders supporters will discover that, on almost every issue, Katakis was there first, before the presidential campaign brought American exceptionalism into question on problems of foreign and domestic policy. In response to my followup question about presidential politics before writing this review, Katakis said this:
I have often wondered what it means to be moral or how to live an ethical life in accelerated and morally ambiguous times which have seemingly allowed for rationalizations of thoughts and conduct by individuals and institutions, that just a short time ago, would have been considered unacceptable and injurious to the common good. Marcus Aurelius wrote that “the soul becomes dyed with the color of it’s thoughts,” suggesting one of the steps toward morality was the self control of our darker selves. Gore Vidal wrote that ‘we’ Americans, ” learn nothing because we remember nothing.” That is painfully demonstrated by any objective observer watching the 2016 Republican presidential primary. We have lost our way. If we remembered our own history, we would hear in the voice of Donald Trump, and his supporters, the voices of Father Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy. They would hear the fear mongering and the insults that have been the tried and true tactic of scoundrels who have never offered anything but a scorched earth. But we Americans, in our ignorance and conceit, do not know our history and, as a collective, are not a good people. To those dark voices among us I can think of no more eloquent response than that of Mr. Joseph Welch to Senator Joseph McCarthy on June 9, 1954: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
John Steinbeck invited his readers to participate in his fiction. Overhearing Gore Vidal changed Michael Katakis, helping him to become a writer. Participate in the result of that inspiration by reading A Thousand Shards of Glass. You’ll change, too.
Who said literary criticism is just for critics? Not the editors of Steinbeck Review. The winter 2015 issue proves that San Jose State University, the journal’s publisher, embraces diversity in many forms, and that its editors are willing to let non-critics play the specialist’s game. Among the current contributors are (1) a graduate student in history from Canada, (2) a former college film teacher, (3) a retired biology professor and dean living in Oregon, (4) a Steinbeck fan from California’s Central Valley, and (5) the W.W. Kellogg Professor of Agriculture, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University. But the unlikeliest candidate in the intriguing mix may be Daniel Levin, a pharmaceutical research executive with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cambridge University who now lives in California. Prompted by a visit to the National Steinbeck Center and curious about apparent discrepancies between an exhibit there and Steinbeck’s Hebrew in East of Eden, Levin took a scientific approach, consulting Talmudic sources, Steinbeck curators, and a Hebrew language adviser to investigate Steinbeck’s adaptation of the term timshol from the Genesis story about Cain’s banishment, east of Eden, after he kills his brother Abel. “John Steinbeck and the Missing Kamatz in East of Eden: How Steinbeck Found a Hebrew Word but Muddled Some Vowels,” the result of Levin’s exemplary study, demonstrates why, for lovers of John Steinbeck, literary criticism is too important to be left to professional literary critics. See for yourself. Subscribe to Steinbeck Review.
Richard Henry Dana, Jr., the author of Two Years Before the Mast, was born 200 years ago in Massachusetts, the home of Dana’s famous Founding family, and of John Steinbeck’s paternal grandparents as well. Growing up, Steinbeck read Dana’s autobiographical account of life along the California coast in the early 19th century–as noted by the artist Tom Killion, the earliest writing, in English, that describes the California coast from the perspective of the sea. New England roots, adventure fiction, California coast: cause enough for Steinbeck fans to celebrate Richard Henry Dana’s bicentennial. But Two Years Before the Mast is also a masterpiece of social-protest literature, like The Grapes of Wrath, and helped set the stage for Steinbeck’s novel. Details of Dana’s life are worth mentioning in 2015, two centuries after his birth and 75 years since the appearance of The Grapes of Wrath. They connect Dana’s era and output with those of Steinbeck—and with the New England artist Rockwell Kent, who wrote popular books of travel, illustrated books by others (including Moby Dick, above), and espoused socialism, pacifism, and opposition to American foreign policy during Steinbeck’s lifetime.
Richard Henry Dana and the Power of Fiction to Change
Born into a Boston Brahmin family of politically progressive lawyers, writers, and legislators, Dana grew up at a time when flogging was routine punishment on ships like the Pilgrim, the California-bound brig he sailed as a merchant seaman after dropping out of Harvard at the age of 19. Like John Steinbeck—who became a college-dropout merchant seaman, briefly, in 1925—young Dana employed fiction as a vehicle to focus public attention on an egregious injustice experienced personally, the brutal mistreatment of sailors at sea. The Grapes of Wrath, written 100 years after Dana drafted Two Years Before the Mast, dramatizes the mistreatment of Dust Bowl migrants through the struggles of a fictional family caught in a Dickensian system of injustice and oppression; Dana’s autobiographical novel describes the pain and suffering of his fellow-sailor Sam, “a human being made in God’s likeness—fastened up and flogged like a beast!” Following the publication of Two Years Before the Mast in 1840—exactly 100 years before Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez expedition along the Baja, California coast—flogging at sea finally ended, a process Dana helped hasten in his career as a maritime lawyer and legal writer. Though he never wrote another novel, he returned to the California coast in 1859, adding a postscript to later editions of Two Years Before the Mast describing the changes he observed.
Two Years Before the Mast exposed an evil practice, just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Julia Ward Howe’s “John Brown’s Body”—the source of Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” title—excoriated slavery and advocated abolition, the other great cause to which Richard Henry Dana devoted his long life. The Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in the United States in 1863, and Dana served as U.S. counsel at the trial of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, after the Civil War. Ironically, a bloody war fought 75 years later served to integrate poor families like the Joads into the American economy, ending the conditions dramatized in The Grapes of Wrath. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Two Years Before the Mast was written in a turbulent time, and has never been out of print. Dana’s classic, still rewarding reading for Steinbeck fans, is full of resemblances to elements in Steinbeck’s work, including memorable descriptions of the California coast, meditations on social and economic policy, and an Easter Sunday chapter reminiscent of Sea of Cortez.
Dana, Steinbeck, and Rockwell Kent: An American Legacy
Unlike John Steinbeck, Richard Henry Dana was a polished speaker who advocated progressive policy from a position of social strength and achieved celebrity without being demonized. A closer parallel to Steinbeck in this regard can be found in the life of Rockwell Kent, a gruff adventurer who was born in 1882, the year Dana died, and who managed to outlive Steinbeck by two years. Kent’s writing, autobiographical in source, was realistic. His art was visionary, allegorical, and mythic. His illustrations of works by Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Melville—the American author most influenced by Dana, and an inspiration for Steinbeck—are particularly powerful, so impressive that one wishes he’d been commissioned to illustrate The Grapes of Wrath, a book he read with the recognition of a kindred spirit. Like Steinbeck, Kent rejected conservative politics, revealed religion, and conventional morality. Like Steinbeck, he espoused free living and engaged in social issues with a passion uncharacteristic of his parents and peers. Like Steinbeck, he married repeatedly, traveled relentlessly, and found an appreciative audience in Russia, where he journeyed in 1967 after a fight with the federal government over his passport. In a televised Cold War confrontation, Kent defied Senator Joseph McCarthy, pleading the Fifth Amendment not because he was a communist (he wasn’t), but to show solidarity with American artists and authors blacklisted for being sympathetic to socialism (which he was).
Though Kent failed to produce a magnum opus comparable to The Grapes of Wrath or Two Years Before the Mast, he deserves attention as an artist-activist equal in passion to John Steinbeck and Richard Henry Dana and—based on his courage—even worthier of praise. A biography of Rockwell Kent equal in scope to Jackson Benson’s life of Steinbeck should be written to increase appreciation of Kent’s achievement, preferably from the angle being taken by William Souder in his new book about Steinbeck: “Mad at the World.” Meanwhile, Dana’s bicentennial has produced a splendid biography by former Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeffrey L. Amestoy, aptly titled Slavish Shore: The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana Jr. The recent Vermont Public Radio interview with Amestoy about the writing, publication, and impact of Two Years Before the Mast will strike a familiar note with fans of Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. From rural New England to the California coast, the social-protest theme in American literature is an enduring legacy. It began with Richard Henry Dana 200 years ago.