An Essential History of John Steinbeck’s American West

Image of "Boomtown," 1928 painting by Thomas Hart Benton

Like Jackson Benson’s 1980 biography of John Steinbeck, the essential book on Steinbeck’s storied life, David Wrobel’s new history of the American West in Steinbeck’s formative period is an essential read for fans of the writer whose fiction brought the region to life for audiences everywhere. Designed for use by students and published by Cambridge University Press as part of the Cambridge Essential Histories series, America’s West: A History, 1890-1950 is compact, comprehensive, and compelling, organizing facts and creating patterns the way Steinbeck did in The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, historical novels written in part to educate readers about movements of people, power, and ideas that made the American West first a beacon, then a bellwether, and finally a warning. Like Steinbeck, Wrobel presents the region’s history as a morality play we’re invited to watch about the sins of exceptionalism, expansionism, and economic domination.

Like John Steinbeck, David Wrobel presents the region’s history as a morality play we’re invited to watch about the sins of exceptionalism, expansionism, and economic domination.

Steinbeck’s history in this regard began before he was born. The economic cycles and social problems of of the 1890s affected his young parents, who settled in Salinas, where he was born in 1902, the year Teddy Roosevelt became president. The remedies for Gilded Age corruption put in place under Roosevelt, a New York blue blood who reinvented himself as a Dakota cowboy, brought good government to Washington and new attention to the West. Places like Salinas prospered, but they typified the paradox of progressive politics in America between the two Roosevelts. The same movement that broke up corporate monopolies, created national parks, and enfranchised women also imposed draconian social controls, including Prohibition, union-busting, and mass deportation. The Red Peril paranoia that became federal policy following World War I eventually led Salinas to experiment with what Steinbeck called fascism. He tore up the novel he wrote about the militarization of local government during a strike by lettuce workers, but by 1935 he had discovered his subject and set his course, reporting on migrant labor for the San Francisco News and writing The Grapes of Wrath, the protest novel that put into words the suffering and shame shown in Dorothea Lange’s photographs of migrant mothers and children.

Steinbeck tore up the novel he wrote about the militarization of local government during a strike by lettuce workers, but by 1935 he had discovered his subject and set his course.

Roosevelt progressivism at both ends of the period covered in America’s West gave Steinbeck the ideals, and events in California the ideas, expressed in The Grapes of Wrath. His upbringing in Salinas gave him the sense of empathy for people, animals, and nature that sympathetic readers recognize and respond to on first reading. When examining the beliefs and behaviors at work in the background, however, it’s also helpful to understand the sense of detachment from events and emotions he had to develop, with changes of subject and venue, in the novel’s aftermath. When he wrote about marine biology or war or the history behind the legend of King Arthur, he had the benefit of distance from his personal past and perceptions. Europeans since De Tocqueville have written about the United States with the same outsider’s advantage that Steinbeck enjoyed in England and David Wrobel has in writing about Steinbeck’s America.

Europeans since De Tocqueville have written about the United States with the same outsider’s advantage that Steinbeck enjoyed in England and David Wrobel has in writing about Steinbeck’s America.

Image of David WrobelA native of London with a yen for America, David Wrobel brought his coals to Newcastle by enrolling at Ohio University, where he immersed in Steinbeck under Robert DeMott and received his PhD in American studies. His understanding of the history behind The Grapes of Wrath and the intellectual currents of Steinbeck’s time has benefited immensely from his tenure at Oklahoma University, where he teaches, researches, and writes about Steinbeck and the American West and was recently appointed acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Oklahoma and California are his coordinates and Steinbeck is his moral compass in the case he makes for America’s West to 1950, the first of two volumes planned by Cambridge University Press. He has the English virtue of  readability, along with Steinbeck’s eye for victims and losers, and Cambridge University Press designed the book to last, with just enough charts and graphs and not too many footnotes, placed at the bottom of the page where they belong. Its value is enhanced for followers of Steinbeck’s thinking by the author’s focus on the hidden costs of the West’s ascendancy and the line leading from the triumphalism of the past to the politics of the present. Five stars.

Cover image from America's West: A History, 1890-1950The cover illustration is Thomas Hart Benton’s 1928 Western Regionalist painting “Boomtown.” Of special interest is the section on the Great Depression and the demographic shifts, racial divisions, and labor unrest dramatized in The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and In Dubious Battle. It recalls the contributions made to the cause by Steinbeck’s co-workers Dorothea Lange, Carey McWilliams, and Pare Lorentz and explains the epic campaign of Upton Sinclair for governor in 1934 against the same forces that later waged war on The Grapes of Wrath. The author’s essay on California social protest literature, Steinbeck, Sinclair, McWilliams, and the WPA Guide to California appears in American Literature in Transition: The 1930s, an anthology edited by Ichiro Takayoshi.

How Steinbeck’s German Paperback Publisher Stayed Alive in Hitler’s Third Reich

Cover image from Strange Bird: The Albatross Press and the Third Reich

Like other Anglo-American writers of German descent in the 1930s, John Steinbeck regarded the rise of the Third Reich with an admixture of anger, resentment, and resignation. Strange Bird: The Albatross Press and the Third Reich, a bright new general-interest book from Yale University Press, reminds admirers of Steinbeck’s writing today that reading his books in Nazi-occupied territory—particularly the 1942 novelette The Moon Is Down—could be downright dangerous. As author Michele K. Troy, a professor of English at the University of Hartford points out, however, the plucky German paperback publisher of Steinbeck, Hemingway, and other left-leaning English-language writers managed to stay in business from 1933 to 1941, despite the Third Reich’s draconian policy toward domestic dissent. But as Douglas J. Johnston notes in a recent book review, Hamburg’s Albatross Press “kept Anglo-American literature—and thereby Anglo-American ideas and values—alive in the heart of the Third Reich” not by doing good but by being profitable, producing popular paperback editions for foreign distributors who paid Germany in badly needed dollars and pounds. The firm’s iconic albatross (a source of guilt as well as a harbinger of hope) also paved the way for Penguin Books, Steinbeck’s equally enterprising paperback publisher in the United States.

Coming in July: Short Stories From John Steinbeck’s Life

Image of John Steinbeck in Ballentine beer ad

Steinbeck: The Untold Stories, a book of short stories by Steve Hauk based on the life of John Steinbeck, will be published by SteinbeckNow.com on July 22. The first print project undertaken by the website, it is the product of a two-year collaboration between Hauk—a playwright in Pacific Grove, California—and Caroline Kline, a Monterey artist with a flair for illustration and a feel for John Steinbeck, whose affinity for art and artists began when he was growing up in the Salinas Valley and eventually extended to Europe. Earlier versions of four of the short stories have appeared online at SteinbeckNow.com. All sixteen feature original art work by Kline inspired by Hauk’s fictional rendering of dramatic episodes—some real, others imagined—from Steinbeck’s storied life in Salinas, Pacific Grove, New York, and beyond.

From Travels with Charley to 30 Days a Black Man: Review

Image of 30 Days a Black Man, by Bill Steigerwald

30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South, a new book by Bill Steigerwald about Ray Sprigle, the white Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter who investigated race in America by passing through the South as a black man, is now in bookstores, including the airport shop shown in this photo. Like Steinbeck’s social fiction from the 1930s, Sprigle’s syndicated series on segregation in the South increased understanding when it appeared in 1948, but also met resistance. Steigerwald’s account of the controversy will hold particular appeal for Steinbeck fans familiar with the back story of The Grapes of Wrath, and for sympathetic readers of Travels with Charley, the 1962 work in which Steinbeck touched on Sprigle’s theme. The connections are compelling. Steigerwald is a former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who made the opposite transition from Steinbeck, from newspaper journalist to full-time book author, in his career as a writer. His first book, Dogging Steinbeck, exposed fictional elements in Steinbeck’s account of the picaresque journey that ends dramatically in New Orleans, where white mothers scream at black children and Steinbeck discusses desegregation with a trio of sample Southerners, real or imagined, who typify the racial divide exposed by Ray Sprigle more than a decade earlier.

Why Stanford University Delayed Ed Ricketts’s Book

Cover image from Between Pacific Tides, Ed Ricketts's marine biology text

Sea of Cortez, the record of John Steinbeck’s 1940 exploration of Baja California with Edward F. Ricketts, has become a familiar source for fans of both men, and for students of marine biology. Less well known is the story behind Between Pacific Tides, the pioneering marine biology text by Ricketts and Jack Calvin, another Steinbeck friend, published by Stanford University in 1939, the year The Grapes of Wrath appeared. My research on the history of the Hopkins Seaside Laboratory and Hopkins Marine Station, and the Chautauqua nature study movement in Pacific Grove, touches on a formative phase in the life of Steinbeck, who took a summer biology course while a Stanford University student that helped set the stage for his introduction to Ricketts when Steinbeck, who left college in 1925, moved to Pacific Grove.

Image of Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck's collaborator and friendMy research addresses intriguing questions about Ed Ricketts and his book raised by biographers, critics, and historians. The proposal for Between Pacific Tides was presented to Stanford University Press in 1930, the year Ricketts and Steinbeck met. Was the book’s publication slowed by the Director of Hopkins Marine Station Walter K. Fisher’s critical review of the manuscript? Did Stanford University Press dislike the ecological approach taken by Ricketts, whose holistic science and philosophy profoundly influenced Steinbeck’s thought and writing? Was Ricketts completely isolated from the scientific community of Hopkins Marine Station, as has often been suggested? The discovery of numerous letters between Ricketts, Stanford University Press, and invertebrate specialists around the world provides answers to these and other questions, chapter by chapter, in the book that I am writing about the delayed publication of Between Pacific Tides.

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

Image of Stephen King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Steinbeck, Donald Trump, and the King of Horror

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

 

Robert DeMott’s Love Affair With American Literature, Steinbeck, and Fly Fishing

Cover image from Angling Days, a journal of fly fishing

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 Journalsdoubly 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.

Colum McCann Compares New York Times Writer’s Book to The Grapes of Wrath

Image of Colum McCann

“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

Cover image of Gabriel Thompson's life of community organizer Fred Ross

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.

 Image of Tom Collins and migrant mother

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.

Image of Woody Guthrie and Fred Ross

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.

Setting the Stage for John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath: Richard Henry Dana at 200

Image of Moby Dick illustration by Rockwell Kent

Cover image from Two Years Before the MastRichard 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

Image of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., author of Two Years Before the MastBorn 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.

Image of untitled print by Rockwell Kent

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

Image of Rockwell Kent, American artist-activistUnlike 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).

Image of drawing by Rockwell Kent

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.