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.

Happy Birthday to Oliver Sacks, On the Move at 82

Image of Oliver Sacks, author of On the Move: A Life

The literary neuroscientist Oliver Sacks will be 82 next month. Robin Williams, who portrayed Sacks in the 1990 film Awakenings, would be 64 in July if he were still alive. Like John Steinbeck, both men broke boundaries in inspired work that defied convention, created controversy, and kept wowing the public year after year. Luckily, Sacks has written a memoir—On the Move: A Life—that will please fans of Sacks, Robin Williams, and John Steinbeck, whose novel Cannery Row moved Sacks to consider becoming a marine biologist as a boy in post-World War II England.

Cover image of Oliver Sacks's memoir, On the Move

Sacks became a doctor instead, but he emulated Steinbeck by also becoming a bestselling writer—so brilliantly that he’s been described as the poet laureate of medicine. Migraine, his first book, was published in 1970. The next, Awakenings, appeared in 1973. It was adapted as an Oscar-nominated movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in 1989 and helped make Oliver Sacks a synonym for science you can understand.

Oliver Sacks became a doctor, but he emulated John Steinbeck by also becoming a bestselling writer—so brilliantly that he’s been described as the poet laureate of medicine.

Since Awakenings, Sacks has written more books and hundreds of articles about the miracles, mysteries, and malfunctions of the human brain, his specialty. Like Steinbeck, he records real life in his writing, narrating clinical case histories with the compelling power of the best fiction. Also like Steinbeck, he’s autobiographical by nature, and his case histories frequently include himself. Migraine grew out of his personal experience with the debilitating condition, which I learned from my former boss Dr. William Langston—author of The Case of the Frozen Addicts (1995)—is common among neurologists.

Like Steinbeck, he records real life in his writing, narrating clinical case histories with the compelling power of the best fiction.

An avid motorcyclist addicted to speed, Oliver Sacks wrote A Leg to Stand On (1984) after losing the awareness of one of his legs following an accident. A music lover who plays the piano, he wrote Musicophilia (2007) about patients with unusual musical obsessions. When cancer cost him sight in one eye he wrote The Mind’s Eye (2010), an amazing account of the ways in which visually impaired people perceive and communicate. Six months ago he learned that the cancer has spread to his liver. On the Move may be his last book.

Image of portrait of John Steinbeck by artist Jack Couglin

In the first chapter Sacks recalls reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row as a teenager attending school outside London, where his parents and uncles practiced medicine. (Two of his brothers became doctors; a third, also brilliant, is bipolar.) After graduating from Oxford and finishing his medical training, he left England for America, where he has treated patients, taught, and written since 1960. He interned in San Francisco and completed his residency at UCLA during the period when John Steinbeck was writing The Winter of Our Discontent, Travels With Charley, and America and Americans. Though On the Move doesn’t mention meeting Steinbeck, it details Sacks’s friendship with other writers, including the poets W.H. Auden and Thom Gunn— gay men who, like Sacks, left England for the sexual freedom of San Francisco and New York.

In the first chapter Sacks recalls reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row as a teenager attending school outside London.

Like John Steinbeck, Oliver Sacks bloomed in California, falling in love with San Francisco, living in Los Angeles, and exploring Baja California in his travels and writing. Like Steinbeck, Sacks was influenced by the California writer Jack London, whose People of the Abyss provided a working title for the book that became Awakenings. Like Steinbeck and London, he was attracted to drugs and alcohol, suffered from depression, and found healing in the act of writing. In 1968, the year Steinbeck died, Sacks encountered the book that inspired Awakenings—A.R. Luria’s Mind of a Mnemonist: “I read the first thirty pages thinking it was a novel. But then I realized that it was in fact a case history—the deepest and most detailed case history I had ever read, a case history with the dramatic power, the feeling, and the structure of a novel.”

Like Steinbeck and Jack London, Sacks was attracted to drugs and alcohol, suffered from depression, and found healing in the act of writing.

Like Steinbeck, Sacks eventually left California for New York, where he saw patients at Beth Abraham Hospital, began writing for the New Yorker, and ended up teaching at a succession of star schools, including Columbia, New York University, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The true story told by Sacks in Awakenings unfolded at Beth Abraham, where comatose patients suffering from an extreme form of parkinsonianism caused by encephalitis lethargicus responded dramatically when treated with the drug L-dopa. Among them was “Lenny L,” the patient played by Robert De Niro in the movie adaptation of Awakenings. Robin Williams played Oliver Sacks, the story’s empathetic neurologist-narrator—what John Steinbeck called the authorial character found in any good novel.

Image of Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in the movie Awakenings

The movie brought the author and the actor together in much the way John Steinbeck met Burgess Meredith and Henry Fonda 50 years earlier. Sacks reacted to Williams as Steinbeck did to Fonda—with awe. Before the filming of Awakenings began, Williams and Sacks visited a geriatric ward “where half a dozen patients were shouting and talking bizarrely all at once. Later, as we drove away, Robin suddenly exploded with an incredible playback of the ward, imitating everyone’s voice and style to perfection. He had absorbed all the different voices and conversations and held them in his mind with total recall, and now he was reproducing them, or, almost, being possessed by them.”

Image of Robin Williams in the film role of Oliver Sacks

Then Williams began imitating Sacks, too—“my mannerisms, my postures, my gait, my speech—all sorts of things of which I had been hitherto unconscious.” The experience, says Sacks, was uncanny and a bit uncomfortable, “like suddenly acquiring a younger twin.” As On the Move reveals, however, the real Ed Ricketts figure in Sacks’s life wasn’t Robin Williams but Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist and science popularizer who died from cancer, age 60, in 2002. Gould’s version of non-teleology, the idea dramatized by Steinbeck in Cannery Row, is called contingency, a concept drawn from modern sociobiology that would have appealed to Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck.

The real Ed Ricketts figure in Sacks’s life wasn’t Robin Williams but Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist and science popularizer who died from cancer, age 60, in 2002.

Like Steinbeck, Oliver Sacks as a writer engages me for personal reasons. I read Awakenings when my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in her 70s. I read Musicophilia with the curiosity of an amateur pianist, a trait I share with Steinbeck and Sacks. I read Sacks’s earlier memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001), while working for The Scripps Research Institute. There I met another hero of On the Move, the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, who graciously autographed my copy of his wonderful book Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (2004). Edelman, a violinist and Nobel Laureate, was suffering from Parkinson’s, another link. The final pages of On the Move are devoted to Edelman’s elegant insights (“Every perception is an act of creation”), dissecting Edelman’s metaphor of a musical ensemble to explain how our minds work through reentrant signaling, the complex process that “allows the brain to categorize its own categorizations.”

The final pages of On the Move are devoted to Gerald Edelman’s elegant insights, dissecting Edelman’s metaphor of a musical ensemble to explain how our minds work.

Like Robin Williams, Gerald Edelman died in 2014, while Oliver Sacks was writing On the Move, and Edelman’s string quartet metaphor seems a good way to end this review. As an artist Sacks, like Williams, is more virtuoso than ensemble member. As a writer, like Steinbeck he’s a restless experimenter, constantly on the move between the worlds of art and science. Williams’s genius was visual mimicry, verbal speed, and comic improvisation. Oliver Sacks’s great gift—like John Steinbeck’s—is telling stories that explore the depths of suffering and the heights of hope in words anyone can understand. It’s sad that On the Move may be his last book, but a joy to celebrate his birthday. Five stars for On the Move and a toast to Oliver Sacks!

Oliver Sacks died at his home in Manhattan on August 30, 2015. On the Move topped the list of the year’s best books compiled by Brain Pickings.—Ed.


Lessons from Doc’s Lab: Cannery Row’s Mack and the Boys as Consultants

Cover image from Doc's Lab: Myth & Legends of Cannery Row by Ed Larsh

John Steinbeck invited his readers to participate imaginatively in his fiction. James Kent, a consultant and community organizer, has responded with inspired ingenuity, applying life lessons learned from Steinbeck’s novel  Cannery Row in his consulting career. Doc’s Lab: Myth & Legends of Cannery Row, a collection of real-life Cannery Row profiles by the late Ed Larsh, describes how Kent used one method—modeled on the group dynamics of Mack and the Boys—to resolve an issue of survival for the community of Minturn, Colorado. Kent’s recent post on John Steinbeck’s social ecology stimulated so much interest that we wanted to share Larsh’s chapter on Kent’s methods as well. Doc’s Lab is out of print, but we requested and received permission to reproduce “Mack and The Boys as Consultants” from Kent, Larsh’s successor at the nonprofit organization that published Larsh’s book in 1995. The colorful cover art depicting Doc’s lab and its denizens is by the late Eldon Dedini, a magazine cartoonist and modern Cannery Row figure who was born in King City, California, and lived in Carmel.

Image of Cannery Row's real-life Mack and the Boys

Cannery Row’s Mack and the Boys as Consultants

Pascal Covici, Steinbeck’s editor for the novel Cannery Row, stated that Cannery Row was written on four levels and that “no critic has as yet stumbled on the design of the book.”

Had Steinbeck been a futurist instead of a great writer, he might have predicted the discovery of the novel’s design to occur in the year 1971 in a small town in Colorado called Minturn.

In the summer of 1887, the Denver and Rio Grande Western built a railroad from Pueblo, Colorado, to Leadville, Colorado, where the silver mines were producing millions of dollars in carbonated ore. The Denver and Rio Grande Western then continued to construct its line over the continental divide, from Leadville to the western slope of the United  States and down the Colorado River basin to access Aspen, another flourishing mining town, and then on across Utah to the Pacific’s Eastern Rim. But first you had to have great coal-fired steam engines called “mallots” to pull the trains over Tennessee Pass, which was very near Leadville. Once you got the trains on top of Tennessee Pass it was all down hill. Except if you were going the other way. Then you had to add four or five of the largest engines ever built to the train at a little town called Minturn, Colorado. It was up hill over the continental divide all the way from Minturn to Leadville, a town which sits at 10,200 feet.

Leadville, Colorado, where I was born and raised, is not an easy place to live. My mother, who lived there her entire life, always wanted to move. She would have moved anywhereanywhere, that is, except to Minturn.

Had Steinbeck been a futurist instead of a great writer, he might have predicted the discovery of the novel’s design to occur in the year 1971 in a small town in Colorado called Minturn.

Minturn, however, does have a colorful, romantic, and traumatic past. The ancestors of many of the Hispanics who were living in Minturn in 1971 came into that high mountain valley 300 years ago. The conquistadors came north from Santa Fe in the 17th century, bringing with them sheep and sheep herders. These sheep herders settled in the upper Eagle Valley of Colorado. The Denver and Rio Grande Western railroad in 1887 was in need of cheap labor. They found it in the Hispanic village called Minturn. The railroad hired the Hispanics as section hands and gandy dancers, a radical cultural and career changesheep herding to working on the railroad. The workers were 95% Mexican-Indian immigrants; they were Catholic, prolific, hard working, gentle, beautiful people. They erected small wooden houses along the Eagle River, a natural watershed for the high, snow-covered Rocky Mountains. The clear, crystal mountain water cascaded down through deep gorges into the Colorado River Basin.

Two miles above Minturn the river, on its way to the sea, flows through a steep canyon. It passes beneath the crest of Battle Mountain where, near the top but deep underground, rested a large deposit of zinc. And as the Twentieth Century arrived, so did the New Jersey Zinc Mine. The absentee mine owners built a company town for the Hispanic laborers. They called the town Gilman and placed it at the edge of the precipice. The closest structures to the precipice were the outhouses. The Zinc Mine then built a mill on the site, and by diverting the higher water were able, by gravity, to wash the tailings of the mill into the once-clear river some 1,500 feet below. All of this disturbance took place only a few hundred yards from where the ancient river flowed through the Hispanic town of Minturn, and where the shiny new rails carrying the giant coal-fired steam engines were belching black cinders over the freshly washed sheets that the Hispanic women hung dutifully over their clothes lines.

For those of us who were in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean at the end of the war in the fall of 1945, when Cannery Row was first published, there was a driving necessity and a compelling dream to go home. I have a strong feeling that it didn’t matter whether home was in Brooklyn, New York, Beverly Hills, California, or small towns in Colorado. Or whether you were Sicilian-Americans from New Monterey, White Anglo-Saxons from the Midwest, African-Americans from the South, or Spanish-Americans from Minturn. We all wanted to come home.

Many years later, while working for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., I was asked to investigate a small town in Colorado called Minturn regarding some educational issues involving a large number of Hispanic immigrants. I was told that there was something going on involving the national forests and a large developer who was expanding the ski industry.

That was my first introduction to Jim Kent, a community organizer and private consultant. We met for the first time in a saloon called The Saloon in Minturn, Colorado.

Image of Doc's Lab on Cannery Row

Jim Kent, Ed Ricketts, and Lessons from Doc’s Lab

Jim Kent is an applied sociologist who brings to his work the wisdom found in everyday living. Jim was born and raised in the northern mountains of Appalachia, where family networks are essential to everyday survival. He discovered the dynamics of social action through Steinbeck’s Ed “Doc” Ricketts, and he has applied this knowledge with success all over the world.

The story of Minturn, as Jim Kent tells it, is the story of ordinary people discovering that their lives were changing and wondering what they could do to preserve the things they knew and loved. In more dramatic terms, they discovered how to save themselves from being destroyed. Now, some 24 years later, the people of Minturn, Colorado are still there, in a sense, because of the influence of Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck. The issue for Kent was how to have the people discover the need to save their way of life, and a method to accomplish this, and he found the answers in fiction.

Minturn in 1971 had been in the path of the Vail ski-area expansion. Vail Associates, owners of the ski area, wanted to turn Minturn into a fancy resort town to service a new mountain which they called Meadow Mountain, and then to build on federal land in the national forests (all of which required environmental impact statements).

There is a large hill near Minturn that is referred to as Aveja Colina, a Spanish name meaning “sheep hill,” evidence of generations of a Spanish influence in the area.

That, essentially, was the context; a 19th century mining town facing a 20th century recreation machine intent on changing and developing not only the town, but the mountains and forests surrounding it.

Jim was born and raised in the northern mountains of Appalachia, where family networks are essential to everyday survival. He discovered the dynamics of social action through Steinbeck’s Ed ‘Doc’ Ricketts, and he has applied this knowledge with success all over the world.

Jim Kent came to Minturn to see what might be done to face this enormous challenge of dealing with major changes in a manner that might prevent the people from losing their culture. After a few weeks spent with the local dwellers of Minturn, Jim realized that formal organizational techniques would not work; that if the people did not create a different mechanism to work within the cultural context of their community, they would indeed lose out to the overwhelming forces coming from outside.

As a basis for Kent’s organizational work, he reached deep into the story of Ed Ricketts, as told by John Steinbeck. Jim worked in the Eagle Valley from 1971 to 1979. His story has a very successful and exciting ending.

The story Jim told me is, in essence, the story of how he moved from fiction to reality, from Steinbeck’s fiction of Cannery Row, through the understanding of Ed Ricketts’ ecological theory, and finally to the solution of a modern social problem. He had to go beyond Steinbeck’s Cannery Row to The Moon Is Down, a book Steinbeck wrote in 1943 for what was to become the CIA. What Steinbeck reported in that book concerned an informal process whereby the citizens of a Norwegian town networked together to deal with Nazi Germany’s occupation of their land. Essentially, the people, through their informal networking, drove the German occupiers into frustration. By the simple means of shunning them, by not looking them in the eye, and by not asking them questionsby not engaging them in any waythey literally controlled the situation, even though they were occupied. That was what Kent was looking for in Minturn. How could the people participate in and control the situation in the face of a very strong outside alien force, a force that to them was not unlike the occupation forces in wartime Norway?

Image of The Saloon, Doc's Lab-style meeting place in Minturn, Colorado

Cannery Row, The Moon Is Down, and Minturn, Colorado

The book Cannery Row was the civilian counterpart of The Moon Is Down. It literally took the informal system that Steinbeck describes in The Moon Is Down and connected it to place, to the working fishing community known as Cannery Row. Networks led by Mack and the Boys, and exchanges that took place in Ed Ricketts’ lab, dealt with moral conflicts and with ideological conflicts very similar to those dealt with in Norway.

What is important, though, is to note that The Moon Is Down was so powerful that when the manuscript of the story was found by a German trooper, the person on whom it had been found was summarily executed. Revealing the power of the informal network, The Moon Is Down ultimately became a handbook for the French, Norwegians, and others engaged in guerrilla warfare. Steinbeck, in writing Cannery Row, was able to describe the process of intelligent resistance in a very humorous, but significant form.

Jim Kent understood that once you can interact with your environment, you can then choose from your culture what you need to keep and what you can safely discard. If you cannot interact with your environment, and it is controlled by outsiders, then you will systematically lose your culture and lose your sense of place.

Empowerment came through the rich descriptions in Steinbeck’s novels, and that became the primary criteria for Kent’s base of networks and operations in Minturn.

Kent explained:

“If you believe in process rather than product, you work with ideas that come from the people, or from discussion with the people, ideas that are generated in the informal gatherings of society. Ordinarily, in formal situations, organizers take the point and the lead and later learn that the people they were leading became powerless once the organizers have left. My mode of operation, what I learned from Steinbeck and Ricketts, was to deal with the essence of leadership; not to come on as an authority, but to help the people feel ownership through a leadership style, utilizing a discovery process. In Minturn, we had a chance to apply Ricketts’ and Steinbeck’s social action design, the thing that had been projected in novel form, and convert it into a real-life setting.”

Descriptions in networks, according to Kent, can prevent the dissolution of a culture. The process can also assist the participants to accommodate change. The key concepts, if change is going to work, are participation and ownership.

Networks led by Mack and the Boys, and exchanges that took place in Ed Ricketts’ lab, dealt with moral conflicts and with ideological conflicts very similar to those dealt with in Norway.

Kent learned, from Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, a social-ecological approach that would be non-teleological. What gave Jim a license to intervene was the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which governed Environmental Impact Statements. It declared that developments must maintain the harmony of the physical, biological, social, and economic environments. So Jim for the first time was attempting to put into practice the social aspects of Ricketts’ theory. And also for the first time, the design and levels of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row could come to life for the average reader as a process for celebrating life rather than as just a work of fiction.

Richard Astro, who wrote a very good book called John Steinbeck and Ricketts: The Making of a Novelist, gives us a major insight into how this came about. In the last paragraphs of Astro’s epilogue he writes: “It is clear that the artist rarely operates in a vacuum. And with Ricketts’ world-view accessible to him, we may be thankful that Steinbeck chose not to write all his books in isolation.”

By analyzing the range and depth of Ricketts’ impact on Steinbeck’s fiction, one may see Steinbeck’s accomplishments as a writer with fresh perspective. The novelist’s philosophy of life is not tenth-rate, and his social and political material is not worn and obsolete. In his best works, Steinbeck fused science and philosophy, art and ethics, by combining the broad vision and compelling metaphysic of Edward F. Ricketts with a personal gospel of social action. In his own time and with his own voice, John Steinbeck defined and gave meaning to the uniquely complicated nature of the human experience.

Kent said:

“Steinbeck allowed us to see life in its broadest function in one place through Cannery Row. We had to see it all, not just one part of life as Steinbeck portrayed it. We had to see total life for Danny, in Tortilla Flat, or for Mack and the Boys. Steinbeck, of course, got the vision from Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist who, upon looking into a tide pool saw it as microcosm of the universe. As for us, we were looking at the dynamics of a small community called Minturn; at how it functioned as a dynamic universe through the people’s understanding of their own natural state. This was our way of maintaining a universe as a whole, not as fragmented parts.”

I asked Jim Kent what he meant earlier when he had said that his discovery process dealt with “descriptions.” He replied:

“Descriptions have to be disciplined by the describer being a stranger. You must be able to see what was happening by observing and by listening with your whole nervous system, rather than by just hearing the words. The describer must be reflective in order to reflect back to the people their own content, to understand the power of their words so that they could bring about change in their context. Those were key qualities of Ed Ricketts: a willingness to listen as a stranger and to reflect.”

As an organizer, Jim Kent was emulating Doc in Cannery Row.

Steinbeck allowed us to see life in its broadest function in one place through Cannery Row. . . . As for us, we were looking at the dynamics of a small community called Minturn; at how it functioned as a dynamic universe through the people’s understanding of their own natural state. This was our way of maintaining a universe as a whole, not as fragmented parts.

In mining towns on a Sunday, everybody is out either on the street or in the parks with their families. So one of the first descriptors Kent discovered was the dynamics of Sundays in Minturn. In mining, there are three shifts: days, swing shift, and graveyard. Each shift is eight hours. Therefore, there is very little time to socialize except on the one day when the mine is closed down, Sunday. Kent was able to get a picture of Minturn from having read Cannery Row. He was able to track on the notion of gathering, and where people gathered. On Cannery Row, it was Ed Ricketts’ laboratory. In Minturn, it was the meat counter of the Super Food Store, where Bob Gallegos held forth. Gallegos was like Ed Ricketts. He was a philosopher with a concept about life which was very complete, very exciting. It was different from, but also similar to, Ed Ricketts’ holistic ecological theories.

People would come to buy meat, but they would always talk with Bob about what was going on. Kent knew that in Bob he had a caretaker much like Mack, from Mack and the Boys, as Ed Ricketts was caretaker to the people who would gather at the lab.

In every situation in social ecology you have caretakers in the informal systems that make those systems work. Another informal gathering place in Minturn was a bar called The Saloon. In the early 1970s, a particular group of men would gather, have a beer or two, and talk about the business of the town. The place was owned and run by an arthritic old character named Jeff who had been known from time to time to throw disruptive types through his front window. He was considered legendary in and around Minturn.

Across from the saloon was the old Eagle River Hotel, with Oscar Gruenfeld  the proprietor. Oscar was very much like Lee Chong from Cannery Row, cautious, not to be taken advantage of. In the front of his hotel he operated a liquor store. Oscar understood that he should do everything in his power not to get involved in any process where he would have to give some of his liquor away. Every time Oscar got involved in the process with the gang across the street that gathered at the saloon, Oscar had to give up some liquor, or at least come out on the losing side.

In every situation in social ecology you have caretakers in the informal systems that make those systems work.

Ricketts talked about this as an obligation in the ecosystem, where, if you once get involved in a process, you have to be willing to go through to an ending. Kent calls that the social action of “beginnings and endings” out of Ricketts’ work. If you don’t go through the process, you never know how it would have ended, and therefore you never grow.

The theory is demonstrated in Cannery Row by showing how cautious Ed Ricketts was when someone would engage him, such as Mack, for example, in what Jim Kent calls “the Frog Economy.” Mack wanted to go on a frog hunt to gather frogs for Ricketts. In the beginning, Mack has tried to get Doc to put up money on the front end for the frogs. Then, he tried to get money for gas for Lee Chong’s old truck. Doc had thought of those ploys, so he told Mack he would call his gas-station person and arrange for Mack to get 10 gallons of gas at the station. No money was given to Mack. And when Mack got to the gas station, he tried to talk the gas station owner into first filling up half the gas tank and then giving him a buck for the other half, but the gas station man said, “No, Doc has already thought of that.” Then Mack tried to get him to put five gallons in the tank and give him a five-gallon can.” Nope, Doc has already thought of that, too.”

Finally, for humor and understanding, Steinbeck has Mack say to the station owner (by now Mack knows that Doc has thought of all the angles), “OK, but don’t forget to drain the hose into the tank!”

So the whole process of dealing with beginnings and endings is the same as dealing with the reality and being conscious of what is happening. Ricketts’ term for this was “what is.” What is right for todaynot yesterday, or tomorrow, but what is right for today. That term for consultants such as Kent, is “Issues Management.” The “what is” thing was in looking at the three gathering places. In fact, Bob Gallegos’ meat counter symbolized the whole thing, as did the street in front of Doc’s Lab in Cannery Row.

About this stage of the process Kent got a lesson in non-teleological thinking. He was talking with Bob Gallegos one day at his meat counter and Bob said, “You know, we don’t want any more growth.” When you learn to deal with process rather than product you must stay in process. Had Jim been looking for a product, he would have said, “Right on.” But Jim didn’t download his values into what Bob said and go on out on the street and begin to organize an anti-growth campaign. And here is why. When Bob said, “We don’t want any more growth,” Kent was listening and reflecting as to what he was really saying. Bob was, in fact, saying that he didn’t want any of the Vail-type growth in Minturn. But they, the Hispanics, would like to participate in some growth, in something that might take place in Minturn and the Eagle Valley, because that way they could preserve their community as long as the change didn’t come in on top of them. That understanding by Kent became the underpinnings of the work in Minturn. How could the people accommodate change in a way that would preserve their culture? What they needed was to have Minturn viewed as a total ecosystem, through the eyes of a Doc Ricketts, so to speaksomeone who could see the whole process as a biological phenomenon, with the ebb and flow of living and taking care of each other. So with Bob Gallegos as the chief caretaker, they formed an understanding of how they would operate in this new ecological system. What they needed were some more “descriptions” to find out what other people were thinking, and in what structure.

If you don’t go through the process, you never know how it would have ended, and therefore you never grow.

Steinbeck talked about the human part of the ecosystem. Bob Gallegos called it “productive harmony.” The basic philosophy was that the Hispanics were tied to the land and that tie made them a part of the mandates of the Forest Service, not only to preserve animals, trees, etc., but also human environments. In addition to the physical resources, the social aspects were part of the “harmony,” a new concept for the U.S. Forest Service. Kent said, “It was interesting to see harmony become part of the vocabulary of the Hispanics.” Gallegos, the meat cutter, described how the networks of the Hispanic community should proceed. They should proceed as being part of the ecology and not be managed or impacted by the changing dynamics.

These units Kent calls “informal networks.”  Steinbeck called them “the phalanx.” Their primary function is to keep the society together. A function of survivalcaring for each other to preserve their culture. The networks were the natural processes that moved information swiftly and accurately. As Steinbeck shows many times with Mack, that information is power.

Bob Gallegos through his meat counter put up a bulletin board so that when people came in they could see that there was an issue and that the community would have to mobilize to deal with that issue. When there were no issues the bulletin board came down. The problem, and the beauty with the caretakers and the networks, was that they were invisible to outsiders such as professional foresters, so the people of Minturn had to invite these others in to become part of the network.

If you read Cannery Row, you see beauty when people come out, when they would walk through the town. There was a routine. Steinbeck called it the “hour of the pearl”a time between the twilight and the darknessa time when things were different. That was the way it became in Minturn. As you define routines, you can then work within those routines. When you do that, you are working with an empowerment process because people don’t have to learn something that is different. They enhance and strengthen what they have.

What Kent was doing was mobilizing the quality of life that people bring to everyday living. Kent changed many names that Steinbeck used in the novel. “Phalanx” became “informal networks.” Places such as Flora Woods, Bear Flag Restaurant, and Doc’s lab became “natural gathering places,” called in Minturn the meat market and the saloon. Doc and Wing Chong of Cannery Row are “caretakers.”

The networks were the natural processes that moved information swiftly and accurately. As Steinbeck shows many times with Mack, that information is power.

The places were defined by the interaction of the inhabitants within their environment. Caretakers trained others to be caretakers. They learned the process of reflection and dialogue.

The Hispanics had a land ethic. They wanted to stay on their land, and that land ethic was very important to them. The one most important principle that Kent discovered was that they wanted this place to raise their families in. It was called Home.

One important story early on involved Mrs. Pena, who had her own house and another house next to her house which was an informal day care center. Essentially, the working women of Minturn dropped their children off at Mrs. Pena’s, and in the words of the formal system it was an illegal day-care operation. But to the people of Minturn, Mrs. Pena was their matriarch, their grandmother. And there was nothing that could ever happen in Mrs. Pena’s house that would ever hurt those children.

A developer sought Mrs. Pena out because her one house was in line with a ski run that could come off the back of Vail Mountain. The developer wanted that house and he wanted to tear it down so that they could put the ski lift in there and bring skiing to Minturn. On her own, Mrs. Pena’s dialogue went like this:

The developer said, “You know, for $25,000, I’d like to buy your place.”

And she said, “Well, it’s not for sale for $25,000.”

In 1971 the places in Minturn were worth around $6000, and so the developer persisted and he said, “Look, for $25,000 you can do anything you want to do in this world.”

And Mrs. Pena answered, “Well, you know, I’m doing everything that I really want to do in this world. The house is not for sale.”

Dejected, the developer walks away. Six months later, Mrs. Pena sells the house for $6,000 to a friend and neighbor who needed a home.

With this story Kent knew the land ethic was in place and he could proceed.

In many situations Kent had to put together the action as it would unfold, much as Mack did in the frog hunt, which Kent re-termed “the Frog Economy.”

Kent used the concept of the frog economy to get everyone in the networks transported from Minturn to the county seat, because the county was having a formal meetinga critical hearing on Minturn. The county had not gone out of its way to try to involve the Minturn people. In fact, it was going to make a land-use decision that would force Minturn to capitulate to Vail Associates’ wishes. The network needed to figure out how to get these miners and their wives down to the county seat en masse during a swing shift so that they could make a statement in a manner that could be used later to educate the people on what had happened. To do that they needed mass transportation.

Henry Pacheco knew the town manager of Vail, who on occasion could use the Vail Associates’ ski buses. They were big, beautiful blue buses with “Vail Associates” and their logo painted on all their sides. They were the buses that carried people around the town of Vail for skiing, etc., and Pacheco got it in his head that those buses owned by the developers were the buses that should take these people to Eagle for the hearing. Obviously he could not go directly to Vail Associates because if he did the answer would be a firm “no.” But by going through the town manager and capitalizing on his friendship, the town manager was persuaded to ask Vail to release the buses. There wasn’t any question from Vail. They said “fine” because the town manager had asked for the buses many times before.

Now the scene switches to the county courthouse, and Kent describes a Milagro Beanfield War. Inside, the president of Vail is standing, looking out through the courthouse window along with another key person in the network who possessed technical knowledge. He was the person assigned to Vail Associates by the network to iron out what the accommodations to Minturn would be with the ski area. Six people were standing looking out the window before the meeting startedthree company personnel, two planning commissioners, and Kent. On a workday afternoon when all Hispanics are supposed to be working in the mine, three blue buses pull up in front, and out of those buses come 120 Hispanics. Having been coached by their caretakersPacheco, Chavez, and Gallegosthe networks turned out en mass, for the first time ever, to a formal meeting. The strategy was simple: fill up the meeting room, which they did; surround the planning commission, which they did; and block the hallways in a non-threatening manner so that people just couldn’t leave the meeting.

They knew that they had only one shot. They had to keep those county commissioners and planning people there until the decision was made in their own favor. They were ready to spend the night!

The founder and president of Vail looked out the window and said loudly, “How did those people get our buses? Those are our buses!”The president, Pete Seibert, turned out to be a hero of this story. Pete Seibert had been a 10th Mountain Division ski trooper at Camp Hale during World War II and was well-liked by all from Leadville to Eagle. For the first time he began to see and understand what was happening.

In many situations Kent had to put together the action as it would unfold, much as Mack did in the frog hunt, which Kent re-termed ‘the Frog Economy.’

Pete Seibert called off the development that was happening at Meadow Mountain and Minturn. He could see the passion and knew he could not replace the significance of Minturn in the Eagle Valley. So he sat down with the caretakersPacheco, Chavez, Gallegosnot in the board room of Vail Associates, not in the formal offices of the county court houses, but in the informal settings of the kitchens of Minturn, Colorado. A kitchen table is a very important place for discussion in an informal environmentit levels the playing field.

Seibert said in Bob’s kitchen one night, “OK, I will not develop Meadow Mountain, but I want to develop Beaver Creek, and I need some tradeoffs.” He asked if the people of Minturn would be willing to allow Vail Associates to look at Beaver Creek as a way of preserving the community of Minturn and its culture. “You bet,” they said.

Kent explains that Pacheco became a local hero solely because he brought the Hispanic people from Minturn in the buses that belonged to the power structure. Pacheco often bragged, “Vail even paid for the gas and the drivers!”

That was very much like what Mack had done for the frog hunt. Remember, in the frog hunt Gabe goes off to get a part for his old carburetor and doesn’t come back for 160 days. One of the things that happens in the informal networks is that time is not linearit is tribal. Kent thinks Steinbeck has taken a bad rap. People accuse him of not being loyal and of not staying in touch with people like Tom Collins, who assisted him with material for The Grapes of Wrath and so on. But what really happens in informal networks is that time is tribal. It is okay to leave and come back after 160 days. There is really no reason to stay in touch, because when you arrive back someday, you are treated as though nothing has really happened. Again, here is profound proof from Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. If you allow time to be linear, then you judge people and you force them to lose their energy and you diminish their ability to interact with you, because once you judge them over a time-situation you have excluded them. If you read carefully in Cannery Row, time was a tribal concept, a very valuable concept to pick up on when rereading the novel.

One of the things that happens in the informal networks is that time is not linearit is tribal.

By 1977 in Minturn, the caretakers had been technically trained and could anticipate the dynamics of economics that would adversely impact their culture.

The New Jersey Zinc Mine that had been operating on top of Battle Mountain and polluting the upper Eagle Valley for over 50 years was the major employer of the Hispanics who lived in Minturn. The absentee mine owners every year would threaten to close the mine as the workers voiced a need for a higher wage. To divert a miners’ strike, the mine owners each year would announce that the mine was going to remain open. The Hispanic miners would then back off from their demands and continue to work at the same wage under the same conditions.

Bob Gallegos went to Jim Kent one day and said, “One of these years they are going to close that mine.”

What needed to be done was to have the miners learn to believe that one day the mine might close and then to actually prepare for that eventuality.

Bob Gallegos was now managing Kent’s “Life Options for the Future” project in Minturn. The mission was to get the miners to understand that the mine was in fact going to close. Had the caretakers proposed themselves as experts and called a meeting and said, “Listen, you guys, the mine is going to close. What are we going to do?,” the workers would have closed their minds and continued to do as they had for years; they would have continued to work so that they could feed their families. A classic example of the need for self-discovery in a natural ecosystem: Gallegos and the other caretakers decided to work with the natural leadersthose miners who were respected by the other miners.

There were about 12 of them. They met in Bob’s kitchen on a Sunday. The caretakers talked of things in Spanish and they talked of things in English. They did a lot of things with flip charts and they asked these miners to project what the owners would do first if that mine was going to close. They listened, and then wrote down a list of several things that they felt would probably happen.

They listed things like: the owners will stop ordering expensive wood pillars, or they will start mining out the dirt pillars where they know there is high grade ore, or they will repair worn out tools rather than buy new ones. They came up with a list of 10 items.

What the caretakers and organizers wanted were those 10 items burned on to the flip charts in the languages that the miners could see and read for themselves.

A week later, they took those 10 items and put them onto a checklist and said, “Tomorrow when you go into the mine, take the list and mark any item that you said would be happening if the mine were going to close, but only mark it if it is already happening.” The miners came back the next Sunday, and to a person they had marked nine or 10 of the items.

They owned it! They owned the discovery that the mine was going to close! The next step was to network this information in the mine, sharing the discovery with everyone.

They didn’t know when the mine was going to close, they just knew it was going to close. The message was the same concept as in Cannery Rowwhen Doc would carry the message, people would believe it.

The informal network then planned what could be done when the owners announced the closure. They had to diversify the community in a true ecological fashion. The two foundations of sound ecology are persistence and diversity.

The good people of Minturn listened as Pacheco, a caretaker, told the men over at the saloon, “For Hispanics in a small town in Colorado there is no place to go!”

“Where do we go? East Los Angeles or the barrios of north Denver? We have to make it here!”

“Is” thinking, as Ricketts explored in The Outer Shores, was to be found not in searching for causes, but rather for ways of breaking through.

A classic example of the need for self-discovery in a natural ecosystem: Gallegos and the other caretakers decided to work with the natural leadersthose miners who were respected by the other miners.

What they did in Minturn was to float ideas. The same idea as Cannery Row with Ricketts’ and Steinbeck’s “It might be so.” Ideas were put into the networks, just as the miners would be put into the mine to discover why it might indeed be closed.

Then the people would use their intuition, their instincts, and their values. That would deter them from their personal system. They had to learn how to absorb and accommodate outsiders without the outsider feeling rejected or confronted because of a different culture. It was quite like Mack on the frog Hunt in his handling of the farmer. Mack was able to literally bring the farmer into their network, and he became a part of Mack’s own agenda.

When the people of Minturn needed to bring an outsider in, they did so without being threatened. They became a part of the bigger picture until they felt they wanted to exit or there was an ending. The people became very conscious of Beginnings and Endings. The people became very conscious of Breakthroughs. The people could look at and see what was going on in another environment and make internal adjustments so that they could benefit from what was going on and sustain their own culture.

When Mack got back with the frogs, he finally found his leverage point to open up the “Frog Economy.” The frogs were worth a nickel to Doc, and if they were worth a nickel to Doc, then they must be worth a nickel to Lee Chong. But Doc, the caretaker, was not there when Mack and the boys got back. The point of this, according to Kent, is that things can get out of hand if a key caretaker isn’t there when you come to an ending. So instead of Lee Chong saying, “No, Mack, you have to wait until Doc gets back,” Lee makes the mistake of agreeing with Mack by saying, “Yes, the frogs are worth money.” So Lee Chong sets up a system where Mack and the boys can buy food and booze with frogs. . . .

Image of Jim Kent and Ed Larsh at Doc's Lab on Cannery Row

Caretakers and Endings on Cannery Row and in Minturn

They were very conscious in Minturn, when they were coming to an end, to make sure that the key actors or caretakers were in on the ending. Otherwise it would have gotten sloppy. In Cannery Row, Doc gets mad and even hits Mack. In reality, those moments are too disruptive and can bring an entire movement down. You must complete the ecological loop because that produces harmonyproductive harmony.

It was interesting to me that Kent converted Steinbeck’s social action theories concentrated in Cannery Row through the fictional mode of a novel into reality. It was even more incredible that he learned an ecological construct that included culture and real people based on a fictional Ed Ricketts. It was utterly amazing how readily adaptable Ricketts’ holistic philosophy could be to reality.

I asked Jim Kent about that and he said, “Well, today it is known as Issue Management, a term that I coined, along with the Discovery Process, but even that was based on Steinbeck, who referred to it as discipline through observation. The key, in Minturn, was to have the people become describers, because that freed them from the assumptions in their culture. It gave them some self-confidence in directing their own lives.”

I commented that there was a culture assumption in Monterey, California, up until 1948, an assumption that macho young Italians and Sicilians should be fishermen, as their fathers and grandfathers had been before them.

They were very conscious in Minturn, when they were coming to an end, to make sure that the key actors or caretakers were in on the ending.

Jim commented:

“Exactly. But at this juncture is where the parallel of Steinbeck’s social action thing expressed in Cannery Row was different from Minturn, because Steinbeck was writing fiction. He chose to limit his description to one short street called Cannery Row. What we did in Minturn was through the Discovery Process and by expanding networks. We had them think and reflect about their children, about how they could consider a preferred future and yet still retain their culture.

“They discovered the need for careers and discovered what they needed to do now to assure that their children had careers. They had to diversify the families. They encouraged the senior members of the family to continue working in the mine. By this time, they knew the mine was going to close. The other members of the family would quit their $18 an hour jobs for $4 an hour jobs.

“The people discovered how they could use the development of Beaver Creek to produce careers, how they could work with the Forest Service to produce careers.

“The people worked with Vail Associates and Pete Seibert. All of these possibilities were in the Forest Service permit to develop ski courses. They proposed a career development program, not just a promise of a $5 an hour job. They worked with banks, starting by having them hire young people as tellers. They worked with schools on reading and on survival levels of mathematics. And they worked on cultural values. They worked with community colleges with a program called a Career Conversion Program. They had another program called Life Cycle Mitigations where they negotiated with the big hotels that would be built at Beaver Creek. Ancillary to all of this, many Hispanics in the town wanted to set up their own business.”

The mine closed December 16, 1977, nine days before Christmas, but the people of Minturn were poised for new things outside the confines of their own cultural habitat. The difference of the reality of Minturn to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was that they were able to broaden their culture base as an expansion of the ecological borders.

I reminded Jim of my friend Kenneth Boulding, the great scientist and economist from Boulder, who talked about entropy of everything unless it develops the ability to change.

You need description and ownership. Mack and the Boys in the context of the social Discovery Process were geniuses. They knew how to reflect on the ecological system. Ed Ricketts, or “Doc,” through Steinbeck, was the ideal counselor. He was always in the background, but he knew how to close the ecological loops.

The difference of the reality of Minturn to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was that they were able to broaden their culture base as an expansion of the ecological borders.

Steinbeck developed a social action theory and described it through his fiction. He used his friend Ed Ricketts’ holistic philosophy and Ed Ricketts’ ecological understandings and converted them into a novel the essence of which revolved around the informal structure. It remains a piece of brilliant fiction.

Jim summed it up by saying, “When you look deeply at Steinbeck’s writing in Cannery Row and understand the real Ed Ricketts, you find a whole preventive theory. I hope others will discover that the thing started with Ed Ricketts, but that it was told by the Nobel Prize-winning storyteller John Steinbeck.”

After talking with Kent and seeing exactly how deeply Cannery Row had affected his life, I found myself deep in thought.

There are only two roads you can take to go from Carbondale, Colorado to Denver. One is Highway 82 through Aspen and then over Independence Pass, which is 12,000 feet high and closes from November to June. The other is Interstate I-70 through the Glenwood Canyon by the Colorado River and then up the Eagle Valley past Beaver Creek and Vail toward the Continental Divide, on toward Denver and the level plains stretching eastward to the Appalachians.

As you pass Avon and the huge ski area, Beaver Creek, and before you reach Vail, there is Highway 24, cutting off on your right with a sign that reads “Minturn5 miles, Leadville24 miles.” That was the route Jane and I took every week for three years on our way to a cancer clinic. We most often stopped at The Saloon in Minturn, where we talked to a third-generation Hispanic caretaker named Martinez.

“How’s it goin’?” we would ask.

“Did you see the new restaurant across the street run by Lopez called Vail’s Derriere, which means ‘Vail’s ass’? Just over the top of the hill behind this street is Vail, where all the rich tourists hang out.”

“What about the other businesses?” we asked.

Steinbeck developed a social action theory and described it through his fiction.

“Well, there are 35 businesses now in Minturn, all run by Hispanics. Joe Marcus owns the Exxon station over on I-70, and Bob Gallegos and his brother have the biggest masonry business in western Colorado. There isn’t a rock wall or stone house in Beaver Creek or Vail they haven’t built, including President Ford’s house, and Dan Quayle’s, and Ross Perot’s.”
“What happens to the young people that graduate from high school?”

“Most of them go to Colorado Mountain College for training in hotel management. There are plenty of jobs. Many of the managers are from Minturn. They can work there and live at home. Renting is very expensive here in Minturn and you can’t buy a house because there aren’t any houses in Minturn for sale.

When Jane and I would leave Minturn and head up Battle Mountain, we usually pulled over and stopped to look at Notch Mountain in front of the 14,000-ft. Mount of the Holy Cross. From there you can see the company town of the New Jersey Zinc Company. It has to be the largest ghost town in the world. The EPA in the 1980s constructed a chain link fence around the mine and the abandoned houses and declared it a Super Fund site. The mine leaks lead and zinc poisons into the fractured rock system that drops into the Eagle River that flows through Minturn on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. My uncle used to say: “The fishing ain’t very good.”

Copyright © 2006 James Kent Associates (JKA). All rights reserved. Image of Mack and the Boys courtesy Pat Hathaway Historical Photo Collection. Image of James Kent and Ed Larsh courtesy James Kent.

A New History of Cannery Row by a John Steinbeck Expert and Fiction Writer

Image from cover of Michael Kenneth Hemp's new history of Cannery Row

What’s the latest on Cannery Row? In the years since 1958—when Monterey, California’s Ocean View Avenue was renamed Cannery Row in recognition of John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel—Cannery Row has inspired books about Steinbeck’s characters, his friend Ed Ricketts, and members of the circle that revolved around Ricketts’ Cannery Row lab in the 1930s and 1940s, John Steinbeck’s most productive period as an author.

A primary objective of this book is to produce a vision of Cannery Row as it was, from which unfolds both its emerging and little-known ‘human history’ and a vivid background for John Steinbeck’s fiction. — From Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue

Among the best of the books is one that first appeared in 1986: Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue, by the Monterey, California area activist and writer Michael Kenneth Hemp, founder and chief historian of the Cannery Row Foundation. Fortunately for readers, an expanded new edition of Hemp’s popular pictorial history was released in January, printed on high-quality paper with a wealth of new images. But that’s only one reason to read Hemp’s book—which features attractive maps of Cannery Row and the Monterey, California Peninsula—before you visit John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

Image of Monterey, California historian Michael Kenneth Hemp

Michael Hemp, Cannery Row, and the Real Ed Ricketts

Another cause for celebration is Hemp’s command of colorful anecdote and vigorous vernacular, traits suggested by this photo in his office. Like other educated Steinbeck enthusiasts with a gift for expression, he writes in energetic English easily understood by readers of Steinbeck’s work. A published novelist and public speaker, Hemp is deeply engaged by the real Cannery Row, and his excitement is infectious. A Berkeley native and political science graduate of the University of California, he served as an Air Force Special Intelligence officer, and that shows too.

Cannery Row’s origins are a mixture of the rocky Monterey coastline and the toil and industry of the Orient. A Chinese fishing village, from which ‘China Point’ derives its name, [it] was established in the early 1850s and was devastated by fire in 1906. –  From Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue

Hemp’s story of the rise and fall of Monterey, California’s sardine industry reads like a well-written reconnaissance report—precise, concrete, and focused on the facts as they occurred on the ground. Hemp’s knowledge of Cannery Row geography makes his history of the street easy to follow, a plus for fans of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row who are unfamiliar with Monterey, California. His emphasis on Ricketts’ career as a pioneering scientist and thinker puts the marine biologist’s collaboration with John Steinbeck in context, enhancing the appreciation of Ricketts’ role in the relationship and validating Hemp’s view that none of the “Doc” figures in Steinbeck’s fiction quite does justice to the real man.

Image of Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck

New Evidence Concerning Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck

But why read the new edition of Hemp’s Cannery Row book if you already have the original? Simple. Because it contains new findings about John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, shown here, and fresh insights into Cannery Row’s past and prospects for the future. Steinbeck claimed that he first met Ricketts at the dentist’s in Monterey, California, a questionable assertion. Based on evidence from firsthand sources, Hemp identifies the actual meeting place as a private residence in Carmel-By-The-Sea, south of Pacific Grove and Monterey, California. By 1940 Steinbeck and Ricketts were predicting dire consequences for profit-driven overfishing, a major factor in Cannery Row’s postwar demise as the world’s sardine capital.

Fish cutting traditionally done manually by Chinese and Japanese and Spanish workers became cheaper and less specialized by nationality after the introduction of machine cutters. Slotted conveyors in which the sardines were placed were drawn under spinning blades that cut off the heads and tails and automatically eviscerated the fish.” – From Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue

Based on new science, Hemp provides new context for understanding the economic disaster created by rapacious technology and short-sighted greed, from the inception of the sardine industry in 1905 to its decline four decades later. Thanks to John Steinbeck, Cannery Row eventually came back as a tourist attraction, but commercial interests continue to cloud its prospects of becoming a world-class cultural destination. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row’s most prestigious nonprofit venture, nicely connects Hemp’s various concerns: John Steinbeck’s relationship with Ed Ricketts, the social and economic evolution of Monterey, California, and one-world ecology, the imaginative idea that permeates Sea of Cortez, the published record of Steinbeck and Ricketts’ most productive collaboration.

Image of the Cannery Row fire of 1936

Pictures from the Past Published for the First Time

There is more to recommend Hemp’s history of Cannery Row than new text, however. The revised edition also contains a larger selection of photographs, printed at better resolution, than earlier versions. Among the most memorable pictures introduced for the first time are dramatic black and white images from Monterey, California’s colorful past, including photos of the 1936 Cannery Row fire that destroyed Ed Ricketts’ lab, shown here, and a 1948 police photo of a mortally injured Ricketts, lying on the ground beside his stalled Buick after being hit by a train near Cannery Row.

There has been a degree of controversy over just how John Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts. John Steinbeck writes that it happened in a dentist’s office, but we know John is, on occasion, given to ‘fiction’ when it comes to Ed Ricketts. The actual location and conditions under which Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts only came to light in 1991. – From Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue

Even glimpses of lighter moments foreshadow a dark future. One image printed here for the first time is a group shot of Ricketts, his lover Toni Jackson, and her daughter Kay taken by Ricketts’ brother-in-law, Fred Strong, in the mid-1940s. Toni, who eventually left Ed, is shown touching Kay, whose death from brain cancer in 1947 contributed to the demise of the relationship and the depression that some have associated with Ricketts’ death. It’s easy to see what each person in the picture saw in the others, and it’s hard not to feel a lump in the throat when thinking about their separate fates. Another Strong photo—a portrait of Ricketts made circa 1936—is almost as painful, but for a different reason. Posed in a sport jacket, eyes open and fixed on an object or idea in the middle distance, Ricketts looks the part John Steinbeck wrote for him in Cannery Row—commanding and charismatic, but also possessed.

Image of Marilyn Monroe in the Cannery Row cult classic, Clash by Night

A Cannery Row Cult Classic Not Encountered Until Now

There were also motion pictures inspired by Cannery Row. Hemp maintains diplomatic silence about the failed 1982 feature film starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger, spliced from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday and directed by David Ward. But another movie, one that wasn’t based on Steinbeck’s fiction, contributes significantly to the conclusion of Hemp’s narrative. Shot in black and white on location in and around Monterey, California, Clash By Night is a bygone-times period piece—one that I was grateful to encounter for the first time.

Some of the filming . . . became entertaining in its own right, when an enterprising cannery worker, Jesse (‘Tuto’) Paredes, intentionally sent a can down the can chute sideways at the San Xavier cannery packing line, causing the line to be shut down—so all the cannery workers could rush to the windows to see Marilyn Monroe being filmed in a scene being shot on the street outside. – From Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue

Directed by Fritz Lang and produced by Harriet Parsons, it features Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, and Paul Douglas but became a cult classic because of Marilyn Monroe’s co-starring role as Peggy, a 20-year-old cannery worker. The story’s gritty setting is a Monterey, California coast so overfished by 1951 that Parsons and Lang had to work miracles to make a handful of sardines look like a haul. David Ward’s 1982 studio sets are elegant and drenched in color. But Fritz Lang’s fifties film noir seems truer to the crusty character of Cannery Row, at least to this viewer. Apparently Hemp agrees. His 1986 Cannery Row book mentioned Clash by Night in passing as a symbol of the street’s declining fortune. In the new edition he devotes six paragraphs, plus a photo, to the making and meaning of the sad movie shot in Monterey, California more than six decades ago.

Image from cover of Michael Kenneth Hemp's novel, End of Lies

Writing Fiction, Like John Steinbeck, from Science and Life

Hemp’s thoughtful treatment of Clash by Night stimulated my curiosity about the film; it also made we wonder what kind of fiction Hemp writes. A fascination with science, the same force that attracted John Steinbeck to Ed Ricketts, is evident throughout Hemp’s history of Cannery Row, so I turned to his 2008 scientific thriller—End of Lies: The Nadjik Pheromone—to sample his style as a writer of fiction. I’m only half-way through the novel, so its ending is safe with me. But the opening pages suggest that Hemp shares more as a writer with John Steinbeck than passion for science, Ed Ricketts, and Cannery Row.

He smiles, chuckling to himself. ‘There’s always a gang of ladies from the Monterey History and Art Association or National Steinbeck Center in Salinas that just have to see where John Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts.’ – From End of Lies: The Nadjik Pheromone

Recovering from the trauma of witnessing genocide in Bosnia, Hemp’s hero crashes at his boss’s vacation home in Carmel-By-The-Sea. Hemp’s fictional house is located next door to the actual bungalow where Ricketts and Steinbeck were introduced in 1930; the man who owns it in Hemp’s novel is an invented version of Hemp’s friend Tom Morjig, the real-life owner of the historic Carmel cottage. Like John Steinbeck—whose Cannery Row is, according to Hemp, 90 percent factual—the Monterey, California history and fiction writer uses real characters and real science to create a convincing story. Like The Grapes of Wrath, End of Lies is dedicated to the devoted wife “who made this book possible.” What greater compliment to a spouse—or homage to John Steinbeck—could any writer pay?

Period Cannery Row and Monterey, California photos reproduced from Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean View Avenue courtesy of the Pat Hathaway Historical Photo Collection.