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.

 

Does John Steinbeck Belong to English Literature?

Cover image from two books on English literature by Peter AckroydDoes John Steinbeck belong to English literature? Peter Ackroyd, one of Great Britain’s most prolific living writers, raised this question in my mind when I read Albion: The Invention of the English Imagination, a survey of the arts of the British Isles from Anglo-Saxon times to the present. Unlike Henry James and T.S. Eliot, native writers who defined themselves as Anglo-Americans, Steinbeck never claimed to be anything but an American author influenced by the English literature of the past. But Steinbeck’s ties to Great Britain were strong, his fiction flows from the well of English literature, and his temperament mirrored many of the English characteristics explored in Albion: The Invention of the English Imagination.

King Arthur: John Steinbeck’s Magnificent Obsession

Thomas Malory’s King Arthur captured Steinbeck’s boyhood imagination and obsessed him throughout his life. In pursuit of this passion, Steinbeck traveled more extensively in Great Britain than anywhere outside the United States except Mexico and expended greater time and effort researching King Arthur than he did on any other project.

Steinbeck also loved English music. From the Tudor anthems of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd to the sea-sodden songs and symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the music of the British Isles inspired him when he wrote his novels and consoled him when he contemplated death. Although Steinbeck’s attempt to transpose the music of Malory’s Mort D’Arthur into modern English collapsed, King Arthur’s Round Table served as inspiration for some of his best writing, starting with Tortilla Flat, and Ackroyd includes Steinbeck in his short list of English writers most influenced by Malory and the King Arthur legend. (Ironically, Ackroyd’s adaptation of Malory’s King Arthur succeeds where Steinbeck failed. The opening sentence of The Death of King Arthur suggests why: “In the old wild days of the world there was a king of England known as Uther Pendragon; he was a dragon in wrath as well as in power.”)

It seems particularly appropriate to reflect on John Steinbeck’s Englishness today, his birthday.

But there is more to  Steinbeck’s connection with Great Britain than love of King Arthur, English landscape, or the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Great Britain was in his blood, and it seems particularly appropriate to reflect on John Steinbeck’s Englishness today, his birthday.

The Invention of Steinbeck’s English Imagination

As indicated by the titles of  In Dubious Battle and The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck was inspired by English literature beyond Malory. Along with Shakespeare and Milton. John Bunyon and William Blake are notable influences, as well as the language of the King James Bible and the novels of Charles Dickens. But this obvious observation begs an interesting if unanswerable question. Was Steinbeck’s affinity for the British Isles, King Arthur, and English literature the root or the result of his Englishness?  Was Great Britain in his blood before it was in his mind?

Was Steinbeck’s affinity for the British Isles, King Arthur, and English literature the root or the result of his Englishness?  Was Great Britain in his blood before it was in his mind?

Steinbeck’s maternal grandparents were Scots-Irish immigrants, and his paternal grandmother was a Dickson from New England. He inherited his mother’s fascination with Celtic myth and magic. He dramatized his grandparents’ Calvinism and its conflicts in East of Eden. Whether inborn or acquired, the characteristics of Englishness described in Albion: The Invention of the English Imagination were present in Steinbeck’s thought and temperament and in his writing, from Cup of Gold to The Winter of Our Discontent, shaping his imagination and suggesting that he belongs to the tradition of English literature that began with Malory and Chaucer.

Were Steinbeck’s English traits the product or the source of his lifelong attraction to English writers and music?

Here are a few of the English traits identified by Ackroyd and shared by Steinbeck:

–A love of landscape and an attraction to the sea
–Antiquarianism, independence, and insularity
–Melancholy, fatalism, and the profession (if not the fact) of modesty
–Practicality, invention, and a love of science and experiment
–An insistence on privacy, solitude, and having a place of one’s own
–An instinctive belief in cultural continuity and “the presence of the past”
–A distrust of theology, abstraction, and fixed ideologies
–Creative translation, assimilation, and adaptation of earlier art
–A belief in ghosts, fairies, and magic (the Celts were British before they were Irish)
–A passion for home gardening, tinkering, and domestic self-help devices
–A penchant for portraiture in painting and an preference for character over plot in writing
–Making art organically, by accretion, rather than structurally by system, theory, or plan
–Moving between fiction and fact, history and fantasy, when telling a story

Were Steinbeck’s English traits the product or the source of his lifelong attraction to English writers and music? Two examples may help answer the question.

Steinbeck, Vaughan Williams, and Blake

Although Ackroyd mentions Steinbeck only in connection with Malory’s King Arthur, the nature of Steinbeck’s Englishness can be deduced from the chapter Ackroyd devotes to Ralph Vaughan Williams, Great Britain’s most popular modern composer, and from Ackroyd’s book-length biography of William Blake, the early English Romantic poet and artist. First Vaughan Williams, then Blake:

–Like Steinbeck, Vaughan Williams displayed a characteristically English “detachment and reticence” about explaining himself or the meaning of his work: “He was not given to ‘probing into himself and his thoughts or his own music. We may say the same of other English artists who have prided themselves on their technical skills and are decidedly reluctant to discuss the ‘meaning’ of their productions. . . . It is, once more, a question of English embarrassment.”

–Like Steinbeck, Vaughan Williams was moved by the early English music of Tallis, Byrd, and Henry Purcell.  Noting the “plangent sadness” of Great Britain’s national music since their time, Ackroyd describes the songs and symphonies of Vaughan Williams as, like The Grapes of Wrath,comparable to ‘the eternal note of sadness’ which Matthew Arnold heard on Dover Beach. . . . [a] note of quietly and insistently ‘throbbing melancholy’. . . .” 

–Like Steinbeck, Vaughan Williams discovered universal meaning in local sources: “He believed that ‘if the roots of your art are firmly planted in your own soil and that soil has anything to give you, you may still gain the whole world and not lose your own souls.”

Like Steinbeck, Vaughan Williams discovered universal meaning in local sources.

–Although Steinbeck, like Blake, was baptized in the Episcopal church, his family’s religious roots were Lutheran, Calvinist, and—like those of Blake—Separatist. Jim Casy echoes Blake’s language (“Everything that lives is holy”) in The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck reflected Blake’s radical Protestant politics in his life: “The nature of Blake’s radicalism was perhaps not clear even to Blake himself . . . . But the fact that he never joined any particular group or society suggests that his was, from the beginning, an internal politics both self-willed and self-created.”  Like Steinbeck, Blake managed to combine an intense visionary belief in brotherhood and the human community with that robust and almost anarchic individualism so characteristic of London artisans”  of his day.

Like Steinbeck, Blake managed to combine an intense visionary belief in brotherhood and the human community with that robust and almost anarchic individualism so characteristic of London artisans’  of his day.

–Steinbeck and Blake shared a view of Mob Man as both infernal and godlike in power. A handbill for the Gordon Riots of 1780, which Blake experienced firsthand, “depicted the mob as ‘persevering and being united in One Man against the infernal designs of the Ministry.'”  In Dubious Battle presents Steinbeck’s version of Group Man in Doc Burton’s observation that “[a] man in a group isn’t himself at all; he’s a cell in an organism that isn’t like him any more than the cells in your body are like you.”  Like Blake, Steinbeck’s character concludes that Group Man can ultimately be perceived as God.

Like Blake, Steinbeck’s character concludes that Group Man can ultimately be perceived as God.

–Steinbeck and Blake shared the ability to transmute moral indignation into poetry. As Ackroyd notes, the chimney sweeps in Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience reflected contemporary reality: “They finished their work at noon, at which time they were turned upon the streets—all of them in rags (some of them, it seems, without any clothing at all), all of them unwashed, poor, hungry.” The starving children of The Grapes of Wrath were equally real; Steinbeck reported their plight in a San Francisco newspaper series before rendering them unforgettably in his novel. English child indenture was ended by an act of Parliament. California migrant starvation was alleviated by federal relief. But Steinbeck’s children, like those of Dickens and Blake, continue to haunt and horrify to this day. Among American writers since Harriet Beecher Stowe, it might be added, only Steinbeck possessed the power to change society by opening hearts, a defining characteristic of English literature since Blake and Dickens.

Steinbeck and Blake shared the ability to transmute moral indignation into poetry. . . . Among American writers since Harriet Beecher Stowe, it might be added, only Steinbeck possessed the power to change society by opening hearts, a defining characteristic of English literature since Blake and Dickens.

In a forgotten episode of literary history, certain late-19th century professors of English literature at American colleges such as the University of North Carolina, where I studied, advocated that the United States rejoin Great Britain to form a cultural, if not political, affiliation. Their heads were in Chapel Hill, but their hearts were in Chaucer. Yet in their time it could be argued that American writing remained subservient to English literature. While reading Peter Ackroyd, it pleased me to consider that John Steinbeck, the most American of American writers since their era, may have fulfilled their desire more convincingly than James, Eliot, and other American-Anglophile authors. Like the music of Vaughan Williams and the art of William Blake, Steinbeck’s writing expresses Englishness authentically, by staying rooted, looking inward, and achieving universality in a diversity of modes, from mythic to melancholy. These artists are, one notes, always sad, and the sea is always at their side.

Father Junipero’s Confessor

Father Junipero's Confessor book cover with image of Father SerraWhatever you think you know about Junipero Serra—the 18th century founder of California missions and current candidate for Catholic sainthood—hold that thought. Father Junipero’s Confessor, Nick Taylor’s second novel, won’t shatter your faith if you’re the kind of Catholic who still believes that ends justify means in the work of the Lord. But whether your inner space is sacred, secular, or skeptical about religion, this taut theological thriller will blow your mind.

San Francisco de Asis, Junipero Serra, and God Almighty

A five-foot Franciscan zealot on a 40-year Mission Impossible from Almighty God, Junipero Serra became the most famous follower of San Francisco de Asis since Clare, Francis’s hometown sister saint, and St. Bonaventure, the order’s greatest Doctor of Theology. Theologian and evangelist, mendicant and manipulator, flagellant and force unstoppable by soldier, serpent, or state, Junipero Serra made Monterey’s Carmel Mission headquarters for Operation God in Spanish California. Juan Crespi, Serra’s seminary student back in Majorca, became his closest companion in the quest to win souls for Christ among the native people of Old California. Francisco Palou—Juan Crespi’s fellow seminarian and competitor for Serra’s affection—became the boss’s COO, administering the dearest of California missions to Serra’s heart—San Francisco de Asis, aka Mission Dolores—and serving as his personal confessor. He needed one.

Nick Taylor shown reading from his novel about Junipero Serra

Nick Taylor: Born to Bring California Missions to Life

The author of The Disagreement—a celebrated first novel with a Civil War setting—Nick Taylor is a popular creative writing teacher at San Jose State University, where he is on sabbatical as director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. A Californian reared in a Catholic home, he’s perfect for the task of bringing Junipero Serra back to life through the consciousness of his right-hand man, a talented manager and self-doubter born before his time. Junipero Serra, a figure molded by the High Middle Ages of San Francisco de Asis, founded California missions and feared neither man nor mountain in his fight with the world, flesh, and devil. Polou, Taylor’s protagonist, is a modern type who learns too little too late.

Nick Taylor's first novel cover, The Disagreement

In the End, a Stunning Secret That Survives Junipero Serra

It reminded me of Watergate. What did Francisco Polou know and when did he know it? Like Deep Throat, Taylor saves his secret for the last page. Enjoy the journey, savor the moment, and don’t look ahead. But be warned before you begin: I finished reading Father Junipero’s Confessor long after midnight, in a hotel room near one of Serra’s nine California missions. I didn’t sleep well.

Why Did George Orwell Call Steinbeck a Communist?

Steinbeck's Cold War Russian Journal Made Orwell Suspect He Was a CommunistWhy did George Orwell put John Steinbeck’s name on the list of “crypto-communists” he kept in his  notebook while writing 1984, his Cold War classic about totalitarian England under a Stalinesque Big Brother? As the troubled alliance between the USSR and the Free World collapsed following World War II, confirming Orwell’s deepest doubts and deadliest anxieties about Stalinist dictatorship, Steinbeck was living alone in California, dealing with personal depression, divorce,  and the death of Ed Ricketts, while Orwell worked frantically to finish 1984  on a remote island in Scotlandfilling his notebook with the names of public figures he considered potential collaborators in the Stalinist invasion he feared. Why was the author of The Grapes of Wrath, Bombs Away, and The Moon Is Down among those suspected by Orwell of being fifth-columnists for the communist cause in England and the United States?

Parallel Lives for Two World War Writers

In their personal lives and political views Orwell and Steinbeck weren’t so different, despite Orwell’s distinct Englishness and Steinbeck’s individualistic Americanism. Born too late to fight in World War I, their paths could have converged in London during the darkest days of World War II, though a meeting was unlikely for reasons that will become clear. As adults who came to age following World War I, each writer defied family expectations, rejected their Anglican faith, and dropped out of school to gain real-life experience for their writing among working class people during the turbulent period between 1919 and 1939. Both became pro-labor leftists in the 1930s and attempted, without success, to enlist in active service when World War II began. Both did their part in the world war against fascism using their best weapon—words.

Like George Orwell, John Steinbeck was an urban liberal activist with small-town conservative roots.

Like George Orwell, John Steinbeck was an urban liberal activist with small-town conservative roots. As a Stanford student following World War I, he witnessed America’s Big Red Scare, when hysteria about Bolsheviks, blacks, and labor unions created what Frederick Lewis Allen called a “reign of terror” by the federal government and local vigilante groups. When Red-Scare tactics were employed against Steinbeck following The Grapes of Wrath, the writer complained to the Roosevelt administration, incurring the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover, director of Roosevelt’s newly named Federal Bureau of Investigation. In post-World War II America, Steinbeck’s celebrated liberalism remained part of the public image of California’s famous pro-democracy writer. Yet George Orwell—a communist-inspired socialist with political views left of Steinbeck’s—accused Steinbeck of being the communist when the Cold War began. What change caused this charge?

Dangerous Developments in Post-World War II Events

George Orwell certainly understood the potential consequences of his Cold War list of “crypo-communists.” Wounded in 1937 while fighting with English volunteers against Franco’s fascists, Orwell was better educated and more experienced in European politics than Steinbeck, an American democrat who denied ever being a socialist or an –ist of any kind. Betrayed by Stalinist spies embedded in the anti-Franco coalition, Orwell barely escaped from Spain with his life. Who new better than Orwell the cost of being secretly accused by former comrades of taking the wrong side in an internecine struggle for partisan dominance? If Orwell’s list of suspected communists became public when the Cold War turned hot, as Orwell anticipated, those he named —including Steinbeck—could be expected to pay a price.

If Orwell’s list of suspected communists became public when the Cold War turned hot, as Orwell anticipated, those he named —including Steinbeck—could be expected to pay a price.

Why did George Orwell accuse John Steinbeck of sympathizing with Cold War Stalinism despite his own experience 10 years earlier? Part of the answer can be explained by certain elements of Orwell’s peculiar personality—extreme partisanship, English parochialism, and literary pique. As a professional book reviewer, Orwell disparaged American writing, including Steinbeck’s. His English pride was hurt by America’s rising dominance following World War I and Roosevelt’s treatment of Churchill in the closing days of World War II. His political partisanship led to paranoid illusions about the motives of opponents, particularly those within his own party. But there were more likely American writers for George Orwell accuse of being fifth-columnists for communism in the United States. What did he chose Steinbeck, whom he probably never met? Armchair psychology and what-if history aren’t always helpful, but a bit of both is required to answer this under-asked question.

Pre-World War I Babies; Pre-World War II Adults

George Orwell and John Steinbeck were born within a year of one another, middle-class children of dominant mothers and distant fathers who displayed an early aptitude to act out for the benefit of family and friends. As a boys both were bright, independent, and inventive—indulged by doting mothers and by sisters with whom they remained close. Like Orwell, Steinbeck grew up in domestic security, surrounded by hills and fields and the animals he loved. A restless college dropout, Steinbeck bummed his way to New York to haul cement and work as a reporter after digging ditches and picking crops back home. Like Steinbeck, Orwell was restless in school. Bored by life at Eton, his failure to study nixed his chances for the scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge his parents expected him to win. Enlisting at 18 in England’s Imperial Police, he was keeping an uneasy post-World War I peace in colonial Burma during the years Steinbeck dropped in and out of Stanford and worked as a day laborer with the Salinas Valley’s multicultural farm workers.

George Orwell and John Steinbeck were born within a year of one another, middle-class children of dominant mothers and distant fathers who displayed an early aptitude to act out for the benefit of family and friends.

By the late 1920s, Steinbeck was a jobless writer living in San Francisco with an unsuccessful first novel. During the same period, Orwell was washing dishes in Paris and harvesting hops in England, collecting material for Down and Out in Paris and London, his first book. Meanwhile Steinbeck married a freethinking leftist who introduced her husband to local labor organizers agitating for better conditions for field workers and Orwell married a brave socialist who joined him on the fighting front in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell’s wife died in 1945 during a botched hysterectomy. George Orwell wasn’t at her side. John Steinbeck and his wife divorced in 1943. She survived the marriage, but probably had a similar procedure at her husband’s insistence before it ended. Orwell remarried in 1949, shortly before his death. Steinbeck in 1950, the year Orwell died.

Why George Orwell and John Steinbeck Failed to Meet

Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath shortly before World War II erupted in Europe. It was his eighth book and became a bestseller at home and abroad. George Orwell published Coming Up for Air, his seventh, later the same year. It sold badly, both in England and in America. Ill and unfit for duty when England declared war against Germany in 1939, Orwell joined the Home Guard and worked as a writer, producer, and broadcaster for the BBC in London through 1943. When Hoover’s files on Steinbeck prevented him from getting a commission after America entered World War II, Steinbeck—like Orwell—put his writing in his nation’s service producing literary propaganda until he was cleared by his government to report on the war in 1943.

If the gods meant for George Orwell and John Steinbeck to meet, 1943 was their moment.

If the gods meant for George Orwell and John Steinbeck to meet, 1943 was their moment. Both writers were living in London during the early months of the year, socializing with foreign figures and writing for domestic consumption. But the 41-year-old American and the 40-year-old Englishman moved in alien worlds, distanced not by language or belief but by literary and cultural politics across the deepening Anglo-American divide. Orwell was an internationalist, a journalist who insisted that all prose—including fiction—is political. He disliked Huxley, Auden, and Isherwood, English writers of his generation who moved to America in the decade before World War I, and he considered American writers like Lewis, Anderson, and Steinbeck reactionary because their subjects were regional in focus. Chauvinistic to his core, Orwelll never traveled to America, criticized American consumerism, and publicly disparaged the decadent culture of the country he refused to visit. He also kept literary grudges, and The Grapes of Wrath had been a sensation.

Like ships passing in a storm, Orwell and Steinbeck were in London at a crucial moment without leaving a record of ever meeting. Both men were permanently changed by their World War II experience, and both went on to write books of continuing popularity that reflected the transformation produced by hot and cold world war in their political thinking. But the story behind Orwell’s accusation that Steinbeck was a communist didn’t end with World War II.

Read more in Animal Farm, 1984, and Steinbeck’s Russian Journey.

Animal Farm, 1984, and Steinbeck’s Russian Journey

Orwell's Animal Farm, 1984, and Diary Selection Book CoversThree books published between 1945 and 1949—George Orwell’s twin tales of totalitarian tyranny, Animal Farm and 1984, and John Steinbeck’s collaboration with Robert Capa, A Russian Journal—help explain why Orwell accused Steinbeck of being a “crypto-communist” in 1948.  Orwell’s caustic critique of Stalinist state communism made Animal Farm and 1984 instant classics.  Steinbeck’s friendly focus on individual Russians in his text for the photos of Robert Capa humanized the USSR. The close chronology and contrasting content of Animal Farm, A Russian Journal, and 1984 suggest that Orwell singled out Steinbeck for reasons more troubling than literary pique or anti-American resentment.

Animal Farm Anxiety

With characteristic irony Orwell subtitled his 1945 novel Animal Farm a “fairy story.” As a result Orwell’s manuscript was turned down by the Dial Press on the grounds that Americans weren’t buying children’s books. Editors in England were equally obstinate, but for political, not literary, reasons. Their motives were mixed, to put it mildly.  Orwell’s London publisher Victor Gollancz—an unrepentant pro-Stalinist—deeply disliked Orwell’s depiction of politburo pigs exploiting sheep-like proletarians. T.S. Eliot—the Anglo-American editor at Faber & Faber who turned down Orwell’s first novel as pro-proletarian propaganda—rejected Animal Farm because it appeared to praise Trotsky.

In an act of semi-official censorship, a senior official in the British Ministry of Information (later exposed as a Soviet spy) warned London publishers not to accept Animal Farm because Stalin was England’s ally and publication could harm the war effort. As Russell Baker notes in his preface to the edition of Animal Farm published in America, the year Orwell wrote Animal Farm, “even conservatives were pro-Soviet” within England’s ruling class. Orwell neither forgave nor forgot, and 1943—the year he might have met Steinbeck but didn’t—marked the beginning of his obsession with writers, politicians, and snobs he found guilty of defending Stalin beyond the dictator’s past-due date.

Orwell neither forgave nor forgot, and 1943—the year he might have met Steinbeck but didn’t—marked the beginning of his obsession with writers, politicians, and snobs he found guilty of defending Stalin beyond the dictator’s past-due date.

Initially released in 1945 in a short print run by a small English press, Animal Farm was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Regular readers got the point missed by Eliot and Dial’s editors, and the allegory of Stalinist pigs and proletarian sheep made Orwell famous wherever it appeared. A group of exiles from Ukraine, the agricultural Russian heartland ravaged by a decade of famine and war, were among the book’s earliest fans. Understanding  Orwell’s anti-Stalinist message from painful personal experience, they contacted the writer, who allowed them to publish Animal Farm without charge and wrote an introduction to the Ukrainian edition.

Animal Farm was Orwell’s first bestseller, and his advance amounted to $2,000 in today’s currency. Cannery Row, published at virtually the same time, was Steinbeck’s fifth or sixth bestseller, as Orwell was painfully aware. Described by one critic as a lighthearted confection with a poison center, Cannery Row is the antithesis of Animal Farm in purpose, point, and politics. Although both books are parodies meant to make readers laugh, Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row as an entertaining diversion for war-weary Americans. Beneath its sardonic surface, Animal Farm delivers a dire warning about conditions in Europe under fascism and communism: Contemporary life is like a farm. Totalitarians are pigs and you sheep are fools to follow them.

Steinbeck’s Russian Journey with Robert Capa

Orwell  turned down invitations to visit the United States and never traveled to the Soviet Union, the subject of Animal Farm and 1984 and the cause of division among socialists following Stalin’s show trials and pact with Nazi Germany. When John Steinbeck visited Russian with his first wife in 1937, Orwell was fighting alongside his wife as an anti-Franco volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. In London six years later, Steinbeck became friends with Robert Capa, the photographer who accompanied him when he returned to Russia (without his second wife) in 1947. A Hungarian emigrant to France, Robert Capa—like Orwell—was on the scene during the savage civil war in Spain, photographing scenes that made him famous.  Like Steinbeck, Robert Capa was self-invented, sponataneous, and unconstrained by social boundaries or orthodoxy—a better match for Steinbeck than Orwell had the writers met. The Eton-educated Orwell, born Eric Blair, was an intellectual, a partisan, and a bit of a prig.

The Eton-educated Orwell, born Eric Blair, was an intellectual, a partisan, and a bit of a prig.

A Russian Journal was published in 1948—text by John Steinbeck, images by Robert Capa—as Orwell was completing the first draft of 1984. To Orwell’s likely dismay, Steinbeck and Capa chose to focus on personal portraiture rather than group context in a Russian snapshot where politics are kept (mostly) out of the frame and individuals dominate the picture. Like the Joads, the Ukrainian farmers who extend hospitality to Steinbeck and Capa are fully-realized fellow beings, not proletarian symbols displayed against an Orwellian landscape. State-planned famine, Soviet show trials, and Stalinist treachery in Spain soured Orwell on the Soviet experiment earlier than other English socialists. Steinbeck’s characteristically American failure to denounce Stalin’s sins while praising Russian virtue must have seemed unforgivable, given what Orwell knew and when he knew it.

1984 and Beyond

The political allegory of Animal Farm morphed into futuristic nightmare in 1984, Orwell’s last and greatest book. Originally titled “The Last Man in Europe,” his story began to take shape in 1946 as the Iron Curtain fell across Europe and the Cold War ended Stalin’s temporary alliance with England and the United States. Using his royalties from Animal Farm, Orwell rented a remote house on an island off the northwest coast of Scotland, where he completed the final version of 1984 in 1948. Following a course strikingly parallel and opposite to Orwell career almost to the end, Steinbeck was living in self-imposed isolation in California, depressed by divorce from his second wife, the death of his best friend, and disparagement by New York’s literary elite. Whether Steinbeck read Animal Farm or 1984 during this period is unclear. But Orwell still practiced literary criticism, and it seems certain he was reading Steinbeck.

Steinbeck recovered and remarried in 1950, the year that Orwell—also remarried—died from tuberculosis. Diagnosed in 1948, Orwell’s disease was successfully treated with streptomycin, a still-scarce wonder drug invented in America and procured for Orwell by David Astor, the wealthy English son of American-born parents. Another friend named Richard Rees was at Orwell’s side when the drug and the author’s health failed in 1949, checking Orwell into a private sanitorium where they talked together about life, politics, and the list of communist sympathizers the writer was keeping in his notebook. According to Rees, his friend was “very weak, though mentally as active as ever.” In other words, Orwell knew what he was doing when he wrote  Steinbeck’s name in the list of communist sympathizers the authorities should be watching.

Orwell knew what he was doing when he wrote Steinbeck’s name in the list of communist sympathizers the authorities should be watching.

According to Orwell biographer Michael Shelden, it was “a random list which mixes very famous personalities with obscure writers, and much of it is based on pure speculation.” Included with Steinbeck are two American artists of comparable celebrity: the expatriate singer-actor Paul Robeson and Orson Welles, creator of Citizen Cain and (like Steinbeck) outspoken critic of William Randolph Hearst and other demagogues of the Cold War American right. But most of Orwell’s suspects were English. Among them: Nancy Cunard, the socialist shipping heiress; C. Day Lewis, the future Poet Laureate and father-to-be of Daniel Day Lewis; Michael Redgrave, the knighted actor who founded a flourishing dramatic dynasty; and Britain’s perennial socialist playwright and journalist, George Bernard Shaw. Good company for a writer like Steinbeck, who enjoyed interesting associates, even when imaginary.

Orwell almost took his private list of suspected communists with him—but  not quite—to his grave. The story of its survival begs an important question for Steinbeck lovers today: Was there anything more to Orwell’s accusation against Steinbeck than anti-Stalinist partisanship, anti-American parochialism, and professional pique? Seeking a higher authority, I turned to my late friend Christopher Hitchens, Orwell’s fellow socialist, disciple, and ardent defender.

Read more in Author Christopher Hitchens Defends Orwell’s Accusation.

Author Christopher Hitchens Defends Orwell’s Accusation

Why Orwell Matters, a Book by Christopher Hitchens, This Blog Writer's FriendWhen Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as dropping an Iron Curtain across Central Europe his speech to an American audience in 1946, George Orwell was living in London and imagining a future England under a Stalinist dictator. From Orwell’s paranoia about the Soviet Union came his masterpiece 1984. A less fortunate outcome was a set of accusatory, argumentative letters, diaries, and notebooks produced during the four years of Orwell’s remaining life, including a list of 100 or more suspected “crypto-communists” such as John Steinbeck. The late author Christopher Hitchens, Orwell’s intellectual heir and ardent defender, provided insights into the writer’s mindset in Why Orwell Matters, a convincing argument for Orwell’s continued relevance, despite lapses of judgment like the paranoid list. My friend Christopher Hitchens died in 2011. I regret now that I never asked him about Orwell’s list while he was alive.

Why Christopher Hitchens Matters

I met Christopher Hitchens while moderating a debate about socialism during the dying days of the old Soviet Union. The Iron Curtain was falling throughout Europe, and the debate organizer explained that the challenging case for socialism would be made by Christopher Hitchens, an English-born journalist whose name was new to me. Trained in political debate at Cambridge, Christopher Hitchens rarely lost an argument on any subject that engaged his interest, including democracy movements behind the Iron Curtain, post-Soviet Union U.S. politics, and the questionable existence of God. I learned this in the course of a friendship that lasted until his much too early death.

Like Orwell, Christopher Hitchens was a master of irony, irreverence, and oxymoron. A loyal friend, he was relentless in print but respectful in person. Like Orwell, he remained faithful to his early socialist ideals while criticizing communism as it developed in the Soviet Union and its Iron Curtain satellites. He shared a tough, pared-down liberalism with Orwell and (I believe) with Steinbeck as well. Its basic principles (in my own words) are relevant to the case of Orwell vs. Steinbeck:

The Seven Laws of Liberalism

* Freedom is precious.
* Truth is objective.
* Reason is essential.
* Every individual has value.
* No authority is infallible.
* God is debatable.
* History happened.

Ten Questions for Christopher Hitchens

Liberal ideals inform everything Christopher Hitchens wrote, including his short book about Orwell. I find the same values in Steinbeck, a writer of fiction less partisan or politically sophisticated than either Englishman. Orwell accused Steinbeck of favoring the Soviet Union over democracy, and neither Hitchens nor Orwell acknowledged Steinbeck’s characteristically American liberalism. In compensation for their failure, here are the questions I would ask Christopher Hitchens, Orwell’s finest defender, if I still had the chance :

1. Like Steinbeck, Orwell was a religious skeptic who clung to the King James Bible and echoed liturgical language in the cadence of his prose. Like Steinbeck, Orwell requested and received a Church of England funeral. What should we make of this paradox in the behavior of these profoundly lapsed Anglicans?
2. Like Steinbeck, Orwell was an empiricist who preferred evidence over theory and was once described as having too much common sense to be  interested in philosophy. Yet Steinbeck’s thinking about teleology and group behavior reflect similar ideas in Orwell’s social writing. What meaning can we take from this coincidence in the thinking of these covert philosophers?

Orwell was an empiricist who preferred evidence over theory and was once described as having too much common sense to be  interested in philosophy.

3. Like Steinbeck, Orwell was an anti-imperialist democrat who distrusted centralized power. This position was well-established in both writers by 1943, when each was in London. Yet I find no record that they met when they had the opportunity. What conclusion can be drawn from Orwell and Steinbeck’s failure to connect?
4. In your book you describe Orwell as “a natural Tory.” Like Steinbeck, he held old-fashioned ideas about private ownership, self-sufficiency, and family loyalty absorbed from his upbringing in a small rural town. Yet both writers remained pro-labor, small-d democrats throughout their lives. What can be inferred from this inconsistency of liberal and conservative values?

Like Steinbeck, Orwell was an anti-imperialist democrat who distrusted centralized power.

5. Unlike Steinbeck, Orwell never visited the Soviet Union. In your book you explain that Orwell “never went through a phase of Russophilia or Stalin-worship or fellow-travelling.” What conclusions can we draw from Orwell’s distant opposition to the Soviet Union and his reaction to Steinbeck’s journey behind the Iron Curtain?
6. Like Steinbeck in Vietnam, you supported America’s invasion of a foreign country, and you became an American citizen in an act of solidarity with the administration of George Bush. Unlike you, Orwell disliked America and Americans, including Steinbeck. Yet he never visited the America. What motivated Orwell’s animosity-from-a-distance toward the United States?

Orwell never went through a phase of Russophilia or Stalin-worship or fellow-travelling.

7. Unlike Orwell, Steinbeck resisted criticizing other writers in print. Orwell publicly denigrated American regionalists like Steinbeck as reactionaries by definition, and he disparaged Steinbeck’s work in his private writing. What motivated Orwell’s public criticism and private doubts about John Steinbeck?
8. Orwell’s Cold War list of “crypto-communists” included pro-Soviet Union American politicians such as Henry A. Wallace and Claude Pepper, despite their anti-imperialist, pro-labor domestic positions (also Steinbeck’s). Was there more to Orwell’s suspicions about these politicians than their support for the Soviet Union?

Unlike Orwell, Steinbeck resisted criticizing other writers in print.

9. Besides Steinbeck, Wallace, and Pepper, Orwell’s list included Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, and Orson Welles. Yet each shared Orwell’s distrust of reactionary media moguls like Citizen Cain—William Randolph Hearst. Why did Orwell single out Steinbeck, Robeson, and Welles in his list of Iron Curtain sympathizers wihtin the United States?
10. Like Steinbeck, Orwell was deeply attracted to the ficton of Jack London, whose 1906 novel The Iron Heel—like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—clearly influenced the writing of 1984. Yet Steinbeck’s 1942 anti-fascist piece, The Moon Is Down, apparently lacked similar appeal for Orwell. In your book you note that Orwell lashed out at other writers—including Huxley—but apologized after the fact. Did Orwell have similar second thoughts about Steinbeck before he died?

How the Soviet Union Became Orwell’s Obsession

Christopher Hitchens notes that while working for the BBC, Orwell included “the grittier work of James T. Farrell, John Steinbeck, and Archibald MacLeish” in a radio program about new writers. Orwell’s scripts were scrutinized by BBC censors to avoid offending listeners, and his on-air words didn’t always reflect his real opinion. This was clearly the case with his views on Steinbeck, who is described in Orwell’s diary as a “spurious writer” and “pseudo-naif.” Unfortunately, Steinbeck is only one example of Orwell’s muddled opinions about literary quality. In a notorious case of poor judgment, he publicly criticized W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” for lack of authenticity, credibility, or accuracy in its description of the Spanish Civil War. Today Auden’s anti-fascist masterpiece is considered by many his greatest poem.

Steinbeck is described in Orwell’s diary as a spurious writer and pseudo-naif.

Orwell’s public muttering about Auden provides another clue to his disapproval of Steinbeck. Like Aldous Huxley before him (and Christopher Hitchens years later), Auden emigrated to the United States, arriving in 1939 with the English writer Christopher Isherwood. Like Huxley and Hitchens, Auden and Isherwood were attracted by certain American freedoms—including sex—not found in England. Unlike Christopher Hitchens and George Orwell, both Auden and Isherwood were gay—card-carrying members of the “pansy left” publicly disparaged by Orwell. Orwell’s anti-American bias and anti-gay prejudice combined in his attack on Auden. In the case of Steinbeck, “anti-Soviet Union anti-Americanism” appears to have been sufficient cause for censure.

Why Christopher Hitchens’ Defense of Orwell Falls Short

In Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens defends Orwell’s list of “crypto-communists” as a harmless intellectual exercise, a game of “guessing which public figures would, or would not, sell out in the event of an invasion or a dictatorship.” He surmises that Orwell’s conservatism about sex in general and gay sex in particular was the result of Orwell’s boyhood experience as a student at St. Cyprian’s, a Dickensian hellhole where bullying, beating, and buggery were routine. But Orwell went on to Eton, where he perfected his French under Aldous Huxley and began his lifelong friendship Cyril Connolly, an openly ambisextrous editor who proved helpful to his career.

Christopher Hitchens defends Orwell’s list of crypto-communists as a harmless intellectual exercise, a game of guessing which public figures would, or would not, sell out in the event of an invasion of a dictatorship.

In the end, Christopher Hitchens’ argument fails to exculpate Orwell. Of  Orwell’s “crypto-communists,” he explains that “while a few on ‘the list’ were known personally to Orwell, most were not,” concluding that Orwell’s charge against people he didn’t know didn’t make him a “snitch.” Illiberal, inconsistent, and unconvincing. The world of 1984 is crawling with snitches whose testimony leads to torture and death at the hands of Big Brother. Every individual has value, truth is objective, and history happens. Orwell showed his list naming Steinbeck to influential friends, one of whom worked for an agency of government with the Orwellian name “Information Research Department.”

I agree with Christopher Hitchens that George Orwell still matters. But not always for the right reason. Unlike my late friend, Orwell was prejudiced against gays, Americans, and anyone he suspected of sympathy with the Soviet Union. Though if he hadn’t attacked Steinbeck, even that might not matter.