Notes from a Broken Nation: Carmel, California’s Michael Katakis Shatters the Myth of American Exceptionalism

Cover image from "A Thousand Shards of Glass," by Michael Katakis

Good news from Down Under. A Thousand Shards of Glass, a collection of essays, letters, and journal entries by the travel writer-photographer Michael Katakis, has been published in paperback and eBook by The Author People, an Australian outfit with a pioneering approach to book publishing. Founded in 2015 by Lou Johnson and Tom Galletta, the firm is dedicated to connecting authors with their audiences, wherever they may be around the world.

The most recent collection of essays, letters, and journal entries by the travel writer-photographer Michael Katakis has been published in paperback and eBook by The Author People, an Australian outfit with a pioneering approach to book publishing.

I first read A Thousand Shards of Glass in 2014, the year Simon & Schuster released a hardback edition of the book in Australia and the United Kingdom while ignoring its intended market—the United States. Since then, I’ve met Michael Katakis in Carmel, California, his part-time home, and I admire his perceptiveness as a thinker, writer, and photographer. Like John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, he’s an American author with a distinctive point of view, writing for a country described by Gore Vidal as “the United States of Amnesia.”

Image of Michael Katakis

Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Vidal come up frequently in conversation with Katakis, an imposing figure with a similar intensity. In his talk, as in his career, his range of knowledge and engagement is impressive. He’s the manager of Hemingway’s literary estate, and an expert on the author. He knows much (but, diplomatically, says little) about Carmel, California, a place Steinbeck once characterized as a haven for hacks. During a chance meeting with Vidal in Los Angeles when Katakis was a warm-up singer for the Herb Alpert band, the young musician felt his life change, and he became a photographer and writer with a Vidalian urge to explore, and to question.

Katakis’s famous photo of Maya Lin, the artist of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, became contentious when he challenged an act of censorship by the National Portrait Gallery and asked for the picture’s return.

His famous photo of Maya Lin, the artist of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, became contentious when he challenged an act of censorship by the National Portrait Gallery and asked for the picture’s return. His books include Photographs and Words with Dr. Kris Harden, co-authored with his late wife, a beloved anthropologist and ideal life-mate. Traveller: Observations from an American in Exile, published in 2009, has a foreword by Michael Palin, a fellow traveler and friend.

Image of Maya Lin by Michael Katakis

Like Vidal, Katakis thinks that the myth of American exceptionalism is not only foolish, but dangerous. Like Vidal, he favors living abroad and seeing Americans as others see us: self-involved but unreflective; self-righteous, but also hypocritical; militantly religious and religiously militant; obsessed by money and addicted to oil; shrewd in deal-making, yes, but easily duped by flag-pin politicians.

Like The Grapes of Wrath, Katakis’s book telegraphs its message through the metaphor contained in its title.

Like a Hemingway novel that anchors the ideas expressed in experience, A Thousand Shards of Glass consists of a series of episodes—9/11, Kris’s death, meeting Gore Vidal—described in short sentences and simple words to convey their meaning. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Katakis’s book telegraphs its message through the metaphor contained in its title. As the author explained it to an Australian interviewer in 2014, “In order to understand America one must realize that it is not a country, it’s a store where everything is for sale, every principle, ethic and friend.” The job of a serious writer, then—like that of the photojournalist—is to reveal the face under the makeup, the reality behind the myth.

Image of John Steinbeck

Katakis’s picture of America, like Steinbeck’s, isn’t always pretty. Kris, diagnosed with a brain tumor in the prime of life, becomes a tragic victim of the pre-Obama American health care horror show. Vidal is first encountered on a TV set decades earlier, talking with Eugene McCarthy about America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam. Since then the US has doubled down, a nation of true believers where (to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens) religion ruins everything and (Vidal again) history teaches nothing. Clint Eastwood, the former mayor of Carmel, California, insults an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention, an embarrassment Katakis recalls when he passes Eastwood in a hospital hallway.

Like a Hemingway novel that anchors the ideas expressed in experience, A Thousand Shards of Glass consists of a series of episodes described in short sentences and simple words to convey their meaning.

Bush’s phony Iraq war is fought in the name of Americans by 1% of the population living at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from Wall Street’s 1%. Hitchens, a guiding light to Katakis, loses his luster after 9/11, buying into Bush’s war in the Middle East for reasons Katakis ascribes to Hitchens’s upbringing as the son of a World War II vet. Katakis’s journal entry on 9/11 begins “. . . today hard terrorism hit soft terrorism.” Another, written four years later, describes Bush’s Rasputin, Karl Rove, dancing at a White House Correspondents’ dinner to the delight of reporters who are still high on the Bush & Company cool aid. Eventually, even the Beltway woke up and smelled the coffee, but Karl Rove’s victory dance is a useful reminder of how madness overtook America before Iraq imploded and sobriety set in.

Image of Ernest Hemingway

Which raises the challenge posed by the book: do Americans never learn? Katakis explores the problem of American amnesia with people he meets in London, Paris, and Italy; like Hemingway and Vidal, he has perfect pitch in conversation, and he records what others say us with an infallible ear. His diagnosis of America’s mania for guns is framed by a fraught encounter with a woman from Eastern Europe, in London, following the Newton, Connecticut school shooting. “I think we Americans are afraid of each other, of everything,” he explains, despite “the fictional narrative of America that we have been selling for some time now.”

Quoting Hemingway, Katakis compares the global dominance of America’s ‘consumer corporate state’ with Britain’s East India Company two centuries ago—an undertaking of naked power wearing the fig leaf of moral righteousness.

Savoring Paris as Hemingway did decades earlier, he celebrates “the poetry of living” encountered abroad, the daily joie de vivre Americans have lost in “our obsession with our devices.” Quoting Hemingway, he compares the global dominance of America’s “consumer corporate state” with Britain’s East India Company two centuries ago—an undertaking of naked power wearing the fig leaf of righteousness. He and Kris move to Europe to protest Bush’s war, and to enjoy the poetry of living now lost in America, “the land of lists.” Their idyllic life abroad is interrupted by her father’s death; her diagnosis prevents their return. Numbed by her death, Katakis writes, “I have come to know that most Americans are sleepwalking.”

Image of Gore Vidal

Like Vidal and Hitchens, Katakis is hard not to quote, and A Thousand Shards of Glass contains equally memorable sentences in abundance. So does a conversation with Katakis, as I learned over lunch in Carmel, California late last year, when I asked him if he thought the Bernie Sanders insurgency showed that Americans are finally waking up. He said yes, repeating the comment, quoted earlier, that he made to the Australian interviewer about America’s self-illusion in 2014. When his wife died he lost the “true north” in his life, but he’s getting his bearings again, and a note of hope for an awakening has emerged in his writing.

Cover image from "Why Orwell Matters," by Christopher Hitchens

Fans of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Orwell, Vidal, and Hitchens—the bright constellation in Katakis’s dark sky—will delight in his references and allusions to their writing in A Thousand Shard of Glass. Bernie Sanders supporters will discover that, on almost every issue, Katakis was there first, before the presidential campaign brought American exceptionalism into question on problems of foreign and domestic policy. In response to my followup question about presidential politics before writing this review, Katakis said this:

I have often wondered what it means to be moral or how to live an ethical life in accelerated and morally ambiguous times which have seemingly allowed for rationalizations of thoughts and conduct by individuals and institutions, that just a short time ago, would have been considered unacceptable and injurious to the common good. Marcus Aurelius wrote that “the soul becomes dyed with the color of it’s thoughts,” suggesting one of the steps toward morality was the self control of our darker selves. Gore Vidal wrote that ‘we’ Americans, ” learn nothing because we remember nothing.” That is painfully demonstrated by any objective observer watching the 2016 Republican presidential primary. We have lost our way. If we remembered our own history, we would hear in the voice of Donald Trump, and his supporters, the voices of Father Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy. They would hear the fear mongering and the insults that have been the tried and true tactic of scoundrels who have never offered anything but a scorched earth.  But we Americans, in our ignorance and conceit, do not know our history and, as a collective, are not a good people. To those dark voices among us I can think of no more eloquent response than that of Mr. Joseph Welch to Senator Joseph McCarthy on June 9, 1954: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

John Steinbeck invited his readers to participate in his fiction. Overhearing Gore Vidal changed Michael Katakis, helping him to become a writer. Participate in the result of that inspiration by reading A  Thousand Shards of Glass. You’ll change, too.

“Our Story Is a Life and Death Thing”: Peter Nathaniel Malae on Reading John Steinbeck and Writing American Literature

Image of Peter Nathaniel Malae

Like John Steinbeck, the American writer Peter Nathaniel Malae is a rugged realist who insists on honesty. A former Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University who grew up in San Jose and nearby Santa Clara, California, Malae spoke candidly about John Steinbeck, American literature, and the life-and-death issues of writing for a living the day after he eulogized Martha Heasley Cox. The memorial event was held in her honor by the Steinbeck studies center she founded at San Jose State University in 1971.

Composite cover image of books by Peter Nathaniel Malae

“That Book Saved Me”: On Reading John Steinbeck

Malae was an inspired choice to represent the 36 creative writers who received Steinbeck Fellow stipends. Teach the Free Man, a collection of Malae’s stories, was published in 2007, the year he was named a Steinbeck Fellow. Two novels published since then—What We Are (2010) and Our Frail Blood (2013)—confirmed Malae’s reputation as a versatile writer who refuses to repeat himself. Like Steinbeck at a similar point in his career, Malae’s output is ambitious: he has already written two more novels, a second collection of stories, two collections of poetry, and a play with a philosophical theme reminiscent of Steinbeck.

Like Steinbeck at a similar point in his career, Malae’s output is ambitious: he has already written two more novels, a second collection of stories, two collections of poetry, and a play with a philosophical theme reminiscent of Steinbeck.

The son of an Italian-American mother and a Samoan father, Malae spent his childhood in a culturally diverse, working-class neighborhood of Santa Clara, squeezed between the city’s “drug-dealing hub”—Royal Court Apartments, Warburton Park, and Monroe Apartments—and the stretch of El Camino Real known as Little Korea for its string of three dozen Korean restaurants and grocery stores running interminably from Santa Clara to Sunnyvale. As a boy, he utilized public transportation on the bus line 22, a tradition kept later as a writer, where he’d composed the bulk of his novel, What We Are, during three-hour rides on the 522, between East Palo Alto and Eastridge Mall in East San Jose.

As a boy, he utilized public transportation on the bus line 22, a tradition kept later as a writer, where he’d composed the bulk of his novel, What We Are, during three-hour rides.

Malae’s father served three decorated combat tours as a tracker with the Special Forces in Vietnam. His uncle Faulalogofie, a Force Recon Marine who’d also fought in Vietnam, was killed by police in Pacifica, California in 1976. His grandfather—the first Samoan minister in America—was a veteran of the Korean Conflict. “I was raised by men who’d had a gang of life-and-death pain in their lives,” Malae says. “But even before they’d ever gone off to war, they’d suffered tremendously. Death, poverty, choicelessness. A weird multigenerational effect of it all is that they basically taught me what to go for in story: they were literary in contradiction. A lot of anger, a lot of third-world violence, yeah, but a lot of third-world beauty, too, a gang of forgiveness.”

‘I was raised by men who’d had a gang of life-and-death pain in their lives,’ Malae says.

Malae attended an exclusive Catholic prep school in San Jose where, like John Steinbeck as a young man, he absorbed the language and rhythm of religious ritual. He read through the Bible for the first time and had his first encounter with Steinbeck in a freshman English composition class. “I loved Tom Joad,” Malae said, “the way he stood up for his family, the way he took it because there was no choice but to take it. I could relate to him. I never told anyone in high school, but I sort of secretly rooted for farmers back then on the sole strength of that image where the tractor comes in and topples the Joad farm.”

‘I loved Tom Joad,’ Malae said, ‘the way he stood up for his family, the way he took it because there was no choice but to take it. I could relate to him.’

Malae went on to play football and rugby at Santa Clara University and Cal Poly, but began getting into serious trouble with the law, having been arrested more than eight times for assault and battery in a two-year span, twice resulting in serious injury. “I was very angry back then. I fought everyone, anyone. Didn’t care how many people I had to fight, didn’t care what the outcome would be. When it comes to growing up tough and angry, I don’t defer to anyone, really. You own it, of course, how you are, but you also became it, shaped by the forces around you.” Within a few years, Malae found himself at San Quentin, where he (again) read through the Bible and started writing 500 words a day—copying Hemingway—on scraps of paper and whatever else was available. “I wrote on the walls, man. I wrote on my arms. The soles of my slippers, as Frost prescribed.”

Today Malae writes with a computer, but still revises in longhand, as seen in the manuscript of “Mallards,” the poem he composed in honor of Martha Cox. He thinks that Steinbeck, a pencil-lover who eventually adapted to the typewriter, would like the cut-and-paste convenience of computers. But he dislikes social media, email, and texting, inventions that he says increase social isolation and divorce users from life-and-death reality. On the train to San Jose he worked on a new novel, observing “human beings in their essence and element,” akin to Steinbeck’s claim of being a shameless magpie, taking to the fields with paisanos.

On the train to San Jose he worked on a new novel, observing ‘human beings in their essence and element,’ akin to Steinbeck’s claim of being a shameless magpie, taking to the fields with paisanos.

In prison Malae discovered The Pastures of Heaven, which he’d read in Spanish (Las Pasturas del Cielo). He described the experience with Steinbeckian irony in “The Book is Heavenly,” an award-winning essay published in South Dakota Review (Vol. 41, No. 1 and 2):

The book became my paperback talisman of hope. Something I could rely on in the unreliable undercurrent of prison life. . . . On the Catholic calendar distributed to us during Christmas, my reading list for the months of March, April and May 1999 were: The Catch-Me Killer, Bob Erler, and then fourteen straight readings of The Pastures of Heaven, John Steinbeck. . . . It kept me sharp and focused, reminded me of what once was and what, of course, could be again. That book saved me.

Image of manuscript of "Mallards," poem by Peter Nathaniel Malae

“Realism in the Craft”: On Writing American Literature

Malae’s first novel, What We Are (the title comes from a quatrain by Byron), explores life and death in the dark corners of contemporary society that few writers of American literature have exposed with comparable sharpness or skill. The narrative is a journey of adjustment, to anomie and estrangement, by a sensitive, angry character who learns, as Malae himself believes, that “our story is a life and death thing.” Our Frail Blood, his second novel (the title comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night), is as different from What We Are as East of Eden is from Cannery Row. In alternating plot lines, the book encompasses three generations of California life in which children and grandchildren pay for the secret sins of fathers, brothers, and sons. The family epic unfolds through the eyes and actions of fully developed female characters who bring unity, resolution, and redemption to the story, like Steinbeck’s women in The Grapes of Wrath. Malae cites East of Eden, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, James Agee’s A Death in the Family, and Francis Ford Copolla’s Godfather II as narrative forebears in scope and theme.

The narrative of Malae’s first novel is a journey of adjustment, to anomie and estrangement, by a sensitive, angry character who learns, as Malae himself believes, that ‘our story is a life and death thing.’

The Question, Malae’s most recent work, is his foray into the world of theater. The story dramatizes the struggle of a Hispanic ex-boxer and convict to answer the existential question asked by his eight-year-old son: “Why do people kill other people?” Malae says the idea for the play—and the question it poses—occurred to him at San Quentin in 1999, when Manuel “Manny” Babbitt, a veteran of the Vietnam War with a Purple Heart for heroism, was executed. Babbitt, a Marine, was wounded at the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968; he received the death sentence in 1980, before post-traumatic stress disorder was understood as a consequence of contemporary warfare. Manny Babbitt’s last words were “I forgive you all”; at the end of The Question, Malae’s character tells his son that he can’t say why people kill other people—but “I know why people save other people.”

Malae says the idea for his play—and the question it poses—occurred to him at San Quentin in 1999, when Manuel ‘Manny’ Babbitt, a veteran of the Vietnam War with a Purple Heart for heroism, was executed.

Intense, thoughtful, and articulate, Malae worries about the overpopulation of modern American literature by writers trained in college MFA programs, 360 in number at last count. “They teach writers that the creation of story is a democratic roundtable or assembly line. Which can eradicate the soul of the work. Since art is about desperation, the last thing you want infecting your work is conformity. And then as you pay a fee for a service, the natural tendency is to expect that you get what you paid for. The daily struggle with the craft doesn’t abide that ethic. Sometimes it barely abides you. Sometimes you get nothing.” Steinbeck, too, championed what Malae calls “realism in the craft” forged by fierce aesthetic individualism.

Steinbeck, too, championed what Malae calls ‘realism in the craft’ forged by fierce aesthetic individualism.

Malae described the connection he feels with American literature of John Steinbeck’s century in an interview with Oregon Literary Arts after winning the drama fellowship for The Question:

I’m with O’Connor and Faulkner and a whole horde of other dead masters who describe the deal in terms of a blue-collar work ethic. I see the creative process as merely this, a dress-down of self that more or less occurs daily: do you have the balls to call yourself a “writer”? Well, then, “put the posterior in the chair,” as my freshman comp teacher used to say; “don’t talk,” as Hemingway advised, and handle your business.

Paul Douglass, the San Jose State University English professor who managed the Steinbeck Fellows program from 2000 to 2013, notes that Malae’s 2007-2008 class was “outstanding.” He recalls reading the untitled manuscript of What We Are when Malae’s name was first submitted, and being impressed. After finishing his fellowship, Malae continued to correspond with Martha Cox, a shrewd reader and enthusiastic patron. In his remarks at her memorial he recalled visiting her modest San Francisco apartment, crowded with “classics of American literature” by some of his favorite authors. He was humbled, he said, to see a copy of Teach the Free Man, read and annotated, on her shelf.

Another Writer in the Family: Steinbeck’s Niece Wows Fans at National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California

Image of Molly Knight, John Steinbeck's niece

John Steinbeck rarely wrote about sports, disliked book-signing crowds, and left Salinas, California more or less for good when he enrolled at Stanford University almost 100 years ago. Bucking family tradition on all three points, a young sports-reporter-turned-book-writer named Molly Knight—the great-granddaughter of Steinbeck’s younger sister Mary Steinbeck Dekker—returned to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas on August 23 for a book-signing and lively Q & A about her bestselling book, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse. By all accounts the Sunday afternoon event in John Steinbeck’s home town hit a home run.

From Stanford University to the Los Angeles Dodgers

Like her famous great-great-uncle and his favorite sister, Knight attended Stanford University, where she majored in human biology; John and Mary studied biology at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, not far from Salinas, in 1924. After graduating from Stanford (something Mary did but John Steinbeck didn’t do), Knight worked for ESPN before leaving the network to write her book about the Los Angeles Dodgers, a sharp-eyed baseball-insider’s look at big-business sports. Not a topic you’d think would appeal to Steinbeck or to scholars and fans of his work, perhaps—but you’d be wrong. In fact, the Dodgers were part of Steinbeck’s own household. Steinbeck’s wife Elaine was a Dodgers fan before the team moved west, and John was drawn to Elaine’s “pure spiritual energy” for the team.

Like her famous great-great-uncle and his favorite sister, Knight attended Stanford University, where she majored in biology, a subject John and Mary studied together at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, not far from Salinas.

Steinbeck’s personal interest in sports was “catholic but cool,” the phrase he used in a little essay he wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1965 entitled “Then My Arm Gassed Up.” When Steinbeck scholar and National Steinbeck Center director Susan Shillinglaw heard about Knight’s Los Angeles Dodgers book, she was intrigued: women sportswriters are a rare breed. When Knight spoke, said Shillinglaw, “It was immediately clear that she shared some of Steinbeck’s journalistic sensibilities—she’s curious, engages her subject, knows her stuff—and was on the scene when it mattered most. Molly’s style is forthright, and she tells a good story.”

Clayton Kershaw and the Rewards of Humanitarianism

Knight’s book begins with an interview she conducted with Clayton Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher who is the subject of the prologue from which Knight read at the National Steinbeck Center event. Kershaw sounds exactly like John Steinbeck’s kind of guy. A left-handed strike-out star who was major league baseball’s youngest player when he started at age 20, Clayton Kershaw has been compared to Sandy Koufax, the legendary Jewish pitcher who played for the Dodgers when the team was still in Brooklyn and John and Elaine Steinbeck were living in New York 60 years ago. Both pitchers have won trophies for their athletic prowess, but Kershaw—with his wife—has also been honored for raising money to build an orphanage in Zambia, world-humanitarian work that John Steinbeck would surely applaud, despite the Dodgers’ defection from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1957.

A left-handed strike-out star who was major league baseball’s youngest player when he started at age 20, Clayton Kershaw has been compared to Sandy Koufax, the legendary Jewish pitcher who played for the Dodgers when the team was still in Brooklyn and John and Elaine Steinbeck were living in New York 60 years ago.

Another writer—Nick Taylor, director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University—was in the National Steinbeck Center audience and loved what he heard Knight say, both about her book and about the author of East of Eden, her favorite Steinbeck novel. More than most, Taylor understood what he was listening to when Knight talked baseball: the hero of Taylor’s thriller The Setup Man (published under the pen name T.T. Monday) is an aging Dodgers pitcher with a second career solving murders in the sometimes-shady world of big-league sports. Taylor responded to a request for comment:

When asked whether creative writing talent might be genetic, Ms. Knight replied that she didn’t think she had inherited any of her famous forebear’s talent for writing. (I disagree.) However she pointed out that she shares her great-great-uncle’s interest in exposing injustices. In her case, as a baseball reporter working for ESPN, she witnessed first-hand the corrupt and vain owners of the Dodgers starving the organization of cash and driving the team, which is a kind of cultural trust shared by all of us, into the ground. This is what inspired her to start writing about the Dodgers, and she says that sense of outrage, of the very rich abusing the common people, is what motivated her to write the book.

Carol Robles is a Steinbeck historian and Salinas, California resident who has been involved with the National Steinbeck Center since it began and is familiar with members of the Steinbeck family. She shared her impressions of the event as well:

The National Steinbeck Center started the sunny afternoon off with hot dogs, popcorn, and cracker jacks. After our baseball snacks, the crowd filled the stadium seating room to hear young Molly Knight tell us about her first published book. (Her grandmother Toni Heyler, Mary Steinbeck Dekker’s daughter and John Steinbeck’s niece, was in the audience.) Molly seemed so young and innocent, yet so composed and charming as she read to us from her the opening pages. Although I know very little about current baseball teams, her fast-moving talk kept me interested: though different from that of her distant Steinbeck relative, her writing style is delightful. Following the presentation and Q & A session, she signed copies of her book, taking time to talk with each person and writing lengthy personal inscriptions. This lovely young lady completely charmed her audience. Everyone seemed pleased when she announced she was going to write a second book.

Second books, as Steinbeck learned from experience, can prove challenging for young writers. But Molly Knight is building a solid following, and her fans are confident that her National Steinbeck Center audience can be counted on to show up for her next home game.

Stepdog: Steinbeck Parallels In New York Times Writer’s Storied Life and Latest Book

Image of New York Times writer Mia NavarroMia Navarro, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and author, recounts her remarkable career reporting on social issues raised by John Steinbeck in Stepdog, a domestic memoir all Steinbeck- and dog-lovers will appreciate. Like Travels with Charley, Mia’s dog-wags-woman tale reveals fault-lines, including blended-family fractures, in contemporary American culture. Steinbeck finally achieved marriage success with his third wife Elaine and her poodle Charley, despite daunting difficulties with his-and-hers children and a deeply resentful former spouse. Rather than focusing on kid or spouse issues, however, Mia lets her husband Jim’s jealous, un-Charley dog Eddie carry the theme: where divorce, finances, and careers are concerned, making marriage work is a labor of love.

Cover image of Stepdog, Mireya Navarro's new memoir

Though she looked elegant, beautiful, and perfectly poised, Mia was learning the truth about second marriages the hard way when I interviewed her in Denver five years ago about Green Wedding, her popular how-to book published in 2009 by Stewart, Tabori & Chang. During the interview she mentioned her recent wedding to Jim, a fellow journalist she met in Arizona before moving to California to report on West Coast style-trends for the Sunday New York Times. Like John Steinbeck and his first wife, Carol Henning, Mia and Jim had gotten married in Los Angeles as a matter of convenience. Unlike the Steinbecks—small-town Californians who grew up in conservative Protestant families—Mia and Jim came from different backgrounds but like John and Carol shared liberal social views. Steinbeck’s 1938 series on labor and housing conditions faced by Dust Bowl refugees in Depression-era California, written for the San Francisco News, became his 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath. Mia—whose career included a stint with the San Francisco Examiner—was a member of the New York Times team that won a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series on race in America, a subject confronted by Steinbeck in Travels with Charley. Steinbeck also explored ecology and resource depletion in Sea of Cortez, written decades before Mia’s eco-friendly wedding guide. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Green Wedding has already achieved staying power: Backyard Garden Oasis Bed and Breakfast keeps copies of Mia’s book on hand for conscientious couples planning a green wedding in Robert Louis Stevenson country north of San Francisco.

Cover image of Green Wedding by New York Times author Mireya Navarro

Writing Stepdog was a risky departure for Mia, as East of Eden was for Steinbeck. Travels with Charley satisfied dog lovers, but East of Eden caused family problems for the author, who resisted autobiography in his earlier novels. As Mia observes, blended families are frequently mixed salads with ingredients that never quite agree. And career trajectories often collide when both partners are smart and successful. Steinbeck’s artistic first wife stifled her ambitions; when his second resisted, her resentment contributed to their divorce. Mia’s candor on this sensitive aspect of modern marriage is as remarkable as her career. When the New York Times offers a new job requiring her to leave Los Angeles for New York (she describes the Washington Heights apartment she kept just in case as located “in upstate Manhattan”), she accepts. Eventually Jim follows—with aging Eddie, Mia’s enemy, in tow. John and Elaine were both dog lovers, and Charley, unlike their blended-family children, was easy to manage in New York. Jim’s jealous mutt, by contrast, created problems for Mia only California dog lovers who move east can possibly comprehend. To her credit, Mia makes peace with Eddie following accidents and illness, though the treaty is on his terms. In the process she also makes the discovery that pets are projections of human problems and emotions, the kind that come with marriage. The chatty, colloquial style she employs in Stepdog eases the reader over painful potholes in the path to realization—a touch of humor, pathos, and joy reminiscent of Steinbeck’s early Cannery Row fiction. Unlike Pirate’s prayerful pooches in Tortilla Flat, however, Eddie is no saint. But he’s a survivor, and Mia stays the course, proving that amor vincit omnia, even when a possessive pet and blended family make married life a rocky road.

A Second Wind for John Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez Vessel: Michael Hemp Reviews Kevin Bailey’s Book The Western Flyer

 

Cover image of The Western Flyer, Kevin M. Bailey's book

How can I begin a review of The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries without stating upfront that I have rarely marked or underlined a book so much as this little volume? A historian’s habit, perhaps, but this book demanded more focus and rereading than almost anything in my recollection. As you may glean from its dust jacket and cover flap, the author has utilized for the basis of the book the storied accounts of a boat—The Western Flyer—arising from its famed 1940 voyage of science and leisure to Baja California’s Sea of Cortez. Chartered by author John Steinbeck and accompanied by his friend and collaborator, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts—the “Doc” of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday—its timing also removed Steinbeck from the vitriolic and dangerous reception by agricultural interests of his recently published novel The Grapes of Wrath, which exposed the hardships of the Dust Bowl Migration.

This book demanded more focus and rereading than almost anything in my recollection.

Kevin Bailey’s craft, however, is in the artifice of using the widely recognized popularity of the John Steinbeck-Ed Ricketts voyage as the vehicle for his personal and professional quest. Like Ricketts, a marine biologist, Bailey astutely chose The Western Flyer for its literary and ecological celebrity. But more to his purpose, the irony of the vessel’s guilty participation during subsequent decades in the devastating collapse of four major fisheries of the Pacific Northwest is concisely and poignantly documented. The account of ecological alarms unheeded merges with a fascinating new exposition of an aspect of John Steinbeck and Sea of Cortez only now gaining the appreciation it deserves: Steinbeck’s collaboration with America’s most important marine biologist, Edward F. Ricketts, and the role of The Western Flyer.

Image of The Western Flyer in 1937

For the first time in popular print, Bailey details the saga of this classic American fishing vessel, designed and built with perfectionist expertise by the Croatian boat builders of the Tacoma, Washington, area in the late 1930s. His account of the Western Flyer’s timeline begins with construction at Western Boat Building by the boatyard’s Dalmatian owners (shown here, from right): Martin A. Petrich, Frank Berry, and Tony Berry, Frank’s son and the skipper of the boat when it launched in May of 1937. Here’s where Bob Enea, a personal friend and a source for Bailey’s research, comes in: Tony Berry married into Enea’s family, enabling Berry to become a member of the Monterey, California, sardine purse-seine fleet, even though he wasn’t Sicilian. Bob Enea’s intimate family familiarity with this topic enabled Bailey to explain how John Steinbeck was ultimately successful in chartering the last available boat in the Monterey fleet for the Baja expedition. Virtually all the Sicilian boat owners were leery of Steinbeck’s pro-union sympathy, and many probably considered him a Communist, as his critics among California’s corporate elite claimed. And then there was the conundrum of a chartering all the way to the Gulf of California—not to fish!

Image of Tony Berry, Frank Berry, and Martin Petrich

Bob’s contribution to this powerful little book did not end there, however. Tony Berry, the owner and skipper of The Western Flyer, and the colorful deckhand Horace “Sparky” Enea were both his uncles, making possible a level of informed appreciation of life aboard ship absent from even the most informed readings of Sea of Cortez and its reissue with Steinbeck’s essay “About Ed Ricketts“ as Log from the Sea of Cortez in 1951. I am not going to dwell on the voyage for those readers already familiar with John Steinbeck’s classic account of the serious collecting and crazy escapades aboard and ashore in Baja—except to say that Bailey’s work presents another charming and informative dimension of the story for neophytes venturing into the pages of Sea of Cortez for the first time.

Bailey quotes some of the best of the John Steinbeck who described in Sea of Cortez the relationship he experienced with The Western Flyer as a form of man’s communion with boats for millennia:

The sight of a boat riding in the water clenches a fist of emotion in a man’s chest. A horse, a beautiful dog, arouses sometimes a quick emotion, but of inanimate things only a boat can do it.

* * * * *

A boat, above all other inanimate things, is personified in a man’s mind. . .  . Some have said they have felt a boat shudder before she struck a rock, or cry when she beached and the surf poured into her. This is not mysticism, but identification; man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man-shaped soul.

Image of The Western Flyer in Port Townsend dry dock

One facet of Kevin Bailey’s excellent story does, however, require a re-write: the ending. At the time of publication it appeared that the fate of The Western Flyer was sealed, relegating her to a truncated or deconstructed future as part of a hotel-restaurant attraction in Old Town Salinas. Now one man with a boat-shaped mind and the will and means to save The Western Flyer has done just that. In January, marine geologist John Gregg negotiated a deal to buy the boat and remove her death by slow decomposition after two sinkings and years of exposure in a Port Townsend, Washington, boatyard. Today she resides in a boat-barn at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op, where restoration by world-class wooden-boat restorers will recover her former glory.

One facet of Kevin Bailey’s excellent story does, however, require a re-write: the ending.

The fate of a valiant wooden boat, threatened with destruction both natural and unnatural—as in becoming a restaurant motif—propels Bailey’s highly readable text tracing The Western Flyer’s timeline. Bailey’s clear and concise account of her complicity in the serial destruction of crucial fisheries in the Pacific Northwest after her role in the romantic, literary, philosophical, and ecological immersion of Sea of Cortez cannot help but drive a conscientious reader toward Bailey’s goal: to understand, as Ricketts and Steinbeck did, that the oceans and their fisheries must survive or we do not. Thus the Western Flyer story, so full of irony, will have a happy ending after all. A player in the mindless, greedy, irresponsible damage of untold natural fishery resources, so near death from neglect that some said it couldn’t be done, The Western Flyer rises again, this time as an icon of ocean-life preservation: a seagoing classroom for students of ecology and the marine sciences.

The fate of a valiant wooden boat, threatened with destruction both natural and unnatural—as in becoming a restaurant motif—propels Bailey’s highly readable text.

Kevin Bailey’s little book has the tight, complete, joyful feeling of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Yet it’s so packed with helpful information and remarkable detail that my copy was well marked up, underlined, and highlighted when I finished. Yours will be, too.

Photo of The Western Flyer after launch from Western Boat Builders (Tacoma, Washington) in 1937 courtesy Petrich Families Collection.

Photo of Tony Berry, Frank Berry (his father), and Martin Petrich, builder-owners of The Western Flyer, courtesy Petrich Families Collection.

 Photo of The Western Flyer in Port Townsend, Washington’s Boat Haven Yard by Anne Shaffer, courtesy Coastal Watershed Institute.

Time for Change! Russell Brand and Naomi Klein Channel John Steinbeck

Image of Russell Brand and Naomi Klein

Though he’d probably be puzzled by the media contemporary counter-cultural critics like Russell Brand and Naomi Klein employ to communicate the human cost of mounting income inequality, predatory capitalism, and pending climate crisis—YouTube, podcasts, personal websites—John Steinbeck would likely agree with their call for a revolution in how we think and organize ourselves as a survival-species. I encourage you to read Russell’s Brand’s Revolution and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, both published in 2014, if like me, The Grapes of Wrath captivated your imagination and outraged your sense of justice.

Though he’d probably be puzzled by the media employed, John Steinbeck would likely agree with the call for a revolution in how we think and organize ourselves as a survival-species.

Not long after meeting Joseph Campbell—quoted by Brand and Klein in their writing about human belief and behavior—Steinbeck encountered first hand the evidence of destructive income inequality and environmental degradation in the Midwestern Dust Bowl and California labor camps of the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath was the result of John Steinbeck’s personal epiphany. Both the struggle and the enlightenment he dramatized continue in our time. Russell Brand and Naomi Klein project Steinbeck’s local vision on a global screen, exposing the noxious roots of global income inequality, climate change, and predatory capitalism—problems that are worse today than when John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath.

‘The Grapes of Wrath’ was the result of John Steinbeck’s personal epiphany. Both the struggle and the enlightenment he dramatized continue in our time.

Image of the late Joseph Campbell on PBSAs I read Russell Brand and Naomi Klein, it occurred to me that they were really channeling John Steinbeck, even when quoting Joseph Campbell or James Lovelock, the British biologist whose 1960s Gaia theory (Earth as a single organism comprised of interconnected systems) reflects advanced thinking about ecology expressed by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts in Sea of Cortez. For that matter, Tortilla Flat presages the small-group collectivism espoused by Russell Brand in Revolution, and Travels with Charley suggests the same connections between consumerism, conflict, and unhappiness drawn by Brand and Naomi Klein in their books. Events have caught up with John Steinbeck’s prophecy; as I write, his beloved city of Paris remains on security alert following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Agence France-Presse reports that the richest one percent of the world’s population will own half of the world’s wealth by next year. Like John Steinbeck, Russell Brand and Naomi Klein wish to advise us of disaster ahead.

Like John Steinbeck, Russell Brand and Naomi Klein wish to advise us of disaster ahead.

Image of John Steinbeck at work

Russell Brand’s Revolution—Change You Can’t Believe In?

Mention Russell Brand to anyone under 40—the age the hyperkinetic actor, radio host, and comedian will reach in June—and you’ll likely learn about Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, youth-market movies in which Brand played offbeat characters. I’ll show my own age and admit I didn’t know who Russell Brand was until he was called out by Bill Maher (on Real Time with Bill Maher, soon after the 2014 election) for asserting in Revolution that voting is pointless because all political parties have the same agenda: getting and keeping power and protecting moneyed interests. But watching Maher, I recognized Brand’s face from St. Trinian’s, an offbeat British comedy about an anarchic private girl’s school that I enjoyed. In the movie, Brand plays a hyperbolic drug dealer, Colin Firth is a clueless Tory Minister of Education, and Rupert Everett portrays a playboy dad and—in dreadful drag—the school’s pot-smoking headmistress, who is Firth’s love interest as well. Naturally, I bought Brand’s book.

Mention Russell Brand to anyone under 40 and you’ll likely learn about ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ and ‘Get Him to the Greek,’ youth-market movies in which Brand plays offbeat characters.

When I learned more about Russell Brand, his role in St. Trinian’s made sense. Turns out he’s an up-from-poverty populist with an ability to talk fast, a history of alcohol and drug abuse, and a slight criminal record—sort of an updated character from Tortilla Flat, but with an East London accent. As a thinker Brand firmly believes in benevolent anarchy, the form of social reorganization he recommends in Revolution. As a speaker and writer he manages, like John Steinbeck, to mix high-level messaging with low-level language, similar to the chatty social outcasts who populate Cannery Row. Also like Steinbeck, Brand attributes greed and consumerism to spiritual causes embedded in the human condition. This is where John Steinbeck’s friend Joseph Campbell, the anthropologist of myth-making, comes in handy for Brand, a recovering alcoholic whose 12-step program for curing income inequality (Chapter One: “Heroes’ Journey”) rests on spiritual insights found in the world’s great religions and literature. William Blake, whose visionary poetry particularly appealed to John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, is mentioned frequently in the same vein.

As a thinker Brand firmly believes in benevolent anarchy, the form of social reorganization he recommends in ‘Revolution.’

I marked my copy of Revolution as I read along because so much that Russell Brand says is, like his movie roles, so entertaining. And while he’s perfectly aware of the paradox that he’s trashing capitalism in a product published by an affiliate of the media conglomerate Bertelsmann, it wouldn’t be fair to discourage other buyers by over-quoting from the book. (Also, as Brand might observe, there’s them corporate lawyers, so look out.) Brand’s serio-comic perceptions are memorable because they mix things up, Tortilla Flat-like. Here are a few examples, chosen because they connected with John Steinbeck, Joseph Campbell, Blake, or my funny bone:

“We are living in a zoo, or more accurately a farm, our collective consciousness, our individual consciousness, has been hijacked by a power structure that needs us to remain atomized and disconnected.”

“Campbell said, ‘All religions are true in that the metaphor is true.’ I think this means that religions are meant to be literary maps, not literal doctrines, a signpost to the unknowable, a hymn to the inconceivable.”

“At some point in the past, the mind has taken on the duty of trying to solve every single problem you are having, have had, or might have in the future, which makes it a frenetic and restless device.”

“The alarm bells of fear and desire are everywhere; these powerful primal tools, designed to aid survival in a world unrecognizable to modern civilized humans, are relentlessly jangled.”

“At some Anglican sermon in Surrey, the ‘file-down-the-aisle, handshake-and-smile’ ending is the energetic climax of proceedings. After a polite rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ (in which Blake was apparently being sarcastic) or ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ (which Stewart Lee breaks down beautifully), there isn’t a moment of postcoital awkwardness where everyone thinks, ‘F*** me, we really let ourselves go here.’”

And that’s only from the first five chapters. There are 33 in all, and there are no asterisks in any of them, suggesting a P-13 rating if the book were a motion picture. In a hostile review, The Guardian newspaper dismissed Revolution as “The barmy credo of a Beverly Hills Buddhist.”  Then again, the London paper’s online logo boasts that it’s a past “Winner of the Pulitzer prize,” information that Russell Brand would probably identify as a sign of deep-seated corporate insecurity, and that John Steinbeck, who won a Pulitzer for The Grapes of Wrath and disliked self-promotion, would also find deeply unimpressive. Newspapers were economic enterprises with political agendas in Steinbeck’s view, one based on bitter personal experience, and certain media moguls particularly bothered him. The Grapes of Wrath could be characterized as “the barmy complaining of a Los Gatos liberal” and was called worse in print; Steinbeck went out of his way to disparage (without identifying) the ruthlessly acquisitive California publisher William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of Steinbeck’s day. Brand, like Naomi Klein, calls out Murdoch by name for creating the global media machine that protects the interests of predatory capitalism and right-wing politics everywhere: a Citizen Kane on steroids.

The Guardian newspaper dismissed ‘Revolution’ as ‘The barmy credo of a Beverly Hills Buddhist.’  Then again, the London paper’s online logo boasts that it’s a past ‘Winner of the Pulitzer prize,’ information that Russell Brand would identify as a sign of deep-seated corporate insecurity, and that John Steinbeck, who won a Pulitzer for ‘The Grapes of Wrath’  and disliked self-promotion, would also find deeply unimpressive.

Cover image of Naomi Klein's book, This Changes Everything

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Third Hit in a Row

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate got better reviews. The medium is the message, and the book’s careful composition reflects the contrast between Naomi Klein’s polish and Russell’s brand of craziness. He’s hot, hyperactive, and can seem hostile, even with a bath towel draped around his naked neck on his daily YouTube news show, The Trews. Naomi Klein is cool, calm, collected—the daughter of American professionals who left for Canada during the Vietnam War. Brand grew up on the mean streets of East London with a struggling but doting mum and a step-dad. Naomi Klein’s mother is a documentary filmmaker and her father is a physician; both are social activists committed to global causes. In May, Klein will be 45, one month before Russell Brand turns 40. His previous books were wacky children’s stories; hers—No Logo (2000) and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007)—are already considered classics of contemporary cultural criticism. She writes well and she writes often, for The Nation, Harper’s, and—yes—The Guardian; Russell Brand’s mode is oratory, on stage, on radio, and on YouTube. He’s poetry, she’s prose. Other than not bothering to finish college, neither one remotely resembles John Steinbeck in background or personality. But both share Steinbeck’s anger about income inequality, environmental degradation, and social injustice, writing from rage without being inhibited by academic or institutional affiliations.

‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate’  got better reviews. The medium is the message, and the book’s careful composition reflects the contrast between Naomi Klein’s polish and Russell’s brand of craziness.

After viewing Russell Brand’s daily Trews segment this morning—a denunciation of military-industrial profiteering and health-service cost-cutting in Great Britain—I dialed back to his October 15, 2014 podcast with Naomi Klein about her then-new book. Her clear, controlled answers to his exuberant questions were just like her writing: comprehensive, linear, and built on solid research, including copious sources, vigorous narrative, and clusters of checkable statistics. The New York Times praised This Changes Everything as “a book of such ambition and consequence that it is almost unreviewable.” The same can be said of Klein’s earlier books. No Logo (“No Space, No Choice, No Jobs”) explores corporate branding from various vantage points—economic, psychological, sociological, political—and turns up a goldmine. The Shock Doctrine connects the dots between Cold War American interventionism, both covert and undeclared (as in Chile under Pinochet), George Bush’s Halliburton-helping invasion of Iraq, and post-Katrina profiteering by firms like Blackwater. Henry Kissinger, the architect of U.S. shock-doctrine foreign policy, and Milton Friedman, the father of free-market economic ideology, receive the close attention the human damage they caused deserves.

The New York Times praised ‘This Changes Everything’ as ‘a book of such ambition and consequence that it is almost unreviewable.’ The same can be said of Klein’s earlier books.

John Steinbeck’s public support for American intervention in Vietnam—pre-Friedman and pre-Kissinger—continues to trouble the author’s admirers. Based on private correspondence, however, there’s little doubt that Steinbeck had his doubts about the war’s wisdom or justification, or that he might eventually have come around to Naomi Klein’s parents’ point of view. He was no friend of torture, assassination, or reactionaries, either; we can be confident that Klein’s compelling critique of Margaret Thatcher’s England, George W. Bush’s America, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia would resonate with him if he were alive. As Russell Brand would say, laissez-faire only sounds like a laid-back street party; it’s actually quite dangerous. As political and economic doctrine, it encourages corporate cronyism, induced-disaster opportunism, and national-security statism on an Orwellian scale. Brand and Klein remind us that the unfortunate evidence can be found on the ledgers of both political parties in the U.S., on both sides of the aisle at Westminster, and in both major post-Communist nations, Russia and China.

Cover image of Naomi Klein's books, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine

Perhaps Russell Brand is right, then: why bother to vote if the outcome will always be the same? As Klein notes, even conservatives make concessions to personal freedom (gay marriage, for example) to keep the public’s nose out of Wall Street’s business, which is avoiding regulation, breaking rules, and increasing income inequality. I know, this part’s a bit confusing, because laissez-faire economics is called neo-liberalism in Europe, rendering the term useless in discussing the economic implications of American politics. (Milton Friedman, the right wing’s Karl Marx, was a neo-liberal. Go figure.) John Steinbeck supported liberal politicians all his adult life—Roosevelt, Stevenson, Kennedy—and he actively disliked neo-liberal conservatives like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, who would be considered too moderate by Tea Party members today. I’m pretty sure Steinbeck would argue with Russell Brand about not voting, but I’m equally certain he would agree with Naomi Klein’s analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict over Palestine, where he wrote some of his most interesting travel commentary before the Six-Day War that changed the political landscape of the Middle East, it would appear permanently.

John Steinbeck supported liberal politicians all his adult life, and he actively disliked neo-liberal conservatives who would be considered too moderate by Tea Party members today.

Image of James Lovelock on earthIn a sense, This Changes Everything is a continuation of the cultural narrative begun in The Shock Doctrine. Indeed, Naomi Klein’s books can be read (and I recommend this) as a single meta-story, not unlike the alternating narrative and intercalary chapters in The Grapes of Wrath. The social and environmental consequences of laissez-faire economics—perpetual armed conflict, growing income inequality, cataclysmic climate change—all flow from a singe source in both interpretations of current events: the enshrinement of personal greed as a political philosophy, employing all of the tools that government, media, and private wealth possess to reshape collective consciousness and reify the status quo. James Lovelock, the author of the earth-as-organism theory that I first heard about in college biology, was and is a sunny optimist, now approaching the age of 96. But as John Steinbeck knew, hope can be a commodity too.

James Lovelock, the author of the earth-as-organism theory, was and is a sunny optimist, now approaching the age of 96. But as John Steinbeck knew, hope can be a commodity too.

When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Sea of Cortez, and later Cannery Row, war and drought and despair seemed liked passing phases, misfortunes to be confronted and endured and survived. Now, three-quarters of a century later, are we still that sanguine about the future? As Naomi Klein demonstrates in This Changes Everything, the global climate clock is ticking, and the accumulated power of the international petroleum industry prevents the reformation of human belief and behavior required to slow it down. I’m glad she picked Bill Gates and Virgin’s Richard Branson for special scorn in her book. As she shows, each is a wolf in liberal’s clothing when it comes to meaningful action in the current crisis: the billionaires won’t save us when the oceans rise, she proves that for sure. If not reform—as John Steinbeck warned us in The Grapes of Wrath, then what? Revolution?

End of Lies: Convincing Organic Chemistry from an Expert on Cannery Row

Image from cover of Michael Kenneth Hemp's novel, End of Lies
Like Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck, the subject of his history of Cannery Row, Monterey Peninsula resident Michael Kenneth Hemp, who writes fiction like Robert Ludlum, loves science. In his fast-paced political thriller End of Lies, written as a screenplay in 1998 and published as a novel in 2008, Hemp mines a fascinating field of organic chemistry to create a convincing vision of a future in which no one—not even politicians—can lie with impunity.

The field of organic chemistry in question is pheromones (Hemp’s subtitle explains: The Nadjik Pheromone: Biochemical Lie Detection). Like Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, Hemp’s hero Michael Wolfson—a war correspondent scarred by what he witnessed in Bosnia—pursues and is pursued by bad guys in high places who kill and maim to keep international affairs off-balance for the benefit of their corporate and government masters. Unlike the fiction of Robert Ludlum, however, End of Lies gets technical in the textbook sense, requiring readers to comprehend a fascinating fact of organic chemistry: human breath produces molecules similar to pheromones that attract sexual partners and—by extension—provide a possible way to detect less likable behavior, such as lying.

John Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts, and the Monterey Peninsula—including the house in Carmel-by-the Sea where that curious pair first met—inspired the plot and provide much of the setting for End of Lies, whose author knows enough organic chemistry to convince this grateful reader, who doesn’t. Terrorism in Ukraine, Iraq, and elsewhere today makes Hemp’s prevention-theory for armed aggression by testing the bad guys’ smell terrifyingly current. Catching culprits before they strike? That’s a challenge for another novel. This grateful reader—who inhaled everything by Robert Ludlum and enjoyed End of Lies—hopes Michael Hemp is busy writing it.

The Edward Snowden-John Steinbeck Connection

John Steinbeck, fiction writer, and Edward Snowden with truth image superimposed

Edward Snowden, former national security technocrat turned NSA whistleblower. John Steinbeck, 1962 Nobel laureate fiction writer and the subject of FBI files published in 2002. Two famous figures—separated by time, talent, and the tools they used to expose the abuse of political power in their era. Books from John Steinbeck mobilized public opinion on behalf of migrant workers. Emails from Edward Snowden exposed electronic surveillance on a global scale. Both the fiction writer and the NSA leaker risked their safety and traveled to Russia. As the Edward Snowden saga plays out, the story behind the FBI files on John Steinbeck is suddenly relevant again. Two respected books about Hoover and the FBI files show why.

Although the controversy over books from John Steinbeck took longer to reach Washington than reaction to Snowden, public response to the fiction writer in 1939 set off tensions in the White House, with Eleanor Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover on opposing sides. As Richard Powers points out in The Life of J. Edgar Hoover: Secrecy and Power (Free Press, 1987), FBI files on liberals like Steinbeck had been used to discredit opponents of the administration as early as 1935. But the systematic surveillance of American citizens actually began in 1914 under Woodward Wilson—like Roosevelt, a progressive Democratic president. Notes Powers: “Hoover vigorously represented throughout his life that population of traditional Americans, largely middle-class, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon, who were frightened by the changes they felt were depriving them of their privileged position in an ever more pluralistic society.” Hoover was a perfect choice when the time to prosecute pluralists arrived.

How Books from John Steinbeck
Ended Up in Hoover’s FBI Files

John Steinbeck was a California schoolboy with German relatives when Wilson laid the groundwork for the American security state. Hoover, an ambitious young Washington insider, was working at an entry-level job cataloging books for the Library of Congress in 1914. Seven years older than the future fiction writer, he was Steinbeck’s mirror opposite. Like Snowden, he was comfortable with data. Unlike Steinbeck, he was a prim, proper puritan, intolerant of dissent and distrustful of non-whites. A born communist-hunter, he sharpened his skills on suspected German sympathizers as a draft-exempt employee of the United States government.

Days after America declared war on Germany in 1917, Wilson authorized the investigation of German aliens suspected of anti-American sentiment. According to Powers, 4.5 million Americans of German or Austro-Hungarian descent ended up on government lists by the time the war ended. Hoover, a budding bureaucrat with friends in high places, was hired to collect data on potential deportees. As America’s first Red Scare reached its peak following the war, he rose rapidly, becoming acting director of the agency in charge of domestic spying on suspected communists in 1924. When the modern FBI was created in 1935, Hoover was put in charge.

Hoover vigorously represented throughout his life that population of traditional Americans, largely middle-class, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon, who were frightened by the changes they felt were depriving them of their privileged position in an ever more pluralistic society.

By 1939, with another world war looming, books from John Steinbeck included In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath, the three greatest labor novels by any American fiction writer. The Grapes of Wrath provoked animosity from interests with ties to Washington; neither Steinbeck’s growing celebrity nor Eleanor Roosevelt’s public support was enough to protect the fiction writer from Hoover’s FBI. A first-class flatterer, Hoover provided a daily flow of information to President Roosevelt about his political enemies. Political friends like John Steinbeck frequently got caught in the stream.

Lessons from Hoover’s Secret War
On America’s Famous Fiction Writer

How did Hoover win his fight for Roosevelt’s heart? A personal note to the president, penned by Hoover in 1940 at the height of the smear campaign against John Steinbeck, reads like a love letter to the head of a modern totalitarian state. It isn’t hard to imagine how a fiction writer with Steinbeck’s spirit would have reacted if he’d read Hoover’s ass-kissing words to Roosevelt: “In noting the vast contrast between the Leader of our Nation and those of less fortunate nations, I feel deeply thankful that we have at the head of our Government one who possesses such sterling, sincere, and altogether human qualities.” (It’s chilling to consider that Edward Snowden’s present safety depends on a Russian leader surrounded by flatterers like Hoover.)

John Steinbeck and Franklin Roosevelt met for the first time in the fall of 1939. Hoover vetted important visitors for the president, so the FBI files on John Steinbeck  probably began as preparation for that meeting—though Hoover denied their existence until the day he died. Yet nothing before 1942 appears in FBI files on the fiction writer. Did Hoover destroy documents to protect Roosevelt? That’s the inference of Top Secret: The FBI Files on John Steinbeck, edited by Thomas Fensch (New Century Books, 2002). What survives from the FBI files on Steinbeck is revealing nonetheless, obsessing about the author’s habits, friends, and beliefs. Books from John Steinbeck were scoured for clues to the writer’s character. Except for references to FBI training in the plot of Steinbeck’s last novel, the FBI files on John Steinbeck say nothing meaningful about the content of  his fiction. They attack his motives but ignore his message.

In noting the vast contrast between the Leader of our Nation and those of less fortunate nations, I feel deeply thankful that we have at the head of our Government one who possesses such sterling, sincere, and altogether human qualities.

Those who make Edward Snowden’s motivation the issue rather than the abuses he revealed are following the same playbook today—distraction. That’s why it’s important to examine the FBI files assembled on John Steinbeck under five American presidents for parallels to the present. Roosevelt was no Putin. Nor was Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, or Johnson. Ironically, only Richard Nixon managed to reduce Hoover’s power, perhaps because Nixon understood Hoover better than his predecessors in the White House. Remember: Deep Throat—the source of information that helped bring down Nixon’s presidency in 1974,—was a disaffected employee of Hoover’s FBI. Hoover died in 1972, and Deep Throat started talking.

Like John Steinbeck and Edward Snowden, Hoover embodied a personality type found in every era. Steinbecks and Snowdens value liberty over security and elevate the individual above the state. The Hoovers of the world are born authoritarians, gravitating instinctively to power and jealously guarding the status quo. Hoover achieved unprecedented control  by collecting secret information, using it to hurt the natural enemies of his peculiar species, including Steinbeck. This conflict for dominance continues in our time, connecting Steinbeck’s story with Snowden’s and Hoover’s FBI with the NSA.

Read more in What the FBI FIles Reveal about Hoover’s War on Steinbeck.

 

 

What FBI Files Reveal about Hoover’s War on Steinbeck

John Steinbeck, fiction writer, photo

As books from John Steinbeck became popular in the 1930s, Europe armed for war. Like Woodrow Wilson in 1914, Franklin Roosevelt was secretly preparing for America’s entry into international conflict by authorizing domestic surveillance in the name of national security. J. Edgar Hoover was only a foot soldier in Wilson’s campaign against German sympathizers in 1917. By the time Roosevelt issued his secret surveillance authorization order in 1936, Hoover was a veteran of the hunt for German sympathizers and the campaign against suspected communists following the end of the war. By 1935, when he was appointed director of the FBI, Hoover had developed a delicate nose for Americans with German or leftist associations. John Steinbeck had both.

As Roosevelt’s chief domestic spy, Hoover believed in fishing with a big net. He understood the benefits of secrecy, data, and dragnet tactics, and Roosevelt’s executive order authorizing secret domestic surveillance allowed him to exercise his talents in all three areas.  As Richard Powers explains the situation in The Life of J. Edgar Hoover: Secrecy and Power, “the domestic intelligence apparatus Hoover assembled for Roosevelt [was] part of the president’s covert preparation against the possibility of war, a secrecy made necessary because of the public’s resistance to any attempt to make it realize the true danger of the international situation.”  According to Powers, Hoover became “Roosevelt’s effective, loyal, and indispensable agent.” Steinbeck was devoted to the progressive policies of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hoover was loyal to the pragmatic president in a more personal and practical way.

Fiction Writer vs. Spy in Chief

The FBI files on John Steinbeck—a fiction writer who upset people without really trying—reflect the differences already noted between Hoover and Steinbeck. Hoover equated patriotism with morality and always wore a suit. Steinbeck dressed and lived casually. Hoover never married. Steinbeck had three wives during his lifetime, and according to FBI files the first registered as a communist in 1937.  Steinbeck was pro-labor and always sympathized with the underdog. Hoover was anti-union and gravitated to authority. If Hoover read The Grapes of Wrath when Steinbeck’s novel was published in 1939, he probably didn’t like it. The FBI files document his disapproval of the author’s lifestyle.

Do you suppose you could ask Edgar’s boys to stop stepping on my heels? They think I’m an enemy alien. It’s getting tiresome.

In 1942 Steinbeck wrote the letter that made Hoover an enemy for life. Four years earlier California elected the liberal Cuthbert Olson as governor—the state’s first Democratic chief executive since 1895—and Olson named progressive activists like Steinbeck’s ally Carey McWilliams, author of Factories in the Field, to his new administration. Steinbeck’s sense of political progress in California and America, along with his growing reputation as a fiction writer, helps explain the tone of the note Steinbeck sent to Livingston Biddle, Roosevelt’s attorney general and Hoover’s nominal boss, shortly after Pearl Harbor. Steinbeck wanted an Army commission and someone was getting in his way.

Steinbeck’s note to Biddle named Hoover: “Do you suppose you could ask Edgar’s boys to stop stepping on my heels? They think I’m an enemy alien. It’s getting tiresome.” Like Steinbeck, Hoover was a celebrity, and Steinbeck had visited the White House. As a fiction writer with an eye for character and an ear for speech, he might have predicted Hoover’s response to the attorney general: “I wish to advise that Steinbeck is not being and has never been investigated by this Bureau. His letter is returned to you herewith.” Like James Clapper’s public denial of massive electronic surveillance by the NSA, Hoover’s private answer to Biddle was a lie.

The FBI Files Exposed

Hoover interacted at the highest level with military intelligence and never forgot an insult. His hand in keeping Steinbeck out of the Army is revealed in the FBI files on the author. Although the field agent who investigated Steinbeck concluded that the fiction writer was qualified for a commission, this judgment was overridden by the head of military intelligence. Coincidentally, that secretive group had the James Bondian title G-2—one digit away from the name of the intergovernmental economic group meeting soon in Russia. The Obama White House says that Vladimir Putin’s refusal to extradite Edward Snowden won’t prevent the president from attending G-20. John Steinbeck’s reputation as a fiction writer failed to prevent Hoover’s involvement in the verdict of G-2.

Hoover’s retaliation didn’t stop end in 1942. As the FBI files show, books from John Steinbeck and reviews by unfriendly critics were scoured for signs of disloyalty, beginning with The Grapes of Wrath and ending with the author’s last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent..  Agency-inspired citizen-complaint letters contained in FBI files cited Steinbeck’s visits to Russia—both before and after World War II—in impugning the author’s patriotism. Anything remotely connected to Steinbeck’s past went into the FBI files, including fictitious findings by the American Legion Radical Research Bureau, a right wing organization founded during the Red Scare following World War I. Steinbeck was one fiction writer who avoided the reach of McCarthy’s paranoid committee on un-American activities, but he never dropped off the radar screen of Hoover’s FBI.

I wish to advise that Steinbeck is not being and has never been investigated by this Bureau. His letter is returned to you herewith.

J. Edgar Hoover’s private war on America’s foremost fiction writer—a paper war fought with letters, memos, and clippings—was eventually exposed in Top Secret: The FBI Files on John Steinbeck, edited by Thomas Fensch and published in 2002. Hoover died without achieving anything more damaging to Steinbeck than keeping the author out of the Army. In its 75th year, The Grapes of Wrath remains an international icon. Forty years after his death, Hoover has congealed as a symbol of government secrecy and non-judicial overreach detestable to generations of dissenting Americans, beginning with John Steinbeck and continuing in Edward Snowden.

To paraphrase Disraeli on Darwin, Steinbeck was on the side of the whistle-blowers, both as a fiction writer and as a citizen. How Steinbeck would envision the ending of Snowden’s saga is of course unknowable. Given the author’s distrust of Russian dictators, however, it’s safe to assume he wouldn’t like the middle part of the story as it’s unfolding. How we participate in Snowden’s narrative—to paraphrase the fiction writer—is entirely up to us.

Read more in Steinbeck, Snowden, and the Future of America.

Steinbeck, Snowden, and the Future of America

Adbusters magazine coverSinclair Lewis, a Nobel Prize-winning fiction writer admired by John Steinbeck for his dissection of contemporary American life, envisioned a future fascistic America in a novel published the same year J. Edgar Hoover became director of the FBI. Released in 1935, It Can’t Happen Here is a more realistic if less convincing depiction of dictatorial government than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949. Books from John Steinbeck about totalitarianism during this turbulent period consist of a slender play-novelette, The Moon Is Down—and it involves enemy invasion, not domestic dictatorship. But based on FBI files and recent events, I believe government surveillance on an Orwellian scale would attract Steinbeck as a subject if he were writing today. His story might start with Hoover.

Fiction Writer Question: What Would Steinbeck Say?

Also created in 1935, Hoover’s FBI left a blueprint for the kind of American police state imagined by Lewis in It Can’t Happen Here. By blending secrecy, efficiency, and independence from oversight, Hoover built a hidden system of government surveillance years before digital data mining and other tools of the NSA. Hoover’s first speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, delivered in 1925, reads like the mission statement for a future NSA security state: “The mighty, irresistible current of world-wide, cosmic forces, have created the necessity and impetus for the inception and growth of an organization which will serve to centralize and crystallize the efforts of those who would meet the exigencies of our changing times by a pooling of all of the wisdom and power of the guardians of civilization, the protectors of Society.”

The differences between Steinbeck and Hoover—in personality, politics, and lifestyle—have already been covered. Richard Powers’ biography, The Life of J. Edgar Hoover: Secrecy and Power, documents Hoover’s deep attachment to moralistic beliefs and dictatorial behavior. Top Secret: The FBI Files on John Steinbeck, edited by Thomas Fensch, demonstrates how easily personal conflicts became public crusades in Hoover’s FBI. If Hoover were still in charge today, Edward Snowden would be caught between deadly opposing forces with identifiably authoritarian faces. Putin or Hoover? Which would be worse for a fugitive like Snowden? Only Richard Nixon rivaled Hoover at creating fear in diissenters, and by 1974 both men had left the stage. Of their odious personality type, only Putin and North Korea’s little caesar remain as players on the international stage.

The mighty, irresistible current of world-wide, cosmic forces, have created the necessity and impetus for the inception and growth of an organization which will serve to centralize and crystallize the efforts of those who would meet the exigencies of our changing times by a pooling of all of the wisdom and power of the guardians of civilization, the protectors of Society.

As noted in Top Secret: The FBI Files on John Steinbeck, America’s foremost fiction writer blew the whistle on Hoover in a private letter to Roosevelt’s attorney general. The immediate consequences to Steinbeck were personal, but they passed. Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s Orwellian overreach in public, on a global scale, and his consequences are ongoing. Congress is making noise, President Obama says he’ll investigate, and mainstream journalists in America persist in challenging Snowden’s character. To readers of the FBI files on John Steinbeck this all sounds too familiar. It wouldn’t surprise the fiction writer. His experience was similar.

Steinbeck would certainly fear for Snowden’s safety going forward. While he liked Russians, America’s foremost fiction writer hated Stalinism and disliked authoritarians, at home or abroad. He was passionate about democracy but thought the cold war was a political power game threatening human survival. He supported his government in periods of real war but opposed its excesses in times of uneasy peace. Like William Faulkner—another American fiction writer who exalted individual freedom—he gave a Nobel acceptance speech that’s as relevant today as it was it was it was delivered .

For the Answer, Check the FBI Files on the Author

Steinbeck’s speech in 1962 presents an individualist’s answer to authoritarians like Hoover. Steinbeck’s words in his acceptance speech constitute a plausible opening for the anti-totalitarian novel he never wrote: “Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life and death of the whole world of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand.”

In the half-century since Steinbeck delivered his speech, technology and terrorism have intervened in ways that would have horrified the fiction writer. Today the consequences of poking Big Brother in the eye are more serious—and the dimensions of surveillance greater—than he could ever imagine. It required a fiction writer with George Orwell’s direct experience in colonial law enforcement to envision a system of state surveillance anything like today’s NSA. Orwell was supervising an extensive system of domestic surveillance in the British colony of Burma in 1924, the year Hoover became acting director of investigation for the U.S. Department of Justice.

An article in a recent issue of Adbusters magazine speculates that the Orwellian NSA data mining program disclosed by Edward Snowden is only the tip of an iceberg—one that threatens to sink democracy as definitively as the ghastly surveillance system imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Employing the same pastoral image used by Orwell and Steinbeck to portray evil despoiling innocence in fiction, the magazine warns Americans to wake up before escapist slumber becomes actual, existential hell: “America has truly become a nation of sheep . . . . Trust the shepherd. He’ll lead us to pasture.” Overstatement? Only if you think nightmares never come true. If that’s a challenge, try this for size:

Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator denounced by John Steinbeck, was an ex-church seminarian who murdered millions of his people. Vladimir Putin, Snowden’s ominous host, formerly ran the KGB, the bloody successor to Stalin’s secret police. Steinbeck’s political hero Roosevelt cooperated with Stalin during World War II. Barack Obama, Snowden’s chief critic and a progressive like Roosevelt, visibly dislikes Putin—but plans to attend Russia’s G-20 conference anyway. Where all this is going is anybody’s guess. John Steinbeck became a hero for exposing economic inequality and injustice in his day. Edward Snowden may become a martyr for revealing massive surveillance in ours. However uncertain the outcome, the connections are clear. Steinbeck’s story suggests history will take Snowden’s side.

William Ray, the editor of five books and former editorial director at New Wedding Planetis the author of articles on John Steinbeck and the founder of SteinbeckNow.com.