How John Steinbeck’s Name Caused Confusion at the Pacific Grove Post Office

Image of John Steinecke at the Pacific Grove post office

Just the other day she stepped into our Pacific Grove, California gallery with a distinguished-looking gentleman who likes to do carvings. Her name’s Joy and the gentleman was her husband Jerry.

The subject of John Steinbeck came up—as it usually does in the gallery—and Joy said:

“My parents couldn’t stand him.”

“Why not?”

“They’d get late night phone calls from people, usually inebriated, asking for him—for John Steinbeck. Getting them up in the middle of the night infuriated my folks.”

Steinbeck probably would have liked Joy, a school teacher and administrator who has taught and teaches everything from English and business to quilting, because she added with finality: “And that’s all I know about it.”

It reminded me of something Ma Joad might say.

I waited a bit then asked some questions anyway.

Joy said her parents came to Pacific Grove in 1943. Her father was about 37 years old at the time but could have been drafted into the army even though he and his wife Lela had a young child. Someone recommended that he join the post office instead of the army and he did, becoming, eventually, a clerk in the Pacific Grove branch on Lighthouse Avenue, a branch Steinbeck would have used for many of his postal needs in the 1930s—perhaps sending off typescript copies of Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men to his publisher in New York.

What, I asked Joy, was her parents’ last name?

Steinecke,” she said. “It came right after Steinbeck in the phone book.”

“And what was your father’s first name?’

John,” she said.

It was beginning to come together . . . .

I could see someone in a phone booth looking up the Steinbeck phone number in the middle of the night—maybe to give the author some good advice, not realizing he was now living on the East Coast. Having had a few drinks, the caller could easily morph Steinbeck into Steinecke, or maybe the finger marking the place slipped down the page just a smidge and, hey, it still says John! If the Steinbeck name wasn’t listed, Steinecke would do nicely.

As a result, Mr. Steinecke, scheduled to begin work at the post office in a few hours, gets calls at two, three in the morning. Not easy to get back to sleep, the phone conversations likely still echoing in his head:

“Mr. Steinbeck, I think . . . I think you should change the ending of Tortilla Flat.

“I’m a postal clerk!”

“I know, but you wrote the book.”

According to Joy, John Steinecke would not have been amused.

“My dad was the grandson of a Prussian general who immigrated from Germany in the mid-1800s,” Joy said. “His sense of humor was not particularly well-developed, and he would probably huff about those phone calls if he were still alive. Anyway, he might not laugh, but he definitely would be pleased that you were writing about him and John Steinbeck.”

So, on a recent morning, with images of John Steinbeck and John Steinecke dancing interchangeably in my head, I went into the Pacific Grove post office for stamps and spoke with a clerk named Ron. For all I know, Ron was standing where Mr. Steinecke stood decades ago.

Ron said, quite the opposite of what Mr. Steinecke thought in the 1940s, “Steinbeck’s one of my favorites. People recommend other writers, but I always seem to come back to Steinbeck.”

Of course, if Ron had been living back then, working in the Pacific Grove post office, and his name was John Steinecke, even Ron Steinecke, he might have switched his literary allegiance to Hemingway or Faulkner.

Period photo of John Steinecke serving young customers at the Pacific Grove post office from Norton and Gus, by Margaret Hayden Rector (Grossmont Press, 1976).

At Home with John Steinbeck

Composite image of John Steinbeck's California

I was nine when I discovered Google Maps. I was a demure little thing, sporting wispy baby hairs and crooked front teeth, but I sat in front of our family computer with the omnipotence of a goddess. I could go anywhere in the world; see the tip of the Great Pyramid of Giza or the cascading grandeur of Niagara Falls. After just a few clicks, I could declare proudly to my mom that I was a world traveler.

I sat in front of our family computer with the omnipotence of a goddess. I could go anywhere in the world.

But what I loved best was to zoom in on the United States. I zoomed to California, zoomed to the Central Coast, and zoomed to my hometown of Salinas, wondering if the suburban sidewalks and neatly lined lettuce rows of my life looked different from the sky. “Of course, people are only interested in themselves,” as John Steinbeck’s character Lee says in East of Eden. “The strange and foreign is not interesting – only the deeply personal and familiar.”

Image of main street Salinas, California

From Salinas, California to Stanford, Like the Steinbecks

By the time I turned 16, I was trying to make myself fall in love with places I did not know. Places that were not far away, but foreign nonetheless. What would it be like to live in San Francisco? San Jose? Los Angeles? How would I fare deciphering a train timetable or navigating the concrete capillaries of a city that scrapes the sky?

By the time I turned 16, I was trying to make myself fall in love with places I did not know. Places that were not far away, but foreign nonetheless.

In short, I wanted out of Salinas. I think that was the general feeling of my peers as well. The mountain ranges rising from the dark soil of the valley seemed a macro-enclosure, a way to trap us. As Steinbeck notes in “The Chrysanthemums,” “the high grey-flannel fog . . . closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world,” making us feel as though we were stuck in the belly of a large “closed pot.” Scribbling away at SAT prep books felt like clawing at the walls. I knew a college acceptance was my ticket out, as it was for Steinbeck when he left Salinas for Stanford, followed later by his sister Mary.

Image of John Steinbeck and sister Mary as children

In Journal of a Novel, Steinbeck’s record of writing East of Eden, he explained to his editor Pat Covici that he wanted to tell the story “against the background of the country I grew up in and along the river I know and do not love very much. For I have discovered that there are other rivers.” I knew that the Salinas is, as Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden, “not a fine river at all.” It wasn’t worth boasting about. Neither was the city of Salinas. When traveling out of town and answering the where-are-you-from question, I would quickly say “Monterey,” then quietly add “area.” Technically this face-saving half-truth wasn’t a lie, and when I entered Stanford as a freshman it also saved time. “I’m from Salinas.” Where? “Ever heard of Monterey?” Oh. Right.

I knew that the Salinas is, as Steinbeck wrote, ‘not a fine river at all.’ It wasn’t worth boasting about. Neither was the city of Salinas.

At Stanford, however, my relationship with my hometown started to improve. I suppose that to some degree all college students who flee the nest feel this way, but I think the proximity of Salinas to Palo Alto amplified the experience for me. I felt a wistful longing when I looked at photos of the rolling, golden hills that surround the Salinas Valley. Like Steinbeck, I missed the comforting landscapes of home.

Image of Stanford University English Professor Gavin Jones

The Stanford Course on Steinbeck That Opened My Eyes

One day in the dining hall during my second quarter at Stanford a friend from my dorm leaned over and said, “Jenna, you have to take the Steinbeck course with me.”

A friend from my dorm said, ‘Jenna, you have to take the Steinbeck course with me.’

Gavin Jones, the English professor my friend had a class with that quarter, was teaching a new course on Steinbeck in the spring. I had mentioned that East of Eden was one of my favorite books because—as Frank Bergon notes in Susan Shillinglaw’s collection of Steinbeck essays, Centennial Reflections—it made “the ordinary surroundings of my life become worthy of literature.” When I described Salinas to my friend, I realized I had strong feelings about the issues of socioeconomic inequality, gang violence, and racial tension that plague my hometown. I also saw that, like Steinbeck, my Salinas childhood shaped how I perceived Stanford and its surrounding community, from the groomed neighborhoods near campus to East Palo Alto, the other, poorer Palo Alto across Highway 101.

Image of Salinas, California mural of John Steinbeck with books

Although East of Eden wasn’t on the reading list for the Steinbeck course, a number of familiar titles were. The Red Pony, Cannery Row, The Pearl, The Grapes of Wrath: these were the school books with yellowed paper and dog-eared pages that I had read at Salinas High. When I was preparing for third quarter during spring break at home, I mentioned to my dad that I was ordering new copies of Steinbeck books for delivery to our address. “Don’t,” he protested. After rummaging in the garage, he emerged with a dusty box saved from his school years. Almost all of the Steinbeck books selected by Gavin Jones for the course had been languishing since my father used them, waiting to be rediscovered.

Almost all of the Steinbeck books selected by Gavin Jones for the course had been languishing in our garage since my father used them, waiting to be rediscovered.

On the first day of class I failed to arrive at the lecture hall early. My previous English classes had been small, quiet affairs, so I was surprised to see more than 120 students, buzzing with anticipation, already in their seats for Gavin’s course on John Steinbeck. As I readied my notebook I pondered Steinbeck’s reach. I knew he spoke out against injustice in his day and won the Nobel Prize in 1962, but not that he resonated with so many people more than a half-century later. I wondered how many lives he had touched over time, how many students in my Steinbeck class had seen the country of my childhood, and Steinbeck’s, through the golden lens of Steinbeck’s prose. Never thinking beyond the “closed pot,” I always assumed that my teachers had thrust his books into our hands just because we were in Salinas, not because we were part of the universal story Steinbeck told.

Composite image of Susan Shillinglaw and book about John Steinbeck

Over the course of the quarter I looked forward eagerly to class with Gavin. He embraced unconventional ideas, tracing behaviorism in The Red Pony and linking plants and humans in unexpected ways in “The Chrysanthemums.” He also brought in guest lecturers who expanded upon these themes and others. One of the lecturers was Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English at San Jose State University and director of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, who discussed Steinbeck’s relationship with his first wife, Carol. Parts of her talk helped me better contextualize Steinbeck’s relationship with Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula.

One of the guest lecturers was Susan Shillinglaw. Her talk helped me better contextualize Steinbeck’s relationship with Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula.

Once I began to grasp Steinbeck’s central role in creating the region’s identity, I wanted to know more. The name Steinbeck was everywhere when I was growing up, attached to real estate companies, hotels, streets, and highways. How had the man behind the name shaped Salinas and the region? How had they changed since he roamed the hills of the Salinas Valley 100 years ago? What could characters like Lee and the stories of Steinbeck’s “valley of the world” teach me about growth, about spirit, about understanding and embracing human differences? I had a lot to learn.

Image of entrance to National Steinbeck Center

The Summer Internship in Salinas That Opened My Heart

In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck returns to the Monterey Peninsula to revisit his California past one last time. Hoping for joy, he experiences disillusionment edged with despair. Slumping over a Monterey bar with his friend “Johnny,” he laments: “What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. . . . We’re the ghosts.” When I returned to Salinas for my first summer home, I decided to look toward the future instead of the past.

When I returned to Salinas for my first summer home, I decided to look toward the future instead of the past.

Thanks to Community Service Work Study, a Stanford program that funds internships at nonprofit organizations for eligible students, I was able to take an internship at the National Steinbeck Center, the museum and cultural center on Main Street in downtown Salinas. Over the course of the summer I wrote grant applications, learned about marketing and management, worked with Susan Shillinglaw on a new publication for Penguin’s Steinbeck series, and planned a poetry slam for the NEA Big Read, forging a deeply felt bond with my community. I can’t say where the winds will take me after college, or if I will ever live in Salinas again, but I hope I never have the sense of loss that overwhelmed Steinbeck’s homecoming in Travels with Charley. I hope I can return to the landscape that raised me with joy, tapping into the sense of deep belonging I feel when I see the soft sunlight falling on Mount Toro or inhale the mild breeze from Monterey Bay.

Over the course of the summer I wrote grant applications, learned about marketing and management, worked with Susan Shillinglaw on a new publication for Penguin’s Steinbeck series, and planned a poetry slam for the NEA Big Read, forging a deeply felt bond with my community.

Steinbeck echoed the novelist Thomas Wolfe in Travels with Charley: “you can’t go home again.” Nostalgia is hard to reconcile with new names and faces, with the attachment to growth and “progress” that Steinbeck came to distrust in America and Americans. Yet elements of Steinbeck’s California remain, and I have faith that pieces of my California will survive too. During my summer in Salinas I combed the streets around the Steinbeck family home on Central Avenue. I sipped chai tea in the Main Street coffee shop that was once a feed store owned by Steinbeck’s father. I ate lunch at the little café Steinbeck is thought to have frequented. In Monterey I lingered outside Doc’s Lab and listened to the sloshing of the sea and the distant cries of gulls swooping in the sky.

Image of John Steinbeck book on Fremont's PeakBefore Steinbeck left home for the last time in Travels with Charley he did “one formal and sentimental thing.” He climbed Fremont’s Peak, the highest point in the Salinas Valley, and contemplated the places he loved—where he “fished for trout” with his uncle; where his mother “shot a wildcat”; the “tiny canyon with a clear and lovely stream” where his father burned the initials of the girl he loved on an oak tree.

I followed John Steinbeck to the top of Fremont’s Peak on a warm Saturday in July. I felt the breeze cool the back of my neck as I contemplated the checkerboard of farmland below, the sun-kissed “valley of the world” celebrated in East of Eden and other books and stories. Close to the clouds, the air seems sacred up there, offering something bright and righteous to the open heart. Something pure. Something deeply personal and eternally familiar.

Stanford University Praises John Steinbeck in Profile of English Prof Gavin Jones

Image of Stanford University English professor Gavin Jones

Stanford University—the wealthy private university in Palo Alto, California known for having world-class programs in business, engineering, and medicine—has given a new boost to the literary reputation of John Steinbeck, an erratic English department enrollee who left Stanford in 1925 without a degree. A new online profile of English department faculty member Gavin Jones makes the case for Steinbeck as an undervalued American writer and thinker who was ahead of his time in subject, style, and versatility. “One hundred and fifteen years after his birth in Salinas, California,” the story states, “Steinbeck’s life and work—the latter [of] which has long languished on high school reading lists—is undergoing a revival.” An affable Englishman who recently taught an American studies course at Stanford on Steinbeck and the environment, Jones explains the renewed attraction: “I’d like to think that Steinbeck’s work speaks to students from multiple backgrounds because his interests were so interdisciplinary.” Robert DeMott, the distinguished Steinbeck scholar and poet who also writes about fly fishing, says that Stanford University’s initiative is especially encouraging because Steinbeck teaching and scholarship have traditionally been the province of public colleges such as San Jose State and Ohio University, where DeMott taught generations of graduates including David Wrobel, another English convert to Steinbeck who was recently named interim dean at Oklahoma University. Adds DeMott: “Steinbeck’s recognition by a private university of Stanford’s stature will go far to redress Steinbeck’s underestimation by the literary establishment of his day, and to some extent our own as well.”

Photo of Gavin Jones courtesy Stanford University News Service.

Help Celebrate Four Years of Celebrating John Steinbeck

Image celebrating four years

This week marks four years of weekly posts at celebrating John Steinbeck’s life and work, the relevance of his writing to current events, and new art inspired by his enduring fiction. Features posted in August 2013 included new music, visual art, and creative writing, along with a young painter’s reflection on Steinbeck’s artistic impact and a piece about Steinbeck’s home movies by a professional videographer. Other posts discussed Steinbeck’s writing habits, his scrutiny by the FBI, and the connection between the campaign of character assassination waged against Steinbeck in the 1930s and 1940s and the flight of Edward Snowden. Since launching as an independent, noncommercial site serving John Steinbeck’s international fandom, has published 365 posts that continue the pattern of originality and diversity set four years ago—previously unpublished critical and creative writing, new art and music, and thoughtful commentary from 60 contributors from as far away as North Africa. Along with critical and creative writing inspired by Steinbeck, news items and reviews are also welcome, provided they are original and do not duplicate existing online content. In keeping with its mission, does accept advertising or pay for material. If you’d like to be in the picture, email

The Salt Has Kept its Savor For the Reader Who Finds Religious Meaning in John Steinbeck’s Land and People

Image of Day's End painting by Warren Chang

Although I have read and enjoyed most of John Steinbeck’s published writing, I am not a Steinbeck scholar and claim no special expertise. But I have lived in California’s Monterey County since 1950, and for many years I taught and coached in Salinas, the town where Steinbeck was born, went to school, and found religious meaning attending a local church. In a sense he never left, and my interpretation and appreciation of his work are colored by the land he lived on—the Salinas Valley and the Monterey Peninsula—and the people he wrote about: the poor and “the salt of the earth,” many of whom (to quote the Sermon on the Mount in the King James Version that Steinbeck read) had “lost their savour.”

In a sense Steinbeck never left Salinas or Monterey, and my interpretation and appreciation of his work are colored by the land he lived on and the people he wrote about.

Walking the hills and observing the vistas of Monterey County—from Fremont’s Peak in the Gabilans east of Salinas, to Mount Toro and the Corral de Tierra (the “pastures of heaven” where I now live), to Presidio Ridge in Monterey—these places have affected me deeply as I think they did John Steinbeck. Likewise, looking at the underground Salinas River from the East Garrison bluffs on the site of the former Fort Ord, where Steinbeck may have walked, suggests to me an undercurrent in the lives of the people who have lived on the surface of this land. Unavoidable, and taken for granted in Steinbeck’s time, were the sounds and smells and sights of Monterey Bay, of Cannery Row, of Fisherman’s Wharf, of lower Alvarado Street, of the Rodeo grounds in Salinas during Big Week, which he always enjoyed. Each one added to the grist and flavor of the characters and stories Steinbeck created or recreated in his fiction. I keep coming back to this all-encompassing environment when I read about his characters. These people were close to the earth.

I keep coming back to this all-encompassing environment when I read about his characters. These people were close to the earth.

As an impressionable boy in Salinas, Steinbeck observed poor Mexicans doing stoop labor in the fertile fields of the Long Valley near town, often alongside their children, who should have been in school. This  experience prepared him to empathize with the legions of poor Americans looking for jobs in California in the 1930s—with the Dust Bowl farm families displaced by drought and economic depression who populate The Grapes of Wrath, with the unemployed single men moving from ranch to ranch and harvest to harvest in Of Mice and Men and In Dubious Battle.

Image of Landscape with Red Pony painting by David Ligare

In the End Melancholy Lifts, Like the Monterey County Fog

During my time teaching and coaching in the schools of Steinbeck’s home town, I interacted with the children and grandchildren of these people. I don’t see “Okies” anymore, but increasingly I do see down-and-out people standing on the corner in downtown Salinas with cardboard signs asking for work or money. The harsh realities faced by rural and small town Americans prior to World War II—the displaced Americans poignantly painted on Steinbeck’s word canvases—seem to have returned. Other vestiges of Steinbeck’s California can be found if one takes the time to walk, look, and listen to the land and the people on whose behalf Steinbeck’s books still bear witness: the emigrants and the immigrants, the homeless and the lonely, the powerless, and those whose lives lack spiritual or religious meaning.

Vestiges of Steinbeck’s California can be found if one takes the time to walk, look, and listen to the land and the people on whose behalf Steinbeck’s books still bear witness.

Read the books, then walk the land—the Monterey County of The Red Pony, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, The Pastures of Heaven, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden and The Long Valley; the sister valleys of The Wayward Bus, In Dubious Battle, and To a God Unknown. The living land evoked by Steinbeck largely remains. So does the emotional and thematic undercurrent that runs like a river through the lives of his characters. Many are spiritually, educationally, economically, or socially disadvantaged, unhinged, or bereft. Some find religious meaning. Most do not.

The living land evoked by Steinbeck largely remains. So does the emotional and thematic undercurrent that runs like a river through the lives of his characters.

My reading reveals a human dynamic in Steinbeck’s characters mirroring that of the land they inhabit, sometimes barely: drought followed by flood; summers of suffering followed by winters of discontent; deserts of isolation broken by moments of sustaining humanity that I would call Christian charity. Often melancholy rolls in like the morning fog. But the fog breaks eventually, and Steinbeck’s endings, though rarely happy, always seem hopeful to me.

Day’s End, oil on canvas by Warren Chang, 20” x 30” (2008), courtesy of the artist. ©Warren Chang.

Landscape with a Red Pony, oil on canvas by David Ligare, 32” x 48” (1999), courtesy of the artist. ©David Ligare.

The Gift Shop Visitor from England Who Wanted East of Eden to Go On Forever

Image of John Steinbeck house gift shop volunteer and customer

Since moving to Salinas, California, I’ve volunteered twice monthly in the house where John Steinbeck grew up: one day assisting Chef Augie in the Steinbeck House restaurant kitchen and one working day in the Best Cellar, the book and gift shop in the basement that inspired the punny name. Because I work in the gift shop only once a month, it was a stroke of luck that I happened to be there on July 20, a busy day that began when my cohort John Mahoney and I saw reservations for 40 on the restaurant’s board upstairs. Forty was a good start. Counting walk-ins without reservations, it meant we could anticipate quite a few visitors to the gift shop before and after lunch. Even a slow day gets better when a “bluebird” visitor drops in and engages in fan chat about John Steinbeck. Along with near-record gift shop sales, July 20 also brought a bluebird encounter that I will never forget.

Even a slow day gets better when a ‘bluebird’ visitor drops in and engages in fan chat about John Steinbeck.

Shortly after we opened the door at 11 a.m., two parties came in: a father and teenage son from the Czech Republic and a 40-something couple from England with their small daughter. We’re used to foreign visitors in the gift shop, and the five we had that morning were talkative and friendly. Like his father, the teenager was clearly a Steinbeck fan—easy to tell as they zoomed past the shiny, pretty things and headed for the book section at the back of the shop. We stock some early editions of John Steinbeck, and the Czech father was visibly excited to find a vintage copy of The Red Pony to buy, lavishly illustrated, from the 1940s.

We’re used to foreign visitors in the gift shop, and the five we had that morning were talkative and friendly.

While the little English girl and her mum were occupied with the gift shop’s amazing dollhouse replica of Steinbeck House, one of our most popular not-for-sale items, John and I got to talking with the husband, who asked us what our favorite Steinbeck novel happened to be. We answered East of Eden, and he said he loved it, too. Then I mentioned that the first time I read the novel I dreaded getting to the end because I didn’t want the story to stop. The man’s response caught me by surprise: “Oh, my wife never did finish it for that reason.” I thought he was joking and turned to his wife. Yes, she said, ” I just didn’t want to know the end of those characters” after grieving over the death of Sam Hamilton, John Steinbeck’s grandfather, earlier in the story. Like me, she was familiar with the expression “book hangover,” which I confessed that I experienced when I finished reading East of Eden.

Like me, the woman from England was familiar with the expression “book hangover,” which I confessed that I experienced when I finished reading East of Eden.

Gift shop sales support the operation and maintenance of the house memorialized by John Steinbeck in East of Eden, and we were busy that morning. I would have welcomed more fan chat with the English couple, the Czech father, and the other bluebirds who visited during the day. Most of our out-of-town and foreign visitors on package tours of the Salinas-California area are focused on the rich history and Victorian architecture of the Steinbeck home. When lovers of Steinbeck’s fiction identify themselves, it’s a heartening reminder that our work helps to keep the house open and running. I’ve had other memorable experiences in the gift shop. But the standout will always be the English lady who couldn’t bring herself to finish East of Eden—not because it bored her, but because she loved the characters too much. I hope that some day she allows herself to read all the way to the end. Like the Steinbeck House, it’s graceful and glorious and gladdening.

Photo of Steinbeck House gift shop interaction by Angela Posada.

The Conversation with John Steinbeck’s Widow That Was All About Names, and Love

Image of Elaine and John Steinbeck

It was 1998. I had co-curated with Patricia Leach the inaugural art exhibition at the grand opening of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. A week or so after the opening I received a phone call from a woman with a Southwestern accent, or at least that’s what I judged it to be.

“Mr. Hauk, this is Elaine Steinbeck, the widow of the author John Steinbeck.”

“Hello, how do you do?”

“I am doing well, thank you. I was wondering if you would do me a favor, please.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Could you look in a Monterey County telephone book and tell me how many times you see my late husband’s name associated with a business or commercial enterprise?”

I opened my phone book to the businesses section and started flipping the pages to the S’s. I wondered how Mrs. Steinbeck picked me to call, then realized it must have been because she saw my name in conjunction with the exhibition at the National Steinbeck Center, This Side of Eden: Images from Steinbeck’s California.

Well, I found Steinbeck’s name tacked on to six or seven area enterprises. There was, I recall, a credit union, a used car dealership, and a dry cleaner, among other Steinbeck-somethings. As I read them off to Mrs. Steinbeck, she said, “Oh, my.” She said this or something similar several times in a charming sort of way. I joked that I might think of adopting the Steinbeck name for my business. She laughed, sort of. The commercialization of her husband’s name obviously bothered her, but she didn’t seem terribly upset, just mildly irritated and genuinely curious.

We talked for several minutes. She asked about the National Steinbeck Center and wondered how her husband was remembered in Monterey County. I found her a pleasant conversationalist. Over time, as I grew more interested in her late husband’s work, I regretted I didn’t ask for her phone number that day so I could call now and then to ask questions about his life.

The other day, I picked up the Monterey County phone book, turned to the business section, and flipped to the S’s. Some of the businesses with the Steinbeck name in 1998 had obviously closed, but new ones had sprouted up and the number using the author’s name was up eight, including a kennel (Steinbeck loved dogs), two realty firms (he owned houses in Monterey and Pacific Grove), a dental center (he said he met Ed Ricketts at the dentist’s), a café (think Bear Flag), a produce business (perfect fit), even an equine clinic for ponies, red and otherwise.

At her husband’s funeral in New York, Elaine Steinbeck asked his friends and mourners not to forget him. It isn’t what she had in mind at the time, but in a way that Steinbeck would probably appreciate, the continued commercial use of his name in Monterey County, 50 years after his death, is a sign of recognition and respect. I think she realized that and it’s the reason she called me 20 years ago. I’m glad I got to speak with her. She was smart and personable, like most Texans I know, and she was a theater person with an ear for poetry. When she died in 2003, her ashes joined John’s at the Salinas, California cemetery where, as she predicted (quoting Keats), she came to rest, like Ruth, “amid the alien corn” of her loved one’s people.

The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the selfsame song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn . . . .

      (from “Ode to a Nightingale”)

Sharing East of Eden for the Jewish Festival of Shavout

Image for Jewish festival of Shavuot

The Jewish festival of Shavuot commemorates the Jewish people’s receipt of the Hebrew Bible and the ethical laws Torah contains. Though John Steinbeck wasn’t Jewish, the ethics of good and evil behavior, both within and outside ethical laws, are prominent in his writing beginning with The Grapes of Wrath, and the theme of Timshel—one’s response to evil—is a dominant feature of his partially autobiographical novel East of Eden. With that in mind, I recently took the opportunity to present a talk on Steinbeck’s treatment of Timshel in East of Eden to my local Jewish community as part of a program of Shavuot lectures in the Los Angeles area.

In my remarks I quoted passages from East of Eden (e.g., “the Hebrew word, the word Timshel—‘Thou mayest’— . . . gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not’”) to explain Steinbeck’s fascination with the word Timshel in dramatizing the ethical choice we are given: whether to resist or succumb to the evil influences in our lives. I reviewed recent psychological research on how nature and nurture dictate our behaviors, as well as the Jewish teaching that emphasizes the responsibility of personal choice over good or evil, irrespective of nature, nurture, and perhaps even Divine influence. I also reflected on the intriguing typographical and transliteration mistake Steinbeck made in adapting the Hebrew word timshol to Timshel in East of Eden, along with Steinbeck’s influence on contemporary culture following this error.

My talk marked the conclusion to a remarkable personal East of Eden journey that brought with it a number of gratifying connections. As I noted in a previous post—“Discovering Unexpected Connections to East of Eden—my adventure began with a visit to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, where I examined a replica of the hand-carved box Steinbeck made to convey the manuscript of East of Eden that he gave to his beloved editor and publisher, Pascal Covici. The ensuing research I carried out into apparent errors in the Hebrew carved on the box prompted enjoyable discourse with archivists, academics, rabbinical scholars, and other experts around the world. It led to a report on my findings in a paper published in the winter 2015 issue of Steinbeck Review, and to my presentation during the Jewish festival of Shavuot.

All in all, a fascinating series of experiences, as a consequence of a family vacation visit to the National Steinbeck Center that was, in turn, inspired by my reading of The Grapes of Wrath when I was growing up in the United Kingdom.

University of Oklahoma Names David Wrobel Dean

Image of David Wrobel, Steinbeck and American history scholar

David Wrobel, professor of American history at the University of Oklahoma, has been named interim dean of the school’s College of Arts and Sciences by David Boren, OU’s president. A specialist in the history of the American west and chair of OU’s history department, Wrobel is the author of Global West, American Frontier: Travel, Empire and Exceptionalism from Manifest Destiny to the Great Depression; Promised Lands: Promotion, Memory and the Creation of the American West; and The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal. He teaches an interdisciplinary course in the College of Arts and Sciences on Steinbeck, the focus of his cognate-field work at Ohio University, where he studied Steinbeck with Robert DeMott and the late Warren French as part of his PhD curriculum in American intellectual history.

On the Road with Family in John Steinbeck’s California

Image of Janet Ward, director of University of Oklahoma's Humanities ForumDavid Wrobel received preliminary news concerning his appointment in early June while driving from the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, to Pacific Grove, where he and his wife, Janet Ward (shown here), were vacationing with their daughter and sons at the Eardley Avenue cottage in which Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts began writing Sea of Cortez. His current book projects include America’s West: A History, 1890-1950, scheduled for publication in January 2018; We Hold These Truths: American Ideas and Ideals, from the Pre-Colonial Era to the Present; and John Steinbeck’s America, 1930-1968: A Cultural History. A native of London, England, he earned his undergraduate degree in history and philosophy at the University of Kent. Janet Ward, an interdisciplinary scholar of urban studies, visual culture, and European cultural history, is a professor history at the University of Oklahoma, where she directs the school’s Humanities Forum.

John Steinbeck Surprises Visitors in Northern Ireland

Image of Anne Hauk and sons at Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland

Imge of John Steinbeck mural in Bushmill's, Northern IrelandWhile traveling through Northern Ireland recently with her husband Tom O’Connell and sons Wyatt and Henry, Anne Hauk discovered this mural of John Steinbeck peering down from a building in the coastal town of Bushmill’s, three miles from Giant’s Causeway, the family’s destination. Steinbeck’s Ulster forebears emigrated to the U.S. during the 19th century famine that decimated the local population; 100 years later their celebrated grandson could be seen peering up from a glossy American ad promoting Ballantine’s Ale. Steinbeck, a sometimes self-effacing writer with an instinct for gadgets and whiskey brands, would be less surprised but also less gratified than Anne Hauk was by the apparition at Bushmill’s, home of Ireland’s legendary Black Bush label.

Image of Ballantine Ale ad featuring John Steinbeck

A resident of San Francisco, Anne is the daughter of Steve Hauk, an art expert and playwright from Pacific Grove who has written a series of short stories about Steinbeck, Salinas, Monterey, and the bibulous culture of bygone Cannery Row. A Jack Daniels-John Steinbeck fan, Steve identified the source of the image in Bushmill’s as a photo of Steinbeck by Sonya Noskowiak, a member of the San Francisco photography collective f/64. In East of Eden, the autobiographical novel Steinbeck was writing when the Ballantine ad appeared, Steinbeck’s Grandmother Hamilton, a hard-shelled teetotaler, makes her husband’s life miserable with religion. But Sam Hamilton had the last word. A sympathetic character given to imbibing with friends when she wasn’t looking, he is the subject of a 2016 BBC television program on Northern Ireland’s contribution to the culture of the United States. That Steinbeck would toast.

Family travel photos courtesy Tom O’Connell.