“Revisiting John Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal from 1948”—an impassioned website post dated March 21, 2017—reminds readers that John Steinbeck and Robert Capa overcame opposition from left and right in reporting firsthand on daily life in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin following World War II. A publication of the International Committee of the Fourth International, the World Socialist site revives Cold War rhetoric in attacking the forces of fascism, Stalinism, and reactionary capitalism that combined to make the lives of ordinary Russians as miserable as possible before, during, and after the war. The language of the post sounds outdated, but the author’s idea accords with the view of John Steinbeck, whom she credits for accuracy and bravery in the face of threats at home and in Russia. “While the Soviet Union was destroyed more than 25 years ago by the Stalinist bureaucracy,” she writes, “the experiences of the Second World War continue to shape the consciousness of millions in the former USSR. Despite certain limitations, this work by Steinbeck and Capa provides valuable insight into the historical experiences of the working class and peasantry of the former USSR.” Timely praise.
Rare photos of John Steinbeck from the collection of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University—including this 1945 image of Steinbeck with wife Gwyn and son Thom—complement an array of academic research articles by Robert DeMott and others in the Winter 2016 issue of Steinbeck Review. The journal is a publication of Penn State Press and appears twice a year. Barbara A. Heavilin is the editor-in-chief, and Nick Taylor is the executive editor. Photo courtesy Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. To subscribe to the journal, visit the Penn State Press site’s Steinbeck Review page.
John Steinbeck not only liked being painted, he liked artists and had a deep affinity for the visual arts. For much of his life he counted artists among his most trusted friends. His appreciation for the visual arts, and the needs of working artists, started on the Monterey Peninsula and continued in New York. As suggested by this undated photograph of Steinbeck with his son Thom, he passed this appreciation on to his children. As a result, of the great American writers of the 20th century perhaps none has been captured in portraits and drawings as often as John Steinbeck.
I think there are two main reasons for Steinbeck’s attraction to artists and being a subject of their work. The place where Steinbeck lived for much of his first 40 years, California’s Monterey Peninsula, was thick with gifted artists when Steinbeck was growing up and beginning his career. And because what Steinbeck was writing in the 1930s and 40s did not make him particularly popular with the local establishment, even endangering him, his circle of friends was necessarily limited, and included artists. This connection with artists carried over when Steinbeck moved to New York and eventually extended to Europe as well. I have a 2001 letter from the late Thomas Steinbeck in which he wrote, “By the time I showed up on the scene, my father had already sat for a number of notable painters.’’ Thom “showed up’’ in New York City, where he was born to John Steinbeck and Gwyndolyn Conger in 1944.
Three major portraits of Steinbeck that we know of were made before he left California for New York. One was by James Fitzgerald. The other two were by the husband-and-wife artists Ellwood Graham and Judith Deim, shown here with their children in an unattributed photograph from the late 1940s or early 1950s.
Fitzgerald was born in Milton, Massachusetts and arrived in 1928 as a seaman aboard a freighter. Once he settled in Monterey, he became a part of the group of writers and artists who gathered at Ed Ricketts’s legendary lab on Cannery Row. In 1935, the year Tortilla Flat was published, Fitzgerald did this charcoal study of a young, gaunt Steinbeck, his face half in shadow, that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Reportedly Steinbeck and Fitzgerald had their disagreements, but their friendship endured. There is a photograph of Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Ricketts standing on Cannery Row with improvised musical instruments in their hands, including pots and pans. Fitzgerald left Monterey in 1943 for Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine; several years ago the Monhegan Museum established the James Fitzgerald Legacy in honor of his standing as one of America’s greatest watercolorists.
Graham and Deim were both born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1911. Sometime in 1936 or 1937 they met Steinbeck and Ricketts–who were on their way to Mexico–while working on a WPA mural project at the Ventura Post Office in Southern California. The fiction writer and the marine biologist from Pacific Grove were impressed by the work and invited the young couple to visit the Monterey Peninsula, where Deim and Graham eventually settled. Steinbeck was generous, paying their way to Mexico to learn to “paint out loud,’’ advising them, Deim later wrote, to “go to Patzcuaro and not to Tasco where all the tourists go.’’
In 2000 Deim wrote that when Steinbeck and Ricketts returned from their expedition to the Sea of Cortez in 1940 “there was much rejoicing, partying, storytelling at the Lab. After a few days of this . . . John felt it was time to get to work. He said, ‘Why don’t you kids paint my portrait and I shall be forced to concentrate and get on with my book.’” Deim’s modern, compact portrait of Steinbeck in the act of writing, shown here, now hangs at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies in San Jose.
Ellwood Graham’s psychological study of John Steinbeck (above) has been missing for decades. One story says that Steinbeck’s friend, the film director John Huston coveted the painting, another that it was won or lost in a poker game. Its discovery, if it still exists, would be a major find.
One of the first artists Steinbeck became friendly with in New York was Henry Varnum Poor, shown in this self-portrait. In the early 1940s Poor was, like Steinbeck, a resident of Rockland County, and he agreed to be a character witness for Steinbeck in 1942 when the writer applied for a New York State pistol license. This took some courage because Poor had executed a major mural in the Department of Justice building in Washington, and Steinbeck was controversial.
In 1944 John and Gwyn commissioned Poor to do a Steinbeck family portrait, with Gwyn holding a crying infant Thomas. It’s a stark painting. Thom, who disparaged his depiction by Poor in the 2001 letter, added that “My mother loved this painting above all others, which only lends credence to Mr. Poor’s interpretive skills.’’ Whatever he thought of Poor’s painting—which now belongs to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas—John Steinbeck continued the family-portrait habit. Thom, again in his 2001 letter, noted that “before I could tear myself from the ancestral grasp, my portrait had been painted three times.’’
By maintaining his relationship with artists in New York, it’s possible that Steinbeck wanted to help keep them employed, as he had for Graham and Deim back on the Monterey Peninsula. Thom writes about his father’s close friendship in New York with “that singular genius William Ward Beecher.’’ Thom and his brother Johnnie were fascinated by Beecher’s work but were “pole-axed’’ when their father told them Beecher would paint their portrait, which they realized meant lengthy sittings, away from mischief-making. Thom later recalled that when he and John misbehaved their father took out his frustration by “shaking his fist’’ at his sons’ portraits rather than at them.
Another Steinbeck portraitist was the handsome Swedish artist Bo Beskow (left), who painted or drew the writer at least three times. Beskow remained a trusted confidant during a three-decade relationship in which the two friends exchanged letters, notes, and encouragement, sometimes under trying circumstances. Beskow’s informal 1946 portrait of a smiling John Steinbeck illustrates the fall 2012 issue of Steinbeck Review. A Beskow drawing of Steinbeck with the notation “Copenhagen, Dec. 8, 1962’’—two days before Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize speech—came to auction several years ago.
Of course artists didn’t depict Steinbeck only in portraiture. Judith Deim’s late-1930s painting “Beach Picnic’’ shows Steinbeck, Ricketts, and other members of the lab group gathered on an unidentified Monterey Peninsula or Big Sur beach. Deim said the painting, which has a pensive quality, was done when threats were being made against Steinbeck and his friends gathered around him protectively, as the composition suggests.
Bruce Ariss, another prominent Monterey Peninsula artist from the lab group, did an arresting drawing of Steinbeck sitting under a cypress tree watching as the characters he created parade by on a busy Cannery Row. Ariss’s spontaneous drawings of Steinbeck and Ricketts and the others populate his book Inside Cannery Row: Sketches from the Steinbeck Era. Some of Ariss’s images can be seen today on the colorful banners that dot Cannery Row.
Not all of Steinbeck’s artist friends drew or painted him. Armin Hansen and Howard Everett Smith were leading artists on the Monterey Peninsula with close relationships to Steinbeck, but I know of no portrait of the writer by either one. Hansen wasn’t really a portraitist, so it’s unlikely he painted Steinbeck. Smith did do portraits: perhaps his most famous subject was the poet Robinson Jeffers, after John Steinbeck the Monterey Peninsula’s greatest literary figure.
And then there were the illustrators of Steinbeck’s books. Mahlon Blaine, an artist Steinbeck met in 1925 while traveling to New York for work, created the cover art for Cup of Gold, Steinbeck’s first novel. Steinbeck was unsatisfied with the image, and he continued to be involved in selecting illustrators for many of the works that followed. To create the cover art and illustrations for the deluxe edition of Tortilla Flat like the one shown here, he helped choose Peggy Worthington (later Peggy Worthington Best), the wife of a poet and editor at Viking Press, his publisher. Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri populist painter, was a natural choice to illustrate Viking’s deluxe edition of The Grapes of Wrath.
I’m uncertain whether Steinbeck knew Elmer Hader, the California artist who created the dust jacket for the first edition of the novel in 1939. Both Steinbeck and Hader were from Monterey County, Hader born in 1889 in the little town of Pajaro, not far from Salinas. If Hader wasn’t personally acquainted with the author, he certainly understood The Grapes of Wrath. His inspired image of the Oklahoma Joads seeing California for the first time has become almost as iconic as the characters themselves.
Some years ago I was contacted by the auction house that was putting the original watercolor for Hader’s Grapes of Wrath cover up for auction. They asked what I thought it should sell for. Guessing, I said $30,000-$35,000. That seemed high, they replied, since no Hader painting had ever sold for more than a tenth of that amount. Looking back today it’s obvious the eventual purchaser got a bargain . . . for $65,000.
I think Steinbeck would have smiled at that result. He liked artists and he wanted them to receive their due, preferably while they were alive. He passed on his affinity for the visual arts, and he did what he could to help the artists he knew.
This is the 300th post published by SteinbeckNow.com since the site launched three years ago. View the related video—Steinbeck’s Storied Artists, with commentary by Steve Hauk—from the site’s YouTube channel.—Ed.
Like Ed Ricketts, the friend John Steinbeck mythicized in Cannery Row, Sam Hamilton—the Irish-American grandfather similarly mythologized in East of Eden—is increasingly recognized as a real-life pioneer independently of Steinbeck’s fiction. The father of Steinbeck’s imaginative mother Olive immigrated from Northern Ireland at the age of 17 and settled with his Irish-American wife in San Jose, California, before moving the family to the Salinas Valley, the semi-mythic setting for The Pastures of Heaven, The Long Valley, and most of East of Eden. Hamilton hailed from tiny Ballykelly in County Derry, a place so small that Steinbeck almost missed it when searching for his Irish roots after writing East of Eden. Now the people of Derry are celebrating their favorite grandson in a first-time literary heritage festival devoted to Steinbeck’s life and work. From October 7 to October 19 the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre in Limavady will present “The Human Heart and the Land”—a festival title that fits the author of East of Eden to a tee. A high point for Irish-American fans is the October 13 talk on Derry influences in Steinbeck’s writing by historian Allister McReynolds, the author of Legacy: The Scots Irish in America. Sam Hamilton—the subject of an upcoming BBC segment on the contribution made to American culture by immigrants from Northern Ireland—would be proud.
As reported by the New York Times, John Steinbeck’s surviving son, Thomas Steinbeck, died on August 11 in Santa Barbara, California, from cardiopulmonary disease, the condition that contributed to his father’s death at age 66 in 1968. A second Steinbeck son, John Steinbeck IV, died in 1992. Their mother was John Steinbeck’s second wife; the New York Times obituary detailed the course of legal action brought by Thomas Steinbeck and a niece against the non-blood heirs and literary agents of the author, who left the bulk of his estate to his third wife. While noting Thomas Steinbeck’s strong resemblance to his father, the New York Times story failed to mention the Steinbeckian character and literary quality of the younger Steinbeck’s writing, including novels and stories set on the Monterey Peninsula, the region celebrated in his father’s fiction. Also omitted was Thomas Steinbeck’s generosity to the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, which issued a statement praising his friendship and support. Robert DeMott, the John Steinbeck scholar who served as the Center’s director in the 1980s, recalled the son’s gift of his father’s typewriter and other personal items, as well as his presence at events honoring John Steinbeck over the years. Robert DeMott’s tribute to Thomas Steinbeck will be published in Steinbeck Review.
AP photograph of Thomas Steinbeck by Richard Green
According to a report by Monterey Herald writer Carly Mayberry, the Japanese American Citizens League Hall in Monterey, California has a World War II-era letter, signed by (among others) John Steinbeck, welcoming the Japanese to the city Steinbeck later left because, he said, he no longer felt welcome there. The April 25 Monterey Herald story notes that the 90-year old building was given to the Monterey chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League by an organization called the Japan Businessman Association in 1942, the year the United States entered World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Steinbeck—an advocate of constitutional rights for all citizens—protested the Japanese internment that followed as immoral and unnecessary. But he was also a realist. During their 1940 expedition to the Sea of Cortez, he and his friend Ed Ricketts (who also signed the welcome letter) lamented the damage being done to the fragile ocean floor by Japanese commercial fishing. Later they tried unsuccessfully to interest the U.S. government in Japanese-sponsored scientific research documenting the underwater geography of the Pacific, where Japanese and American forces fought bitterly for supremacy throughout World War II. That conflict ended in August 1945, when American bombers dropped nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan eventually recovered, and Steinbeck eventually visited Tokyo, speaking at a 1957 writers’ meeting ten years after the trip he made to Soviet Russia with another international-minded friend, the French-Hungarian photographer Robert Capa. Ten years later he traveled to Southeast Asia, the final leg in a life journey that ended back on the Monterey Peninsula, where his wife, sons, and sisters scattered his ashes in 1968. Observing the family’s wish for privacy, the Monterey Herald declined to report on the event.
The vibrant “Voice of America” BBC documentary on John Steinbeck first broadcast in 2011, featuring historic photo footage and refreshing commentary delivered in ear-pleasing English, has finally made it to YouTube. Melvyn Bragg, the show’s host—a British broadcast personality with working class roots and a passion for John Steinbeck—follows Steinbeck’s footsteps from Salinas, The Grapes of Wrath, and Sea of Cortez to East of Eden, Travels with Charley, and the rebellious American writer’s fight with the New York critics. Filmed on location in the U.S. with a perceptive eye for Steinbeck people, places, and events, the BBC’s survey of the writer’s life and work entertains while educating, in that effortless way English TV does better than, well, anyone. Scholarly Steinbeck aficionados will be pleased with the trio of American Steinbeck experts Bragg interviews intelligently, and at satisfying length: Susan Shillinglaw, Rick Wartzman, and Susan’s spouse William Gilly, a scientist at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. Compared with domestic films about John Steinbeck, the BBC documentary rates five stars, two thumbs up, and an enthusiastic recommendation, especially for teachers, students, and fans of literature increasingly irritated by the sloppy speech of what passes for American journalism. Steinbeck, a lifelong anglophile, loved the landscape, lore, and language of Britain and extolled all three in his writing. Bragg returns the favor, explaining Steinbeck’s relationship to American history and culture with insight, imagination, and stiff-upper-lipness that suits Steinbeck, who liked his wit served dry. Viewing time less than an hour. English impeccable.
Fifty-five Novembers ago this week, as the historic 1960 election between Nixon and JFK was coming to a photo finish, the Steinbecks–John, Elaine, and their dog Charley–were laying over at the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove on California’s Monterey Peninsula.
In time and distance, Steinbeck was a little more than halfway through his 11-week Travels with Charley road trip. He and Charley had left Sag Harbor, New York in his pickup/camper combo, Rocinante, on September 23, 1960, and would return to New York City around December 5-6. Their 75-day journey covered about 10,000 miles of mostly two-lane highway.
Based on clues found in letters and the Monterey Peninsula Herald, the Steinbeck family relaxed at the Pacific Grove cottage with Steinbeck’s sister Beth for about two weeks. They were quickly discovered by the local press.
As I write in my ebook Dogging Steinbeck:
In 1960 the Traveling Steinbecks were at the cottage for only a day or two when the Monterey Peninsula Herald dispatched a writer and photographer to do a story. The resulting feature, which ran in the Nov. 4 paper, was very well written by Mike Thomas and included a photo of Steinbeck standing in the garden with a cigarette in his mouth.
Thomas found Steinbeck fixing a wooden front gate, which the author said he had probably built himself 30 years earlier. Describing Steinbeck as a big man with broad features, piercing blue eyes, graying hair and small goatee, Thomas said he was wearing corduroy pants and a shapeless green sweater.
His fingers were nicotine stained and he had a Zippo cigarette lighter on a string around his neck. Wife Elaine was there. So was “an aging poodle sitting in a car at the curbside.” When Thomas asked if he would ever move back to the Monterey area, Steinbeck said he felt like a stranger on the peninsula and repeated his Thomas Wolfe mantra – “You can’t go home again.”
While relaxing at his old “P.G.” home, Steinbeck saw the remnants of the once-thriving sardine fishing industry he described in Cannery Row, and he apparently revisited some of his old haunts on Alvarado Street, including the Keg, which was owned by his friend Johnny Garcia.
He also cast an absentee ballot for Kennedy, who lost California to Nixon by 35,000 votes in the 1960 election, a race that was too close to call until results from Illinois gave Kennedy the edge. (JFK was actually ahead in California for about a week until the absentee ballots were counted.) JFK lost to Nixon in then-heavily Republican Monterey County by a whopping 56-43 percent majority.
Steinbeck’s ambitious search for America, which he acknowledged in Travels with Charley and in private letters was largely a failure, resumed around November 15. He drove on to Amarillo, Texas, where Elaine caught up with him for a Thanksgiving feast at a massive cattle ranch owed by the family of her ex-husband, the movie star Zachary Scott. From Texas, Steinbeck and Charley drove home alone to New York by way of New Orleans, where Steinbeck witnessed the ugly protests against the integration of the city’s public schools described so powerfully in Travels with Charley.
He kept no expense records and took virtually no notes. His book Travels With Charley in Search of America, the fictionalized account of his trip and the people he met on it, came out in the summer of 1962. Published by Viking Press, it was a huge commercial and critical success. In late October it touched the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for a week and stayed on the Top 10 nonfiction list for more than a year.
For Dogging Steinbeck and my website Truth About Charley. I tried to create a definitive timeline of where Steinbeck was on each day of his trip. It wasn’t easy and it has some holes that probably never will be filled. It’s based on the unedited first draft of Travels with Charley; letters Steinbeck wrote from the road to his wife Elaine and others; biographies, newspaper articles, and interviews; and best-guesses. It’s as accurate as I could make it.
The results of the 1960 election pleased Steinbeck. A lifelong partisan Democrat, he despised Richard Nixon, a fact he repeatedly made that clear in letters to his hero Adlai Stevenson in the summer of 1960 and in the first draft of Travels with Charley, before most of his political slights were deleted by Viking’s editors. In 1968, as Steinbeck’s health was getting worse, he had to endure Nixon’s political resurrection and watch him defeat Hubert Humphrey. But, as I say in Dogging Steinbeck, “Luckily, he died that year on Dec. 20, so he never had to witness his hated Tricky Dick being sworn in as president.”
Illustration showing where John Steinbeck was at various times during Travels with Charley by Stacey Innerst, courtesy Bill Steigerwald.
The film “Steinbeck: Armed with the Truth (And a Colt Automatic)” came about after Paul Boczkowski and Marie Wainscoat of Longtimers Productions, a California company, viewed a gallery exhibition I helped put together six or seven years ago in Pacific Grove with my wife Nancy and the prominent marine biologist Robert Brownell, a student of Ed Ricketts as well as John Steinbeck. The idea for the exhibition was born when a man sent me a copy of the application for a gun license that Steinbeck submitted in New York State on May 12, 1942. In his application Steinbeck sought permission to carry two concealed revolvers for “self-protection.”
New York State Gun License Fires Interest in Pacific Grove
The person who sent me the gun-license application worked for a museum and felt the application was important enough to be made public. The subject of Steinbeck and guns already had my attention, and I agreed. Some years earlier I had spoken with a Salinas woman who told me that sometime in the mid-to-late 1930s she had witnessed Steinbeck being threatened by a man with a gun, perhaps hired by others, who was upset about what he felt Steinbeck was writing. We called the exhibition—which included artwork, letters, and documentation—“Steinbeck: Armed with the Truth (And a Colt Automatic).” The producers kept the title for their film about the show. “Steinbeck Fully Loaded,” a Sunday magazine feature, appeared in the Monterey County Herald.
I also wrote a piece about Steinbeck’s gun license application for an innovative literary-blog website called Red Room that, unfortunately, no longer exists. Before the site went out of business, Paul Douglass—at that time the editor of Steinbeck Review—picked up on my post. This led to my writing a pair of articles for the journal in the spring of 2008 and the fall of 2009.
Since that time, my account of Steinbeck and guns has appeared in a number of periodicals and books, though no one bothers to notify me before they publish it. The gun license episode tied in with other stories and historic tidbits about Steinbeck I had picked up while writing for the Monterey County Herald, operating a Pacific Grove art gallery with a literary bent, and co-curating the inaugural art exhibition at the National Steinbeck Center in 1998.
Monterey County Sources Inspire Stories About Steinbeck
My sources were often people who had known Steinbeck well, or their descendants. Two were classmates of John in Salinas. Another was the daughter of a Monterey County cop who corresponded with Steinbeck after the writer left California for New York, and who shipped Steinbeck several revolvers via railway express. A fourth was the son of a Monterey County Herald editor who became a good friend to Steinbeck and helped him find a Big Sur mountain lion as a gift for the people of England—an incident I used in a book of stories that I wrote about Steinbeck’s life in Monterey County and New York State.
I call the series “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life.” The stories reflect the portrait of Steinbeck painted by my sources: a complex man of great gifts, deep compassion, and capacity for fun, traits overshadowed by very real and very dark threats experienced by Steinbeck in Monterey County. Some of my stories include artists, the secondary theme of the film. Artists were important to Steinbeck throughout his lifetime: he numbered them among his friends and felt not only comfortable, but also safe with them. When you have as many enemies as Steinbeck did, I learned, “safe” becomes important.
Which is why he applied for that gun license on May 12, 1942.
Sample “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life” in Steve Hauk’s Archive.—Ed,
Historic photos are sometimes worth a million words, especially when the subject is Steinbeck’s storied life in Pacific Grove and Salinas, California. Unsurprisingly, San Jose State University’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies has a Steinbeck historic-photo trove unrivalled in size and variety, and “John Steinbeck: A View from the Vault”—a sample from the San Jose State University collection—will be on display at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library through October 3. Curated by Peter Van Coutren, the Center’s archivist, the exhibit can be viewed on the fifth floor of the downtown library, a joint venture of San Jose State University and the City of San Jose, weekdays from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (5:00 p.m. on Fridays) and 1:00-6:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Family pictures like this one of adolescent John and his baby sister Mary, taken near the family home in Salinas, California 100 years ago, can be cute; but the show has a serious side, too, and includes rare historic photos of Steinbeck’s adventures in New Orleans, Mexico, and the Soviet Union. See for yourself when you visit.