Women in John Steinbeck’s Life on Display in San Jose

Image of John Steinbeck quotation about women

Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Cathy/Kate in East of Eden. Elisa Allen in “The Chrysanthemums.” Such women from John Steinbeck’s fiction are unforgettable. So, on examination, are the women in Steinbeck’s life, as this quotation suggests. Steinbeck’s mother Olive Hamilton and first wife, Carol Henning, were both from San Jose, California, and San Jose State University is celebrating each (and the two wives who followed) in a special exhibit of documents and photographs on the 5th floor of the MLK Library, located on the San Jose State University campus, through January 20, 2018.

Image of exhibit on John Steinbeck's women at San Jose State University

MLK Library Exhibit through January 20

To paraphrase the man who bragged about failing his way to success in marrying for the third time, the success of John Steinbeck’s marriage to Elaine Scott, from 1950 until his death in 1968, was possible only because the strong willed mother and wives who preceded her prepared him for their partnership. Some say he married his mother. Steinbeck doubted Freud and disliked psychoanalysis, but he’d be happy to see the women in his life get the credit they deserve for the roles of educator (Olive), editor (Carol), and manager (Elaine) without which his writing wouldn’t be so quotable.

The exhibition may move next to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, where the theme of the 2018 Steinbeck Festival (and the inspiration for the MLK Library show) is “The Women of Steinbeck’s World.” The May 4-6, 2018 festival will be held at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, where John Steinbeck and his sister Mary studied biology when they were students at Stanford University. Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English at San Jose State University and director of the National Steinbeck Center, is the author of Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage,

 

 

 

 

Like Life of John Steinbeck, Interest in Short Stories Is Both Global and Local

Cover image of Steinbeck: The Untold Stories

Steinbeck: The Untold Stories, a collection of short stories by the California writer and art expert Steve Hauk, continues to attract attention internationally and at home. Artnet, the influential art marketplace website headquartered in New York, focuses on “the gallery owner’s reimagining of John Steinbeck and the contemporary interest in early California art” in a November 8 interview with Hauk, who owns and operates the downtown Pacific Grove art gallery that has become a popular venue for area Steinbeck fans and visitors to the coastal community where the author lived and wrote in the 1930s. The local public library frequented by Steinbeck and his wife Carol is doing its part, too. On November 17, Friends of the Pacific Grove Library will present Hauk’s talk on writing the Steinbeck short stories at a 7:30 p.m. event that is free and open to the public. (Non-members: suggested donation is $10.)

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).

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.

Rousing Post Recalls Cold War, Citing John Steinbeck

Image of Joseph Stalin

Image of A Russian Journal, 1948 work by John Steinbeck and Robert Capa“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 Illustrate New Academic Research Articles

Image of John Steinbeck with son Thom and wife Gwyn in 1945

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.

Passed On: John Steinbeck’s Affinity for the Visual Arts

Image of Thom and John Steinbeck

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.

Cover image of Monterey Peninsula art colony history

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.

Image of Judith Deim, Ellwood Graham, and children

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.

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by James FitzgeraldFitzgerald 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.’’

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by Judith Deim

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.

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by Ellwood Graham

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.

Image of self-portrait by Henry Varnum PoorOne 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.

Image of Bo BeskowAnother 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.

Cover image of Cannery Row sketches by Bruce Ariss

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.

Image of Tortilla Flat book illustration by Peggy Worthington Best

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.

Cover image of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"

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.

Literary Heritage Festival Honors John Steinbeck, Irish-American

Image of Ballykelly, Northern Ireland

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.

Thomas Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s Son, Dead at 72

Image of Thomas Steinbeck

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

Report on Japanese-Americans in Monterey Herald Recalls John Steinbeck, Internationalist

Image of John Steinbeck with reporters at 1957 PEN conference in Tokyo

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.