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.

 

Curing Verbal Tic Disorder On MSNBC’s Evening News

Image of Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, and Chris Matthews

Last week I channeled my inner English teacher by urging greater attention to grammar in blog posts about John Steinbeck. As with Steinbeck, however, I had issues with my high school English teacher. Like Mrs. Capp, the Salinas High teacher who underestimated Steinbeck’s need for praise, a teacher named Margaret Garrett used negative attention against adolescent error at Page High School in Greensboro, N.C. Once a month in our senior English class each of us had to give a short speech without notes, facing the class and Mrs. Garrett’s gorgon gaze. Filler words—I mean, like . . . umm, you know—were sharply received. Uh . . . kind of, sort of, in any event—mumbling, cliché, butchered syntax produced a steep frown, and the noisy clap! clap! of Mrs. Garrett’s hard, red hands. The technique she used to cure teenage verbal tic-disorder was practiced and perfected and frightening. In my case it was effective, engendering a hypersensitivity to sloppy speech that makes the talking heads on MSNBC, my preferred purveyor of cable news, increasingly hard to watch and hear.

Composite image of Chris HayesCompare the slow legato of John Steinbeck’s archived radio voice with the rapid staccato of Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Hayes, who may be the most extreme example of stop-start arrhythmia on mainstream cable news. Close your eyes and count the filler words, clichés, and redundancies uttered by hosts and guests in an average on-air minute: I mean, you know, sort of, kind of, like . . . um, take a listen, tweet out, frame out, report out, break down, knock down, at the end of the day, now look . . . . Try to diagram the sentence that begins with this typical guest response: “Yeah, Chris, you’re absolutely right, yeah, but look [or take a listen to] . . . .” Imagine what John Steinbeck—a political sophisticate who thought bad syntax disqualified Dwight Eisenhower—would make of Donald Trump as president today, or of the contagious verbal tic disorder that has become the broadcast norm, corrupting discourse and advancing group-think. It’s the oral analog of thoughtless writing, caused by three attitudes Steinbeck abhorred: haste, inattention, and lazy following.

Image of Catherine RampellExceptions stand out because they’re both rare and promising at MSNBC. My favorite example is a young Washington Post opinion writer named Catherine Rampell, a frequent guest on Hardball with Chris Matthews and The Last Word, Lawrence O’Donnell’s marginally more listenable show in the slot behind Matthews, Hayes, and Maddow. As a communicator Catherine is like John Steinbeck: she speaks as she writes, clearly and carefully. I’m thrilled with her because she tickles my testy inner English teacher—and because I first met her when she was a high-achieving high school student in Palm Beach, Florida, where her father Richard Rampell, a culturally-attuned accountant, was my friend and fellow in the fight for local arts funding. In the past I’ve complained about Palm Beach, about the Trumpettes of Mar-a-Lago who worship Donald Trump and his dumbing down of everything. Now it’s a pleasure to praise the place for producing his opposite: a splendid writer and speaker with a career in journalism that John Steinbeck would admire and probably envy. Look for Catherine Rampell on MSNBC. And listen. You’ll be hearing about her.

The Monterey Peninsula and John Steinbeck’s Myna Bird

Image of John Steinbeck sculpture in Monterey

Although I think he eventually changed his mind, in 1972 I was able to empathize with John Steinbeck’s dislike of being interviewed when a writer from National Geographic magazine came to California’s Monterey Peninsula to do a cover piece on the region. His name was Mike Edwards, and he phoned me to set up an interview. I had been a reporter for the Monterey Peninsula Herald, as it was called then, and had left there and was now working over the hill for the Carmel Pine Cone. Interviewing people was the same for both newspapers and I felt at ease with it. Being on the other side of the desk, being interviewed myself instead of doing the interviewing, seemed a natural, so I said yes when Mike called.

National Geographic Captured “Interesting Times” in 1972

Image of hippie near MontereyThese were interesting times in our region. The hippie movement was in full flux and kids were getting in trouble smoking weed and running away from Cleveland or Denver and hiding out from frantic parents on the Monterey Peninsula or down in Big Sur. I did a story for the Herald about a local mayor riding with the police to root out the hippies. The next day I encountered the mayor and, his eyes big, he said, “My God, that story you did on me—people are furious with me!’’ That reflects the way Monterey Peninsula people could be in those days. There was a lot of conservative money, yes, but most of the citizens believed in individual rights. They didn’t want a mayor to be a cop hassling hippies. When an oil company threatened to drill in Monterey Bay, protestors included hippies and others from the left, along with marchers from the right, joining in common cause. The oil company backed off.

When I met with Mike Edwards at my desk at the Pine Cone I was surprised to discover that, while interviewing others was easy, being interviewed made me uncomfortable. Though Mike was a gentleman, polite and professional, I was a nervous wreck. I was used to asking the questions, not answering them, and I was relieved when the November National Geographic appeared and I saw that Mike had been merciful. I was neither quoted nor mentioned in “A Land Apart – The Monterey Peninsula,’’ though I hoped I’d at least provided him with some decent background for his story.

Cover image from November 1972 National Geographic

Mike had come to the Monterey Peninsula deeply interested in the region through reading John Steinbeck. He wrote in his piece that he was drawn to the “derelict sheds – part corrugated metal, part masonry, part rusting clutter – that stand along the seven blocks of Cannery Row’’ by reading Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s friends Bruce and Jean Ariss helped him understand the area even more. The Arisses were on their way to becoming local legendary figures themselves, in part because of their friendship with Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, but also because they were talented artists of great strength and character. Bruce was a painter and writer. Jean was the author of two novels—The Quick Years and The Shattered Glass.

“Being Quotable” About the Title of The Grapes of Wrath

Cover image from "The Grapes of Wrath"“I spent an interesting afternoon in the company of Jean,” Mike wrote, “and her husband, Bruce, a writer, editor, and artist well known for his murals,” explaining that “they saw Steinbeck often in Edward Ricketts’ laboratory on the Row.‘’ After describing Steinbeck as “a large, thickset man, usually wearing jeans and a shabby sheepskin coat,” Jean told Mike about spending a day in 1939 with John Steinbeck, his wife Carol, and Ed Ricketts, going over the manuscript of John’s new novel, not yet titled. “She remembers Ricketts saying to Steinbeck, ‘This is a fine book – your best. It will win you the Nobel Prize.’ . . . The group spent the afternoon trying to think of a title, finally agreeing on ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ “

That’s what you call being quotable. John Steinbeck gave Carol credit for the title, so perhaps it was on the day Jean recalled in her interview with Mike Edwards. I wish Jean had been more specific. If she were, I’m sure Mike would have reported it. He went on to a distinguished career, writing 54 articles from around the world for National Geographic. He was honored by the Foreign Correspondents Association for his writing on the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl—something Steinbeck would have admired, the courage to cover that story—and he retired as a senior editor at National Geographic in 2002. He died last year in Arlington, Virginia.

Cover image from "Conversations with John Steinbeck"Why do I think John Steinbeck eventually changed his mind about being interviewed? Because of a collection of 26 articles, all quoting Steinbeck, titled Conversations with John Steinbeck, edited by Thomas Fensch and published by the University of Mississippi. At times Steinbeck comes across as taciturn and uncooperative. At others he really seems to be enjoying himself. My wife Nancy and I picked up a copy several years ago in a little shop on Lighthouse Avenue in New Monterey, which used to have a half-dozen bookstores specializing in collectible editions. At the time I was working on a play about Steinbeck, setting him in his New York apartment at night, the only other characters a ghost, a talking myna bird, and a whirring tape recorder.

I got the idea for the myna bird from a Steinbeck letter I traded for some years ago, a handwritten missive to Fred Zinnemann, the director of High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and other fine films. In the letter Steinbeck is giving the myna bird to Zinneman, and describes the bird’s character and required care. The tape recorder in the play was, I think (one can never be quite sure about these things) my own invention, perhaps inspired by reading that Steinbeck liked tinkering and “gadgets.”

The Imaginary Myna Bird With the Meaningful Name

Nancy and I took Conversations with John Steinbeck home, sat down on the couch, and opened it. One of the first interviews we read was a 1952 piece by New York Times drama critic Lewis Nichols interviewing Steinbeck in the author’s Manhattan apartment. They seemed to get along well as Steinbeck discussed work on the book that would become East of Eden. Steinbeck proudly mentioned having a writing room, something that—echoing Virginia Woolf—he considered of paramount importance. “This,” Nichols wrote, “is the first room of his own he ever has had.’’ Then: “It is a very quiet room. For companionship, Mr. Steinbeck would like to get a myna bird. With a tape recorder he would teach this to ask questions, never answer, just ask.’’

Representational image of myna birdWhen we read that, Nancy looked at me and we laughed. We felt we were channeling John Steinbeck, though to this day I still haven’t finished the play. Neither have I given up. Someday. And someday I’d like to elaborate on Steinbeck’s charming myna bird letter to Zinnemann. Steinbeck, incidentally, called the myna bird “John L.”

For the fighter John L. Sullivan? Or the labor leader John L. Lewis? Either one would be meaningful.

 

John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown: How to Be a Writer In the Age of Donald Trump

Cover image from John Steinbeck's novel To a God Unknown

It’s easy to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize, and as Stephen King describes in his best-selling book On Writing, to have “feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy—[thoughts like] I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand.”

Like King’s wise counsel about how to be a writer, John Steinbeck’s masterwork is a “spur” that “goad[s] the writer to work harder and aim higher.” During President Donald Trump’s regime of diminished-to-defunct arts funding, new writers—in addition to emerging musicians, painters, sculptors, photographers, and all creative people committed to contributing to civilization through art—can take inspiration from the inauspicious circumstances surrounding the publication of Steinbeck’s difficult second novel.

In the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of To a God Unknown—originally published in 1933, four years after Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup Of Gold, and six years before The Grapes of Wrath—the poet-scholar Robert DeMott writes that “Steinbeck labored longer on [it] than on any other book.” As DeMott notes, it took Steinbeck many, many revisions, crises in confidence, and almost five years to complete his second novel. (The Pastures of Heaven, published in 1932, is a sequence of stories—not a traditional novel—about the bad luck a new family brings to a happy valley.)

Flush with cryptic and crystalline allusions to paganism, Christianity, and the Greek epics, To a God Unknown is at base a pioneering tale. It tells the story of Joseph Wayne and his family leaving Vermont to homestead initially fertile but increasingly—and eventually, climactically and cataclysmically—drought-ravaged farmland in California’s southern Salinas Valley. Putting aside California’s recent rainy spell, and considering President Trump’s already abysmal record on global warming and the environment, one might say the book portends critical warnings for America’s future. In a journal entry, Steinbeck wrote, “[t]he story is a parable . . . the story of a race, growth and death. Each figure is a population, and the stones, the trees, the muscled mountains are the world – but not the world apart from man – the world and man – the one indescribable unit man plus his environment.”

Critical reviews of To a God Unknown were as savage as the feral wilderness it depicts. Virginia Barney opined in The New York Times that the novel was “a curious hodgepodge of vague moods and irrelevant meanings.” A book critic from The Nation characterized it as  “pitifully thin and shadowy.” As Robert DeMott notes in Steinbeck’s Typewriter: Essays on His Art, “not [even] enough copies [of the book] sold [for the publisher] to recoup the small advance” Steinbeck received.

Image of John Steinbeck by David Levine

What if John Steinbeck Had Stopped Writing in 1933?

And yet it is precisely through this example of Steinbeck’s early literary stumbles that I submit all brave new artists can find the courage, the resoluteness, and the abiding faith in the value of their art to persevere through rough spots, honing their craft through lean times as Steinbeck did—at risk to wallet, ego, and at times, to relationships.

Imagine the gaping, un-fillable hole in American literature if, after the unfavorable reviews of To a God Unknown and The Pastures of Heaven, Steinbeck had decided to up and quit. What if, disheartened and disconsolate by the failure of To a God Unknown—which foreshadows elements and devices brought to masterful fruition in The Grapes of Wrath—Steinbeck had packed up his pen, paper, and typewriter, period, end of story—and I hasten to add, end of all his stories?

In 2014 the novelist David Gordon described the business of writing in The New York Times as “a risky and humiliating endeavor.” Softened by self-deprecation, Gordon’s column firmly gut-kicks prospective authors with an honest peek at the lonely, ascetic, self-possessed lives that most writers by necessity lead. “Let’s face it [Gordon observed]: just writing something, anything and showing it to the world, is to risk ridicule and shame. What if it is bad? What if no one wants to read it, publish it? What if I can’t even finish the thing?” Both during and after the writing of  To a God Unknown and the book’s blisteringly bad reception, Steinbeck could have succumbed to any of these common writer’s ailments, never to be heard from again.

But he didn’t. He kept on writing instead.

To paraphrase Don Chiasson’s recent New Yorker magazine review of the biography of the poet Robert Lowell by Kay Redfield Jamison, “Perhaps [he had no choice, because as Gordon observed] being a writer is a bit like having Tourette’s, a neurological disorder. Or what psychologists call ‘intrusive thoughts’: unwanted and disturbing ideas and images that suddenly attack us unbidden. A need to speak the unspeakable thing.” Adds Chiasson, “mood disorders occur with staggering frequency in creative people, and writers seem to suffer the most.”

Perhaps. But unquestionably To a God Unknown—written when Steinbeck was a published-but-still-struggling 30-year-old grinding away in obscurity and insecurity—provides evidence of a sturdy self-belief, the kind of grit I submit all successful or striving artists must possess. This tough and necessary tenacity is embodied in Steinbeck’s advice to his friend and fellow novelist, George Albee: “Fine artistic things seem always to be done in the face of difficulties, and the rocky soil, which seems to give the finest flower, is contempt. Don’t fool yourself, appreciation doesn’t make artists. It ruins them. A man’s best work is done when he is fighting to make himself heard, not when swooning audiences wait for his paragraphs.”

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.

What I Learned from The Winter of Our Discontent

Image of high school students Googling

I’m a small-town high school teacher and newspaper columnist, and every month I pick a new book, usually a literary novel, to read and recommend to my followers, who seem to enjoy what I have to say. Recently I chose The Winter of Our Discontent, and I confess it was because of the title rather than the content. But John Steinbeck’s novel is an apt expression of what I see as the winter of our discontent in the United States today, and it reflects the reality I face every day in my classroom.

When I chose The Winter of Our Discontent, I confess it was because of the title rather than the content.

As John Steinbeck fans know, The Winter of Our Discontent tells the story of a simple grocery store clerk, an outwardly respectable man named Ethan Allen Hawley, and his moral descent into corruption and crime. Steinbeck’s moral tale gave me plenty of “ah-hah” and “why, yes” moments—the kind of experience one expects from excellent literature, and the reason I recommended it in my column. As Steinbeck notes in the novel, “A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it. Only then can he accept wonders.”

Steinbeck’s moral tale gave me plenty of ‘ah-hah’ and ‘why, yes’ moments—the kind of experience one expects from excellent literature, and the reason I recommended it in my column.

Though written years before the invention of the internet and social media, Steinbeck’s cautionary words are well-suited to our digitally-driven era. At this point in Steinbeck’s narrative, Ethan is thinking about how he has to shape his stories, or lies, to fit his hearers, and about a king in another story who told his secrets down a well because “It only receives, and the echo it gives back is quiet and soon over.” If only that were true today. For every tweet sent, there is usually a careless reader who misunderstands, misinterprets, or misappropriates the sender’s message, creating a backlash that becomes a raging beast that takes on a life of its own.

For every tweet sent, there is usually a careless reader who misunderstands, misinterprets, or misappropriates the sender’s message.

I don’t spend much time reading the comments people leave below online news stories or Facebook posts, but when I do I’m amazed at how far they wander from the point of the story or post. As Steinbeck knew, we take things out of context and add our own prejudices when we read or listen, and while I enjoy friendly banter as much as he did, I’m tired of the nastiness to which people increasingly resort when they don’t understand or approve of someone else’s point. I’m especially disgruntled when negative comments come from leaders who ought to know better and set an example for others.

As Steinbeck knew, we take things out of context and add our own prejudices when we read or listen.

As a school teacher, I recognized the truth in John Steinbeck’s unflattering portrayal of Ethan’s teenage children, particularly Ethan’s son Allen, and this line from the novel really made me laugh: “Three things will never be believed–the true, the probable, and the logical.” Often my students don’t believe me when I tell them something that is demonstrably true, then give instant credence to the next rumor they hear or read online, repeating it as if it were gospel truth. Fewer and fewer adults seem capable of logical thinking, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised. If you’re a teenager who isn’t capable of sound reasoning, you’re unlikely to believe someone who uses it. Like their parents, too many adolescents today are prepared to accept negative surface propaganda while doubting deeper truths.

Like their parents, too many adolescents today are prepared to accept negative surface propaganda while doubting deeper truths.

Is this because people want to take the easy way out of every problem, as Steinbeck suggests in The Winter of Our Discontent? Ethan is appalled when he learns that the patriotic essay for which Allen has won a cash award has been plagiarized. But Ethan’s reaction is hypocritical, because by this point in the story he has stooped pretty low himself. Unlike his father however, Allen shows no remorse, defending his behavior in much the same way my students defend their reliance on the internet so that they don’t have to do any thinking for themselves. Instead, when Allen’s plagiarism is exposed he gets mad at the person who ratted on him and utters the rallying cry of all cheaters and thieves: “‘Who cares? Everybody does it.’” Like John Steinbeck, I care, and I care very much. I’m weary of calling out cheaters like Allen in my classroom. Like Ethan in the novel, I sometimes think about throwing in the towel and calling it quits.

I’m weary of calling out cheaters like Allen in my classroom. Like Ethan in the novel, I sometimes think about throwing in the towel and calling it quits.

Ethan has had his own “Who cares?” moments growing up, but he had the advantage of a perfect teacher in his Aunt Deborah, a character I liked because I love words, grammar, literature, and everything associated with language, just as she does. When Ethan comes across the word talisman and asks her what it means, she tells him to look it up. As a result, he recalls, “So many words are mine because Aunt Deborah first aroused my curiosity and then forced me to satisfy it by my own effort. . . . She cared deeply about words and she hated their misuse as she would hate the clumsy handling of any fine thing.” When he finds the definition of talisman he discovers new words that he is forced to look up, too. “It was always that way,” he says. “One word set off others like a string of firecrackers.”

Aunt Deborah is a character I liked because I love words, grammar, literature, and everything associated with language, just as she does.

I highlighted the passage in the novel because I love the simile, and I love the way Steinbeck manages to incorporate his passion for words into an otherwise depressing story. Now, more than ever, we need Aunt Deborahs in our lives to make us aware of the beauty and magic of words at an early age. No doubt this idea impressed me because of the prejudices I bring with me to when I read John Steinbeck: others might roll their eyes because they don’t share my experience. Steinbeck fully understood the limitation we bring to our reading, and he wrote The Winter of Our Discontent in part, I believe, to help readers participate in the remedy he offers. Much has changed since The Winter of Our Discontent was written, but the deep truths to be discovered in Ethan’s story apply today. The winter of our discontent in the United States will end eventually, I hope sooner rather than later , but The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck will always have lessons for us—if we have ears to listen and love words enough to understand.

The Hour of the Pearl: John Steinbeck’s America and the Election of Donald Trump

Image of "The Hour of the Pearl," oil on canvas by Ron Clavier

Donald Trump’s upcoming presidential inauguration is seen by many as ushering in a bizarre and unprecedented era, not only for Americans, but also for citizens of other countries. Yet, like similar ceremonies elsewhere, the presidential inauguration is merely a point on a timeline that began decades ago and culminated in the 2016 election. Because the trend is longstanding and disturbing, the outcome at hand threatens to take the course of history in a dangerous direction. Indeed, it might be said that deep beliefs of the American people, and profound principles of American democracy, are at the heart of an evolutionary process which, perhaps inevitably, produced the society reflected in the 2016 election.

For me, chief among the past thinkers who foresaw this most clearly is John Steinbeck, the writer who has most inspired my thinking and my art. For four decades he wrote of his love for America and his hatred of what his countrymen were doing to their country. Though the 2016 election might have been worse, past political campaigns have had their share of ugliness, as Steinbeck wrote in America and Americans, the last book he wrote. In it Steinbeck described the scars left by elections which he observed closely as a citizen, and in which he frequently participated by giving advice and drafting speeches on behalf of Democratic candidates for president. I would like to quote passages from Steinbeck’s writing, starting with America and Americans, to help readers of all cultures and all ages today comprehend Steinbeck’s moral genius in the context of the 2016 election and the upcoming presidential inauguration.

Once the nominations are completed, the campaigns for election begin—hurtful, libelous, nasty, murderous affairs wherein motives are muddied, names and reputations beshitten, families tarred and tawdried, friends and associates mocked, charged and clobbered. . . . In fact, the rules of nonsense are suspended during a Presidential election, as well as memories of honesty and codes of decency. (America and Americans, 1966)

While campaigning in 2015-16, Trump not only bragged about his repeated abuse of women, he also took advantage of campaign speeches to mock and blame women, as stupid men always have, for the infidelities of their men. How any woman could have voted for so misogynistic a man is beyond all reason. But this is only one example of his breathtaking disregard for the necessity and sanctity of societal rules. While insisting on law and order for others, he repeatedly flouted fundamental rules of engagement in past election discourse. In ignoring the traditional imperative of constructive and respectful debate—ridiculing the infirm, insulting opponents, disdaining other races and religions—he highlighted the very worst characteristic of the human species: cruelty.

It is the race, the species that must go staggering on . . . our ugly little species, weak and ugly, torn with insanities, violent and quarrelsome, sensing evil—the only species that knows evil and practices it—the only one that senses cleanliness and is dirty, that knows cruelty and is unbearably cruel. (Burning Bright, 1950)

Over the millennia most of us have learned to obey the rules or suffer punishment for breaking them. But most important, even the rule-breaker knew he was wrong and the others right; the rules were understood and accepted by everyone. . . . Could this be our difficulty, that gradually we are losing our ability to tell the difference? The rules fall away in chunks and in the vacant place we have a generality: ‘It’s alright because everybody does it.’ (America and Americans)

It is a rare morning when our newspapers do not report bribery, malfeasance, and many other forms of cheating on the part of public officials who have used the authority vested in their positions for personal gain. Of course we don’t hear of the honest men, but the danger lies not in the miscreants but in our attitude toward them. Increasingly we lose our feeling of wrong. (America and Americans)

It is probable that here is where morals–integrity, ethics, even charity–have gone. The rules allowed us to survive, to live together and to increase. But if our will to survive is weakened, if our love of life and our memories of a gallant past and faith in a shining future are removed–what need is there for morals or for rules? Even they become a danger. (America and Americans)

In promoting his violent version of authoritarian populism, Donald Trump used outrageous lies, frequently disproved, to foster fear and anger in the American electorate. For example, last August he accused President Obama and Hillary Clinton of “founding” the Islamic State, the same method used by McCarthy to smear citizens and officials he accused of aiding Russia.

. . . as Joseph McCarthy proved, the more ridiculous the charge, the less possibility there is of defense. (America and Americans)

Now for many years we have suckled on fear and fear alone, and there is no good product of fear. Its children are cruelty and deceit and suspicion germinating in our darkness. And just as surely as we are poisoning the air . . . so we are poisoned in our souls by fear, faceless, stupid, sarcomic terror. (Once There Was a War, 1958)

The job insecurity and looming poverty that threatens many Americans has placed real fear in their hearts. Trump succeeded by exploiting this unrest, as well as claims about “illegal immigrants” that are as effective today as they were when Steinbeck used them to plot The Winter of Our Discontent.

Men don’t get knocked out. . . . What kills them is erosion; they get nudged into failure. They get slowly scared . . . It rots your guts. . . . I can’t think beyond next month’s payment on the refrigerator . . . I hate my job and I’m scared I’ll lose it. . . . But I know when you’re sick you need medicine or maybe an operation or maybe a shock. Our people were daring men. You know it. They didn’t let themselves get nibbled to death. And now times are changing. There are opportunities our ancestors never dreamed of. And they’re being picked up by foreigners. Foreigners are taking us over. Wake up . . . . (The Winter of Our Discontent, 1961)

And those who believe that these elements of the 2016 election were without precedent, or are likely to go away soon, are kidding themselves.

Ideas are not dangerous unless they find seeding place in some earth more profound than the mind . . . .they are ineffective without the black earth of discontent to grow in . . . . In each case, the idea is dangerous only when planted in unease and disquietude. But being so planted, growing in such earth, it ceases to be an idea and becomes an emotion. . . . (Sea of Cortez, 1941)

Meanwhile, Donald Trump claimed he was “smart” for avoiding paying taxes without admitting that he did.

If a man has money, he doesn’t ask, ‘Can I afford this?’ but, ‘Can I deduct it?’ Two men fight over a luncheon bill when both of them are going to deduct it anyway—a whole nation conditioned to dishonesty by its laws, because honesty is penalized. (Sweet Thursday, 1954)

There are, I am told, rich men who are willing to be dishonest. I believe I am safe in saying there are none who are willing to admit they are fools. (The Short Reign of Pippin IV, 1957)
We know about our tycoons only when they are giving something away, and their gifts and foundations are usually a means of keeping their money out of the hands of the tax collector. (America and Americans)

Trump also promised to reverse some of America’s most progressive legislation and to “drain the swamp” in Washington, blaming media, political opponents, and intellectual elites for the unrest and suspicion about government that he exploited more effectively than other candidates.

. . . we seem to be in a state of turmoil all the time, both physically and mentally. We are able to believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and at the same time we are deeply convinced that it is the best government in the world, and we would like to impose it on everyone else. (America and Americans)

We shout that we are a nation of laws, not men—and then we proceed to break every law we can if we can get away with it. (America and Americans)

Continuing his assault on progressive government, Trump used anxiety and anger about Islamic terrorism to churn up fear and marginalize Muslims, forgetting one of the most fundamental aspects of America’s success—tolerance, acceptance, and the willingness to help others.

Americans are remarkably kind and hospitable and open with both guests and strangers; and yet they will make a wide circle around the man dying on the pavement. Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence. (America and Americans)

Trump’s repeated vow as a candidate to name conservatives to the Supreme Court far enough right to satisfy religious fundamentalists is a violation of a core principle guaranteed by the U.S. constitution: the separation of church and state.

We constantly rediscover the excellence of the architecture of our government. It has been proof not only against foreign attack but against our own stupidities, which are sometimes more dangerous. (America and Americans)

The narcissism of Trump’s claim that only he can fix things is clinical in nature, and will prevent him from doing what doesn’t benefit him personally. E pluribus unum: does he know what America’s founding motto means?

The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. (America and Americans)

In the past, unless a president acted illegally, Americans respected both the office and the office holder. This civility has been shredded.

We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him. (America and Americans)

But it isn’t enough for those who oppose Donald Trump to blame those who supported him. Americans, all of them, must recognize their own contribution to, and accept responsibility for, the situation in which they find themselves.

In the present climate of whining self-pity, of practiced sickness, of professional goldbricking, of screaming charges about whose fault it is, one hears of very few who do their own time, who take their rap and don’t spread it around. It is as though the quality of responsibility has atrophied. (America and Americans)

Unfortunately, a sense of entitlement to leisure and luxury at impossibly low cost has led to an obese, lazy, solipsistic, violent, substance-dependent population in some sectors of the United States. Blaming foreigners for illegal drugs, to take one example, is unacceptable. If there were no market, there would be no importation.

I strongly suspect that our moral and spiritual disintegration grows out of our lack of experience with plenty. Once, in a novel, I wrote about a woman who said she didn’t want a lot of money. She just wanted enough. To which her husband replied that just enough doesn’t exist. There is no money or not enough money. A billionaire still hasn’t enough money. . . . Having many things seems to create a desire for more things, more clothes, houses, automobiles . . . . We are trapped and entangled in things. (America and Americans)

As a Canadian who has lived in the USA and benefited from its largess, it pains me deeply to witness this insanity. But the truth is that for too long America has touted success without admitting failure—and ignored the existence or validity of cultures in other countries, including Canada.

We in the United States . . . should be taken as a horrible example and our methods avoided by any government and people enlightened enough . . . . (Sea of Cortez)

As a scientist, I’m particularly concerned about a president-elect who ignores science when convenient and who makes frequent unfounded assertions based on hearsay rather than provable fact.

. . . the most dangerous tendency in the world is the desire to believe a rumor rather than to pin down a fact. (A Russian Journal, 1948)

Perhaps the most serious example of this ignorance is Trump’s denial of global warming, which he appeared to take back slightly after being elected. Unfortunately his cabinet appointments confirm the inconvenient truth that, for purposes of governing, he doesn’t believe the climate is really changing—or if it is, that human waste and carbon-dependency is a contributing factor than can or should be checked.

With our own resources we have been prodigal, and our country will not soon lose the scars of our grasping stupidity. (Sea of Cortez)

[The] tendency toward irresponsibility persists in very many of us today; our rivers are poisoned by reckless dumping of sewage and toxic industrial wastes, the air of our cities is filthy and dangerous to breathe from the belching of uncontrolled products from combustion of coal, coke, oil, and gasoline. Our towns are girdled with wreckage and the debris of our toys—our automobiles and our packaged pleasures. Through uninhibited spraying against one enemy we have destroyed the natural balances our survival requires. All these evils can and must be overcome if America and Americans are to survive; but many of us still conduct ourselves as our ancestors did, stealing from the future for our clear and present profit. (America and Americans)

Above all, Donald Trump is a bully’s bully. His blatantly hyperbolic claims during the campaign callously played on the economic fears of Americans while exploiting their pain for his gain. His campaign rhetoric and behavior since winning have made me fearful, too. As a foreigner, I now fear that by setting foot in America I will be subject to the kind of disrespect and violence sanctioned, for the first time in my memory, by the highest office in the land.

Until I have evidence that this fear is unwarranted—and for as long as Donald Trump is president—I have decided not to re-enter the United States. I regret this because I have close friends and family members in America I will miss seeing. But when Americans say they want to be “great again” it sounds to me as if they will only be comfortable when they are once again the dominant “winners” of the world. It reminds me of the bully who tweets almost daily that those who disagree with him are “losers.” Such disrespect makes me feel unwelcome and unsafe in Donald Trump’s America.

When I joined the Advisory Board of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University two years ago, I hoped my work as a Canadian artist, scientist, and humanist would offer a helpful perspective and foster the values espoused by John Steinbeck in his life and writing. As a result of the 2016 election, however, I now fear that America will drift even farther from Steinbeck’s hopeful daylight into the darkness of anger, cynicism, and crude mockery embodied by the president-elect.

I briefly considered resigning my duties on the Steinbeck center’s board; but because I’m an optimist, like Steinbeck, I have decided to stay. I am confident that the pall over America will lift eventually, as day follows night. Meanwhile, technology makes it possible for me to participate in meetings, and Steinbeck’s delicate metaphor of the “hour of the pearl” reminds us that the transition from darkness back to light is a fundamental truth of science, art, and the arc toward justice of human history.

Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter. . . . It is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest . . . the air is cool and fresh. . . . Very few people are about, just enough to make it seem more deserted than it is. . . . the hour of the Pearl—the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself. (Cannery Row, 1945)

Today, on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, I urge self-examination on others, and the resolution to forsake all that Steinbeck felt was the worse in us.

I have named the destroyers of nations: comfort, plenty, and security—out of which grow a bored and slothful cynicism, in which rebellion against the world as it is or myself as I am are submerged in listless self-satisfaction. (America and Americans)

On behalf of SteinbeckNow.com, to which I will continue to contribute, I also urge readers of this post to respond by commenting, or by sharing their thoughts in a guest-author post of their own. Whether or not you agree with my decision to stay away from America until the madness passes, engagement with American values and principles embraced by Steinbeck during his lifetime is to participate in the books he wrote in the way he wanted: actively, with empathy, imagination, and faith that the Hour of the Pearl will come again to our world.

The Hour of the Pearl, oil on canvas by Ron Clavier.