The Forgotten Anti-Rebel Yell In Steinbeck’s Wayward Bus

Image of rednecks with Confederate flage

Monterey County’s move to rename Confederate Corners, the isolated intersection south of Salinas, California restyled as Rebel Corners in The Wayward Bus, has renewed interest in John Steinbeck’s 1947 re-imagining of Plato’s Ship of Fools allegory, from Book VI of The Republic. Located on Highway 68 in unincorporated Monterey County, Confederate Corners got its name during the Civil War, when a handful of Southern sympathizers proposed seceding from California as a mark of solidarity with the Confederate States of America. Except for informed readers of The Wayward Bus, the Monterey County ranchers’ mini-rebellion was largely forgotten until controversy over the removal of racist flags and statues in several states of the former Confederacy erupted, post-Charlottesville, into Trumpian rhetoric around issues of ethnicity, immigration, and loyalty to the flag. Like the Ship of Fools metaphor embedded in Steinbeck’s neglected novel—which few critics recognized, then or now—the recent news from Monterey County is replete with the kind of irony that appealed to the author, a big-tent American who began writing The Wayward Bus in and about Mexico.

Steinbeck Review Expands Scope, Issues Call for Papers

Cover image of Steinbeck Review

Steinbeck Review, recently honored by listing in the international database Scopus, has expanded its purpose to specify that articles submitted for publication not only delight and instruct (à la Horace), but also illuminate issues, including the themes and problems treated in John Steinbeck’s work. This policy change reflects Steinbeck’s concern for truth and enlightenment, as well as for compassion and magnanimity, in books that warned readers of moral decline—and potential demise—in the America that Steinbeck loved. The subject of America and Americans preoccupied the writing of his final decade, and The Winter of Our Discontent, his last novel, acknowledged this didactic purpose: “Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today.”

How to Submit Papers for the Spring 2018 Issue

In addition to more traditional scholarly articles, Steinbeck Review invites the submission of papers for the Spring 2018 issue that reflect John Steinbeck’s continued relevance for our time. All critical and theoretical approaches are welcome, as are essays focused on women’s and gender studies, rhetorical concerns, ecology and the environment, international appeal, and comparative studies. Poetry submitted for publication should deal with themes or places associated with Steinbeck’s life and work. Submit papers before January 15, 2018 through the journal’s automated online submission and peer review system at the Pennsylvania State University Press.

The Passing of Frank Wright And the Men’s Clubs of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row

Image of Frank Wright at Doc's Lab on Cannery Row

The recent death of Monterey, California businessman Frank Wright at age 98 served as a reminder that the life of Doc’s Lab—Ed Ricketts’s marine biology laboratory on Cannery Row—had two distinct phases. The 1930s and 1940s were the period of John Steinbeck and Ricketts and the artists and poets and philosophers who gathered around them. The 1950s began the Lab’s second incarnation as a men’s club of painters, cartoonists, teachers, journalists, lawyers, and business people founded by Frank and his friends—all with a passionate interest in Steinbeck and Ricketts and a way of life that was already fading into the past. Like the earlier, even more casual men’s club, Frank’s group met and socialized and partied in the Lab’s raffish rooms and outdoor concrete deck and holding tanks overlooking Monterey Bay. In the process they kept the Lab largely as it was, preserving it for posterity.

Image of Hank Ketcham in 1953

The Men’s Club That Saved Doc’s Lab

Frank met Ricketts after joining the Army in 1942, and they remained close until Ed died. In the early 1950s, Frank and two other men bought the Lab as a meeting place for their circle of artists, educators, and fellow enthusiasts. For a slim sampling of this second generation Cannery Row men’s club, there was Gus Arriola, the brilliant creator of the comic strip Gordo. Eldon Dedini, the farm boy from South Monterey County who became a successful and sophisticated cartoonist for Esquire and Playboy. Morgan Stock, the teacher and director who spearheaded the drama department at Monterey Peninsula College, which in turn named a theater for him. The irrepressible, crusading attorney Bill Stewart. The Dennis the Menace cartoon creator Hank Ketcham (in photo), also a serious painter. Like Steinbeck and Ricketts, they were creative types drawn together by a love of talk, drink, and music. The Monterey Jazz Festival grew from their collaboration. So did the idea of making Doc’s Lab a living museum, now under management by Monterey, California’s department of cultural affairs.

Image of Nancy Hauk and friends in front of Doc's Lab

The End of an Era on Cannery Row

A personal memory: Years ago my late wife Nancy and I were walking along Cannery Row with Sue and E.J. Eckert (in photo to Nancy’s right). When we stopped in front of the Lab we got lucky. Frank Wright was standing on the stairs with Dennis Copeland, cultural affairs director for Monterey, California. Frank offered to give us a tour. He was a natural storyteller, warm and personable and charming, and when we left, walking out onto the bright morning sunlight of Cannery Row, the Eckerts said, “Boy, that was something!” They’ve never forgotten the experience. It was Frank’s gift to many when he was alive, and he was active well into his 90s. His death was indeed the end of an era.

Photo of Frank Wright courtesy Monterey County Weekly.

Bless You! John Steinbeck’s Letter to Dorothea Lange

Image of John Steinbeck's 1960 letter to Dorothea Lange

Shortly before the show closed on August 27, my wife and I drove from our home in Salinas to the Oakland Museum of California to see Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, an exhibit devoted to the documentary photographer whose images of the 1930s quickly became associated with John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. Like Steinbeck’s novel, Lange’s Great Depression pictures have become symbols of the suffering of farmland Americans displaced by joblessness, drought, and despair. Less familiar but equally powerful are the events recorded in Lange’s photos of Japanese-Americans “relocated” from their homes to internment camps after Pearl Harbor—an executive order signed by President Roosevelt that Steinbeck and Lange both questioned at the time. Lange’s internment images were so evocative, and so damning, that most of them were confiscated by the government and suppressed, even after the war. Also on display was the letter John Steinbeck wrote to Dorothea Lange on July 3, 1960, looking back on their friendship and the events of the Great Depression and ending with this deeply personal statement, half-confession and half-benediction: “And if I, who am not religious, offer my prayers for you, it is because God did not beget prayers—prayers created the Gods—and kept them in their places too. Bless you!”

In 2017 the Iran Deal Included John Steinbeck’s Hometown

Image of John Steinbeck House in Salinas, California

Guest book entries by visitors to the gift shop in the basement of John Steinbeck’s childhood home show that the Steinbeck House remains popular with readers who travel to Salinas, California from other towns, states, and countries. For example the guest book page for July 17-August 17 contains entries from a cosmopolitan array, including France, Wales, the Netherlands, Hungary, Norway, New Zealand, Germany, England, Italy, and Canada. Less conventionally, guest book entries for the current year also include the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Portugal, Iceland, South Africa, and—even more surprising—the Republic of Iran. An internationalist who believed that good treaties prevent bad outcomes, John Steinbeck would like the idea that the Iran deal with the United States extended, however briefly, to Salinas, California.

John Steinbeck Talks about America & Americans Today

Image of Tom Lorentzen as John Steinbeck

Tom Lorentzen, a retired nonprofit executive in Castro Valley, California, brought John Steinbeck back to life literally on August 24 at a private event billed as “John Steinbeck—in Search of America” and attended by 175 members of a San Francisco Bay Area social club. Impersonating Steinbeck at the age when Travels with Charley and America and Americans were written about a nation rocked by scandal and strife, Lorentzen employed an original idea to dramatize the imaginary conversation of Steinbeck—back from the dead—with Rich, a young logger encountered by the author in an Oregon redwood grove during the fabled road trip across the country from which Steinbeck said he had begun to feel alienated. Now 80, Rich uses a search engine time-travel device to conjure Steinbeck and pose the question he failed to ask when they met in the woods in 1961. What’s so great about America? Lorentzen (in photo) is a former board member of the National Institute of Museum Services. Like Steinbeck, who served on the board that became the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he remains bullish on America’s future, despite problems that Steinbeck would recognize and acknowledge if, age 115, he were alive today.

Book Signing: Short Stories Based on Steinbeck’s Life

Image of book of short stories on life of Steinbeck

The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, John Steinbeck’s home town, will host the first official book signing for Steinbeck: The Untold Stories, short stories based on Steinbeck’s life by the playwright and fiction writer Steve Hauk, 5:30-6:30 p.m. on Friday, September 1, in the center’s museum at One Main Street in downtown Salinas. Book news travels fast in Steinbeck country, and Hauk will answer fans’ questions about the origin and inspiration for the stories, which dramatize actual and imagined episodes from Steinbeck’s boyhood and years coping with fame, friends, and enemies in Salinas, Monterey, and New York. Published only one month ago, Steinbeck: The Untold Stories is already on display at the National Steinbeck Center and the Steinbeck House in Salinas, River House Books in Carmel, the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies in San Jose, the Monterey Public Library, and BookWorks in Pacific Grove, the setting for several of the short stories. Common Good Books, the “live local, read large” bookstore associated with Garrison Keillor in St. Paul, Minnesota, also stocks Steinbeck: The Untold Stories.

Photo courtesy of BookWorks.

A Travel Blogger Considers American Self-Identity on a Visit to Salinas, California

Image of immigrant rights marchers in Philadelphia

The recent visit my wife Elizabeth I made to Salinas, California included a stop at John Steinbeck’s boyhood home. It brought back a flood of memories, and it made me think about self-identity. That felt right in the moment because America’s sense of itself was a major concern of Steinbeck’s writing.

America’s sense of itself was a major concern of John Steinbeck’s writing.

When I was a boy I devoured Steinbeck’s books. By age 16 I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I spent hours copying passages from Steinbeck to get the hang of his style. Years later my brother John and I produced travel films and documentaries, and one of the films we made, California: A Tribute, featured a segment on John Steinbeck and the trips to California’s Central Valley that led him to write The Grapes of Wrath. Seeing the Steinbeck House reminded me of the outrage Steinbeck felt about the thousands of dispossessed families from the American Dust Bowl who had made the long trek to California in search of agricultural jobs and a better life, only to find themselves destitute, hungry, and homeless, ready to accept work at any pay so that they could survive and feed their children.

By age 16 I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I spent hours copying passages from Steinbeck to get the hang of his style.

On a broader scale, the visit to the Steinbeck House made me think about the course of our nation’s history, about the millions of dispossessed foreigners who came to our shores and borders, fleeing persecution and homelessness and poverty, in search of a better life for themselves and their families, just like John Steinbeck’s American refugees. Today we seem to be returning to the posture of the authorities in The Grapes of Wrath—denying rights, making arrests, and deporting men, women, and children, sometimes entire families who have already established themselves in our country. Once upon a time we opened our doors to immigrants. Now we’re closing them.

Today we seem to be returning to the posture of the authorities in “The Grapes of Wrath”—denying rights, making arrests, and deporting men, women, and children.

Certainly rules need to be established and followed with respect to immigration. But what is happening now goes beyond rules or regulations. Too many of us are attempting to retreat into a narrow self-identity, building walls against the tide of diversity that has been our distinguishing characteristic as a culture. Who are we as a nation and a people? The comfortable categories of the past are being challenged and shattered in other countries, too, and we feel the same threat to our self-identity that they do.  Like John Steinbeck, however, I am optimistic that a new inclusiveness will emerge in the end—the sense of connection and commonality that Steinbeck’s characters achieve in the closing pages of The Grapes of Wrath. The world of the truly human family.

Salinas, California Poetry Slam Invites Submissions

Image for poetry slam

Most Steinbeck books are fiction, but the Salinas, California native also wrote poetry in school and got better grades in versification than he did in short story writing at Stanford. This year’s Big Read poetry slam at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas honors Steinbeck’s gift for verse, and the author’s sensitivity to race and class, with an invitation to writers to compose a poem in response to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a 2017 Big Read book selection that reflects on racism in America. This is the fourth year the National Steinbeck Center has participated in the Big Read, a community literacy initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, but the first to feature a poetry slam—the idea of Jenna Garden, a Stanford student and National Steinbeck Center summer intern. Poems submitted by September 5 will be read aloud to a panel of judges who will award cash prizes on September 8. This year’s Big Read in Salinas, California also features a film series at the Maya Cinemas multiplex. The series kicks off August 28 with Lifeboat, the 1944 movie for which Steinbeck, who wrote the script, did not want credit because of racial stereotyping by the director Alfred Hitchcock, a man Steinbeck privately described as a middle-class English snob.

John Steinbeck Loved This Family Home in Watsonville, California, and So Will You

Image of Rodgers family home, Watsonville, California

For John Steinbeck, moving on in life meant leaving family homes—and friends—behind in California, starting with Salinas, where the Steinbeck family home on Central Avenue has become a living museum made possible in part by gifts of memorabilia from John Steinbeck’s oldest sister, Esther. The 11th Street cottage in Pacific Grove where Steinbeck often stayed when he was poor, single, or hurting remains in the extended family, but the pair of houses in Los Gatos where he lived with his wife Carol and wrote the books that made him famous both belong to strangers now. The bungalow he bought on Eardley Avenue in Pacific Grove when the marriage faltered and he needed writing space belongs to a bed and breakfast today, but it can be rented and is readily seen from the street. So is the historic adobe in Old Monterey that Steinbeck purchased with his second wife before abandoning California for New York, where he chose to live with Elaine, his third wife, until he died.

Image of Rodgers House interior today

Visit Rodgers House at Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds

Through it all, the family home John Steinbeck kept coming back to was his sister Esther’s house in Watsonville, California, the Pajaro Valley farming community nestled between the mountains and the sea northwest of Salinas, along the Monterey-Santa Cruz county line. Esther moved there to teach before marrying Carrol Rodgers, a prosperous rancher-farmer, and raising three daughters who called John Steinbeck uncle. The Rodgers family home on East Lake Avenue, built in the 1870s by Esther’s husband’s forebears, was bigger than any of the houses owned by Steinbecks in Salinas, Los Gatos, or Pacific Grove, but it was warm and inviting and popular with extended family members, including John. Though John Steinbeck became controversial and Carrol Rodgers remained distant, Esther loved her brother and welcomed him when he came to Watsonville. Evidence that Steinbeck enjoyed visiting the Rodgers household, wherever he happened to be living at the time, can found in letters and photographs from the 1930s to the 1960s on view at the home. After Esther died, friends and family members stepped in to preserve the house and move it to the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, where it’s open to the public by appointment. Call 831-724-5671.

Interior photo of Rodgers House today courtesy Dale Bartoletti.