Yale University Brings the Great Depression Home

Composite image of John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother"

Yale University has launched Photogrammar, a handy interactive website that pairs images of the Great Depression from the Library of Congress photo archive with the photographers who took them and the places where they were taken. Like The Grapes of Wrath, the photographs of Dorothea Lange and others were intended to educate, engage, and convince average Americans that the poor were human, too. Commissioned by the U.S. Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information and assembled between 1935 and 1945, the 170,000-piece photo archive—like the California migrant camp celebrated by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath—provides eloquent testimony of government’s power to do good, despite naysayers from the right, when disasters occur. The ambitious Yale University project was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a 40-year old federal agency that will disappear if Donald Trump’s proposal to defund the arts and humanities—along with safety-net social programs like Meals on Wheels—is approved by Congress.


No Room in Donald Trump’s Inn for Arts and Humanities

Image of Donald Trump and daughter at Washington, D.C. hotel groundbreaking

In 1965 John Steinbeck was a member of President Johnson’s council on the arts when Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency charged with “bringing the arts to all Americans” and “providing leadership in arts education.” Steinbeck died before efforts in Congress to kill the infant agency got underway, in earnest, in 1981. Today, 35 years after arts-friendly Reaganites foiled that attempt, the ascendancy of Donald Trump appears to have handed anti-arts Republicans in Washington, D.C. the ammunition they need to finish the job. According to the website The Hill, “the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely” if the radical plan prevails.

In 1965 John Steinbeck was a member of President Johnson’s council on the arts when Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency charged with ‘bringing the arts to all Americans’ and ‘providing leadership in arts education.’

It’s easy to imagine how John Steinbeck would react to the latest threat against the arts and humanities. He supported FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, applied “arts for all” as a principle in his writing, and—brought up on books, music, and art—demonstrated the value of arts and humanities education in almost every aspect of his life. Nearly 50 years after his death, his name and his novels continue to be cited when creativity is under attack by politicians, fanatics, and latter-day Mrs. Grundys. In an op-ed entitled “What Art Under Trump?” the novelist Margaret Atwood gives The Grapes of Wrath as an example of enduring art that outlasts the evils it was created to expose. Colson Whitehead, the 47-year-old author of The Underground Railroad, credited the research he did for his first high school term paper—on John Steinbeck—when he accepted the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction at yesterday’s meeting of the American Library Association.

Image of Donald Trump hotel at Old Post Office in Washington, D.C.

Rationalizing hatred of the arts and humanities of the kind on view in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C. is harder than guessing where Steinbeck would stand. I know—I’ve tried—because at one time my job actually depended on it. Like John Steinbeck, I have an education in the arts and humanities to thank for whatever may be of value in my 35-year career as as a nonprofit executive and fundraiser for organizations in Florida and California. Unlike Steinbeck, I’m a middleman, not a creator. But the Washington, D.C. experience  I had while running the Palm Beach County Cultural Council gave me a preview of the arts under Donald Trump that I’m confident Steinbeck—who honored memory, history, and preservation—would appreciate.

Rationalizing hatred of the arts and humanities of the kind on view in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C. is harder than guessing where Steinbeck would stand.

Image of the Old Post Office Pavilion in 1920When I visited Washington, D.C. during the 1980s and 90s, I usually stopped by the Old Post Office, famous for its soaring atrium, to listen, learn, and lobby. In the 1970s Nancy Hanks, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts under Nixon, saved the century-old building from demolition, and for 30 years—until Donald Trump signed the lease to turn it into a hotel—the Old Post Office served as a symbolically appropriate home for her agency. Some of my appointments were with successors to Nancy Hanks appointed by Republican presidents after Nixon. Frank Hodsoll, chair of the NEA under Reagan, was key to the regional initiative that advanced art creation, education, and marketing in my bailiwick, South Florida. Later on, in Miami, I interviewed John Frohnmayer, George H.W. Bush’s NEA chair, for a weekly public radio program I hosted in West Palm Beach. The subject of our talk was Leaving Town Alive, the book that Frohmayer (a Stanford-educated lawyer) wrote about his fight for survival in D.C.

In the 1970s Nancy Hanks, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts under Nixon, saved the Old Post Office from demolition, and for 30 years—until Donald Trump signed the lease to turn it into a hotel—the historic building served as a symbolically appropriate home for her agency.

Forced out of the home they helped save when it was closed to make way for Trump’s hotel, the NEA and NEH moved to Constitution Center, a modernist monstrosity in Washington, D.C. designed by the architect of the equally hideous Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Today Trump International Hotel occupies the historic building at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, Donald Trump occupies the historic house at 1600, and the agencies evicted from the Old Post Office in 2014 are experiencing the threat of their lives. The dreadful death cycle dramatized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath—eviction and attack followed by extinction—faces the arts and humanities in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C., where a great public building is now operated for private profit and the public agency responsible for preserving it is about to leave town permanently.

Pop Culture Quiz: What Comic Strip Did John Steinbeck Take Seriously?

Image of Li'l Abner comic strip

A native Californian with a natural feel for pop culture, John Steinbeck was a serious fan of “Li’l Abner,” Al Capp’s long-running comic strip about life in Dogpatch, U.S.A. The comic strip ended in 1977. Steinbeck, who wrote the introduction to a collection of Al Capp cartoons, died two years before the first Comic Con in San Diego—short for Golden State Comic Book Convention—celebrated America’s love affair with comic strips, comic books, and action heroes in 1970. If he’d lived, Steinbeck would have applauded the idea behind the event: a let’s-party conclave of readers young and old, with a big-tent embrace of literature in all its forms. Luckily for Steinbeck lovers, the Salinas Valley Comic Con, sponsored by the National Steinbeck Center, Salinas Public Libraries, and Hartnell College, will take place December 16-18 on the Hartnell campus at 411 Central Avenue, not far from John Steinbeck’s childhood home and the National Steinbeck Center, in Salinas, California. “John Steinbeck was expansive in his notions about what literature is and can be,” explains Susan Shillinglaw, the Center’s director: “The National Steinbeck Center printed on its Comic Con mug another Steinbeck quote—‘Comic strips might be the real literature of our time.’” Check out “John Steinbeck Foresees Salinas Valley Comic Con” for event details and expert commentary on John Steinbeck’s connection to pop culture, then and now.

British Broadcast Star Interviews John Steinbeck Historian for BBC Series

Image of BBC Two Broadcaster William Crawley

BBC Two Celebrity Broadcaster William Crawley

John Steinbeck returned repeatedly to his family roots in Northern Ireland, both in his writing and in his travels. His 1952 novel East of Eden is a paean to his grandfather Sam Hamilton, the Scots-Irish immigrant who settled in California’s Salinas Valley in the 19th century. “I Visit Ireland,” a piece for Collier’s magazine in 1953, describes the writer’s feelings about Sam’s country, and the pilgrimage he made there with his wife Elaine, who took the photo of Steinbeck at the Hamilton family grave site that accompanied the article. “Letters to Alicia,” travel dispatches Steinbeck wrote for syndicated publication in 1965-66, details his final journey, which included Galway, Kerry, and Christmas at John Huston’s Irish castle. John Steinbeck loved the idea of Ireland, and the people of Ireland honored him in return, most recently in a TV series being produced for BBC Two about Northern Ireland and America.

John Steinbeck returned repeatedly to his family roots in Northern Ireland. The people of Ireland honored him in return, most recently in a TV series about Northern Ireland and America.

Carol Robles, the Steinbeck historian who was interviewed for the series by the BBC Two broadcaster William Crawley, convinced Jane MacGowan, the series director, that Steinbeck’s family home in Salinas was the perfect place to shoot the segment on Sam Hamilton, John Steinbeck, and the contribution made by Northern Ireland to the character and culture of California. Before coming to Salinas, Crawley and MacGowan’s crew also visited the site of the labor camp near Bakersfield used by Steinbeck as a model in The Grapes of Wrath. Later, B-roll footage was shot at the Hamilton ranch in King City, the setting for much of the action in East of Eden. Other stops along the Northern Irish trail in America filmed for the new BBC Two series, entitled Brave New World—America, include Massachusetts and Florida—states that are also significant in Steinbeck family history—and the Blue Ridge mountains, where the Scots-Irish spirit celebrated in The Grapes of Wrath lives on in speech and song.

Image of Carol Robles and William Crawley

Carol Robles and William Crawley (both at right) on August 11

Coming Soon to BBC Two: Brave New World—America

Robles was impressed by the knowledge about John Steinbeck displayed by Crawley and MacGowan when she was interviewed in the intimate reception room of the Steinbeck House on August 11. Afterwards the crew shot background footage in other parts of the home, and Crawley—an ex-minister and break dancer from Belfast with a PhD in philosophy—stopped by the gift shop to chat with volunteers, photograph furniture, and purchase a Steinbeck biography and a first edition of East of Eden. Robles was also impressed by the BBC Two team’s preparation, efficiency, and ability to adapt to change. When MacGowan first contacted Robles on July 25, two weeks before the shoot, the director readily accepted the suggestion to film at the Steinbeck House rather than at the Hamilton ranch as originally planned. Range fires near Salinas prevented filming on Fremont’s Peak, which Steinbeck climbed as a boy and where he contemplates the Salinas Valley in Travels with Charley. Instead, the time was spent shooting footage of the rich farm land around Salinas that created wealth for the town and conflict for the characters in East of Eden.

Carol Robles was impressed by the knowledge about John Steinbeck displayed by William Crawley and Jane MacGowan when she was interviewed, and by their preparation, efficiency, and ability to adapt to change.

“It’s fortunate I didn’t know how famous William Crawley was until they left,” Robles adds. “If I had I would have been more nervous.” With good reason. Crawley has star power, and his broadcast credits are extensive. They include a variety of weighty subjects that also interested John Steinbeck: Blueprint NI, a series on Northern Ireland’s natural history; William Crawley Meets . . . , a current-affairs talk show; Hearts and Minds, a program about politics in Northern Ireland; More Than Meets the Eye, a BBC Two special about Irish folklore; and An Independent People, a program about Ireland’s Presbyterians, the Hamilton family religion. Brave New World—New Zealand, a four-part BBC Two Northern Ireland series that aired in 2014, became the prototype for the series about America. The 2014 series celebrated the contribution made by Northern Ireland to a British colony that, like the United States, benefited from the presence of Scots-Irish immigrants such Sam Hamilton, the Salinas Valley farmer whose grandson won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Photo at Steinbeck House courtesy of Carol Robles

A John Steinbeck Waterfront Park in Sag Harbor’s Future?

Image of Sag Harbor sign

John Steinbeck liked Sag Harbor, the Long Island fishing village where he lived and wrote The Winter of Our Discontent, his last novel. He even set the story in Sag Harbor, which in Steinbeck’s time was still the kind of place—like Salinas, his home town—where neighbors stayed on speaking terms and the day’s news could be heard at the downtown coffee shop Steinbeck frequented when he finished his morning writing. Last week the East End Beacon, a Sag Harbor area paper, reported on plans to build a waterfront park named for the writer on property the town is considering condemning. Ed Hollander, the landscape architect hired to propose public use for the land when acquired, “envisions a literary trail, perhaps in collaboration with Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Memorial Library, which would include references to Steinbeck’s work.” In his writing Steinbeck worried aloud about over-development and ecology. So does Sag Harbor’s mayor, Sandra Schroeder. “The village does not need or want more condominiums,” she said. “What we want and need is a transformative park plan that will build on our maritime heritage and protect it for our children, their children, and their children’s children into the future.” Letters of support are welcome.

Interview: Marietta, Ohio Visual Artists Appreciate John Steinbeck in Show

Image of visual artists Michelle Waters, Todd Morrow, Lisa Haney-Bammerlin, and Geoff Schenkel

REsolve Studios, a visual-artist group in Marietta, Ohio, is designed with both visual artist and local community values in mind. Its distinctive connection to literary artists, including John Steinbeck, involves sharing shows that travel to other venues in the Southern Ohio-West Virginia area. The Appalachian Soul, a show that featured a distinctive installation called “The Victorian Brain,” is one example of exhibitions that make local and literary references of special significance to lovers of John Steinbeck, interactive art, and the Appalachian heritage. Ideas and images from The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men informed the exhibition’s eclectic visual elements, reminding viewers that John Steinbeck’s circle of friends at the time he wrote these books embraced visual artists, musicians, and other writers. In the following text by a Chillicothe, Ohio poet-editor and SteinbeckNow.com contributor, visual-artist interviews and individual artist statements suggest how John Steinbeck’s social vision applies to a region suffering marginalization, deprivation, and conflict similar to the cultures of the Dust Bowl, California, and Mexico depicted by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Forgotten Village, and The Pearl. The writer remained painfully aware that genocide was the price of expansion under the invading Spanish, and the rapacious Yankees who followed. The earliest settlers of John Steinbeck’s California were the Ohlone Indians. Chillicothe, Ohio, the home of ancient Indian cultures predating the Ice Age, was later settled by the Shawnee people for whom the city is named. To the east of Chillocothe, the historic town of Marietta, Ohio sits on the West Virginia border. A station along the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, it is the site of the Marietta Earthworks, a burial venue of the pre-European Hopewell Indian culture referred to in the introduction to Kathleen Burgess’s interview with the visual-artist group eager to talk about their sense of mission and heritage, and their appreciation of John Steinbeck.—Ed.

Driving through the Marietta, Ohio neighborhood occupied by the REsolve Studios visual artist collective, I found one of Geoff Schenkel’s murals transforming the wall of an old brick building. On one side of the two-story studio, a garden blooms on land the artists reclaimed from an abandoned gas station. I first met core members—Geoff, Michelle Waters, Lisa Haney-Bammerlin, and Todd Morrow—in 2014 when they were installing The Appalachian Soul at PVG Artisans, a gallery in Chillicothe, Ohio, where I live. Gallery owner Cynthia Davis saw, in REsolve Studios’ blend of energy and social purpose, artists on a spiritual quest to redefine being an artist in Appalachia. They reimagined and reconstructed the exhibit for her gallery. Geoff and Michelle wrote the artists’ statement for the show:

It is a massive, yet intimately approachable, room-sized sculptural environment. Anchoring this innovative combination of literary, musical, and uniquely mixed visual sources, this exhibit draws viewers to its wildly sprawling interactive core and continues to reward its “participants” when they pull back . . . to catch their breath while taking in the surrounding, focused satellite works. This deeply engaging, richly cohesive yet hard-to-define body of work represents the adventurous, even noble inclinations of REsolve artists to reach for a better life by letting go of the comforts, conventions, and security of their known world and seeking new depths in a wilderness of worlds yet to be defined.

Geoff and Michelle stayed in Chillicothe for days assessing the community’s character and needs. Several of the artists presented workshops, spending hours commuting from their homes in the river cities of Marietta, Ohio and Parkersburg, West Virginia. They also attended literary, art, and music activities at the gallery and were embraced by the Chillicothe, Ohio arts community.

Image of Chillicothe, Ohio art installation "The Victorian Brain"

“The Victorian Brain” occupied the center of the gallery, an eight-foot-high block of cabinetry with shelves, drawers, and cubbyholes exposed on all four sides. Its small doors, audio features, moving parts, books and notebooks, and written messages invited interaction. Sturdy beams connected “The Brain,” as it is affectionately known, to other sections, creating a 10’ x 17’ foot space large enough for several visitors to enter and move through at the same time. An outer layer of photographs and sculptures on walls, shelves, and pedestals surrounded the central structure. Some participants sought to contribute and added small objects to the installation. Others moved elements to different places as they passed through. Children contributed notes taped to shiny stones. A beekeeper added an antique bee smoker.

The theme of Appalachians coping with economic, societal, and environmental pressures, limited opportunity, and traditional values fits the city of Chillicothe, Ohio, the first and third capital in the history of the state. White settlers arrived in the 1700s when President Thomas Jefferson granted land to members of the victorious Continental Army following the Revolutionary War. People of the region are proud of this heritage, yet are sometimes seen by outsiders as unlettered and incompetent, as expendable as the Indians driven from Ohio 200 years ago. Authors Allan W. Eckert, Ron Rash, Donald Ray Pollock, Roy Bentley, and Diane Gilliam, among others, have written about Appalachian culture from this perspective. Despite challenges, however, Chillicothe, Ohio continues to plan for the future with optimism, and the area is under consideration for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the stunning Hopewell earthworks being rediscovered and authenticated by archaeologists using lidar technology.

Image of visual artist Anthony Wilson

Visual Artist Interview: John Steinbeck in Appalachia

Kathleen Burgess: Welcome to the Steinbeck Now community. Please tell us about yourselves and how literature, and John Steinbeck in particular, figures in the life and work of REsolve Studios.

Geoff Schenkel: We come from humble beginnings. We have challenges. We struggle. We feel uncertainty. When we are together, I feel at times like George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men, almost as if they are different parts at work in my mind, dreaming of something better than when we are on our own. Fellowship is great, belonging is great, but it feels fuller and richer when it is infused with purpose. Of Mice and Men normally travels with the exhibit, and it reflects some of our work as a team of artists.

At PVG Artisans we organized groupings of art into seven interrelated clusters. Each part drew inspiration from a written work. Books are featured because of a question posed by Kentucky-born Gurney Norman (Kinfolks) many years ago at an Appalachian conference that addressed issues of marginalization and stereotypes. He asked, “What would essential reading for the Appalachian region include?” Answering Norman’s question guided the creation of “The Brain.”  Michelle and I, as content curators, selected seven works from a list that is now quite long. Around this core we organized The Appalachian Soul. Our raw library responds to Norman’s question with answers derived from many cultures, including John Steinbeck’s California-based work. For me, REsolve’s work expresses, from the margins of mainstream society, a perspective shared in Steinbeck’s writing.

KB: What is REsolve Studios? How does the name describe what you do, who you are together?

Anthony Wilson: The REsolve name is about solving things by thinking through solutions from all possible angles via collaboration. It’s about working together and building a better community, reconciling our own pitfalls, and making ourselves better people. We improve ourselves, and, thereby, our immediate environment, which extends to the overall community.

Lisa Haney-Bammerlin: For me it means family, a sense of belonging. It means giving a new sense of purpose to discarded things. It’s the will to keep going no matter what is thrown our way. Much like the discarded items, we all were once needed but have to adapt to challenges. Having friends, brothers and sisters, makes the journey less daunting.

Todd Morrow: REsolve = the determination to bring about a solution.

GS: After several years as a community muralist, I began doing studio-based work and toyed with the idea of calling the studio “Junk Man Designs” to play off the found objects I was beginning to use in my work. REsolve worked because it has to do with committing and then living with a decision. We seem like a practical lot of dreamers who lean toward healing the broken, fixing up the discarded, loving the imperfect, and finding a home for the outcasts.

I decided to seek others of similar mindset. If I couldn’t find them in neighborhoods, towns, physical communities, maybe I could find them in communities of shared interest, similar mindset, values, wishes. Todd chose to join. Others passed through. Then Anthony found us. He said he hadn’t become the artist he wanted to be yet and wanted to discover what he was capable of in this community. We attempted big projects, leaps of faith. Michelle liked the work she saw coming from the studio and reached out to us. She said we’d have a hard time getting rid of her. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to deal with her overwhelming cheerfulness, but it didn’t turn out that way. Lisa found in us kindred spirits. Here we are, a family of choice with all our imperfections.

KB: Tell us something about John Steinbeck that engaged you in planning and creating The Appalachian Soul.

GS: (Quoting Tom Joad’s description of Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath): But now I been thinkin’ what he said, an’ I can remember—all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’t have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ‘less it was with the rest, an’ was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn’ think I was even listenin’. But I know now a fella ain’t no good alone.

I believe what Tom Joad says. In that place I’d called alone is the breeding ground for violence and the hurt we unleash actively and passively against ourselves and others.

KB: How do you engage the neighborhood through your art and your garden?

GS: Through our art we seek to create a place where it’s safer to imagine what is possible, safer to explore differences in ways that are open, not competitive, trying to find resolutions to chronic problems, and ways to accept human imperfection. Some might call our work “mentorship.” We work with schools, community groups, and religious individuals, while thinking with others about issues of sustainability, community, inclusiveness, and fairness. Something I’ve always valued about this work is its ability to surprise. Many come to it in joyful, childlike response.

While I love that and want that to be part of the experience, I also love that below the surface there is more going on related to Appalachians coping with outsiders’ attitudes and challenges. Recently I got the great opportunity to watch a young man explore “The Brain.” He’s at that stage of life where he’s getting a sense of himself in the world at large. There is for him a dawning awareness of just how big the world and its issues and its forces can be.

As he explored, sort of posturing as he went, not wanting to be too interested, trying to maintain his cool, on-top-of-the-world football star swagger, he unrolled one of the hidden messages like a fortune from a cookie, and he read these words from a 1912 New York Times editorial titled “Education or Extermination”: The majority of mountain people are unprincipled ruffians. There are two remedies only: education or extermination. The mountaineer, like the red Indian, must learn this lesson. As he read, his jaw dropped and he impulsively showed everyone around him. That back and forth between magical, playful elements and jaw-dropping, serious understanding is our aim.

We seek to make the studio and gardens spiritually and physically a healthy, nourishing place by amending once neglected soil through intensive composting and sharing with others the abundance of what grows here: art, food, and human relationships through mutual exchange.

Michelle Waters: I think the moments that struck me the most were when I was working in the garden, people I didn’t know would drive by and smile, honk, wave, as if they supported the act, the momentum of what we were doing. That felt really special to me. I also really enjoy the concrete blocks that have become a part of the garden’s retaining walls—the blocks that we made with the local boys and girls club, creating art together that they could see when they walked through the neighborhood, and be proud because they helped make their part of the planet more beautiful.

KB: How have you grown within the collective and in interactions with communities you’ve served?

GS: Fighting the bitterness that stems from living in proximity to what some call a “sacrifice zone” isn’t as hard as it once was, and the desire to punish others for their inhumanity doesn’t burn as strongly. Doling out punishment isn’t my job, and with that burden removed I can grow into being a healthier participant in this creation we share. I’ve witnessed suicidal individuals become more forgiving of themselves and seen people at wit’s end come here to ground themselves, seeking comfort and a chance to deal with the trauma that comes from life.

KB: How do you make decisions—regular, structured meetings, or another way?

GS: We have had regular meetings. We are currently working on our own projects, but we come together every so often to reconnect. We discuss things as if we were a family sitting around the kitchen table weighing facts, opinions, options, then sorting the tasks that need to be completed to reach our group goals. It is not a clean, efficient business model. It doesn’t run itself, but this method has produced some wondrous results. I think we go by instinct, or hunches. Michelle wanted to create the exhibit at PVG Artisans. Anthony and Todd wanted to do the steampunk show in Athens [Ohio]. Those turned out well on many levels. We constantly adapt to challenges.

KB: No other studio captures the spirit of this region, its traditions, realities, and potential, better than REsolve Studios. I know that your art offers chances for exploration and delight, with serious educational implications. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about John Steinbeck, community, and art at SteinbeckNow.com.

Photo of Michelle Waters, Todd Morrow, Lisa Haney-Bammerlin, and Geoff Schenkel by Cynthia Davis.

Photo of “The Victorian Brain” courtesy REsolve Studios.

Photo of Anthony Wilson courtesy Michele Coleman.

The Road from The Grapes of Wrath to Ferguson, Missouri: How Current Events Keep John Steinbeck Relevant

Image of Ferguson, Missouri police confrontation

In the 1980s, it was E.M. Forster. In the 90s, Jane Austen and Henry James. Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway had their turn, along with writers of B-list bestsellers whose names have faded, like the films made from their books. In 2015, Hollywood’s Favorite Author is the American Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck. Again.

Image from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

The Roots of the Recent John Steinbeck Renaissance

Interest in Steinbeck is surging. Steven Spielberg is reportedly preparing a remake of The Grapes of Wrath. Jennifer Lawrence has signed on to play the lead in East of Eden. Recently the actor James Franco, who starred on Broadway last year as George in Of Mice and Men, announced that next month he will start filming an adaptation of Steinbeck’s little-known 1936 novel In Dubious Battle.

Interest in Steinbeck is surging. Steven Spielberg is reportedly preparing a remake of The Grapes of Wrath.

This isn’t Steinbeck’s first trip to Hollywood. Between 1939 and 1957, eight of his books were made into movies, and he wrote original scripts for four more. The best of these films became classics, like John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath; Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men; and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden.

This isn’t Steinbeck’s first trip to Hollywood. Between 1939 and 1957, eight of his books were made into movies.

But these films were made more than half a century ago. When John Ford’s movie of The Grapes of Wrath debuted in 1940, just a year after Steinbeck’s novel was published, the Dust Bowl was still in the news. How do we explain the Steinbeck Renaissance of 2015? What is it about Steinbeck’s work that resonates with us today?

Image from 1963 civil rights protest in Greensboro, N.C.

From The Grapes of Wrath to Ferguson, Missouri

The answer is a sad comment on our times. Many of the issues Steinbeck addressed in novels like The Grapes of Wrath are as relevant today as they were 75 years ago. Police abuse, for example, continues to be a major problem in America. As we demonstrate solidarity with the victims in Ferguson, Staten Island, and too many other communities, it’s hard not to think of Tom Joad’s famous line from his farewell speech: “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.”

Many of the issues Steinbeck addressed in novels like The Grapes of Wrath are as relevant today as they were 75 years ago.

Our society also still discriminates against migrant laborers. The undocumented workers who harvest our fruits and vegetables are today’s “bindlestiffs,” as Steinbeck called the laborers George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Our politicians talk about immigration reform, but nothing ever happens, and as we argue, produce rots in the fields and those laborers who dare to remain here illegally live in constant fear of deportation. I wouldn’t be surprised if this surprisingly modern conundrum is what drew James Franco to In Dubious Battle, a novel about a farmworkers’ strike in California.

Our society also still discriminates against migrant laborers. The undocumented workers who harvest our fruits and vegetables are today’s ‘bindlestiffs.’

But there’s one more reason Steinbeck resonates today. He famously said that his job as a writer was “to reconnect humans to their own humanity.” In this era of braggy Christmas letters and sanitized Facebook personas, it’s easy to forget that when we suffer, we are not alone. Steinbeck showed us humanity in all its forms, not only the happy family on vacation, but the poor and dispossessed, the filthy, the starving, and the mad. It’s no subject for a Facebook post, but it never goes out of style.

On the Road to America’s Heart of Darkness with Roy Bentley in Starlight Taxi

Image from cover of Starlight Taxi, poems by Roy BentleyI’ve gotten off on poems often, transported to the heart of darkness or fields of light by great writers long departed from the living road. William Blake always topped my list of visionary favorites. Until I read Roy Bentley, however, I never encountered a living poet with a valid license driving far enough into the American interior to satisfy an anxious hitchhiker like me.

As a professional word-dealer I’ve been on the road with some of the best. Old William Blake; odd Emily of the New England Dickinsons; Yeats with his Anglo-Irish outrage and old-man monkey glands; Auden, mon semblable, mon frère! I was 24 when I got my doctorate in English with a dissertation on William Blake, but I didn’t know shit about life outside. The schoolboy prose I produced about dead poets with dead voices was all for show—and for the committee that now pronounced me man and Ph.D. Later of course I was forced to live and learn for real. Emily Dickinson said a poem should take off the top of your head. But what I needed after life hit was a heart job. Not Conrad’s un-particularized heart of darkness, no. My personal heart, which hurt.

The William Blake-John Steinbeck-Roy Bentley Connection

Thanks to two fine folks named John Steinbeck and Kate Fox, a writer and editor, I was finally introduced to Roy Bentley, the very poet my insistent inner doctor had been ordering. First came Roy’s emails, offering poems inspired by John Steinbeck for publication at SteinbeckNow.com. The voice I heard through the screen as I read sounded familiar—Southern, sensitive, sardonic, snotty when a subject deserved scorn, childlike when an experience was an epiphany. I saw lines I would write if I had Roy’s skill, which I don’t. I recognized the vision behind the voice, surreal yet familiar, like William Blake and his friendly angels.

I published Roy’s poems and asked for a meeting. A phone call had to do. As I was learning from reading his work, being on the road with Roy Bentley isn’t physical. It’s a mind-trip. If I could hear him, I could see him. A phone call would suffice.

Being on the road with Roy Bentley isn’t physical. It’s a mind-trip.

John Steinbeck didn’t like telephones, but Southerners generally do, and getting to know Roy long distance was like catching up with a high school friend. A self-exiled son of the border South like me, he now lives in Ohio, where I grew up, not far from his home state of Kentucky. Like William Blake’s village of Felpham in Sussex, England, however, Roy’s point of origin is more memorable than mine—a town named Neon in a county called Letcher—and his father actually split from his mother, something my dad contemplated but never accomplished. Roy liked girls and cars with the same Southern passion my country-boy father never outgrew. This was the first five minutes.

Like William Blake, Roy got married and (unlike William Blake) raised a family. Not a conversation-stopper, although I’ve always played for the other team. After all, John Steinbeck —also a William Blake fan and sexual frequent-flyer—was married repeatedly, and that hasn’t prevented Steinbeck from setting up residence in my sexually unorthodox soul. The image I got of Roy in our second five minutes is exactly what I saw in his poems: a man just like me, driving a lonely lane on the road to his heart of darkness destination. I was sure we’d be finishing each other’s sentences within an hour. But it happened in the five minutes that followed—and I talk fast.

The image I got of Roy in our second five minutes is exactly what I saw in his poems: a man just like me, driving a lonely lane on the road to his heart of darkness destination.

We played the Southern geography game: “Sure, Cincinnati, that’s not far.” “On yeah, that’s what I hate about the South too.” “No shit, I knew a guy exactly like that. Drugs and alcohol and the Army, Jeez!” “This job market sucks, and no, I wasn’t a great student either. You can probably guess why.” Hanging up, like breaking up, became hard to do. William Blake had his angels, John Steinbeck talked to his dogs. I have both and suspect that Roy does too.  But we’re Southern boys who prefer two legs with a real mouth when it comes to human intercourse, and solitary driving on the road to the heart of darkness gets lonely with angels and dogs. We would need to talk some more, and probably again. Pissed off at the redneck revolution (“That’s why we left the South!”), we shoved Mom’s be-nice rule and discussed politics and religion—social no-no’s of Old South civility— before finally saying goodbye.

Starlight Taxi: High-Flying Poetry Printed with Style

Roy and I had clicked. As we clicked off, I suggested—and sent—the book I was reading, a prophetic novel written by Jack London in 1906 about a future fascist America. John Steinbeck, who grew up in London’s shadow, loved London’s work and probably read The Iron Heel before writing his wartime play-novella The Moon Is Down, set abroad rather than in the United States at the government’s insistence. George Orwell—John Steinbeck’s contemporary and another Jack London admirer—took the title of 1984 from The Iron Heel. Jack Kerouac, the On the Road prophet of the Beat Generation’s heart of darkness, was a later fan. Clearly Roy was ripe for Jack London. But I had my own reason for recommending The Iron Heel.

You see, Roy is a cosmic poet in the William Blake sense of the word. Big ideas pulse in tiny, telling details—what William Blake called “minute particulars”—in every poem, and one kind of apocalypse or another is always around the corner. As with Emily Dickinson, no word seems wasted; as with John Steinbeck at his best, no word seems wrong. So Roy’s work is here to stay, and I enjoyed the prospect of stumbling on the Jack London reference in a future poem by Roy Bentley, knowing secretly that our conversation was the source. My ancient William Blake dissertation collects dust, deservedly unpublished and ignored. A footnote explaining Roy’s artful Iron Heel allusion in a future anthology of American poets would make me feel what Roy calls “justified.”

I enjoyed the prospect of stumbling on the Jack London reference in a future poem by Roy Bentley, knowing secretly that our conversation was the source.

But Roy’s parting gift was much better than mine. The week after we talked I received an autographed copy of Starlight Taxi, his prize-winning collection of 65 tight poems printed by Lynx House Press on 95 thick pages the way fine poetry should be: surrounded by white space and unencumbered by prose. In top manic form, I tripped out as I read Starlight Taxi, Roy’s telephone voice still running in my head. I’m no Emerson, but I think I know how Emerson felt when he first read Walt Whitman, greeting the author of America’s “on the road” meme as a poetic original at the dawn of a great career.

I tripped out as I read Starlight Taxi, Roy’s telephone voice still running in my head.

Like John Steinbeck, my genetic code is programmed for English mountains and Celtic seas. Like William Blake, my angels always look British. Though he downplayed his non-Irish heritage, however, Steinbeck was German on his father’s side, and Sussex, despite Blake’s Englishness, seems as distant as Dusseldorf. But Roy Bentley is just like me: an Appalachian exile of uneasy English extraction, fully alive but moving with increasing anxiety on the road to America’s looming heart of darkness. Thanks to John Steinbeck and Kate Fox, I have found my living William Blake. He’s chosen the solo lane. But he likes company and he’s a skillful driver.

His Greatest Generation: The Lessons of John Steinbeck’s World War II Reporting

Image from cover of Roy Simmonds' World War II John Steinbeck biographyIn staid Victorian England, Matthew Arnold, the author of Dover Beach, described journalism as “literature in a hurry.” Six decades and two world wars later, John Steinbeck confirmed Arnold’s lofty assessment of the correspondent’s craft, creating an enduring account of what he saw in Europe and Africa during the darkest days of World War II.

The Greatest Generation Goes to War

A member of the Greatest Generation who wrote and read poetry throughout his life, Steinbeck understood Arnold’s image of “a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.” In his Steinbeck biography, the poet-novelist Jay Parini points out the acknowledgment by Newsweek magazine that the famous novelist was also a capable journalist, that his “cold grey eyes didn’t miss a trick, that with scarcely any note-taking he soaked up information like a sponge, wrote very fast on a portable typewriter, and became haywire if interrupted.”

Steinbeck understood Arnold’s image of ‘a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.’

More than a decade after World War II, Viking Press released Once There Was a War, a collection of Steinbeck’s war reporting from June to December 1943—reporting that inserted the 41-year-old author of The Grapes of Wrath into the global madness that began when France and England declared war on Nazi Germany in 1938 and ended seven years later with the surrender of Japan, Germany’s chief ally.

Filing human interest stories in the gritty, humorous style of the American war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Steinbeck was stationed in London before shipping off to North Africa, where he experienced first hand the immediate aftermath of the Allied liberation of southern Italy. By that time Italy, the third element in the Axis triangle, had formally surrendered, although the battle for Nazi-occupied northern Italy would continue into 1944, costing literally countless British, American, and European lives.

Writing Steinbeck Biography in the World War II Years

Although considered by some a minor component of the Steinbeck canon, Once There Was a War nonetheless illustrates how John Steinbeck, working under the most difficult and dangerous professional conditions, was always conscious of leveraging his strengths as a writer engaged with the world. Steinbeck biography written since World War II acknowledges this facet of the author’s diverse career in varied ways.

In The Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer—the Bible of Steinbeck biography—Jackson Benson notes of Steinbeck’s World War II reporting that the author “would not try to compete for the hard news but would work to see things that had been overlooked or to see differently things that had already been reported.” Benson convincingly connects Steinbeck’s qualities as a fiction writer to his journalism: “He would become a correspondent of perspective, just as he had been a novelist of perspective—not telling us new, but seeing it new. In his concern for the commonplace and in his preference for the ordinary soldier, he became in many ways a correspondent much like the war journalist he admired the most, Ernie Pyle.”

‘He became in many ways a correspondent much like the war journalist he admired the most, Ernie Pyle.’

Focusing on a perturbed period of Steinbeck biography in John Steinbeck: The War Years, 1939-1944, Roy Simmonds speculates about the aging author’s ulterior motive in signing on as a front line correspondent at the height of World War II: “There is little doubt that within defined parameters he seized the opportunity to use the dispatches—through the mouths of the servicemen he met, or sometimes writing on their general behalf—to draw attention to many matters he felt needed publicity and urgent rectification.”

‘There is little doubt that within defined parameters he seized the opportunity to use the dispatches—through the mouths of the servicemen he met, or sometimes writing on their general behalf—to draw attention to many matters he felt needed publicity and urgent rectification.’

Whatever his motivation, however, John Steinbeck knew how to enfold moments of simple human existence in a lyricism that rises above the horror of modern slaughter, as almost any sample of his World War II dispatches demonstrates:

“LONDON, July 10, 1943—People who try to tell you what the blitz was like in London start with fire and explosion and then almost invariably end up with some very tiny detail which crept in and set and became the symbol of the whole thing for them.

“’It’s the glass,’ says one man, ‘the sound in the morning of the broken glass being swept up, the vicious, flat tinkle. . . . My dog broke a window the other day and my wife swept up the glass and a cold shiver went over me. It was a moment before I could trace the reason for it.’

“The bombing itself grows vague and dreamlike. The little pictures remain as sharp as they were when they were new.”

. . . .

“On the imaginary line the children stand and watch the cargo come out. . . . How they cluster about an American soldier who has come off the ship! They want gum. Much as the British may deplore the gum-chewing habit, their children find it delightful. There are semi-professional gum beggars among the children.

“’Penny, mister?’ has given way to ‘Goom, mister?’

“When you have gum you have something permanent, something you can use day after day and even trade when you are tired of it. Candy is ephemeral. One moment you have candy, and the next moment you haven’t. But gum is real property.

“The grubby little hands are held up to the soldier and the chorus swells.’Goom, mister?’”

. . . .

“MEDITERRANEAN THEATER, October 6, 1943—You can’t see much of a battle. Those paintings reproduced in history books which show long lines of advancing troops are either idealized or else times and battles have changed. The account in the morning papers of the battle of yesterday was not seen by the correspondent, but was put together from reports.

“What the correspondent really saw was dust and the nasty burst of shells, low bushes and slit trenches. He lay on his stomach, if he had any sense, and watched ants crawling among the little sticks on the sand dune, and his nose was so close to the ants that their progress was interfered by it.”

John Steinbeck and Dad: Why World War III is Unthinkable

As John Steinbeck noted in his introduction, his World War II dispatches for the New York Herald Tribune record events as they occurred. “But on reading this reportage,” Steinbeck adds, “my memory becomes alive to the other things, which also did happen and were not reported. That they were not reported was partly a matter of orders, partly traditional, and largely because there was a huge and gassy thing called the War Effort.”

Roy Simmonds, the author of the only Steinbeck biography by an Englishman and a survivor of the Blitz, notes that Steinbeck understood but resented the “huge and gassy thing” produced by the fog of war: “Talking to [enlisted] men, Steinbeck discovers that what also troubles many of them are the lies, both of commission and omission, being fed to the folks back home.”

Steinbeck understood but resented the ‘huge and gassy thing’ produced by the fog of war.

From the body of the writer’s World War II reporting, one thing can be said for certain: John Steinbeck chronicled and explored humanity’s most destructive behavior with the same honesty and intensity that he invested in mankind’s most noble pursuits. Despite his reluctance to revisit his war reporting for publication in 1958—a reticence confirmed by every Steinbeck biography of note—the dispatches he produced for immediate domestic consumption stand as an enduring testament, not only for the Greatest Generation but for every generation that followed.

The dispatches he produced for immediate domestic consumption stand as an enduring testament, not only for the Greatest Generation but for every generation that followed.

My father-in-law, a proud World War II naval veteran named Jerry Hollingsworth, believes that another global war is simply unthinkable. In a recent message he echoed John Steinbeck, who explained this belief in 1958, in the introduction to Viking’s collection of his World War II dispatches:

“The next war, if we are so stupid as to let it happen, will be the last of any kind. There will be no one left to remember anything. And if that is how stupid we are, we do not, in a biologic sense, deserve to survive.”

Shades of Partial Truth in Travels with Charley

Long Way Home and Dogging Steinbeck covers, two books about Travels with CharleyWhen I first read Travels with Charley in Search of America—Steinbeck’s nonfiction account of his 1960 road trip from his grandparents’ John-Knox New England to the Salinas Valley of his youth—I was researching the author’s religious roots for an article. Steinbeck’s assertion in Travels with Charley that he attended services one Sunday at a “John Knox church” and liked what he heard didn’t fit what I’d learned about the author’s life or writing. John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism in Scotland, was a rigid, unyielding Calvinist—a type deeply unloved by Steinbeck, as exemplified in the stiff-necked, self-righteous character of Liza Hamilton in East of Eden. The easygoing Episcopalian religion that permeates The Winter of Our Discontent, written in the same period as Travels with Charley, more accurately reflects Steinbeck’s upbringing. Olive Steinbeck abandoned the Scots-Irish, John Knox atmosphere of the Hamilton ranch for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salinas, where her son imbibed the cultured air of candles, flowers, and English church music. What event provoked Steinbeck’s John Knox epiphany in the pages of Travels with Charley? My sources were clueless.

Help with the John Knox Problem in Travels with Charley

Then I read a pair of books by two non-academic writers that suggest why this detail—and others—didn’t seem quite right when I read Travels with Charley. Except for their common subject, the books couldn’t be less alike. Bill Barich, the author of Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America, is a California native whose earlier book—Big Dreams: Into the Heart of California—helped me acclimate to my adopted state when I arrived in 2007. A part-time Californian with a second home in Ireland, Barich possesses an elegant style, a Marin County manner, and an inborn appreciation for California’s liberal culture and laid-back lifestyle. Bill Steigerwald, the author of Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth About Travels with Charley, is Barich’s opposite—a tough-minded Middle-American reporter with little love for liberalism or laying back. Barich and Steigerwald’s books retracing Travels with Charley differ dramatically, reflecting their authors’ contrasting temperaments, assumptions, and aims. Both are worth reading, and each helped me adjust to the probability that Travels with Charley is only partially true.

Barich and Steigerwald’s books retracing Steinbeck’s journey differ dramatically, reflecting their authors’ contrasting temperaments, assumptions, and aims.

Barich retraced portions of Steinbeck’s 1960 election-year Travels with Charley tour during the presidential year of 2008, when the Obama-McCain campaign divided Americans generally along Kennedy-Nixon lines. I happen to share Barich’s enthusiasm for Obama and his respect for Steinbeck’s progressive politics. The author was a lifelong FDR Democrat, despite his family’s John Knox, Teddy Roosevelt Republican roots. He wrote speeches for Stevenson’s 1956 campaign against Eisenhower and supported Kennedy against Nixon in 1960. The pages of Travels with Charley are full of liberal-minded sentiments, underdog characters, and conversations about current issues that aren’t always recognizable as the way real people talk. This, of course, is where Bill Steigerwald comes in. He thinks Travels with Charley belongs in the category of fiction. My reasons for partially agreeing with him are quite personal.

Personal Questions About Travels with Charley Characters

When my mother was pregnant, my dad was still in the Army at Fort Hood, Texas. A proud North Carolinian, Mom insisted on returning to Winston-Salem before my birth because, as she later explained, “I wasn’t about to have my first youngin’ born in Texas.” Perhaps that genetic prejudice produced my doubts about Steinbeck’s sincerity in praising the virtues of his Texas hosts—friends of his Texan-born wife, Elaine—on display during Thanksgiving Day dinner in Travels with Charley. As an ex-New Orleanian, I was also challenged by the tidy trio of Louisiana conversationalists encountered by Steinbeck in the climactic episode of Travels with Charley, a horrific hate-fest observed outside a recently desegregated New Orleans school. Steinbeck’s screaming racist mothers belong to a recognizable segregationist type. But none of the individuals he talks with about the issue of integration sounds to my ears like a Southerner, a Louisianian, or a living human being. Other characters present similar problems. These are the few I sensed were phony from my own experience.

None of the individuals Steinbeck talks with about the issue of integration sounds to my ears like a Southerner, a Louisianian, or a living human being.

Politically, Bill Steigerwald is no John Steinbeck, Bill Barich, or Will Ray. A crusty contrarian with a chip on his shoulder about big government of either party, he wrote Dogging Steinbeck during the Tea Party election of 2010, managing a kind word for Sarah Palin while deconstructing Steinbeck’s 50-year-old classic. It seems unlikely that anyone reading this blog isn’t familiar with the controversy created by Steigerwald in his argument from fact to reclassify Travels with Charley as fiction. Unlike Barich, he retraced Steinbeck’s route and schedule as closely as he could. Unlike Barich’s sentimental journey, Steigerwald’s road trip was gritty, gumshoe detective work. Skeptical by nature and by profession, Steigerwald looked for inaccuracies and found them. He couldn’t locate the “John Knox church” Steinbeck claimed to visit, doing the math to prove that Steinbeck’s published schedule made a Sunday morning church service of any kind unlikely the day Steinbeck says he got a dose of his grandmother’s John Knox religion.

Read Steigerwald’s book or visit his website. He’s a John Knox kind of  journalist—hardnosed, relentless, and unfazed by criticism from what he describes as the “West Coast Steinbeck Industrial Complex.” I predict we’ll be hearing more from him about the shades of partial truth he uncovered in Travels with Charley.