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.