American Literature Conference Considers Steinbeck in War and Peace

Cover image of John Steinbeck's World War II dispatches

A pair of panels at the annual conference of the American Literature Association, held May 25-28, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts, examined aspects of John Steinbeck’s writing in times of war and peace. Thomas Barden, professor emeritus at the University of Toledo, discussed race and racism in Lifeboat, Steinbeck’s World War II novella-screenplay, while Douglas Dowland of Ohio Northern University focused on the dispatches and letters Steinbeck wrote from Vietnam 20 years later. Steinbeck’s novels were also the subject of attention by speakers: To a God Unknown (Ryan Schlesinger, University of Tulsa); Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday (Christian Gallichio, University of Massachusetts-Boston), and Of Mice and Men (Lori Whitaker and Mimi Gladstein, University of Texas-El Paso). The focus of four single-author websites devoted to his life, work, and influence, John Steinbeck was featured at annual conferences of the American Literature Association in San Francisco in 2012 and again in 2016.

Bill Lane Center at Stanford University Examines John Steinbeck, Environmentalism

Image of Bill Lane

John Steinbeck and the environment was the subject of a May 10 symposium held at Stanford University and attended by students, teachers, and others. Guest speakers for the campus event, sponsored by the Bill Lane Center for the American West, included Susan Shillinglaw, William Souder, and members of the Stanford University faculty. The late Bill Lane—the legendary publisher and philanthropist for whom the Center for the American West is named—was born in Iowa in 1919, the year Steinbeck entered Stanford as a freshman. Lane also attended Stanford before building a lucrative publishing empire around Sunset Magazine, a Lane family enterprise headquartered in Menlo Park, California. A Teddy Roosevelt Republican (like Steinbeck’s parents), Lane was a leader in the movement to protect pristine California wilderness from commercial development by acquiring it privately and putting it into public trust. Follow this video link learn more about John Steinbeck as an environmentalist.

Birds Do It, Bees Do It, and John Steinbeck Did It, Too

Poster image of Migrations, theme of 2017 John Steinbeck festival

Movement was a major feature of John Steinbeck’s life and writing, and migration—human, animal, vegetable—is the focus of this year’s John Steinbeck festival in Salinas, California, scheduled May 5-7 to coincide with Cinco de Mayo, a favorite fiesta of the country Steinbeck visited often in the 1930s and 40s. Like the author himself, the 2017 John Steinbeck festival is peripatetic, moving between Salinas, Monterey, and Cannery Row, as Steinbeck did when he was writing the California books that made him famous. A three-day pass costs $180 and covers most Friday, Saturday, and Sunday events. A special concert in honor of the late Carol Robles—a frequent flyer and legendary tour planner—is free and features Dixieland music, an appropriate choice for a festival dedicated to John Steinbeck, a traveling man who loved jazz.

Image of 2017 John Steinbeck festival scheduleImage of 2017 John Steinbeck festival scheduleImage of 2017 John Steinbeck festival schedule

ABC News Veteran Bob Woodruff to Receive 2017 John Steinbeck Award

Image of ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff in Iraq

Bob Woodruff, the ABC News correspondent who was badly wounded in 2006 by an explosive device while embedded with troops in Iraq, will receive the 2017 John Steinbeck “In the Souls of the People” award at a 7:30 p.m., February 21 event in the San Jose State University Student Union. The award is given annually by the school’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies to an artist, writer, or activist whose life and work emulate the values embodied by Steinbeck, a two-time war correspondent who was embedded with Allied troops in Italy and North Africa and, 20 years later, with his son’s army unit in Southeast Asia. Past awardees include Garrison Keillor, Michael Moore, and Rachel Maddow, and proceeds from award events benefit programs associated with recipients, who contribute their time when they appear. Notes Lisa Vollendorf, dean of the College of Humanities and the Arts at San Jose State University, “Bob Woodruff’s work reflects Steinbeck’s values to the core: he has pointed to Steinbeck’s writings about the ravages of war and conflict as an inspiration for his own journalistic choices and advocacy for veterans.” General admission to the February 21 event, which will benefit San Jose State University’s Veterans Resource Center, is $25.

John Steinbeck’s U.S.S.R. And U.S.-Russian Relations In Pre-Donald Trump America

Image of John Steinbeck-U.S. Russian relations event poster

Concerns about the future of U.S.-Russian relations under President-Elect Donald Trump have led students of John Steinbeck to reconsider Steinbeck’s views on Russia, and his writing on U.S.-Russian relations, during the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy. Silicon Valley fans will have a chance this week to learn much more about this timely topic from Susan Shillinglaw, Professor of English at San Jose State University and a leading expert on John Steinbeck’s life and writing, when she gives a one-hour presentation on John Steinbeck and Russia as part of the school’s fall 2016 Scholar Series. Shillinglaw, who is known for her pioneering research and engaging style, is writing a book on the subject and gave a version of the talk in Tbisili, Georgia (part of the former Soviet Union) earlier this year. Her San Jose State University address will take place in Room 255 of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in downtown San Jose beginning at 12:00 noon on Wednesday, November 16, 2016. The event is free and open to the public.

Image of Donald Trump“Finding Solace in Steinbeck During the Time of Trump” is worth reading in the aftermath of the November 8 election. Posted on November 11 by Stephen Cooper, a public defender and social progressive, it employs quotations from Susan Shillinglaw’s introduction to the Penguin edition of The Grapes of Wrath, as well as the introduction to Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath by Robert DeMott, to explore Steinbeck’s relevance to Trump.–Ed.

Steinbeck Event Benefits Cesar Chavez Center

Image of Cesar Chavez

Francisco Jimenez, an award-winning children’s writer and Santa Clara University professor, will receive the John Steinbeck “In the souls of the people” award at a September 28 event benefiting San Jose State University’s Cesar Chavez Community Action Center. The award, which has been given in the past to such writers as Ruby Bridges and Khaled Hosseini, is sponsored by the school’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. As a boy Jimenez migrated to California from Mexico with his family, whose transient existence he compares to that of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. His first book, The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child (1997), won the Americas Award for Children and Young Adults Literature. After receiving his PhD, he joined the faculty of Santa Clara University, his alma mater, where he was CASE/Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year in 2002. He is an especially sympathetic admirer of Cesar Chavez, the labor and civil rights leader who—with Dolores Huerta, a previous Steinbeck award winner—founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. The September 28 benefit, which begins at 7:30 p.m. in San Jose State University’s Student Union Theater, will feature Francisco Jimenez in conversation with Lalo Alcarez, the creator of “La Cucaracha,” the first nationally syndicated political cartoon by a Latino artist in the United States. General admission tickets are $20 and are available from the San Jose State University event center.

Image of Francisco Jimenez award event poster

August 25: John Steinbeck, Ruth Comfort Mitchell Event

Logo image of the Los Gatos art and history museum

Susan Shillinglaw, a leading John Steinbeck scholar and speaker, and Peggy Conaway, an expert on the history of Los Gatos, California, will discuss the conflict between Steinbeck and the Los Gatos writer Ruth Comfort Mitchell, who responded to The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 with a novel of her own, during an August 25 presentation at NUMU in Los Gatos, the town where Steinbeck lived when he wrote his 1939 masterpiece. Shillinglaw is the author or editor of books and articles about John Steinbeck, including On Reading The Grapes of Wrath and America and Americans, a collection of Steinbeck’s essays. Conaway, the former director of the Los Gatos Library, is writing a book about Mitchell, a colorful figure who lived in Los Gatos until her death in 1954. The August 25 program will begin at 7:00 p.m. and is free for NUMU members; non-members pay $10 to visit the lively little art and history museum, where “Mitchell vs. Steinbeck”—an exhibit of documents related to Steinbeck, Mitchell, and the controversy over The Grapes of Wrath—continues through October 13. NUMU is located next to the Los Gatos Library on Main Street near two Los Gatos landmarks: Los Gatos High School, built in 1925, and First Church of Christ, Scientist, where Mitchell—an outspoken Republican who wrote poetry, plays, and fiction and loved dogs—taught Sunday School.

Critics, Craft Beer, and Fans Toast John Steinbeck in San Jose and Salinas, California

Image of John Steinbeck beer served in Salinas, California

“There is nothing like the first taste of beer” (John Steinbeck)

Literary critics and conferences gave John Steinbeck a pain, but he liked beer and enjoyed parties, so it’s easy to imagine him making an exception for the literary conference and the festival held in his name earlier this month in San Jose and Salinas, California. Each event was scheduled with the other in mind, and the planning paid off: star Steinbeck scholars appeared at both, attendance was up from previous years, and Sea of Cortez got the attention it deserved on its 75th anniversary (several experts said it was their second favorite book by Steinbeck). The May 4-6 John Steinbeck conference at San Jose State University attracted scholars, students, and fans from as far away as Israel and Japan and featured keynote addresses by Steinbeck stars who flew in from points east and midwest for the conference, and for the May 6-8 Steinbeck Festival in Salinas. During the opening address in San Jose, Richard Astro recalled his experience as a visiting professor during early Solidarity days in Poland, where Steinbeck was remembered for providing words of comfort to Warsaw after John Kennedy was killed, and where the author of The Grapes of Wrath remains more popular than his contemporaries (“John Steinbeck is more international than Faulkner, Hemingway, or Fitzgerald by far”). The next day, Robert DeMott described his experience of discovery in the 1970s and 1980s exploring the untapped “archival biography” he found in various Steinbeck collections around the U.S. His 1989 edition of the double journal Steinbeck kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath has become a classic, adding to our understanding of Steinbeck and complementing the epistolary journal published in 1969 in connection with East of Eden (“John Steinbeck’s great subject was family”).

Image of John Steinbeck scholar Gavin Jones

Gavin Jones

Something for Every Taste at Steinbeck Festival in Salinas

The morning after his talk to followers at the San Jose conference, DeMott fanned the flame of Steinbeck worship for attendees of the 35th Steinbeck Festival, hosted by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. The Salinas organization is under new management, and it showed in the festival’s quality, energy, and diversity. Susan Shillinglaw, the new director, is an entrepreneurial scholar and impresario who shares Steinbeck’s love of travel (Sea of Cortez; Tibilisi, Georgia) and liquid refreshment (festival craft beer courtesy of the Salinas Steinbeck Rotary Club). Adding fuel to the spark set by DeMott was a pair of inspired speakers with a new approach to the subject of John Steinbeck. William Souder, the Minnesota journalist who has written brilliant biographies of John James Audubon and Rachel Carson, told his listeners how and why he chose to write a new life of John Steinbeck that focuses on global themes like ecology and social justice. Gavin Jones also views Steinbeck through a large lens, and he explained the book he is writing, one with the working title “Race, Species, Planet: Steinbeck and the Western World.” A native of the Welsh-English border country explored by Steinbeck in his search for King Arthur, Jones is a Stanford University professor with a capacious vocabulary and a novel perspective on Steinbeck as a writer of “anthropocene fiction,” in which human behavior affects and is influenced by drought, flood, and other portents of climate change. Heavy going for a Friday in May perhaps, but the crowd in Salinas didn’t flag. Like Steinbeck after writing nonstop or collecting specimens on the Sea of Cortez, they knew a beer was waiting in the cooler the next day.

Photo of John Steinbeck beer by Eric Mora, National Steinbeck Center.

International Relations Explored at John Steinbeck Conference in San Jose

Cover image from Dutch edition of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck lovers from all over convene this Wednesday at San Jose State University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, where Steinbeck experts will probe literary influences, international relations, and various cultural collisions found in the author’s controversial writing and reputation. Speakers for the May 4-6 conference, hosted by the International Society of Steinbeck Scholars, include Robert DeMott and Susan Shillinglaw—former directors of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State and authors of major books on Steinbeck’s life and work—as well Richard Astro, a pioneer in the study of Steinbeck’s friend and collaborator Ed Ricketts; Mimi Gladstein, a Texas theater and English professor who writes about Steinbeck’s depiction of women; and Paul Douglass, an expert on modern literature and philosophy at San Jose State who served as the Steinbeck Center’s director from 2005 to 2013. The conference organizers—led by Nick Taylor, the center’s current director, and Barbara Heavilin, the editor of Steinbeck Review—are prepared for sparks to fly and made plans accordingly. When the conference closes on Friday, attendees will have the option of boarding a bus for Salinas, 90 minutes south of San Jose, where they can decompress by enjoying the 2016 Steinbeck Festival, “Steinbeck on Land and Sea.”

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Sea of Cortez at 75: Salinas, California Celebrates John Steinbeck on Land and Sea

Cover image from 1941 Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts

The annual Steinbeck Festival held in John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, California is back. In celebration of Steinbeck’s enduring legacy as a writer-activist-ecologist, and the land-and-sea ethic exemplified in his 1941 work Sea of Cortez, the May 6-8, 2016 festival—“Steinbeck on Land and Sea”—features activities designed for a variety of tastes, including informal “JON talks,” documentary films, and tours of the Red Pony Ranch, Ed Ricketts’s lab, and Steinbeck’s Salinas. Whale-watching off the Monterey coast is also part of the mix.

Image of the 2016 John Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California

Image of the 2016 John Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California

Guest speakers exemplify the festival’s land-and-sea theme from a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. They include the distinguished Steinbeck scholar Robert DeMott talking about a favorite subject, Steinbeck and fishing; William Souder, the critically acclaimed biographer of Rachel Carson and John James Audubon, introducing his biography-in-progress of John Steinbeck; Katie Rodger, an expert on Ed Ricketts, discussing a newly published essay by Steinbeck’s close friend and collaborator; Kyle Van Houtan, Director of Science at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, on the land-and-sea-and-culture link found in studying sea turtle populations in Hawaii; Gavin Jones, chair of the English department at Stanford University, on Steinbeck, land, drought, and race; and the writer Mary Ellen Hannibal talking about her new book on citizen science and its connections to Steinbeck, Ricketts, and their acquaintance Joseph Campbell.

Image of John Steinbeck's Sea of Cortez collaborator Ed Ricketts

The multicultural character of this year’s festival line-up matches the population of Salinas, California—and a pattern in John Steinbeck’s life and work, including Sea of Cortez. The author Sergio Chavez, the photographer Daniel Ruanova, and the documentary filmmaker Ignacio Rodriguez will discuss the cultural impact of braceros in the Salinas Valley, Jean Vengua will talk about Fillipino newspapers, and Eric Palmer will show a “teaser” of his new documentary film about Japanese flower growers in the area. John Gregg, owner of the boat Steinbeck and Ricketts sailed to the Sea of Cortez in 1940, will update festival-goers about restoration work on The Western Flyer. Harold Augenbraum, former Director of the National Book Award, will discuss Steinbeck’s frequently-taught novel The Pearl in English and Spanish. Stanford biology professor William Gilly will recount his 2004 trip retracing Steinbeck and Ricketts’s expedition to Baja, and how the Sea of Cortez has changed since Steinbeck and Ricketts made their voyage and wrote their book.

Image of The Western Flyer

Beer was consumed on The Western Flyer, and Steinbeck once appeared in a magazine ad for Ballantine Ale. This connection to Steinbeck’s life on land and sea will be celebrated in Steinbeck Home Brew Fest, staged in the National Steinbeck Center’s beer garden in collaboration with the Steinbeck Rotary Club, and in “Craft Beer 101,” one of several half-hour “JON talks” planned for this year’s festival. In a related tribute to California’s land-and-sea culture, David Dennis of Ventana Surfboards will show how he makes surfboards from Steinbeck-themed wood.

One-day and three-day tickets can be purchased online at the National Steinbeck Center website or by calling 831-775-4721.