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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Always Something to Do in Salinas: 2016 John Steinbeck Festival Celebrates Main Street and Sea of Cortez
The National Steinbeck Center will celebrate John Steinbeck’s life, time, and work May 6, 7, and 8 in Salinas, California, the writer’s home town. The 2016 John Steinbeck Festival—“From Salinas to Sea of Cortez: Steinbeck on Land and Sea”—boasts an all-star lineup (the Steinbeck scholar, poet, and fisherman Robert DeMott; Steinbeck’s biographer William Souder; Susan Shillinglaw, the Steinbeck center’s executive director) and a variety of topics, including Steinbeck’s 1940 voyage to the Sea of Cortez, Latino culture and writing in California, and the living heritage of Main Street Salinas. Says Shillinglaw, “There’s ‘always something to do in Salinas,’ as Steinbeck wryly noted in an essay by the same name, and there’s much that is ‘festive’ in the 2016 festival, with Steinbeck Rotary sponsoring Main Street’s first ‘Steinbeck’s Home Brew Fest’ and a beer garden on the NSC patio. In his 1955 essay, Steinbeck noted that the town’s motto was ‘Salinas is,’ adding, ‘I don’t know what that means, but there is no doubt of its compelling tone.’”
Some Walls Are Built as Bridges: San Jose State University Celebrates John Steinbeck and Civil Rights
Some walls separate. Others connect. Admirers at San Jose State University have built a handsome wall to commemorate John Steinbeck’s enduring connection with social justice and civil rights, a tie that is celebrated in the John Steinbeck “In the souls of people” Award, given 15 times since 1996 to artists, actors, writers, and activists whose work involves social change. The award ceremony is always a happy occasion, and the February 24 event honoring civil rights leader Ruby Bridges, the brave little schoolgirl described in Travels with Charley, was no exception.
The John Steinbeck award ceremony is always a happy occasion, and the February 24 event honoring Ruby Bridges, the brave little schoolgirl described in Travels with Charley, was no exception.
The Steinbeck award commemorative wall was created by the San Jose University Student Union and is located in the busy student activity building where most award events are held. Explains Nick Taylor, director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, “The wall consists of a series of disks tracing the timeline of the Steinbeck Award, with background on the rationale for each selection and a few details about each ceremony.” The California civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, an advocate for farm workers’ rights, is a past recipient. Bruce Springsteen received the first award in 1996.
Jim Kent, a member of the John Steinbeck center’s advisory board, traveled to San Jose from Denver for the February 24 event. “As a fan of Travels with Charley,” he said, “I was thrilled to meet the young lady Steinbeck observed as she braved white hecklers during the integration of the New Orleans elementary school where she was the first black student, back in 1960.” A social ecologist who uses Steinbeck in his work empowering citizens to control their own environments, Kent was helping to write federal legislation for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty when the Civil Rights Act of 1965—which owed much to writers like John Steinbeck—passed Congress. “Ruby Bridges was the perfect choice for this year’s award,” he added. “Like Steinbeck, she is a master storyteller. She attracted a capacity crowd made up of all ages and races, and her elegance inspired five standing ovations. There’s clearly a hunger for continued engagement with civil rights in our time. This was proof.”
Near the end of Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck celebrates the inspiring courage of Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old schoolgirl who advanced the cause of civil rights by breaking the Southern segregation barrier at a New Orleans elementary school 56 years ago. San Jose State University will honor Bridges’s lasting contribution to civil rights on February 24 by conferring the Steinbeck “In the souls of the people” Award—a program of the school’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies—on the 61-year-old author, activist, and advocate, who has been called the first foot soldier in the modern civil rights movement.
Steinbeck wrote Travels with Charley in sadness, and occasional shock, at the state of America in 1960, when he was 58, and he chose the South as the last stop on his journey of rediscovery and reconciliation because he recognized racism and civil rights as the fundamental conflict to be resolved if the country he loved was to survive. Watching grown white women curse the diminutive black girl entering William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans turned his stomach, as it did Americans reading newspaper accounts of the widely reported event. Though Ruby Bridges isn’t identified by name, Travels with Charley captures her image, braving the kind of mob Steinbeck depicted better than anyone, like a contemporary news photograph:
The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first skip the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.
Thanks in part to Travels with Charley, Ruby Bridges became an icon of civil rights for succeeding generations—a platform she has used brilliantly as a writer and speaker to advance the values of tolerance, understanding, and equality embraced by Steinbeck in his time. “John Steinbeck expressed concern over an injustice and wrote sympathetically of me when I was a young girl,” she explains. “In a way, we’ve come full circle. I now get to honor him by receiving an award bearing his name. I’m so proud to be part of this.”
Ruby Bridges will speak and accept the Steinbeck Award a public event—“An Evening with Ruby Bridges”—beginning at 7:30 p.m. on February 24 in San Jose State University’s Student Union Theater on the school’s downtown San Jose, California campus. Tickets are available at the Event Center Box Office (408-924-6333) or at Ticketmaster.com.