“Steinbeckian” hasn’t achieved the currency of “Orwellian” as a term of obloquy for despotic language or behavior, but a cheerfully statistical item in The Atlantic reports that sales of John Steinbeck’s novel The Winter of Our Discontent—like George Orwell’s 1984—have spiked under the authoritarian shadow of Donald Trump, a bully and a blowhard of Steinbeckian, if not Orwellian, stature. While less apocalyptic than George Orwell’s nightmare dystopia, the world of The Winter of Our Discontent seethes with rancid resentment, greed, and xenophobia of the noisy, feculent variety increasingly associated with Donald Trump’s resurgent, alt-right America. The Atlantic article explains: “If the links between the events of the recent year and Steinbeck’s last book don’t seem entirely clear, The Atlantic’s review, published in 1961, is illuminating: ‘What is genuine, familiar, and identifiable [about the book] is the way Americans beat the game: the land-taking before the airport is built, the quick bucks, the plagiarism, the abuse of trust, the near theft, which, if it succeeds, can be glossed over—these are the guilts with which Ethan will have to live in his coming prosperity, and one wonders how happily.’” Steinbeckian is a good term for a bad leader who beat the American game, achieving personal prosperity and political power through means that can only be described as Orwellian.
I’m a small-town high school teacher and newspaper columnist, and every month I pick a new book, usually a literary novel, to read and recommend to my followers, who seem to enjoy what I have to say. Recently I chose The Winter of Our Discontent, and I confess it was because of the title rather than the content. But John Steinbeck’s novel is an apt expression of what I see as the winter of our discontent in the United States today, and it reflects the reality I face every day in my classroom.
When I chose The Winter of Our Discontent, I confess it was because of the title rather than the content.
As John Steinbeck fans know, The Winter of Our Discontent tells the story of a simple grocery store clerk, an outwardly respectable man named Ethan Allen Hawley, and his moral descent into corruption and crime. Steinbeck’s moral tale gave me plenty of “ah-hah” and “why, yes” moments—the kind of experience one expects from excellent literature, and the reason I recommended it in my column. As Steinbeck notes in the novel, “A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home in it. Only then can he accept wonders.”
Steinbeck’s moral tale gave me plenty of ‘ah-hah’ and ‘why, yes’ moments—the kind of experience one expects from excellent literature, and the reason I recommended it in my column.
Though written years before the invention of the internet and social media, Steinbeck’s cautionary words are well-suited to our digitally-driven era. At this point in Steinbeck’s narrative, Ethan is thinking about how he has to shape his stories, or lies, to fit his hearers, and about a king in another story who told his secrets down a well because “It only receives, and the echo it gives back is quiet and soon over.” If only that were true today. For every tweet sent, there is usually a careless reader who misunderstands, misinterprets, or misappropriates the sender’s message, creating a backlash that becomes a raging beast that takes on a life of its own.
For every tweet sent, there is usually a careless reader who misunderstands, misinterprets, or misappropriates the sender’s message.
I don’t spend much time reading the comments people leave below online news stories or Facebook posts, but when I do I’m amazed at how far they wander from the point of the story or post. As Steinbeck knew, we take things out of context and add our own prejudices when we read or listen, and while I enjoy friendly banter as much as he did, I’m tired of the nastiness to which people increasingly resort when they don’t understand or approve of someone else’s point. I’m especially disgruntled when negative comments come from leaders who ought to know better and set an example for others.
As Steinbeck knew, we take things out of context and add our own prejudices when we read or listen.
As a school teacher, I recognized the truth in John Steinbeck’s unflattering portrayal of Ethan’s teenage children, particularly Ethan’s son Allen, and this line from the novel really made me laugh: “Three things will never be believed–the true, the probable, and the logical.” Often my students don’t believe me when I tell them something that is demonstrably true, then give instant credence to the next rumor they hear or read online, repeating it as if it were gospel truth. Fewer and fewer adults seem capable of logical thinking, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised. If you’re a teenager who isn’t capable of sound reasoning, you’re unlikely to believe someone who uses it. Like their parents, too many adolescents today are prepared to accept negative surface propaganda while doubting deeper truths.
Like their parents, too many adolescents today are prepared to accept negative surface propaganda while doubting deeper truths.
Is this because people want to take the easy way out of every problem, as Steinbeck suggests in The Winter of Our Discontent? Ethan is appalled when he learns that the patriotic essay for which Allen has won a cash award has been plagiarized. But Ethan’s reaction is hypocritical, because by this point in the story he has stooped pretty low himself. Unlike his father however, Allen shows no remorse, defending his behavior in much the same way my students defend their reliance on the internet so that they don’t have to do any thinking for themselves. Instead, when Allen’s plagiarism is exposed he gets mad at the person who ratted on him and utters the rallying cry of all cheaters and thieves: “‘Who cares? Everybody does it.’” Like John Steinbeck, I care, and I care very much. I’m weary of calling out cheaters like Allen in my classroom. Like Ethan in the novel, I sometimes think about throwing in the towel and calling it quits.
I’m weary of calling out cheaters like Allen in my classroom. Like Ethan in the novel, I sometimes think about throwing in the towel and calling it quits.
Ethan has had his own “Who cares?” moments growing up, but he had the advantage of a perfect teacher in his Aunt Deborah, a character I liked because I love words, grammar, literature, and everything associated with language, just as she does. When Ethan comes across the word talisman and asks her what it means, she tells him to look it up. As a result, he recalls, “So many words are mine because Aunt Deborah first aroused my curiosity and then forced me to satisfy it by my own effort. . . . She cared deeply about words and she hated their misuse as she would hate the clumsy handling of any fine thing.” When he finds the definition of talisman he discovers new words that he is forced to look up, too. “It was always that way,” he says. “One word set off others like a string of firecrackers.”
Aunt Deborah is a character I liked because I love words, grammar, literature, and everything associated with language, just as she does.
I highlighted the passage in the novel because I love the simile, and I love the way Steinbeck manages to incorporate his passion for words into an otherwise depressing story. Now, more than ever, we need Aunt Deborahs in our lives to make us aware of the beauty and magic of words at an early age. No doubt this idea impressed me because of the prejudices I bring with me to when I read John Steinbeck: others might roll their eyes because they don’t share my experience. Steinbeck fully understood the limitation we bring to our reading, and he wrote The Winter of Our Discontent in part, I believe, to help readers participate in the remedy he offers. Much has changed since The Winter of Our Discontent was written, but the deep truths to be discovered in Ethan’s story apply today. The winter of our discontent in the United States will end eventually, I hope sooner rather than later , but The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck will always have lessons for us—if we have ears to listen and love words enough to understand.
A few days ago I bought a second copy of Steve Crouch’s 1973 photography book Steinbeck Country from a young man in financial trouble, the only reason I made the purchase. That evening I glanced at several chapters. They were powerful and prescient (“ . . . the seeds of desperation are at hand. They may already have been planted.’’), and I had to keep reminding myself that the book wasn’t written by John Steinbeck. Why I had it in my head that Steve Crouch–a top-tier photographer–shouldn’t be a fine writer as well, I have no idea.
Steve Crouch–a gentleman I knew only slightly–seemed to have absorbed some of John Steinbeck’s style and love for Monterey County. Each of the 20 chapters of his book leads off with a quotation from Steinbeck’s writing, and the chapter titles (“The Farmers,” “The Spanish,” “The River Valley,” “The Mountains”) have Steinbeck’s simplicity. One—“The Mexicans—is especially relevant to the threats made against the nation’s Mexican-American population in the recent presidential campaign.
I met Steve when I was a reporter at the Monterey Herald, where he would occasionally take on freelance assignments. I don’t know whether he was ever a staff member, but I recall seeing him in 1973, not long after Steinbeck Country had been published by American West Publishing Company of Palo Alto. I recall Steve smiling shyly and scratching the back of his head when someone stopped to compliment him on the book, as if the book’s success had come as a complete surprise to him. I wasn’t into Steinbeck yet, and my interest in the book at the time was simply for its exquisite photography. If I could go back I’d ask him about the people and places he discovered during his travels around Monterey County, his meetings and relations with the people and the land celebrated by John Steinbeck in The Pastures of Heaven, Cannery Row, and East of Eden.
Steve’s intimate familiarity with Monterey County is evident in a chapter called “The Wind.” No one can write about the Salinas Valley convincingly without writing about the wind, and Steve experienced its harshness when he photographed farm laborers: “The people who work in the fields come prepared against the wind, muffled to the eyes, for the wind can cut to the bone. Men riding the tractors resemble Bedouins of the desert.’’ I experienced the same winds, though less painfully, in my job as a reporter. For instance, while covering a high school baseball game in the valley one day, I witnessed a player throw his cap in anger. The afternoon wind blew the cap high up onto the backstop and, roaring, held it there for the entire game, several hours. It ripped pages from my reporter’s notebook. Imagine what it could do to stoop laborers, men and women, cutting lettuce heads.
The people who work in the fields come prepared against the wind, muffled to the eyes, for the wind can cut to the bone. Men riding the tractors resemble Bedouins of the desert.
In “The Mexicans” Steve quotes To a God Unknown, then tells the story of the legendary bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, a kind of Latin Robin Hood who died in 1875 at the end of a rope. Though honored in memory by many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, Vasquez may not have been Mexican at all: “[I]n those days of ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian,’ it was also said that ’the only good Mexican is a dead Mexican.’” Of mixed blood, Tiburcio Vasquez “was too dark ever to be taken for Anglo-Saxon,” and Anglo migrants from the East were moving in on Monterey County’s Mexican-Americans. “That his cause was hopeless did not matter,” Steve writes. “[W]hat was important was that he provided a champion for the Mexicans when they needed one.’’
Tiburcio Vasquez, a Latin Robin Hood who died in 1875 at the end of a rope, was a champion for the Mexicans when they needed one.
Moving on to the field worker strikes of the 1960s and 70s, Steve points to another form of Mexican-American displacement: “Mexicans who live on the farms are moving away, displaced by machines. Most of them have become permanent residents of the valley towns . . . . When they do work, the pay is good, particularly when a complete family works—and Mexican families often muster as many as eight or ten to work.” Reporting from Salinas, I saw instances where this ethic could be detrimental. For instance, there was a basketball coach at Alisal High named Jim Rear. Season after season he brilliantly coached a group of short (for basketball) Mexican-American players into smart, winning teams. When labor was needed some parents pulled their sons from the team to work in the fields, perhaps costing their children academic advancement or college scholarships in return for not much, but necessary, family money. Several players, some of them fine students, told me that their parents failed to see the need for extra school activities—including sports—when the boys could be earning money in the fields.
When they do work, the pay is good, particularly when a complete family works—and Mexican families often muster as many as eight or ten to work
After Steve died in 1984, the late photographer Al Weber saved his work from a trip to the dump. Steve’s book has become a classic, and his photos of John Steinbeck’s Monterey County are now part of the special collection at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The second copy of Steinbeck Country I bought was inscribed by a woman named Rosalind to a man named Larry, who “introduced me not only to Steinbeck, but to so many of the beauties within the pages of this book. May `Steinbeck Country’ bring you some of the pleasure and joy you have brought me.‘’
Steve Crouch must have liked that. I think Steinbeck would too.
Photograph of Steve Crouch @Martha Casanave.
The main action of Monterey Bay, Lindsay Hatton’s debut novel, takes place in 1940, a big year for John Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts, and Monterey’s Cannery Row, where Hatton’s story is set. Waves churned up by the publication of The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 were swamping Steinbeck, who made his escape to the Sea of Cortez in the spring of 1940 with his friend Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist mythologized by Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row. Hatton—who spent summers working at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on modern-day Cannery Row—leverages John Steinbeck’s predicament and Ed Ricketts’s reputation as a lover of women not his wife in her tale of an anti-ingenue’s coming of age among flawed men in an era less sexually prohibitive than our own. Other writers who have fictionalized events involving John Steinbeck, such as Steve Hauk, draw their characters exclusively from real life. Hatton—a resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts—mixes fantasy and reality to create Margot Fiske, a 15-year-old with chops and attitude who takes up with Ed Ricketts and clashes with John Steinbeck. Steinbeck employed a similar technique in his writing after Sea of Cortez (1941), notably Cannery Row and East of Eden. Readers didn’t seem to mind then, and they probably won’t now. Read a full review to learn more about Lindsay Hatton and Monterey Bay.
Shortly after emigrating to America in 1939 with the poet W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, the British author of Berlin Stories, wrote a review of The Grapes of Wrath for Kenyon Review, the new American literary magazine that—like John Steinbeck—quickly gained prestige and influence with readers and critics in the United States. Intimate friends since school days in England, Isherwood and Auden arrived in New York in January. Isherwood moved on to California, and in July confided this to his diary: “I forced myself to write—a review of The Grapes of Wrath and a short story called “I Am Waiting”—but there was no satisfaction in it.” Despite his mood, Isherwood’s review of The Grapes of Wrath was upbeat and positive; like the diaries, novels, and plays that he produced over five decades in America, his insights (and criticism) seem as fresh today as they were in 1939. What made Christopher Isherwood, an adoptive American, so receptive to John Steinbeck’s all-American novel when it was published? Temperamentally and socially the two men were opposites. Steinbeck preferred privacy and solitude to self-confession and self-promotion, the distinguishing features of Isherwood’s career as the main character in his books. Steinbeck’s people were middle-class, immigrant, and self-made; Isherwood came from landed gentry with deep roots in English history. But both men believed in the power of sympathy and synchronicity, and coincidence can be as important as difference in life, as in literature.
John Steinbeck, Christopher Isherwood, and Synchronicity
Both writers were born in the decade prior to World War I, when America—like England—was outgrowing Victorianism. Both were christened (and later confirmed) into the Anglican Church, an experience that effected their prose style, if not their souls. Each was an elder or only son in a family dominated by an ambitious mother: Isherwood’s father was a British infantry officer who was killed at Ypres in 1915, leaving behind a wife and two sons, an older brother who inherited the Isherwood fortune, and three younger siblings with Steinbeckian names—John, Esther, and Mary. From childhood, John Steinbeck and Christopher Isherwood were imaginative storytellers with a drive to write that drove them to drop out of college to follow their muse. By 1940 both had achieved success in their calling and hobnobbing with film-world celebrities and hangers-on in Hollywood. Despite holding opposite views about the value of autobiography, both worked well in various forms, writing novels, play-novelettes, travel books, and war correspondence that attracted a following. Each loved the warmth of the sun and the sound of the sea—unlike W.H. Auden, who stayed behind in New York in 1939 when Isherwood left for Los Angeles, where Isherwood remained until he died in 1986. (He became an American citizen in 1946.) Oddly, though Hollywood was a village and they had mutual friends in the business, neither Isherwood’s dairies not Steinbeck’s biographers suggest that they ever met.
W.H. Auden and His Kind Weren’t John Steinbeck’s
Nature and nurture conspired to keep them apart. Like other members of W.H. Auden’s circle, Isherwood was openly gay from an early age. Steinbeck grew up in small-town Salinas, where deviance was closeted; the Isherwoods were cosmopolitan provincials with property in London (Isherwood’s Uncle Henry was homosexual, and a jurist ancestor signed King Charles’s death warrant). Unlike Steinbeck, who struggled at the start and stayed in America until established, Isherwood inherited position, connections, and cash that helped pave his way, traveling extensively in Europe before settling in America. His exploration of Berlin’s pre-Nazi gay underground provided material for the 1930s Berlin fiction later adapted for stage and screen as Cabaret. His early novels—All the Conspirators (1928), The Memorial (1932), Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935)—sold better than Steinbeck’s books—Cup of Gold, The Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown—published in the same period. Above all, his relationships with other writers differed dramatically from those of Steinbeck. Isherwood was a born extrovert who wrote poetry and plays with W.H. Auden and nourished friendships with other famous authors, including Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann. Steinbeck took a disliking to Alfred Hitchcock, the quintessentially English snob who directed the war movie (Lifeboat) scripted by Steinbeck. Isherwood’s collaboration with the Austrian director Berthold Viertel was so gratifying that he wrote a novel (Prater Violet) about their friendship.
A Neglected Grapes of Wrath Review, Still Relevant Today
Christopher Isherwood had a reputation as a ready reviewer when he arrived in America with W.H. Auden, so the Grapes of Wrath assignment made sense. Although the piece he produced for The Kenyon Review is mentioned in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews (Cambridge University Press, 1996), that helpful anthology omits the full text, which seems a shame. Fortunately, it can be found in Exhumations (Simon and Schuster, 1966), a collection of Isherwood’s stories, articles, and verse that also includes reviews of authors (Stevenson, Wells, T.E. Lawrence) of interest to Steinbeck and Isherwood, two writers with more in common than their differences suggest. Here are four samples, still relevant, from the 1939 review of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath:
(1) On the Promise of Steinbeck’s California
“Meanwhile, the sharecroppers have to leave the Dust Bowl. They enter another great American cycle—the cycle of migration towards the West. They become actors in the classic tragedy of California. For Eldorado is tragic, like Palestine, like every other promised land.”
(2) On Participating in Steinbeck’s Story
“It is a mark of the greatest poets, novelists and dramatists that they all demand a high degree of co-operation from their audience. The form may be simple, and the language as plain as daylight, but the inner meaning, the latent content of a masterpiece, will not be perceived without a certain imaginative and emotional effort. . . . The novelist of genius, by presenting the particular instance, indicates the general truth [but] the final verdict, the ultimate synthesis, must be left to the reader; and each reader will modify it according to his needs. The aggregate of all these individual syntheses is the measure of the impact of a work of art upon the world.”
(3) On Didacticism in Fiction
“Mr. Steinbeck, in his eagerness for the cause of the sharecroppers and his indignation against the wrongs they suffer, has been guilty, throughout this book, of such personal, schoolmasterish intrusions upon the reader. Too often we feel him at our elbow, explaining, interpreting, interfering with our independent impressions. And there are moments at which Ma Joad and Casy—otherwise such substantial figures—seem to fade into mere mouthpieces, as the author’s voice comes through, like the other voice on the radio.”
(4) On Art vs. Life in Novels
“If you claim that your characters’ misfortunes are due to the existing system, the reader may retort that they are actually brought about by the author himself. Legally speaking, it was Mr. Steinbeck who murdered Casy and killed Grampa and Granma Joad. In other words, fiction is fiction. Its truths are parallel to, but not identical with, the truths of the real world.”
Henry David Thoreau, Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck liked to fish, and the pantheon of American literature is populated by a legion of other sports-loving authors who celebrated the pleasures of fly fishing—like writing, a solitary pursuit requiring patience, persistence, and skill. Few scholars of American literature have made the connection between fly fishing and writing in their careers as convincingly as the poet-scholar Robert DeMott, Kennedy Distinguished Professor Emeritus of American Literature at Ohio University. The author of essential studies of John Steinbeck’s reading and writing, DeMott is also the editor of Working Days, the collection of journals kept by Steinbeck while writing The Grapes of Wrath, and of an anthology, Astream: American Writers on Fly Fishing. All this makes the title of his new book—Angling Days: A Fly Fisher’s Journals—doubly poetic, particularly for fans of John Steinbeck. “No matter how deeply and obsessively I go into fly fishing for trout, a passion of mine for 60 years,” DeMott says, “I try never to lose sight of John Steinbeck’s comment in a lovely little essay of his called ‘On Fishing,’ that ‘any man who pits his intelligence against a fish and loses has it coming.’” Angling Days will be released by Skyhorse Publishing on June 28. Whether or not you love fly fishing like DeMott, it belongs on your John Steinbeck shelf.
“Your only weapon is your work.” That was John Steinbeck’s advice to writers in a 1957 letter to Dennis Murphy, the son of Steinbeck’s boyhood pal John Murphy. Like Steinbeck’s mother, the Murphy family of Salinas had Irish roots, and Irishness figured later in Steinbeck’s autobiographical writing. So it’s appropriate that Colum McCann—the Irish author (shown here) who posts a weekly letter of advice to young writers on his website—makes such a point of comparing New York Times investigative reporter Dan Barry to John Steinbeck in blurbs and interviews about Barry’s new book, The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland. Listen to Colum McCann’s May 23 New York Times Insider interview— “The Closest We Have to Steinbeck” —and learn how Dan Barry’s expose of one recent case of human exploitation in Iowa echoes Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath—the weapon John Steinbeck used to expose living conditions for victim labor in California 80 years ago.
Notes from a Broken Nation: Carmel, California’s Michael Katakis Shatters the Myth of American Exceptionalism
Good news from Down Under. A Thousand Shards of Glass, a collection of essays, letters, and journal entries by the travel writer-photographer Michael Katakis, has been published in paperback and eBook by The Author People, an Australian outfit with a pioneering approach to book publishing. Founded in 2015 by Lou Johnson and Tom Galletta, the firm is dedicated to connecting authors with their audiences, wherever they may be around the world.
The most recent collection of essays, letters, and journal entries by the travel writer-photographer Michael Katakis has been published in paperback and eBook by The Author People, an Australian outfit with a pioneering approach to book publishing.
I first read A Thousand Shards of Glass in 2014, the year Simon & Schuster released a hardback edition of the book in Australia and the United Kingdom while ignoring its intended market—the United States. Since then, I’ve met Michael Katakis in Carmel, California, his part-time home, and I admire his perceptiveness as a thinker, writer, and photographer. Like John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, he’s an American author with a distinctive point of view, writing for a country described by Gore Vidal as “the United States of Amnesia.”
Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Vidal come up frequently in conversation with Katakis, an imposing figure with a similar intensity. In his talk, as in his career, his range of knowledge and engagement is impressive. He’s the manager of Hemingway’s literary estate, and an expert on the author. He knows much (but, diplomatically, says little) about Carmel, California, a place Steinbeck once characterized as a haven for hacks. During a chance meeting with Vidal in Los Angeles when Katakis was a warm-up singer for the Herb Alpert band, the young musician felt his life change, and he became a photographer and writer with a Vidalian urge to explore, and to question.
Katakis’s famous photo of Maya Lin, the artist of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, became contentious when he challenged an act of censorship by the National Portrait Gallery and asked for the picture’s return.
His famous photo of Maya Lin, the artist of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, became contentious when he challenged an act of censorship by the National Portrait Gallery and asked for the picture’s return. His books include Photographs and Words with Dr. Kris Harden, co-authored with his late wife, a beloved anthropologist and ideal life-mate. Traveller: Observations from an American in Exile, published in 2009, has a foreword by Michael Palin, a fellow traveler and friend.
Like Vidal, Katakis thinks that the myth of American exceptionalism is not only foolish, but dangerous. Like Vidal, he favors living abroad and seeing Americans as others see us: self-involved but unreflective; self-righteous, but also hypocritical; militantly religious and religiously militant; obsessed by money and addicted to oil; shrewd in deal-making, yes, but easily duped by flag-pin politicians.
Like The Grapes of Wrath, Katakis’s book telegraphs its message through the metaphor contained in its title.
Like a Hemingway novel that anchors the ideas expressed in experience, A Thousand Shards of Glass consists of a series of episodes—9/11, Kris’s death, meeting Gore Vidal—described in short sentences and simple words to convey their meaning. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Katakis’s book telegraphs its message through the metaphor contained in its title. As the author explained it to an Australian interviewer in 2014, “In order to understand America one must realize that it is not a country, it’s a store where everything is for sale, every principle, ethic and friend.” The job of a serious writer, then—like that of the photojournalist—is to reveal the face under the makeup, the reality behind the myth.
Katakis’s picture of America, like Steinbeck’s, isn’t always pretty. Kris, diagnosed with a brain tumor in the prime of life, becomes a tragic victim of the pre-Obama American health care horror show. Vidal is first encountered on a TV set decades earlier, talking with Eugene McCarthy about America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam. Since then the US has doubled down, a nation of true believers where (to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens) religion ruins everything and (Vidal again) history teaches nothing. Clint Eastwood, the former mayor of Carmel, California, insults an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention, an embarrassment Katakis recalls when he passes Eastwood in a hospital hallway.
Like a Hemingway novel that anchors the ideas expressed in experience, A Thousand Shards of Glass consists of a series of episodes described in short sentences and simple words to convey their meaning.
Bush’s phony Iraq war is fought in the name of Americans by 1% of the population living at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from Wall Street’s 1%. Hitchens, a guiding light to Katakis, loses his luster after 9/11, buying into Bush’s war in the Middle East for reasons Katakis ascribes to Hitchens’s upbringing as the son of a World War II vet. Katakis’s journal entry on 9/11 begins “. . . today hard terrorism hit soft terrorism.” Another, written four years later, describes Bush’s Rasputin, Karl Rove, dancing at a White House Correspondents’ dinner to the delight of reporters who are still high on the Bush & Company cool aid. Eventually, even the Beltway woke up and smelled the coffee, but Karl Rove’s victory dance is a useful reminder of how madness overtook America before Iraq imploded and sobriety set in.
Which raises the challenge posed by the book: do Americans never learn? Katakis explores the problem of American amnesia with people he meets in London, Paris, and Italy; like Hemingway and Vidal, he has perfect pitch in conversation, and he records what others say us with an infallible ear. His diagnosis of America’s mania for guns is framed by a fraught encounter with a woman from Eastern Europe, in London, following the Newton, Connecticut school shooting. “I think we Americans are afraid of each other, of everything,” he explains, despite “the fictional narrative of America that we have been selling for some time now.”
Quoting Hemingway, Katakis compares the global dominance of America’s ‘consumer corporate state’ with Britain’s East India Company two centuries ago—an undertaking of naked power wearing the fig leaf of moral righteousness.
Savoring Paris as Hemingway did decades earlier, he celebrates “the poetry of living” encountered abroad, the daily joie de vivre Americans have lost in “our obsession with our devices.” Quoting Hemingway, he compares the global dominance of America’s “consumer corporate state” with Britain’s East India Company two centuries ago—an undertaking of naked power wearing the fig leaf of righteousness. He and Kris move to Europe to protest Bush’s war, and to enjoy the poetry of living now lost in America, “the land of lists.” Their idyllic life abroad is interrupted by her father’s death; her diagnosis prevents their return. Numbed by her death, Katakis writes, “I have come to know that most Americans are sleepwalking.”
Like Vidal and Hitchens, Katakis is hard not to quote, and A Thousand Shards of Glass contains equally memorable sentences in abundance. So does a conversation with Katakis, as I learned over lunch in Carmel, California late last year, when I asked him if he thought the Bernie Sanders insurgency showed that Americans are finally waking up. He said yes, repeating the comment, quoted earlier, that he made to the Australian interviewer about America’s self-illusion in 2014. When his wife died he lost the “true north” in his life, but he’s getting his bearings again, and a note of hope for an awakening has emerged in his writing.
Fans of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Orwell, Vidal, and Hitchens—the bright constellation in Katakis’s dark sky—will delight in his references and allusions to their writing in A Thousand Shard of Glass. Bernie Sanders supporters will discover that, on almost every issue, Katakis was there first, before the presidential campaign brought American exceptionalism into question on problems of foreign and domestic policy. In response to my followup question about presidential politics before writing this review, Katakis said this:
I have often wondered what it means to be moral or how to live an ethical life in accelerated and morally ambiguous times which have seemingly allowed for rationalizations of thoughts and conduct by individuals and institutions, that just a short time ago, would have been considered unacceptable and injurious to the common good. Marcus Aurelius wrote that “the soul becomes dyed with the color of it’s thoughts,” suggesting one of the steps toward morality was the self control of our darker selves. Gore Vidal wrote that ‘we’ Americans, ” learn nothing because we remember nothing.” That is painfully demonstrated by any objective observer watching the 2016 Republican presidential primary. We have lost our way. If we remembered our own history, we would hear in the voice of Donald Trump, and his supporters, the voices of Father Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy. They would hear the fear mongering and the insults that have been the tried and true tactic of scoundrels who have never offered anything but a scorched earth. But we Americans, in our ignorance and conceit, do not know our history and, as a collective, are not a good people. To those dark voices among us I can think of no more eloquent response than that of Mr. Joseph Welch to Senator Joseph McCarthy on June 9, 1954: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
John Steinbeck invited his readers to participate in his fiction. Overhearing Gore Vidal changed Michael Katakis, helping him to become a writer. Participate in the result of that inspiration by reading A Thousand Shards of Glass. You’ll change, too.
Though they were born a generation apart on opposite coasts, John Steinbeck and Gore Vidal—bestselling writers with close ties to Broadway, Hollywood, and progressive politics—had much in common. Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal, by John Steinbeck’s versatile biographer Jay Parini, considers the controversial author of Lincoln, Burr, and Myra Breckinridge to be a master of historical fiction, a literary form that didn’t fit Steinbeck but suited Vidal, who renewed its energy and spawned a generation of imitators. Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College and a poet-novelist-critic who understands what creative writers endure for their craft, Parini suits Vidal particularly well as a biographer. Like John Steinbeck: A Life (1995), his life of Gore Vidal provides a contemporary writer’s perspective on a controversial literary career, with an advantage not shared by biographers of Steinbeck. Parini and Vidal were friends until Vidal’s death in 2012, and Parini had frequent conversations with his fascinating subject, who gave him free access to Vidal’s extraordinary circle of friends, associates, and yes, enemies.
Jay Parini, John Steinbeck, and the Case for Gore Vidal
The result of that fortunate relationship is a compelling chronicle—detailed in research, comprehensive in scope, and convincing in its case for Gore Vidal as a 20th century writer who, like John Steinbeck, is worth reading in the 21st. Describing himself as Vidal’s Boswell, Parini views his volatile subject with the empathy of a colleague and the wonder of a disciple, forgiving without judging, or ignoring, the master’s faults. This is an advisable stance for any biographer, but it serves Gore Vidal’s peculiar personality and expansive sense of self particularly well. John Steinbeck was a shy man with a domestic situation that made research and publication difficult for biographers following his death in 1968. Vidal, who admired Steinbeck and served as a source for Parini’s Steinbeck biography, avoided this danger by admonishing Parini to note the potholes but keep in his eye on the road when writing the biography that Vidal made Parini promise he would finish when Vidal was gone.
Parini views his subject with the empathy of a colleague and the wonder of a disciple, forgiving without judging, or ignoring, the master’s faults.
A gentle sort without Vidal’s sharp edges, Parini kept the bargain, filling in the self-narrative begun by Vidal in the novels Vidal wrote in his 20s, in essays and interviews and plays over a period of six decades, and in a pair of provocative memoirs that leave no prisoners. As suggested by the title Parini chose for his biography of this great-but-not-good man, Vidal’s story fascinates because it records the self-invention of a born storyteller who wrote prodigiously, characterized non-historical fiction like Myra Breckinridge as “inventions,” and considered bitchiness and versatility to be evidence of talent. He was as competitive with writers as we was in sex, and he fought publicly with colleagues who crossed or criticized him. He attacked Truman Capote, a soft enemy, and made scenes with Norman Mailer, a tougher target. He suggested that John Steinbeck, who avoided snits with other writers, was a bit of a one-note: “He “didn’t ‘invent’ things,” Vidal said of Steinbeck. “He ‘found’ them.”
Gore Vidal and John Steinbeck: Two Lives in Letters
Like Samuel Johnson, John Steinbeck and Gore Vidal were thin-skinned, temperamental men with mother issues. Both felt sorry for their fathers and identified with their fathers’ fathers, stronger figures, in their writing. Steinbeck compensated for self-doubt by avoiding public appearances and entangling private alliances beyond a loyal circle of friends, collaborators, and relatives. “Your only weapon,” he advised a young writer whose father was a boyhood friend, “is your work.” Vidal, a domineering narcissist, adopted the opposite strategy, creating a public persona built around conflict, desire, and adulation. Work was one weapon. So was a personality that, as Jay Parini observes, others could love or leave but never outrun. Steinbeck was a turtle. Vidal was a hare.
John Steinbeck and Gore Vidal were thin-skinned, temperamental men with mother issues. Steinbeck was a turtle. Vidal was a hare.
Reared in a rural California town where the Republican Party ruled and the Episcopal church was a center of social life, John Steinbeck got off to a slow start as a writer. Cup of Gold, his first novel, fails as historical fiction about a far-off time and place; an early attempt at mythic allegory, To a God Unknown, succeeds only because it is rooted in familiar soil. He finally found his voice in three novels, written during the Great Depression, about America’s rural underclass: ranch hands and farm workers in California, migrant sharecroppers from Oklahoma. He lived in small houses and wrote in small rooms and never forgot what it was like to go without; he feared success, and and he was right. A New Deal Democrat, he wrote political speeches but refused to make them. As with Gore Vidal, alcohol was a social lubricant, but to opposite effect. Vidal performed in company. Steinbeck looked and listened. Steinbeck liked working people, preferably farmers, and, like Faulkner, he lived part-time in the past. So did Vidal, of course, but his past was imagined rather than remembered.
Vidal performed in company. Steinbeck looked and listened. He liked working people, preferably farmers, and lived part-time in the past.
Vidal was born in Washington during the administration of Calvin Coolidge and spent his happiest times at the Rock Creek Park home of his blind grandfather T.P. Gore of Mississippi, elected U.S. Senator from Oklahoma when Oklahoma became a state. Vidal’s roots were Deep South (Al Gore is a distant relative), but his social centers as a boy were Capitol Hill, New York, and the mansions of his grandfather and his mother’s second husband, Hugh Auchincloss, a millionaire who later married the mother of Jackie Kennedy. Like Steinbeck, Vidal was christened as an Episcopalian, but he attended St. Albans, an exclusive academy run by the Episcopal Church, rather than public school. He fell in love with a classmate, and both enlisted at age 18. The boy he loved was killed in combat and, as Parini suggests, left a hole in Vidal’s heart that lasted for a lifetime.
Like Steinbeck, Vidal was christened as an Episcopalian, but he attended St. Albans, an exclusive academy run by the Episcopal Church, rather than public school.
He disliked his mother, liked his father’s girlfriends, and imbibed the Dixiecrat politics of his Grandfather Gore, which were to the right of the Steinbeck family’s progressive California Republicanism. Parini describes the anti-New Deal bias Senator Gore shared with Dixiecrat allies like Huey Long as “Tory populism”: anti-corporate, anti-war, and anti-statist, anti-values that defined Vidal’s vision of America as a Republic gone bad, like Rome, in his political essays, his historical fiction, and his campaigns for public office, first as candidate for Congress from New York, later for Governor of California. If Vidal read The Grapes of Wrath to Senator Gore as a teenager, a distinct possibility, the old man probably reacted like his fellow Oklahoman, Lyle Boren, who denounced Steinbeck’s depiction of Oklahoma from the floor of the U.S. House: with denial and disdain. Vidal’s view of America as a child was that of his grandfather’s political class: nativist, isolationist, and distrustful of Wilsonian-Rooseveltian democracy. His ambitions as an adult, like his homes on the Hudson and in Italy, were imperial.
Vidal’s view of America as a child was nativist, isolationist, and distrustful of democracy. His ambitions as an adult, like his homes on the Hudson and in Italy, were imperial.
Parini records the first time Steinbeck and Vidal met, on May 8, 1955, at a Manhattan party given by the producer Martin Manulis following the TV broadcast of Visit to a Small Planet, Vidal’s satirical comedy about Cold War paranoia and gone-mad McCarthyism. Vidal’s sci-fi caricature of mid-America invaded by aliens eventually ran on Broadway and has since been revived. When Vidal met Steinbeck at the Manulis party, Steinbeck would have been involved in staging Pipe Dream, the musical adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday by Rodgers and Hammerstein that closed within months after opening later in 1955. Steinbeck’s wife Elaine, also present at the party, was a stage manager for the 1940s hit musical Oklahoma! and had a good eye. She remembered the 30-year-old Vidal as “a tense, smart, glittering young man” who shared Steinbeck’s “passion for politics” and got along with her husband. The two men shared a special affection for Eleanor Roosevelt and an admiration for Adlai Stevenson, neither of which would have appealed to their families back home.
Steinbeck and Vidal shared a special affection for Eleanor Roosevelt and an admiration for Adlai Stevenson, neither of which would have appealed to their families back home.
Vidal also felt an affinity for Steinbeck as an artist, noting to Parini that both authors had the ability to write narrative and dramatic works that people liked. Vidal said he envied Steinbeck’s “happy relation to Hollywood,” where Steinbeck’s work “adapted well” and “was treated with respect,” unlike his own. He observed, accurately, that the film East of Eden “brought Steinbeck to more people’s attention than a novel could have ever done.” And though both writers feared that television “spelled the end of the novel,” their most popular works in novel form have also proved to be their most enduring: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and East of Eden for Steinbeck; Burr, Lincoln, and other historical fiction of American Empire for Vidal. Of the book critics who were irritated by Steinbeck’s persistent popularity, Vidal observed, “they could never forgive Steinbeck for saying things that people wanted, or needed, to hear.” As Empire of Self shows, the same can be said of Gore Vidal.
A bright, breezy book timed for the 75th anniversary of Ricketts and Steinbeck’s famous expedition to the Sea of Cortez traces today’s environmental movement and the modern field of conservation biology to two prophets born ahead of their time, 10 years and 200 miles apart, more than a century ago. As Michael J. Lannoo dramatically demonstrates in Leopold’s Shack and Ricketts’s Lab: The Emergence of Environmentalism, Aldo Leopold and Ed Ricketts approached wildlife biology, marine biology, and the earth’s ecology in a whole new way, the result of intimate observation, original thinking, and lively conversation at Ricketts’s lab on Cannery Row and Leopold’s shack on reclaimed farmland in Wisconsin—apt metaphors for the sociable minds of two unconventional scientists whose parallel paths never crossed.
The story of Ricketts, marine biology, and the 1940 collecting expedition to the Sea of Cortez is familiar territory for Steinbeck fans and “Ed Heads,” the ardent admirers who consider Doc’s lab a shrine, like Lourdes. A less familiar narrative, equally fateful, was unfolding in the woods of Wisconsin during the same period, the 1930s and 40s, in the shack and mind of Aldo Leopold, the father of professional wildlife biology and author of Sand County Almanac (1949). Like Sea of Cortez, Leopold’s classic took time to gain steam; like Ricketts, Leopold died too soon to see his ideas change the course of science, land management, and the way we think.
Leopold died of a heart attack on the Wisconsin land he loved in 1948, months before the book that made him an environmental-movement hero was published. Two weeks later Ricketts was also dead, the result of injuries sustained when his car struck a train near his Cannery Row lab. Leopold, 10 years Ricketts’s senior, never met the transplanted Chicago native who made Cannery Row famous, in fiction and in fact. But Ricketts’s mystical thinking about marine biology eventually converged with Leopold’s ethic of wildlife biology to create the field of conservation biology and the holistic vision of today’s environmental movement, a benign way of living with nature minus the impulse to over-farm, over-fish, over-build, and over-populate. Like Steinbeck, Leopold was angered by urban sprawl and consumer waste. Like Steinbeck and Ricketts, he thought science was a saner faith than religion.
Ricketts’s mystical thinking about marine biology eventually converged with Leopold’s ethic of wildlife biology to create the field of conservation biology and the holistic vision of today’s environmental movement.
Leopold and Ricketts, opposites types in personality and behavior, come to life like the parallel protagonists of a Steinbeck novel in Lannoo’s elegant little book. Like all prophets, both men had their problems with power. Though Leopold’s 1933 work on game management became the standard textbook of its time, Sand County Almanac was passed over by publishers who doubted the commercial value of any collection of essays about nature not named Walden. Ricketts’s Between Pacific Tides (1939) eventually become a standard text for teaching marine biology, but not before it was rejected, accepted with edits, then endlessly delayed by Stanford University, its publisher. As for Sea of Cortez, does anyone think Viking Press would have touched that book without John Steinbeck’s name on the byline over “E.F. Ricketts”? True, Steinbeck mourned Ricketts’s death, but he later agreed to republish Sea of Cortez, with an essay “About Ed Ricketts” but without Ricketts’s name as co-author.
Leopold and Ricketts, opposites types in personality and behavior, come to life like the parallel protagonists of a Steinbeck novel in Lannoo’s elegant little book.
Fortunately, Michael Lannoo—a practicing scientist and popular writer about conservation biology—ignores this shameful incident, and other fetishes of what one wag calls the modern Steinbeck-studies industrial complex. Instead, he concentrates on the lives and science of his told-in-tandem subjects without the literary baggage that weighs down books about the anxiety of influence and the pleasures of symmetry by professors of English. He wisely lets Leopold and Ricketts stand on their own, unfolding their parallel stories in alternating chapters with Steinbeckian skill. Robert DeMott, the scholar and fly-fisherman who turned me on to this little gem, accurately describes Lannoo’s book as “blessedly free of cant, jargon, or technical obfuscation.” Read it and rejoice, but hear its message. Like Ricketts (who quit college) and Leopold (who went to forestry school), you don’t need a PhD to enjoy the exciting story or get the scary point. The disappearance of frogs and other species, Lannoo’s primary interest, is our generation’s Dust Bowl—“the defining event,” as Lannoo reminds us, “that made ecology suddenly relevant.”