Colum McCann Compares New York Times Writer’s Book to The Grapes of Wrath

Image of Colum McCann

“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

Cover image from "A Thousand Shards of Glass," by Michael Katakis

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.”

Image of Michael Katakis

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.

Image of Maya Lin by Michael Katakis

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.

Image of John Steinbeck

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.

Image of Ernest Hemingway

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.”

Image of Gore Vidal

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.

Cover image from "Why Orwell Matters," by Christopher Hitchens

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.

John Steinbeck Biographer Writes Life of Gore Vidal, Master of Historical Fiction

Cover image of Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal, by Jay Parini

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.

Ed Ricketts, Aldo Leopold, And the Birth of the Modern Environmental Movement

Cover image of Leopold's Shack and Ricketts's Lab by Michael J. Lannoo

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.

Image of Ed Ricketts, subject of Michael J. Lannoo's book

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.

Image of Aldo Leopold, subject of Michael J. Lannoos' book

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.”

Stepdog: Steinbeck Parallels In New York Times Writer’s Storied Life and Latest Book

Image of New York Times writer Mia NavarroMia Navarro, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and author, recounts her remarkable career reporting on social issues raised by John Steinbeck in Stepdog, a domestic memoir all Steinbeck- and dog-lovers will appreciate. Like Travels with Charley, Mia’s dog-wags-woman tale reveals fault-lines, including blended-family fractures, in contemporary American culture. Steinbeck finally achieved marriage success with his third wife Elaine and her poodle Charley, despite daunting difficulties with his-and-hers children and a deeply resentful former spouse. Rather than focusing on kid or spouse issues, however, Mia lets her husband Jim’s jealous, un-Charley dog Eddie carry the theme: where divorce, finances, and careers are concerned, making marriage work is a labor of love.

Cover image of Stepdog, Mireya Navarro's new memoir

Though she looked elegant, beautiful, and perfectly poised, Mia was learning the truth about second marriages the hard way when I interviewed her in Denver five years ago about Green Wedding, her popular how-to book published in 2009 by Stewart, Tabori & Chang. During the interview she mentioned her recent wedding to Jim, a fellow journalist she met in Arizona before moving to California to report on West Coast style-trends for the Sunday New York Times. Like John Steinbeck and his first wife, Carol Henning, Mia and Jim had gotten married in Los Angeles as a matter of convenience. Unlike the Steinbecks—small-town Californians who grew up in conservative Protestant families—Mia and Jim came from different backgrounds but like John and Carol shared liberal social views. Steinbeck’s 1938 series on labor and housing conditions faced by Dust Bowl refugees in Depression-era California, written for the San Francisco News, became his 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath. Mia—whose career included a stint with the San Francisco Examiner—was a member of the New York Times team that won a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series on race in America, a subject confronted by Steinbeck in Travels with Charley. Steinbeck also explored ecology and resource depletion in Sea of Cortez, written decades before Mia’s eco-friendly wedding guide. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Green Wedding has already achieved staying power: Backyard Garden Oasis Bed and Breakfast keeps copies of Mia’s book on hand for conscientious couples planning a green wedding in Robert Louis Stevenson country north of San Francisco.

Cover image of Green Wedding by New York Times author Mireya Navarro

Writing Stepdog was a risky departure for Mia, as East of Eden was for Steinbeck. Travels with Charley satisfied dog lovers, but East of Eden caused family problems for the author, who resisted autobiography in his earlier novels. As Mia observes, blended families are frequently mixed salads with ingredients that never quite agree. And career trajectories often collide when both partners are smart and successful. Steinbeck’s artistic first wife stifled her ambitions; when his second resisted, her resentment contributed to their divorce. Mia’s candor on this sensitive aspect of modern marriage is as remarkable as her career. When the New York Times offers a new job requiring her to leave Los Angeles for New York (she describes the Washington Heights apartment she kept just in case as located “in upstate Manhattan”), she accepts. Eventually Jim follows—with aging Eddie, Mia’s enemy, in tow. John and Elaine were both dog lovers, and Charley, unlike their blended-family children, was easy to manage in New York. Jim’s jealous mutt, by contrast, created problems for Mia only California dog lovers who move east can possibly comprehend. To her credit, Mia makes peace with Eddie following accidents and illness, though the treaty is on his terms. In the process she also makes the discovery that pets are projections of human problems and emotions, the kind that come with marriage. The chatty, colloquial style she employs in Stepdog eases the reader over painful potholes in the path to realization—a touch of humor, pathos, and joy reminiscent of Steinbeck’s early Cannery Row fiction. Unlike Pirate’s prayerful pooches in Tortilla Flat, however, Eddie is no saint. But he’s a survivor, and Mia stays the course, proving that amor vincit omnia, even when a possessive pet and blended family make married life a rocky road.

A Second Wind for John Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez Vessel: Michael Hemp Reviews Kevin Bailey’s Book The Western Flyer

 

Cover image of The Western Flyer, Kevin M. Bailey's book

How can I begin a review of The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries without stating upfront that I have rarely marked or underlined a book so much as this little volume? A historian’s habit, perhaps, but this book demanded more focus and rereading than almost anything in my recollection. As you may glean from its dust jacket and cover flap, the author has utilized for the basis of the book the storied accounts of a boat—The Western Flyer—arising from its famed 1940 voyage of science and leisure to Baja California’s Sea of Cortez. Chartered by author John Steinbeck and accompanied by his friend and collaborator, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts—the “Doc” of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday—its timing also removed Steinbeck from the vitriolic and dangerous reception by agricultural interests of his recently published novel The Grapes of Wrath, which exposed the hardships of the Dust Bowl Migration.

This book demanded more focus and rereading than almost anything in my recollection.

Kevin Bailey’s craft, however, is in the artifice of using the widely recognized popularity of the John Steinbeck-Ed Ricketts voyage as the vehicle for his personal and professional quest. Like Ricketts, a marine biologist, Bailey astutely chose The Western Flyer for its literary and ecological celebrity. But more to his purpose, the irony of the vessel’s guilty participation during subsequent decades in the devastating collapse of four major fisheries of the Pacific Northwest is concisely and poignantly documented. The account of ecological alarms unheeded merges with a fascinating new exposition of an aspect of John Steinbeck and Sea of Cortez only now gaining the appreciation it deserves: Steinbeck’s collaboration with America’s most important marine biologist, Edward F. Ricketts, and the role of The Western Flyer.

Image of The Western Flyer in 1937

For the first time in popular print, Bailey details the saga of this classic American fishing vessel, designed and built with perfectionist expertise by the Croatian boat builders of the Tacoma, Washington, area in the late 1930s. His account of the Western Flyer’s timeline begins with construction at Western Boat Building by the boatyard’s Dalmatian owners (shown here, from right): Martin A. Petrich, Frank Berry, and Tony Berry, Frank’s son and the skipper of the boat when it launched in May of 1937. Here’s where Bob Enea, a personal friend and a source for Bailey’s research, comes in: Tony Berry married into Enea’s family, enabling Berry to become a member of the Monterey, California, sardine purse-seine fleet, even though he wasn’t Sicilian. Bob Enea’s intimate family familiarity with this topic enabled Bailey to explain how John Steinbeck was ultimately successful in chartering the last available boat in the Monterey fleet for the Baja expedition. Virtually all the Sicilian boat owners were leery of Steinbeck’s pro-union sympathy, and many probably considered him a Communist, as his critics among California’s corporate elite claimed. And then there was the conundrum of a chartering all the way to the Gulf of California—not to fish!

Image of Tony Berry, Frank Berry, and Martin Petrich

Bob’s contribution to this powerful little book did not end there, however. Tony Berry, the owner and skipper of The Western Flyer, and the colorful deckhand Horace “Sparky” Enea were both his uncles, making possible a level of informed appreciation of life aboard ship absent from even the most informed readings of Sea of Cortez and its reissue with Steinbeck’s essay “About Ed Ricketts“ as Log from the Sea of Cortez in 1951. I am not going to dwell on the voyage for those readers already familiar with John Steinbeck’s classic account of the serious collecting and crazy escapades aboard and ashore in Baja—except to say that Bailey’s work presents another charming and informative dimension of the story for neophytes venturing into the pages of Sea of Cortez for the first time.

Bailey quotes some of the best of the John Steinbeck who described in Sea of Cortez the relationship he experienced with The Western Flyer as a form of man’s communion with boats for millennia:

The sight of a boat riding in the water clenches a fist of emotion in a man’s chest. A horse, a beautiful dog, arouses sometimes a quick emotion, but of inanimate things only a boat can do it.

* * * * *

A boat, above all other inanimate things, is personified in a man’s mind. . .  . Some have said they have felt a boat shudder before she struck a rock, or cry when she beached and the surf poured into her. This is not mysticism, but identification; man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man-shaped soul.

Image of The Western Flyer in Port Townsend dry dock

One facet of Kevin Bailey’s excellent story does, however, require a re-write: the ending. At the time of publication it appeared that the fate of The Western Flyer was sealed, relegating her to a truncated or deconstructed future as part of a hotel-restaurant attraction in Old Town Salinas. Now one man with a boat-shaped mind and the will and means to save The Western Flyer has done just that. In January, marine geologist John Gregg negotiated a deal to buy the boat and remove her death by slow decomposition after two sinkings and years of exposure in a Port Townsend, Washington, boatyard. Today she resides in a boat-barn at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op, where restoration by world-class wooden-boat restorers will recover her former glory.

One facet of Kevin Bailey’s excellent story does, however, require a re-write: the ending.

The fate of a valiant wooden boat, threatened with destruction both natural and unnatural—as in becoming a restaurant motif—propels Bailey’s highly readable text tracing The Western Flyer’s timeline. Bailey’s clear and concise account of her complicity in the serial destruction of crucial fisheries in the Pacific Northwest after her role in the romantic, literary, philosophical, and ecological immersion of Sea of Cortez cannot help but drive a conscientious reader toward Bailey’s goal: to understand, as Ricketts and Steinbeck did, that the oceans and their fisheries must survive or we do not. Thus the Western Flyer story, so full of irony, will have a happy ending after all. A player in the mindless, greedy, irresponsible damage of untold natural fishery resources, so near death from neglect that some said it couldn’t be done, The Western Flyer rises again, this time as an icon of ocean-life preservation: a seagoing classroom for students of ecology and the marine sciences.

The fate of a valiant wooden boat, threatened with destruction both natural and unnatural—as in becoming a restaurant motif—propels Bailey’s highly readable text.

Kevin Bailey’s little book has the tight, complete, joyful feeling of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Yet it’s so packed with helpful information and remarkable detail that my copy was well marked up, underlined, and highlighted when I finished. Yours will be, too.

Photo of The Western Flyer after launch from Western Boat Builders (Tacoma, Washington) in 1937 courtesy Petrich Families Collection.

Photo of Tony Berry, Frank Berry (his father), and Martin Petrich, builder-owners of The Western Flyer, courtesy Petrich Families Collection.

 Photo of The Western Flyer in Port Townsend, Washington’s Boat Haven Yard by Anne Shaffer, courtesy Coastal Watershed Institute.

Happy Birthday to Oliver Sacks, On the Move at 82

Image of Oliver Sacks, author of On the Move: A Life

The literary neuroscientist Oliver Sacks will be 82 next month. Robin Williams, who portrayed Sacks in the 1990 film Awakenings, would be 64 in July if he were still alive. Like John Steinbeck, both men broke boundaries in inspired work that defied convention, created controversy, and kept wowing the public year after year. Luckily, Sacks has written a memoir—On the Move: A Life—that will please fans of Sacks, Robin Williams, and John Steinbeck, whose novel Cannery Row moved Sacks to consider becoming a marine biologist as a boy in post-World War II England.

Cover image of Oliver Sacks's memoir, On the Move

Sacks became a doctor instead, but he emulated Steinbeck by also becoming a bestselling writer—so brilliantly that he’s been described as the poet laureate of medicine. Migraine, his first book, was published in 1970. The next, Awakenings, appeared in 1973. It was adapted as an Oscar-nominated movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in 1989 and helped make Oliver Sacks a synonym for science you can understand.

Oliver Sacks became a doctor, but he emulated John Steinbeck by also becoming a bestselling writer—so brilliantly that he’s been described as the poet laureate of medicine.

Since Awakenings, Sacks has written more books and hundreds of articles about the miracles, mysteries, and malfunctions of the human brain, his specialty. Like Steinbeck, he records real life in his writing, narrating clinical case histories with the compelling power of the best fiction. Also like Steinbeck, he’s autobiographical by nature, and his case histories frequently include himself. Migraine grew out of his personal experience with the debilitating condition, which I learned from my former boss Dr. William Langston—author of The Case of the Frozen Addicts (1995)—is common among neurologists.

Like Steinbeck, he records real life in his writing, narrating clinical case histories with the compelling power of the best fiction.

An avid motorcyclist addicted to speed, Oliver Sacks wrote A Leg to Stand On (1984) after losing the awareness of one of his legs following an accident. A music lover who plays the piano, he wrote Musicophilia (2007) about patients with unusual musical obsessions. When cancer cost him sight in one eye he wrote The Mind’s Eye (2010), an amazing account of the ways in which visually impaired people perceive and communicate. Six months ago he learned that the cancer has spread to his liver. On the Move may be his last book.

Image of portrait of John Steinbeck by artist Jack Couglin

In the first chapter Sacks recalls reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row as a teenager attending school outside London, where his parents and uncles practiced medicine. (Two of his brothers became doctors; a third, also brilliant, is bipolar.) After graduating from Oxford and finishing his medical training, he left England for America, where he has treated patients, taught, and written since 1960. He interned in San Francisco and completed his residency at UCLA during the period when John Steinbeck was writing The Winter of Our Discontent, Travels With Charley, and America and Americans. Though On the Move doesn’t mention meeting Steinbeck, it details Sacks’s friendship with other writers, including the poets W.H. Auden and Thom Gunn— gay men who, like Sacks, left England for the sexual freedom of San Francisco and New York.

In the first chapter Sacks recalls reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row as a teenager attending school outside London.

Like John Steinbeck, Oliver Sacks bloomed in California, falling in love with San Francisco, living in Los Angeles, and exploring Baja California in his travels and writing. Like Steinbeck, Sacks was influenced by the California writer Jack London, whose People of the Abyss provided a working title for the book that became Awakenings. Like Steinbeck and London, he was attracted to drugs and alcohol, suffered from depression, and found healing in the act of writing. In 1968, the year Steinbeck died, Sacks encountered the book that inspired Awakenings—A.R. Luria’s Mind of a Mnemonist: “I read the first thirty pages thinking it was a novel. But then I realized that it was in fact a case history—the deepest and most detailed case history I had ever read, a case history with the dramatic power, the feeling, and the structure of a novel.”

Like Steinbeck and Jack London, Sacks was attracted to drugs and alcohol, suffered from depression, and found healing in the act of writing.

Like Steinbeck, Sacks eventually left California for New York, where he saw patients at Beth Abraham Hospital, began writing for the New Yorker, and ended up teaching at a succession of star schools, including Columbia, New York University, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The true story told by Sacks in Awakenings unfolded at Beth Abraham, where comatose patients suffering from an extreme form of parkinsonianism caused by encephalitis lethargicus responded dramatically when treated with the drug L-dopa. Among them was “Lenny L,” the patient played by Robert De Niro in the movie adaptation of Awakenings. Robin Williams played Oliver Sacks, the story’s empathetic neurologist-narrator—what John Steinbeck called the authorial character found in any good novel.

Image of Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in the movie Awakenings

The movie brought the author and the actor together in much the way John Steinbeck met Burgess Meredith and Henry Fonda 50 years earlier. Sacks reacted to Williams as Steinbeck did to Fonda—with awe. Before the filming of Awakenings began, Williams and Sacks visited a geriatric ward “where half a dozen patients were shouting and talking bizarrely all at once. Later, as we drove away, Robin suddenly exploded with an incredible playback of the ward, imitating everyone’s voice and style to perfection. He had absorbed all the different voices and conversations and held them in his mind with total recall, and now he was reproducing them, or, almost, being possessed by them.”

Image of Robin Williams in the film role of Oliver Sacks

Then Williams began imitating Sacks, too—“my mannerisms, my postures, my gait, my speech—all sorts of things of which I had been hitherto unconscious.” The experience, says Sacks, was uncanny and a bit uncomfortable, “like suddenly acquiring a younger twin.” As On the Move reveals, however, the real Ed Ricketts figure in Sacks’s life wasn’t Robin Williams but Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist and science popularizer who died from cancer, age 60, in 2002. Gould’s version of non-teleology, the idea dramatized by Steinbeck in Cannery Row, is called contingency, a concept drawn from modern sociobiology that would have appealed to Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck.

The real Ed Ricketts figure in Sacks’s life wasn’t Robin Williams but Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist and science popularizer who died from cancer, age 60, in 2002.

Like Steinbeck, Oliver Sacks as a writer engages me for personal reasons. I read Awakenings when my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in her 70s. I read Musicophilia with the curiosity of an amateur pianist, a trait I share with Steinbeck and Sacks. I read Sacks’s earlier memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001), while working for The Scripps Research Institute. There I met another hero of On the Move, the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, who graciously autographed my copy of his wonderful book Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (2004). Edelman, a violinist and Nobel Laureate, was suffering from Parkinson’s, another link. The final pages of On the Move are devoted to Edelman’s elegant insights (“Every perception is an act of creation”), dissecting Edelman’s metaphor of a musical ensemble to explain how our minds work through reentrant signaling, the complex process that “allows the brain to categorize its own categorizations.”

The final pages of On the Move are devoted to Gerald Edelman’s elegant insights, dissecting Edelman’s metaphor of a musical ensemble to explain how our minds work.

Like Robin Williams, Gerald Edelman died in 2014, while Oliver Sacks was writing On the Move, and Edelman’s string quartet metaphor seems a good way to end this review. As an artist Sacks, like Williams, is more virtuoso than ensemble member. As a writer, like Steinbeck he’s a restless experimenter, constantly on the move between the worlds of art and science. Williams’s genius was visual mimicry, verbal speed, and comic improvisation. Oliver Sacks’s great gift—like John Steinbeck’s—is telling stories that explore the depths of suffering and the heights of hope in words anyone can understand. It’s sad that On the Move may be his last book, but a joy to celebrate his birthday. Five stars for On the Move and a toast to Oliver Sacks!

Oliver Sacks died at his home in Manhattan on August 30, 2015. On the Move topped the list of the year’s best books compiled by Brain Pickings.—Ed.

 

New York Times Writer Emulates John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in a Book to Please Dog Lovers

Cover image of Travels with Casey by Benoit Denizet-Lewis

John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America inspired a recent book by a dog lover named Benoit Denizet-Lewis, a 39-year-old author from San Francisco who has been writing for the New York Times Magazine since he was 26. Travels with Casey, My Journey through Our Dog-Crazy Country is a whimsical account of connecting with contemporary America—half a century after John Steinbeck hit the road with Charley—accompanied by the book’s titular canine and by Rezzy, an abandoned puppy found along the way. The story is a dog lover’s delight, long on love but short on the uneven edges that lovers of literalism continue to expose in Travels with Charley.

Writing for Dog Lovers, Not John Steinbeck Fans or Critics

Other writers have repeated the route taken by John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley, none with greater attention to fiction-versus-fact than Bill Steigerwald, whose Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth about ‘Travels with Charley’ caused consternation among Steinbeck fans for pointing out fibs and fudges in Steinbeck’s record of the 1961 journey he took with the handsome poodle belonging to his wife. Steinbeck set out to rediscover an America he felt he no longer understood, and bringing along Charley was an inspired afterthought. After discovering that Elaine Steinbeck also accompanied her husband much of the way—and that certain encounters reported by Steinbeck were embroidered or created from whole cloth—Steigerwald concluded that Travels with Charley was essentially a work of fiction and should be reclassified as such as in the Steinbeck canon. Academic apologists pushed back, but the dust-up didn’t seem to matter to the dog lovers in the Steinbeck crowd. Charley, who required emergency veterinary care while on the road, remains a hero to them, and Steinbeck is forgiven being a better novelist than journalist.

John Steinbeck set out to rediscover an America he felt he’d lost touch with, and bringing along Charley was an inspired afterthought.

Unlike Steigerwald, Denizet-Lewis isn’t interested in debunking myths, exposing errors, or judging merits. Motivated by behavior problems with his un-Charley-like male labrador, he decided to take a dog owner’s drive across an America that would, today, seem more alien to John Steinbeck than ever. When Denizet-Lewis began discussing plans with friends, Steinbeck’s name kept coming up in conversation and the Charley tie-in was added, like Charley himself when Steinbeck made travel plans more than 50 years ago. Less ambitious in purpose than Steinbeck’s project of moral discovery, the account of the journey Denizet-Lewis shared with Casey records the pains and pleasures of canine rather than human companionship. Steinbeck noted that no two journeys are ever alike (“a trip takes us,” not the other way around). Of our canine companions, observes Denizet-Lewis, “They own us, we don’t own them.”

Image of Benoit Denizet-Lewis with labrador Casey

Searches for America’s Soul Since Travels with Charley

Writers who have ridden the roads and rails to record the features of America’s changing identity since John Steinbeck’s odyssey with Charley include Joel Garreau (The Nine Nations of North America, 1981), William Least Heat-Moon (Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, 1982) Gregory Zeigler (Travels with Max: In Search of Steinbeck’s America Fifty Years Later, 2010), Steinbeck and Denizet-Lewis’s fellow Californian Bill Barich (Long Way Home, On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America, 2010), and On the Road with Charles Kuralt (1995). Kuralt, the amiable TV journalist with a Sunday-morning perspective on America, expressed a self-evident truth about the sub-genre: “Even the best of them never got it all into one book, because the country is too rich and full of contradictions.”

Charles Kuralt, the amiable TV journalist with a Sunday-morning perspective on America, expressed a self-evident truth about the sub-genre: ‘Even the best of them never got it all into one book, because the country is too rich and full of contradictions.’

Like Denizet-Lewis, however, Steinbeck was a bleeding-heart dog lover, and canine characters people his most popular fiction. Examples? Pirate’s faithful entourage in Tortilla Flat, the bunkhouse mutt killed for the sin of getting old in Of Mice and Men, and the Joads’ family dog, the first member to die on the journey west in The Grapes of Wrath. Travels with Charley isn’t as sad as The Grapes of Wrath (Charley survives surgery), and Travels with Casey says less about Steinbeck than Dogging Steinbeck, though Denizet-Lewis, a Steinbeck fan, acknowledges Steigerwald’s book. But Denizet-Lewis’s focus is animal rights, not arguments about authors. Since dog lovers comprise a bigger audience than Steinbeck readers, that strategy (as Steinbeck might say) seems wise.

Ryder W. Miller inspired this review and provided the list of books written “in search of America” since John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

End of Lies: Convincing Organic Chemistry from an Expert on Cannery Row

Image from cover of Michael Kenneth Hemp's novel, End of Lies
Like Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck, the subject of his history of Cannery Row, Monterey Peninsula resident Michael Kenneth Hemp, who writes fiction like Robert Ludlum, loves science. In his fast-paced political thriller End of Lies, written as a screenplay in 1998 and published as a novel in 2008, Hemp mines a fascinating field of organic chemistry to create a convincing vision of a future in which no one—not even politicians—can lie with impunity.

The field of organic chemistry in question is pheromones (Hemp’s subtitle explains: The Nadjik Pheromone: Biochemical Lie Detection). Like Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, Hemp’s hero Michael Wolfson—a war correspondent scarred by what he witnessed in Bosnia—pursues and is pursued by bad guys in high places who kill and maim to keep international affairs off-balance for the benefit of their corporate and government masters. Unlike the fiction of Robert Ludlum, however, End of Lies gets technical in the textbook sense, requiring readers to comprehend a fascinating fact of organic chemistry: human breath produces molecules similar to pheromones that attract sexual partners and—by extension—provide a possible way to detect less likable behavior, such as lying.

John Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts, and the Monterey Peninsula—including the house in Carmel-by-the Sea where that curious pair first met—inspired the plot and provide much of the setting for End of Lies, whose author knows enough organic chemistry to convince this grateful reader, who doesn’t. Terrorism in Ukraine, Iraq, and elsewhere today makes Hemp’s prevention-theory for armed aggression by testing the bad guys’ smell terrifyingly current. Catching culprits before they strike? That’s a challenge for another novel. This grateful reader—who inhaled everything by Robert Ludlum and enjoyed End of Lies—hopes Michael Hemp is busy writing it.

Summering with Steinbeck, Who Traveled with Charley: Pack The Portable John Steinbeck for Your Trip

Image of John Steinbeck with the dog made famous by Travels with Charley

John Steinbeck’s dog Charles le Chien remains a creature to be envied, having been squired across mid-20th century America by his restless owner, the author who transformed their journey together into Travels with Charley, a lyrical paean rich in social commentary that became a favorite of Steinbeck readers then and now.

As if a 10,000-mile, tree-filled experience weren’t heavenly enough reward, Elaine and John Steinbeck’s big blue Poodle also gained literary immortality, taking a star-turn in the book that records a road trip taken more than 50 years ago and continues to be read and debated. The appellation lucky dog comes to mind, but Charley was ready for his role as the author’s celebrated sidekick. Steinbeck wanted to see America on his own, but needed a companion who listened well. Charley did.

Wartime Portable Steinbeck Published BC (Before Charley)

Cover image of John Steinbeck's The Portable SteinbeckNo fan of John Steinbeck will ever be quite as lucky as Charley-dog. But may I suggest a second-best experience for two-legged vacationers half a century after Travels with Charley became a national bestseller? Take along your own copy of Viking’s The Portable Steinbeck when you travel this summer. Like John Steinbeck’s polite, attentive Poodle, this popular anthology of the author’s work travels well and fits any space.

A compact book designed for stuffing into suitcases and knapsacks, The Portable John Steinbeck remains an unsurpassed introduction for newcomers to John Steinbeck’s writing and a continuing delight for long-time lovers of The Red Pony, East of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath.  With apologies to a fellow author Steinbeck admired deeply, allow me to call The Portable Steinbeck a moveable feast for readers on the run who favor timeless prose and strong ideas over mindless literary escapism.

The Portable Steinbeck was first published in 1943 at the height of World War II as part of the Viking Portable Series—a literary brainstorm attributed to the writer-broadcaster and soldiers’ champion Alexander Woollcott. As noted at the website AbeBooks.com, “The physical characteristics of the wartime Portables owed more to practicality than anything else. The books were meant to be ‘built like a Jeep: compact, efficient, and marvelously versatile.’”

Idea by Alexander Woollcott, Introduction by Pascal Covici

Woollcott wanted the Portables produced for “the convenience of men who are mostly on the move and must travel light”—soldiers far from home fighting in both theaters of an uncertain war. John Steinbeck shared Woollcott’s belief in the democracy of books and the heroism of young soldiers, some as young as 17. The  editors at Viking echoed Woollcott’s words on the jacket of the original Portable Steinbeck, the second book they published in the series.

The Portables, they explained, were produced to present “a considerable quantity of widely popular reading in a volume so small that it can conveniently be carried and read in places where a book of ordinary format would be a hindrance.” Domestic resources were scarce, and the wartime Portables featured “light paper, small margins, and other production economies” while offering a “well and legibly printed and sturdily bound” book designed as much for durability as for literary quality and content.

Like Travels with Charley, Portable Steinbeck Still Popular

Sturdy indeed. The John Steinbeck anthology has gone through numerous editions since 1943, although this Baby Boomer patriot particularly cherishes a pair of copies published in the 1980s, each with an elegant introduction by Pascal Covici Jr., the literary son of Steinbeck’s loyal editor and friend from the prewar 1930s.

The younger Covici’s introduction to John Steinbeck’s long-lived anthology is a model of to-the-point prose:

The gusto of Homer and of Whitman is indeed here, along with the thoughtfulness of Emerson, that philosophical presence which more and more readers have been finding woven into the sturdiest standards of American literature. A humor sometimes sly and often carelessly robust finds its way onto Steinbeck’s pages too.

Contemporary cynics might anticipate a lawyerly disclaimer at this point: Individual reader’s results may vary. But the book’s content lives up to its billing as an introduction to the variety of works written by John Steinbeck, including in its pages the complete version of The Red Pony and a self-contained segment from Cannery Row, along with excerpts from The Grapes of Wrath and (in later editions) the full text of John Steinbeck’s inspired Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Portable Steinbeck—Beach Reading for the Eternal Ocean

I can think of no better way to make the inner light shine brighter for modern readers than this brilliant passage from The Grapes of Wrath:

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “We.”

Or read the sunny lines spoken in passionate hope for the future by John Steinbeck in Stockholm in 1962:

And this I believe: That the free exploring mind of the indivdiual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is I what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.

The Portable Steinbeck is a summer book for any season, but it’s far from shallow—a beach read, if you will, that plumbs that ocean of eternal wisdom. Covici in his introduction describes the progression and profundity of the excerpts selected:  “a focus of interest more implicit than realized in the very early works, then gradually emerging into sharpened consciousness until it becomes a matter of articulated intention.”

As a child of icy winters spent on the Great Lakes, I embrace summer days. Like John Steinbeck with Charley, I relish them with my favorite fellow-traveler, The Portable Steinbeck, in tow.