The Salt Has Kept its Savor For the Reader Who Finds Religious Meaning in John Steinbeck’s Land and People

Image of Day's End painting by Warren Chang

Although I have read and enjoyed most of John Steinbeck’s published writing, I am not a Steinbeck scholar and claim no special expertise. But I have lived in California’s Monterey County since 1950, and for many years I taught and coached in Salinas, the town where Steinbeck was born, went to school, and found religious meaning attending a local church. In a sense he never left, and my interpretation and appreciation of his work are colored by the land he lived on—the Salinas Valley and the Monterey Peninsula—and the people he wrote about: the poor and “the salt of the earth,” many of whom (to quote the Sermon on the Mount in the King James Version that Steinbeck read) had “lost their savour.”

In a sense Steinbeck never left Salinas or Monterey, and my interpretation and appreciation of his work are colored by the land he lived on and the people he wrote about.

Walking the hills and observing the vistas of Monterey County—from Fremont’s Peak in the Gabilans east of Salinas, to Mount Toro and the Corral de Tierra (the “pastures of heaven” where I now live), to Presidio Ridge in Monterey—these places have affected me deeply as I think they did John Steinbeck. Likewise, looking at the underground Salinas River from the East Garrison bluffs on the site of the former Fort Ord, where Steinbeck may have walked, suggests to me an undercurrent in the lives of the people who have lived on the surface of this land. Unavoidable, and taken for granted in Steinbeck’s time, were the sounds and smells and sights of Monterey Bay, of Cannery Row, of Fisherman’s Wharf, of lower Alvarado Street, of the Rodeo grounds in Salinas during Big Week, which he always enjoyed. Each one added to the grist and flavor of the characters and stories Steinbeck created or recreated in his fiction. I keep coming back to this all-encompassing environment when I read about his characters. These people were close to the earth.

I keep coming back to this all-encompassing environment when I read about his characters. These people were close to the earth.

As an impressionable boy in Salinas, Steinbeck observed poor Mexicans doing stoop labor in the fertile fields of the Long Valley near town, often alongside their children, who should have been in school. This  experience prepared him to empathize with the legions of poor Americans looking for jobs in California in the 1930s—with the Dust Bowl farm families displaced by drought and economic depression who populate The Grapes of Wrath, with the unemployed single men moving from ranch to ranch and harvest to harvest in Of Mice and Men and In Dubious Battle.

Image of Landscape with Red Pony painting by David Ligare

In the End Melancholy Lifts, Like the Monterey County Fog

During my time teaching and coaching in the schools of Steinbeck’s home town, I interacted with the children and grandchildren of these people. I don’t see “Okies” anymore, but increasingly I do see down-and-out people standing on the corner in downtown Salinas with cardboard signs asking for work or money. The harsh realities faced by rural and small town Americans prior to World War II—the displaced Americans poignantly painted on Steinbeck’s word canvases—seem to have returned. Other vestiges of Steinbeck’s California can be found if one takes the time to walk, look, and listen to the land and the people on whose behalf Steinbeck’s books still bear witness: the emigrants and the immigrants, the homeless and the lonely, the powerless, and those whose lives lack spiritual or religious meaning.

Vestiges of Steinbeck’s California can be found if one takes the time to walk, look, and listen to the land and the people on whose behalf Steinbeck’s books still bear witness.

Read the books, then walk the land—the Monterey County of The Red Pony, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, The Pastures of Heaven, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden and The Long Valley; the sister valleys of The Wayward Bus, In Dubious Battle, and To a God Unknown. The living land evoked by Steinbeck largely remains. So does the emotional and thematic undercurrent that runs like a river through the lives of his characters. Many are spiritually, educationally, economically, or socially disadvantaged, unhinged, or bereft. Some find religious meaning. Most do not.

The living land evoked by Steinbeck largely remains. So does the emotional and thematic undercurrent that runs like a river through the lives of his characters.

My reading reveals a human dynamic in Steinbeck’s characters mirroring that of the land they inhabit, sometimes barely: drought followed by flood; summers of suffering followed by winters of discontent; deserts of isolation broken by moments of sustaining humanity that I would call Christian charity. Often melancholy rolls in like the morning fog. But the fog breaks eventually, and Steinbeck’s endings, though rarely happy, always seem hopeful to me.

Day’s End, oil on canvas by Warren Chang, 20” x 30” (2008), courtesy of the artist. ©Warren Chang.

Landscape with a Red Pony, oil on canvas by David Ligare, 32” x 48” (1999), courtesy of the artist. ©David Ligare.

Sharing East of Eden for the Jewish Festival of Shavout

Image for Jewish festival of Shavuot

The Jewish festival of Shavuot commemorates the Jewish people’s receipt of the Hebrew Bible and the ethical laws Torah contains. Though John Steinbeck wasn’t Jewish, the ethics of good and evil behavior, both within and outside ethical laws, are prominent in his writing beginning with The Grapes of Wrath, and the theme of Timshel—one’s response to evil—is a dominant feature of his partially autobiographical novel East of Eden. With that in mind, I recently took the opportunity to present a talk on Steinbeck’s treatment of Timshel in East of Eden to my local Jewish community as part of a program of Shavuot lectures in the Los Angeles area.

In my remarks I quoted passages from East of Eden (e.g., “the Hebrew word, the word Timshel—‘Thou mayest’— . . . gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not’”) to explain Steinbeck’s fascination with the word Timshel in dramatizing the ethical choice we are given: whether to resist or succumb to the evil influences in our lives. I reviewed recent psychological research on how nature and nurture dictate our behaviors, as well as the Jewish teaching that emphasizes the responsibility of personal choice over good or evil, irrespective of nature, nurture, and perhaps even Divine influence. I also reflected on the intriguing typographical and transliteration mistake Steinbeck made in adapting the Hebrew word timshol to Timshel in East of Eden, along with Steinbeck’s influence on contemporary culture following this error.

My talk marked the conclusion to a remarkable personal East of Eden journey that brought with it a number of gratifying connections. As I noted in a previous post—“Discovering Unexpected Connections to East of Eden—my adventure began with a visit to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, where I examined a replica of the hand-carved box Steinbeck made to convey the manuscript of East of Eden that he gave to his beloved editor and publisher, Pascal Covici. The ensuing research I carried out into apparent errors in the Hebrew carved on the box prompted enjoyable discourse with archivists, academics, rabbinical scholars, and other experts around the world. It led to a report on my findings in a paper published in the winter 2015 issue of Steinbeck Review, and to my presentation during the Jewish festival of Shavuot.

All in all, a fascinating series of experiences, as a consequence of a family vacation visit to the National Steinbeck Center that was, in turn, inspired by my reading of The Grapes of Wrath when I was growing up in the United Kingdom.

John Steinbeck, Islamic Religion, and the Globalism Of The Grapes of Wrath

Cover image of Turkish edition of The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck grew up in the Episcopal Church during an era when religion, like politics, tended to be insular. But parochial thinking never suited Steinbeck, a freethinker who practiced tolerance, traveled widely, and employed images and ideas from other faiths in his writing. Not surprisingly, Chaker Mohamed Ben Ali finds echoes of Islamic religion in The Grapes of Wrath, the novel that continues to attract attention to Steinbeck’s broad-minded values and ecumenical vision. A teacher in Algeria, Chaker Mohamed Ben Ali delivered his paper on Islam in the The Grapes of Wrath (written in collaboration with Salah Eddine Merouani) during the conference on Steinbeck’s internationalism held at San Jose State University in May. Posting his video presentation now seems especially appropriate in the context of current world events. It is a timely reminder that John Steinbeck’s global perspective is more relevant than ever, and it includes a helpful discussion about how to broadcast conference papers, like this one, to an online international audience.—Ed.

East of Eden Comes Alive at Brigham Young University

Image of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah

Image of Brigham Young University professor Steve LiddleThe information systems professor who heads the entrepreneurship program at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business probably isn’t the first person who comes to mind when thinking about how to explain Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden to an academic audience. But that’s exactly what Steve Liddle—a California native who first read The Grapes of Wrath as a boy—brought off brilliantly in a stirring speech about free will and personal responsibility to Brigham Young University faculty and students on May 3. Non-members of the Mormon Church, with which the Provo, Utah university is affiliated, might consider Latter-Day Saints (the accurate term for Mormons) too conservative for Steinbeck, but Steve Liddle explains timshel better than anyone we’ve heard anywhere. Listen to the address at Brigham Young University’s podcast site to learn how. (To get to the East of Eden part quickly, advance the podcast dial to 20 minutes. But Liddle’s full speech is inspiring, even for non-Mormons.)

Pope Francis, John Steinbeck, and an Act of Grace in London, England

Image of Pope Francis

The historic visit to America by Pope Francis, which included the canonization of the Spanish-California missionary Junipero Serra, made some right-wing Catholics in Washington angry, though it would have pleased John Steinbeck, a politically progressive Episcopalian with Catholic sympathies. The pope’s call for justice, mercy, and kindness to strangers in his address to Congress inspired the editor in chief of Steinbeck Review to write about her experience with grace during a trip she took with her husband to a city John Steinbeck experienced as a welcome guest in times of war and peace: London, England.—Ed.

In “Republicans Could Have a Pope Problem,” a syndicated column about Pope Francis’s recent visit published in the September 25, 2015, Birmingham, Alabama News, the journalist Margaret Carlson writes, “Pope Francis suffused Washington with what Catholics would call grace and what everyone else—for the crowds aren’t just believers—would call pure, almost childlike happiness.” Concluding that “this is what goodness looks like,” she predicts that certain politicians and vested interests may find the Pope’s message to America—one that is so very much like John Steinbeck’s moral stance in The Grapes of Wrath—problematic, even meddling. Notes Carlson of the Pope’s emphasis on immigration reform, economic justice, and ecological awareness during his speech to Congress:

My God, he’s questioning unfettered capitalism and the worship of wealth. . . . “The son of an immigrant family” said we should welcome those who come to the U.S. Such effrontery. With Republicans watching from lawn chairs, he said that those at the top of the economic heap have a duty to fight climate change on behalf of the millions left behind by the global economic system. “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” he said. Before he leaves, he could very well call for raising taxes.

John Steinbeck would have loved this pope, who chose the occasion of his American visit to canonize Junipero Serra, the 18th century Franciscan missionary to Spanish California. Like Steinbeck, Pope Francis has a compassionate heart for the dispossessed, a dim view of ostentatious consumerism, and an abiding sense of our intimate connection to Mother Earth and the interrelatedness of all things that Casy proclaims in The Grapes of Wrath. Like Francis, John Steinbeck’s novel challenges the status quo, holds out hope for change despite the odds, and calls for love in a world threatened equally by the hatred of enemies and the complacency of friends and allies.

John Steinbeck would have loved this pope, who chose the occasion of his American visit to canonize Junipero Serra, the 18th century Franciscan missionary to Spanish California.

Although not a Catholic, California’s greatest writer was a political progressive who was friendly to Catholicism and saved his criticism of organized religion for the narrow-minded and the hypocritical—characteristics of conservative Catholic politicians such as Senator Marco Rubio, to whom Carlson refers in her article. “As for Rubio,” she suggests, “perhaps the Pope will persuade him to follow Christ’s teachings and not his most conservative followers and donors. Miracles do happen.”

Although not a Catholic, California’s greatest writer was a political progressive who was friendly to Catholicism and saved his criticism of organized religion for the narrow-minded and the hypocritical.

An Anglican who loved to travel, John Steinbeck particularly liked London, England, where I experienced my own minor miracle on the last leg of the European trip my husband Charlie and I took shortly before Pope Francis came to the United States. The date was September 20, the night before our return flight to Atlanta; the place, London’s Mayfair Millennial Hotel. As we finished dessert in the hotel dining room and prepared to pay our bill, my husband reached for his wallet. It wasn’t in his pocket. We knew instantly how someone had taken it earlier in the day—giving me a shove and stealing Charlie’s billfold while we were distracted. Far from home and facing the prospect of having to cancel all of our credit cards, we felt violated, desolate, and a bit desperate.

I experienced my own minor miracle on the last leg of the European trip my husband Charlie and I took shortly before Pope Francis came to the United States.

Thirty minutes before we were scheduled to check out the next morning, our concierge phoned our room with welcome news: “A lady has called to report that she has your billfold. It is being held for you at a hotel not too far away, and you may pick it up any time.” When we arrived at the hotel, we found Charlie’s wallet intact—his credit cards, his driver’s license, even his cash. Details of what happened to the billfold—it had been found by a Good Samaritan on a street far from Regent’s Park, where we had spent the previous afternoon—remained a mystery. As we left for the airport to fly home, everyone at the hotel desk was smiling, agreeing that this warmhearted act of grace was a “London miracle.”

As we left for the airport to fly home, everyone at the hotel desk was smiling, agreeing that this warmhearted act of grace was a ‘London miracle.’

The incident in England made an impact on us that John Steinbeck would have understood and appreciated. Like the presence of Pope Francis in the United States, it restored our belief in the possibility of goodness and honesty, decency and kindness. As Margaret Carlson notes, “Miracles do happen.”

The incident in England made an impact on us that John Steinbeck would have understood and appreciated.

Pope Francis is calling for miracles today, and characters in Steinbeck’s fiction like Ma Joad attest to their possibility. Perhaps we shall see more “miracles” in the future. I hope so, because our own fate and that of the earth we inhabit depend on them. Perhaps “good will,” “the common good,” and sustaining “Mother Earth” will become practical possibilities rather than impossible dreams. Perhaps the impression left by Pope Francis will endure, making life better for the planet we inhabit and for the strangers in our midst, whether on our border or on a side street in London, England.

 

Is Pope Francis a Fan of John Steinbeck? CBS News Reporter Scott Pelley Gives The Popular Pope a Copy of The Grapes of Wrath

Image of CBS News reporter Scott Pelley

Has Pope Francis read John Steinbeck? CBS News reporter Scott Pelley, a big fan of both men, thinks they have much in common in matters of justice, mercy, and conscience. (Barbara A. Heavilin, editor in chief of Steinbeck Review, agrees, relating the pope and the author’s shared hope for suffering humanity to an incident that occurred on a recent trip abroad.) During a 60 Minutes segment that aired on September 20, Scott Pelley previewed the pope’s historic visit to the United States, which included an address on Capitol Hill boycotted by three Catholic members of the Supreme Court’s conservative wing. Earlier, Pelley explained in a 60 Minutes Overtime interview why he handed Pope Francis an Italian edition of The Grapes of Wrath while on assignment in Rome in preparation for the segment. He said he was a descendant of displaced Dust Bowl victims who, like the “Okies” in The Grapes of Wrath, were refugees within their own country during the Great Depression. That connection, he explained, made John Steinbeck and Pope Francis more than news for him. It made them relevant.

Ed Ricketts and the Episcopal Church

Ed Ricketts, child of the Episcopal Church, shown as an adultLike John Steinbeck, the writer’s friend Ed Ricketts was reared in the Episcopal Church, a coincidence of some importance. Described in Cannery Row as “half satyr, half Christ,” “Doc” Ricketts inspired the creation of identifiably Doc-like characters in works of fiction written by Steinbeck over two decades, including In Dubious Battle and Sweet Thursday. The friendship with Ricketts was fundamental to Steinbeck’s thinking through the 1930s and 40s, and the Bay of California scientific expedition undertaken by the men in 1940 produced Sea of Cortez, a collaborative meditation on the meaning of life that reaches an emotional peak on Easter morning in a passage foreshadowing The Winter of Our Discontent, a later Holy Week narrative with an Episcopal church setting.

Intimate Lives That Included Episcopal Church Training

Reared in Chicago, Ed Ricketts—like Steinbeck—attended Episcopal church services as a boy and received Christian training in Episcopal church Sunday school and confirmation classes. Intelligent, introspective, and independent-minded college dropouts, both men outgrew Episcopal Church teaching as adults, becoming skeptical about religion, passionate about science, and unconventional in behavior. When they met in 1930, Ricketts was running a biological-specimen business in Pacific Grove, California, and working on a pioneering textbook of coastal ecology eventually published by Stanford University. Steinbeck, recently married and undiscovered as a writer, was younger and less sophisticated. As he noted in his profile of Ricketts years later, Steinbeck learned deeply about many subjects, including music, from the man with whom he shared a deep personal connection based in part on shared experience in the Episcopal Church.

Reared in Chicago, Ed Ricketts—like Steinbeck—attended Episcopal church services as a boy and received Christian training in Episcopal church Sunday school and confirmation classes.

Their surviving letters demonstrate the intimacy of their relationship and their familiarity with Episcopal church doctrine, custom, and culture. Writing to Steinbeck in 1946, for example, Ricketts reflected with characteristic irony and humor on his mother’s recent death: “Directly after mother was taken very sick, she wanted an Episcopal priest. Terribly unfortunate that a few months before this, the satyr [in him] caught up with him again. . . . The wicked old women, of the church that was founded by charitable Christ, turned on him viciously.”  The parish in question was All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Carmel, the same Episcopal church where Steinbeck served as the godfather for his sister Mary’s younger daughter in 1935.

‘The wicked old women, of the church that was founded by charitable Christ, turned on him viciously.’

As a result of the clerical misbehavior detailed in the letter, Ricketts’ dying mother was visited by the rector of St.-Mary’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Pacific Grove, the same Episcopal church where Thom Steinbeck, the author’s son, would be married 50 years later. The Steinbeck family cottage where the writer and his wife were living when Ricketts and Steinbeck first met—and to which Steinbeck retreated when Ricketts died—is located only two blocks from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Both literally and figuratively, the Episcopal Church loomed over the lives of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts—the man he called his soul mate—from the beginning to the end of their intimate, intriguing relationship.

Photo by Bryant Fitch (October 1939) http://www.caviews.com/ed.htm

John Steinbeck’s Life in the Episcopal Church

John Steinbeck pictured second in line leaving St. Paul's Episcopal ChurchJohn Steinbeck was baptized, reared, and confirmed in the Episcopal Church. He also requested and received a Church of England funeral and throughout his life admired the soaring aesthetics of his Anglican church heritage, particularly the Tudor language of the King James Bible and the lyrical liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. Unfortunately, details of the author’s upbringing, adulthood, and death in the Episcopal Church have been overlooked by critics who have characterized the writer as a humanitarian agnostic, a scientific atheist, or a myth-making literary symbolist, depending on the work in question, the period in Steinbeck’s life, or the critic’s point of view. But the facts of Steinbeck’s lifelong affiliation with the Episcopal Church are indisputable.

St. Paul's, an Anglican church, pictured in Salnas, CaliforniaSt. Paul’s: The Steinbecks’ Adopted Episcopal Church

Though neither of Steinbeck’s parents was brought up as a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States—the American branch of the Church of England, part of the worldwide Anglican church communion—Ernst and Olive Steinbeck reared their children, including their son John, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salinas, California. A traditional Anglican church by early 20th century standards, the parish kept good records. They suggest that the people of St. Paul’s thought of themselves as frontier inheritors of Church of England liturgy, music, and sociability. Even the church’s design (shown above) was Church of England country-parish gothic. As a boy, Steinbeck wore the traditional surplice and sang in the junior choir (shown recessing from the church behind the crucifer in the image at the top of this page).

St. Mary, a Church of England building, pictured in SomersetSt. Mary’s Anglican Church: In Quest of King Arthur

In 1945, Steinbeck had his first son, Thom, baptized as an infant at Old St. James Episcopal Church in Monterey. But except for family events at other Episcopal church sites in nearby Watsonville and Carmel—including the baptism of various nieces—the author isn’t known to have attended Anglican churches outside California until he moved permanently to New York with his third wife in 1950. Steinbeck’s letters reveal that while researching the history of King Arthur in the British Isles, John and Elaine Steinbeck became occasional worshippers at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, an ancient Church of England building in Somerset’s Bruton parish—the namesake of Virginia’s Bruton Parish, the pre-Revolutionary Episcopal church located in Colonial Williamsburg.

Gothic Episcopal church interior of St. James, Manhattan, picturedSt. James Episcopal Church in Midtown Manhattan: Setting for Steinbeck’s Church of England Encore

Before he died in 1968, Steinbeck requested a “Church of England” funeral. The venue? Madison Avenue’s famous St. James Episcopal Church, a fashionable parish with Church-of-England traditions and high-Anglican church tastes. The details of Steinbeck’s dramatic Anglican church service were reported in The New York Times. The actor Henry Fonda read poetry and passages from the Bible, and guests included the humorist Budd Schulberg, Steinbeck’s Hollywood screenwriter friend. Like the California Anglican church where the author sang in the junior choir, the midtown Manhattan Episcopal church chosen for Steinbeck’s funeral is gothic in architecture, Church of England in spirit, and appropriately theatrical in setting for a celebrity’s service. Elaine Steinbeck was a former Broadway stage manager and knew how to put on a show. But the author’s lifetime affiliation with Episcopal church gives away the ending: Steinbeck’s  final curtain came down in a familiar house.