John Steinbeck Talks about America & Americans Today

Image of Tom Lorentzen as John Steinbeck

Tom Lorentzen, a retired nonprofit executive in Castro Valley, California, brought John Steinbeck back to life literally on August 24 at a private event billed as “John Steinbeck—in Search of America” and attended by 175 members of a San Francisco Bay Area social club. Impersonating Steinbeck at the age when Travels with Charley and America and Americans were written about a nation rocked by scandal and strife, Lorentzen employed an original idea to dramatize the imaginary conversation of Steinbeck—back from the dead—with Rich, a young logger encountered by the author in an Oregon redwood grove during the fabled road trip across the country from which Steinbeck said he had begun to feel alienated. Now 80, Rich uses a search engine time-travel device to conjure Steinbeck and pose the question he failed to ask when they met in the woods in 1961. What’s so great about America? Lorentzen (in photo) is a former board member of the National Institute of Museum Services. Like Steinbeck, who served on the board that became the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he remains bullish on America’s future, despite problems that Steinbeck would recognize and acknowledge if, age 115, he were alive today.

Book Signing: Short Stories Based on Steinbeck’s Life

Image of book of short stories on life of Steinbeck

The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, John Steinbeck’s home town, will host the first official book signing for Steinbeck: The Untold Stories, short stories based on Steinbeck’s life by the playwright and fiction writer Steve Hauk, 5:30-6:30 p.m. on Friday, September 1, in the center’s museum at One Main Street in downtown Salinas. Book news travels fast in Steinbeck country, and Hauk will answer fans’ questions about the origin and inspiration for the stories, which dramatize actual and imagined episodes from Steinbeck’s boyhood and years coping with fame, friends, and enemies in Salinas, Monterey, and New York. Published only one month ago, Steinbeck: The Untold Stories is already on display at the National Steinbeck Center and the Steinbeck House in Salinas, River House Books in Carmel, the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies in San Jose, the Monterey Public Library, and BookWorks in Pacific Grove, the setting for several of the short stories. Common Good Books, the “live local, read large” bookstore associated with Garrison Keillor in St. Paul, Minnesota, also stocks Steinbeck: The Untold Stories.

Photo courtesy of BookWorks.

American Literature Conference Considers Steinbeck in War and Peace

Cover image of John Steinbeck's World War II dispatches

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

Bill Lane Center at Stanford University Examines John Steinbeck, Environmentalism

Image of Bill Lane

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

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

Poster image of Migrations, theme of 2017 John Steinbeck festival

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

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

ABC News Veteran Bob Woodruff to Receive 2017 John Steinbeck Award

Image of ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff in Iraq

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

Pop Culture Quiz: What Comic Strip Did John Steinbeck Take Seriously?

Image of Li'l Abner comic strip

A native Californian with a natural feel for pop culture, John Steinbeck was a serious fan of “Li’l Abner,” Al Capp’s long-running comic strip about life in Dogpatch, U.S.A. The comic strip ended in 1977. Steinbeck, who wrote the introduction to a collection of Al Capp cartoons, died two years before the first Comic Con in San Diego—short for Golden State Comic Book Convention—celebrated America’s love affair with comic strips, comic books, and action heroes in 1970. If he’d lived, Steinbeck would have applauded the idea behind the event: a let’s-party conclave of readers young and old, with a big-tent embrace of literature in all its forms. Luckily for Steinbeck lovers, the Salinas Valley Comic Con, sponsored by the National Steinbeck Center, Salinas Public Libraries, and Hartnell College, will take place December 16-18 on the Hartnell campus at 411 Central Avenue, not far from John Steinbeck’s childhood home and the National Steinbeck Center, in Salinas, California. “John Steinbeck was expansive in his notions about what literature is and can be,” explains Susan Shillinglaw, the Center’s director: “The National Steinbeck Center printed on its Comic Con mug another Steinbeck quote—‘Comic strips might be the real literature of our time.’” Check out “John Steinbeck Foresees Salinas Valley Comic Con” for event details and expert commentary on John Steinbeck’s connection to pop culture, then and now.

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

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

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

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

Nick Taylor’s Double Switch

Image of Nick Taylor, pen name T.T. Monday

If you like baseball, detective fiction, and John Steinbeck equally, the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University has a double treat for you. Nick Taylor, director of the university’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, will read from Double Switch, his new baseball whodunnit, at a free event sponsored by the Center for Literary Arts in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, starting at 7:00 p.m. on September 22. The hero of Double Switch and The Setup Man, both published under the pen name T.T. Monday, is one John Adcock, an aging pitcher for a fictional San Jose team who risks life and career to catch bad guys and solve murders. Father Junipero’s Confessor, Taylor’s last non-pen name novel, was also a California thriller, based on historical events familiar to John Steinbeck, a history-minded baseball buff who wrote about his fondness for the game in an essay for Sports Illustrated.

Center for Literary Arts Teams Up with Steinbeck Studies

Image of Cathleen MillerSteinbeck admired versatility and advocated collaboration, at least in theory, so it’s likely he’d approve of Taylor’s pen-name persona and protean protagonist. The alliance forged by the Center for Literary Arts and the Steinbeck studies center to further the cause of creative writing at San Jose State University would also please the music-loving author, who married a San Jose native and bought LPs at a downtown record store. Cathleen Miller (left), the nonfiction writer who directs the Center for Literary Arts, explains the fruitful collaboration: “San Jose State University is fortunate to have three established organizations promoting literature on our campus, and they work together to support each other. The Steinbeck Fellows give readings each year at the Center for Literary Arts to benefit the community at large. They also help with another Center for Literary Arts project, our outreach to Mt. Pleasant High School, where the Fellows give talks to students. The Fellows also work with Reed Magazine, the oldest literary journal in the West, founded at San Jose State University in 1867. One of the Fellows also serves as the judge for the magazine’s short story contest, the John Steinbeck Award in Fiction.”

Mexican Independence: A State of Mind for Steinbeck

Image of 2016 Mexican Independence Day in neon

Mexican independence was more than a political movement for John Steinbeck, who traveled frequently to Mexico, studied Mexican history, and once said he wanted to move there to satisfy his curiosity and relieve the monotony of life back in Salinas, California. His novella The Pearl is set in Mexico. So are two films for which he wrote screenplays: The Forgotten Village and Viva Zapata! Sea of Cortez, his and his biologist friend Ed Ricketts’s account of their expedition to Baja, California, is as much about Mexican culture as it is about marine ecology. Steinbeck’s 1935 novel Tortilla Flat, his first commercial success, weaves Mexican characters and cultural traits into the rich tapestry of Monterey, California, a town that in Steinbeck’s time was “Mexican” in the same sense that Salinas was “Anglo.” Writing home from Mexico City in 1935, Steinbeck explained Mexico’s attraction: “It is impossible for me to do much work here. An insatiable curiosity keeps me on the streets or at the windows. Sometime I’ll come back here to live I think.”

Celebrating Mexico in John Steinbeck’s Salinas, California

Mexican independence of spirit drew John Steinbeck and his first wife, Carol, and it called him back repeatedly, usually in times of personal crisis, after their divorce. The Steinbeck expert Susan Shillinglaw—author of Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage and editor of America and Americans, a Steinbeck anthology—detailed Steinbeck’s lifelong love affair with Mexico in a talk on Friday, September 16, at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, where she is the director. Timed to coincide with Mexican Independence Day, the event kicked off this year’s Big Read, a cultural-awareness-through-reading project of the National Endowment for the Arts. In the spirit of the day, it included an exhibit of items from the center’s Steinbeck-Mexico collection, Mexican-flavored music and food, and a tour of downtown Salinas, where Mexican-American citizens now comprise a majority of the population.

Image of Susan Shillinglaw and John Steinbeck anthology

Following Mexican Independence Day festivities in Salinas, Shillinglaw led a discussion of Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Storiesthis year’s Big Read selection—for a Saturday afternoon crowd at the Monterey Public Library. Local Steinbeck lovers have a long relationship with Big Read, a national program that in its second year featured The Grapes of Wrath, the subject of On Reading The Grapes of Wrath, a superb reader’s guide written by Shillinglaw at the request of Steinbeck’s paperback publisher to mark the novel’s 75th anniversary. Exhausted by the controversy over The Grapes of Wrath—and the decline of his marriage to Carol—Steinbeck organized the 1940 Sea of Cortez expedition that included Easter in the Mexican town of La Paz, whose name embodies the serenity he was seeking. To Steinbeck, Mexican independence was a state of mind—one that Salinas, California is celebrating in this year’s Big Read series. Check out the National Steinbeck Center website for a schedule of continuing events.