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.
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.
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.
Concerns about the future of U.S.-Russian relations under President-Elect Donald Trump have led students of John Steinbeck to reconsider Steinbeck’s views on Russia, and his writing on U.S.-Russian relations, during the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy. Silicon Valley fans will have a chance this week to learn much more about this timely topic from Susan Shillinglaw, Professor of English at San Jose State University and a leading expert on John Steinbeck’s life and writing, when she gives a one-hour presentation on John Steinbeck and Russia as part of the school’s fall 2016 Scholar Series. Shillinglaw, who is known for her pioneering research and engaging style, is writing a book on the subject and gave a version of the talk in Tbisili, Georgia (part of the former Soviet Union) earlier this year. Her San Jose State University address will take place in Room 255 of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in downtown San Jose beginning at 12:00 noon on Wednesday, November 16, 2016. The event is free and open to the public.
“Finding Solace in Steinbeck During the Time of Trump” is worth reading in the aftermath of the November 8 election. Posted on November 11 by Stephen Cooper, a public defender and social progressive, it employs quotations from Susan Shillinglaw’s introduction to the Penguin edition of The Grapes of Wrath, as well as the introduction to Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath by Robert DeMott, to explore Steinbeck’s relevance to Trump.–Ed.
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
Steinbeck 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 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.
Following Mexican Independence Day festivities in Salinas, Shillinglaw led a discussion of Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories—this 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.
Francisco Jimenez, an award-winning children’s writer and Santa Clara University professor, will receive the John Steinbeck “In the souls of the people” award at a September 28 event benefiting San Jose State University’s Cesar Chavez Community Action Center. The award, which has been given in the past to such writers as Ruby Bridges and Khaled Hosseini, is sponsored by the school’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. As a boy Jimenez migrated to California from Mexico with his family, whose transient existence he compares to that of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. His first book, The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child (1997), won the Americas Award for Children and Young Adults Literature. After receiving his PhD, he joined the faculty of Santa Clara University, his alma mater, where he was CASE/Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year in 2002. He is an especially sympathetic admirer of Cesar Chavez, the labor and civil rights leader who—with Dolores Huerta, a previous Steinbeck award winner—founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. The September 28 benefit, which begins at 7:30 p.m. in San Jose State University’s Student Union Theater, will feature Francisco Jimenez in conversation with Lalo Alcarez, the creator of “La Cucaracha,” the first nationally syndicated political cartoon by a Latino artist in the United States. General admission tickets are $20 and are available from the San Jose State University event center.
Susan Shillinglaw, a leading John Steinbeck scholar and speaker, and Peggy Conaway, an expert on the history of Los Gatos, California, will discuss the conflict between Steinbeck and the Los Gatos writer Ruth Comfort Mitchell, who responded to The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 with a novel of her own, during an August 25 presentation at NUMU in Los Gatos, the town where Steinbeck lived when he wrote his 1939 masterpiece. Shillinglaw is the author or editor of books and articles about John Steinbeck, including On Reading The Grapes of Wrath and America and Americans, a collection of Steinbeck’s essays. Conaway, the former director of the Los Gatos Library, is writing a book about Mitchell, a colorful figure who lived in Los Gatos until her death in 1954. The August 25 program will begin at 7:00 p.m. and is free for NUMU members; non-members pay $10 to visit the lively little art and history museum, where “Mitchell vs. Steinbeck”—an exhibit of documents related to Steinbeck, Mitchell, and the controversy over The Grapes of Wrath—continues through October 13. NUMU is located next to the Los Gatos Library on Main Street near two Los Gatos landmarks: Los Gatos High School, built in 1925, and First Church of Christ, Scientist, where Mitchell—an outspoken Republican who wrote poetry, plays, and fiction and loved dogs—taught Sunday School.
Los Gatos History Museum Replays Republican Party’s Fight with John Steinbeck Over The Grapes of Wrath
Sometimes fences don’t make good neighbors. Take, for example, the town of Los Gatos, California, where John Steinbeck lived while writing The Grapes of Wrath. Ruth Comfort Mitchell, a California Republican Party stalwart and longtime Los Gatos resident, made speeches against Steinbeck and rebutted his book with her own novel, Of Human Kindness, a whitewash of California agricultural practices in 1940. The wife of a Republican Party official who served in the state senate, Mitchell was a conservative advocate and author with a following, but she wrote her novel in a hurry, and her defense of Republican Party business values failed to win hearts and minds outside California. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt rode to Steinbeck’s defense, The Grapes of Wrath became a bestseller, and Mitchell’s book was largely forgotten—until now. NUMU, the art and history museum in downtown Los Gatos, recently revived the partisan war of words waged by Mitchell against Steinbeck 75 years ago in an exhibit of books, photos, and documents organized by Amy Long, curator of history. “Mitchell vs. Steinbeck” runs through October 13. Visit the NUMU website for hours of operation and directions to the Los Gatos Civic Center, located on Main Street across from Los Gatos High School, a 1925 landmark familiar to Steinbeck and his un-neighborly antagonist.
Literary critics and conferences gave John Steinbeck a pain, but he liked beer and enjoyed parties, so it’s easy to imagine him making an exception for the literary conference and the festival held in his name earlier this month in San Jose and Salinas, California. Each event was scheduled with the other in mind, and the planning paid off: star Steinbeck scholars appeared at both, attendance was up from previous years, and Sea of Cortez got the attention it deserved on its 75th anniversary (several experts said it was their second favorite book by Steinbeck). The May 4-6 John Steinbeck conference at San Jose State University attracted scholars, students, and fans from as far away as Israel and Japan and featured keynote addresses by Steinbeck stars who flew in from points east and midwest for the conference, and for the May 6-8 Steinbeck Festival in Salinas. During the opening address in San Jose, Richard Astro recalled his experience as a visiting professor during early Solidarity days in Poland, where Steinbeck was remembered for providing words of comfort to Warsaw after John Kennedy was killed, and where the author of The Grapes of Wrath remains more popular than his contemporaries (“John Steinbeck is more international than Faulkner, Hemingway, or Fitzgerald by far”). The next day, Robert DeMott described his experience of discovery in the 1970s and 1980s exploring the untapped “archival biography” he found in various Steinbeck collections around the U.S. His 1989 edition of the double journal Steinbeck kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath has become a classic, adding to our understanding of Steinbeck and complementing the epistolary journal published in 1969 in connection with East of Eden (“John Steinbeck’s great subject was family”).
Something for Every Taste at Steinbeck Festival in Salinas
The morning after his talk to followers at the San Jose conference, DeMott fanned the flame of Steinbeck worship for attendees of the 35th Steinbeck Festival, hosted by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. The Salinas organization is under new management, and it showed in the festival’s quality, energy, and diversity. Susan Shillinglaw, the new director, is an entrepreneurial scholar and impresario who shares Steinbeck’s love of travel (Sea of Cortez; Tibilisi, Georgia) and liquid refreshment (festival craft beer courtesy of the Salinas Steinbeck Rotary Club). Adding fuel to the spark set by DeMott was a pair of inspired speakers with a new approach to the subject of John Steinbeck. William Souder, the Minnesota journalist who has written brilliant biographies of John James Audubon and Rachel Carson, told his listeners how and why he chose to write a new life of John Steinbeck that focuses on global themes like ecology and social justice. Gavin Jones also views Steinbeck through a large lens, and he explained the book he is writing, one with the working title “Race, Species, Planet: Steinbeck and the Western World.” A native of the Welsh-English border country explored by Steinbeck in his search for King Arthur, Jones is a Stanford University professor with a capacious vocabulary and a novel perspective on Steinbeck as a writer of “anthropocene fiction,” in which human behavior affects and is influenced by drought, flood, and other portents of climate change. Heavy going for a Friday in May perhaps, but the crowd in Salinas didn’t flag. Like Steinbeck after writing nonstop or collecting specimens on the Sea of Cortez, they knew a beer was waiting in the cooler the next day.
Photo of John Steinbeck beer by Eric Mora, National Steinbeck Center.