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.

Steinbeck Event Benefits Cesar Chavez Center

Image of Cesar Chavez

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.

Image of Francisco Jimenez award event poster

August 25: John Steinbeck, Ruth Comfort Mitchell Event

Logo image of the Los Gatos art and history museum

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


Image of Ruth Comfort Mitchell

Ruth Comfort Mitchell

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.

Critics, Craft Beer, and Fans Toast John Steinbeck in San Jose and Salinas, California

Image of John Steinbeck beer served in Salinas, California

“There is nothing like the first taste of beer” (John Steinbeck)

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”).

Image of John Steinbeck scholar Gavin Jones

Gavin Jones

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.

John Steinbeck Returns to American Literature Lineup (And to San Francisco)

Image of early editions of American writers

Following an absence of four years, John Steinbeck will return to the annual program of the American Literature Association when the organization holds its May 26-29, 2016 conference in San Francisco, the city where Steinbeck spent time as a Stanford student and struggling writer. A coalition of academic societies devoted to American writers from the 18th century to the present, the American Literature Association—like Steinbeck—began in California. It was founded in San Diego, the site of the most recent conference that featured Steinbeck, and its membership includes societies devoted to American writers—Raymond Carver, Percival Everett, Robinson Jeffers, Jack Kerouac, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Frank Norris, William Saroyan, Wallace Stegner, Gertrude Stein, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Thornton Wilder—with a California connection. “Steinbeck in Salinas and Abroad,” the subject of the May 26 panel organized by the International Society of Steinbeck Scholars, will focus on historical, ethnic, and ethical aspects of Steinbeck’s life and writing. Register at the American Literature Association conference website.

International Relations Explored at John Steinbeck Conference in San Jose

Cover image from Dutch edition of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck lovers from all over convene this Wednesday at San Jose State University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, where Steinbeck experts will probe literary influences, international relations, and various cultural collisions found in the author’s controversial writing and reputation. Speakers for the May 4-6 conference, hosted by the International Society of Steinbeck Scholars, include Robert DeMott and Susan Shillinglaw—former directors of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State and authors of major books on Steinbeck’s life and work—as well Richard Astro, a pioneer in the study of Steinbeck’s friend and collaborator Ed Ricketts; Mimi Gladstein, a Texas theater and English professor who writes about Steinbeck’s depiction of women; and Paul Douglass, an expert on modern literature and philosophy at San Jose State who served as the Steinbeck Center’s director from 2005 to 2013. The conference organizers—led by Nick Taylor, the center’s current director, and Barbara Heavilin, the editor of Steinbeck Review—are prepared for sparks to fly and made plans accordingly. When the conference closes on Friday, attendees will have the option of boarding a bus for Salinas, 90 minutes south of San Jose, where they can decompress by enjoying the 2016 Steinbeck Festival, “Steinbeck on Land and Sea.”


Sea of Cortez at 75: Salinas, California Celebrates John Steinbeck on Land and Sea

Cover image from 1941 Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts

The annual Steinbeck Festival held in John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, California is back. In celebration of Steinbeck’s enduring legacy as a writer-activist-ecologist, and the land-and-sea ethic exemplified in his 1941 work Sea of Cortez, the May 6-8, 2016 festival—“Steinbeck on Land and Sea”—features activities designed for a variety of tastes, including informal “JON talks,” documentary films, and tours of the Red Pony Ranch, Ed Ricketts’s lab, and Steinbeck’s Salinas. Whale-watching off the Monterey coast is also part of the mix.

Image of the 2016 John Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California

Image of the 2016 John Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California

Guest speakers exemplify the festival’s land-and-sea theme from a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. They include the distinguished Steinbeck scholar Robert DeMott talking about a favorite subject, Steinbeck and fishing; William Souder, the critically acclaimed biographer of Rachel Carson and John James Audubon, introducing his biography-in-progress of John Steinbeck; Katie Rodger, an expert on Ed Ricketts, discussing a newly published essay by Steinbeck’s close friend and collaborator; Kyle Van Houtan, Director of Science at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, on the land-and-sea-and-culture link found in studying sea turtle populations in Hawaii; Gavin Jones, chair of the English department at Stanford University, on Steinbeck, land, drought, and race; and the writer Mary Ellen Hannibal talking about her new book on citizen science and its connections to Steinbeck, Ricketts, and their acquaintance Joseph Campbell.

Image of John Steinbeck's Sea of Cortez collaborator Ed Ricketts

The multicultural character of this year’s festival line-up matches the population of Salinas, California—and a pattern in John Steinbeck’s life and work, including Sea of Cortez. The author Sergio Chavez, the photographer Daniel Ruanova, and the documentary filmmaker Ignacio Rodriguez will discuss the cultural impact of braceros in the Salinas Valley, Jean Vengua will talk about Fillipino newspapers, and Eric Palmer will show a “teaser” of his new documentary film about Japanese flower growers in the area. John Gregg, owner of the boat Steinbeck and Ricketts sailed to the Sea of Cortez in 1940, will update festival-goers about restoration work on The Western Flyer. Harold Augenbraum, former Director of the National Book Award, will discuss Steinbeck’s frequently-taught novel The Pearl in English and Spanish. Stanford biology professor William Gilly will recount his 2004 trip retracing Steinbeck and Ricketts’s expedition to Baja, and how the Sea of Cortez has changed since Steinbeck and Ricketts made their voyage and wrote their book.

Image of The Western Flyer

Beer was consumed on The Western Flyer, and Steinbeck once appeared in a magazine ad for Ballantine Ale. This connection to Steinbeck’s life on land and sea will be celebrated in Steinbeck Home Brew Fest, staged in the National Steinbeck Center’s beer garden in collaboration with the Steinbeck Rotary Club, and in “Craft Beer 101,” one of several half-hour “JON talks” planned for this year’s festival. In a related tribute to California’s land-and-sea culture, David Dennis of Ventana Surfboards will show how he makes surfboards from Steinbeck-themed wood.

One-day and three-day tickets can be purchased online at the National Steinbeck Center website or by calling 831-775-4721.

Always Something to Do in Salinas: 2016 John Steinbeck Festival Celebrates Main Street and Sea of Cortez

Image of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California

The National Steinbeck Center will celebrate John Steinbeck’s life, time, and work May 6, 7, and 8 in Salinas, California, the writer’s home town. The 2016 John Steinbeck Festival—“From Salinas to Sea of Cortez: Steinbeck on Land and Sea”—boasts an all-star lineup (the Steinbeck scholar, poet, and fisherman Robert DeMott; Steinbeck’s biographer William Souder; Susan Shillinglaw, the Steinbeck center’s executive director) and a variety of topics, including Steinbeck’s 1940 voyage to the Sea of Cortez, Latino culture and writing in California, and the living heritage of Main Street Salinas. Says Shillinglaw, “There’s ‘always something to do in Salinas,’ as Steinbeck wryly noted in an essay by the same name, and there’s much that is ‘festive’ in the 2016 festival, with Steinbeck Rotary sponsoring Main Street’s first ‘Steinbeck’s Home Brew Fest’ and a beer garden on the NSC patio. In his 1955 essay, Steinbeck noted that the town’s motto was ‘Salinas is,’ adding, ‘I don’t know what that means, but there is no doubt of its compelling tone.’”

East of St. Louis: John Steinbeck, Eugene V. Debs, And Celebrating the Labor Movement in Terre Haute

Image of Eugene V. Debs
Though Eugene V. Debs is no longer a household name, John Steinbeck’s labor movement novels of the 1930s—In Dubious Battle and  The Grapes of Wrath—were influenced by the words and witness of the progressive politician from Terre Haute, Indiana who ran for President in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. Debs devoted his career to organizing the fight for better wages and working conditions; Steinbeck appropriated his statement of support for the mistreated, malnourished, and marginalized in society—“While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”—in the promise Tom Joad makes to his mother in The Grapes of Wrath. Debs uttered his statement in 1918, to the Cleveland, Ohio court that had convicted him of sedition for a speech he gave in Canton, Ohio protesting America’s entry into World War I—a war about which Steinbeck expressed misgivings 25 years later, in East of Eden. Despite repeated defeats during their lifetimes, Debs and Steinbeck remained optimistic about the future of humankind. In his 1962 Nobel acceptance speech, Steinbeck captured Debs’s faith in the possibility—and necessity—of human progress: “I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

Image of Pete Seeger

Eugene V. Debs died in Illinois in 1926, but his memory lives on in the work of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation, located in Terre Haute, Indiana, the city where Debs was born. The not-for-profit organization operates the Eugene V. Debs museum and gives an award each year in Debs’s name to recognize the contributions of outstanding individuals to the cause, much like the John Steinbeck humanitarian award given by the Steinbeck Studies Center in San Jose, California. The 2015 Debs award was made to James Boland, president of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, at a banquet in Terre Haute on October 14. Pete Seeger, the labor movement troubadour honored by the John Steinbeck center in 2009, received the Eugene V. Debs award in 1979.

Image of Mother Jones

My family and I have been attending Debs award dinners almost that long, and I was pleased to see the Mother Jones Museum represented at this year’s banquet. Mary Harris Jones—a labor movement activist and community organizer in the same era as Eugene V. Debs—was an Irish immigrant, like James Boland and John Steinbeck’s grandparents, Samuel and Eliza Hamilton. Jones was called “the most dangerous woman in America” by critics; like Debs and Steinbeck, she had many, and she was an avid defender of immigrant and worker rights, like Debs and Steinbeck. There is probably no better parallel in modern American literature to the contemporary situation of undocumented workers in the U.S. than Steinbeck’s “Okie” migrants in The Grapes of Wrath. Mother Jones Magazine, a progressive publication, is headquartered in San Francisco, the center of the California labor movement in Steinbeck’s time and the backdrop for Steinbeck’s strike novel, In Dubious Battle.

Image of Dana Lyons's "Great Coal Train Tour"

Since the year the Debs award was given to Pete Seeger, almost every Debs dinner has featured a musician of note on the program. This year’s singer was Dana Lyons, a folk and alternative rock musician from Bellingham, Washington. Many of Dana’s songs concern the environment, but he is most famous for “Cows with Guns,” a hilarious song about another serious subject. John Steinbeck would have appreciated Dana’s sense of humor, as well as the environmental message delivered in the beautiful new music video, “The Great Salish Sea,” which can be viewed at Dana’s website. It sounds the alarm about the effects ship noise and fossil fuels have on the whales of the Salish Sea region in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia—a region John Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts, early ecologists, knew well.

Image of Keith Mestrich, CEO of Amalgamated Bank
Another Debs dinner tradition is to have the annual award presented by a prominent proponent of progressive politics. This year’s presentation speaker was Keith Mestrich, president and CEO of Amalgamated Bank, the union-owned bank where Occupy Wall Street kept its funds. Founded in 1923 by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the bank practices what Eugene V. Debs preached. Recently it raised the minimum wage it pays its employees to $15 an hour, and it is currently funding an ad campaign on New York subways supporting “ The Fight for $15.” When metro officials pulled the bank’s posters from subway cars because the message was too political, Amalgamated ran an ad on the front cover of the free subway paper, and Amalgamated volunteers began collecting signatures for the #RaiseTheWage petition the bank plans to send Congress.

Image of James Boland, president of International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers

In his remarks, Jim Boland (shown here speaking on TV) cited the influence of progressive writers on his political education, recalling how he felt as a young Irish immigrant to the United States to learn about Eugene V. Debs, the man he called “the ultimate American socialist.” Boland’s father and grandfather were union railroad workers, like Debs and my Irish grandfather, a political activist and socialist. During his speech, Jim cited two writers—John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck’s American contemporary, and James Connolly, the Irish socialist and patriot who was wounded in the 1916 Easter Uprising, then executed for his role in the Irish revolt against British rule. Before returning to Ireland from the United States in 1910 to fight for Irish independence, Connolly was a member of the International Workers of the World (IWW), the union that Debs helped found and that Steinbeck wrote about in the 1930s.

Image of the Eugene V. Debs home in Terre Haute, Indiana
Unlike James Connolly and Eugene V. Debs, John Steinbeck was never jailed because of his politics. But people do die for their convictions in his novels—Casy in The Grapes of Wrath; the young strike organizer, also named Jim, in Steinbeck’s labor movement novel In Dubious Battle. Unlike Steinbeck, Debs is rarely mentioned in American classrooms today. In fact, the contribution of the entire labor movement to the making of American society is barely touched on in most high school history classes. The corporate media treat labor unions and leaders with suspicion, and politicians love to campaign against both, even in states like Indiana with strong labor movement roots. In Terre Haute, the Eugene V. Debs Foundation is working to counter this negative trend. Visitors are welcome at the Eugene V. Debs Museum, which is located on the campus of Indiana State University in Terre Haute. Tips on traveling to Terre Haute and visiting the museum are available on my travel blog.