How John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle Helps Us Navigate Social Discord

Image of scene from James Franco's film "In Dubious Battle"

Rarely since the Great Depression has our country been as polarized and angry as it is today. On television, in newspapers, on social media, around the office water cooler, in line at the supermarket, even at the family dinner table, there is constant clashing and creating of divisions. Warring political parties, “special interest” groups competing for social change, and an endless series of labels–liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, libertarian or evangelical–work to separate us from one another. More and more, Americans are being asked to take sides in this battle of interests and ideas, magnified by social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Inserting sanity into the crock pot of conflicting ideologies can be challenging. Reading John Steinbeck, one of America’s greatest writers and keenest observers, offers a way out of the insanity.

Rarely since the Great Depression has our country been as polarized and angry as it is today.

Eighty years before it was made into a mixed-review movie by the mercurial actor-director James Franco, Steinbeck’s Great Depression labor novel In Dubious Battle explored the complex relationship between the individual and the group, sometimes referred to in Steinbeck’s writing by its more malevolent moniker, “the mob.” Using a strike-torn California apple orchard as his backdrop, Steinbeck deep-dives into phalanx or “group-man” theory, grittily exposing the causes and consequences of a volatile, violent labor struggle involving pickers and organizers, growers and landowners, vigilantes and victims, and outside agitators who are never called “communists” but clearly are.

Steinbeck’s Great Depression labor novel explored the complex relationship between the individual and the group, sometimes referred to in Steinbeck’s writing as ‘the mob.’

In his introduction to the 1995 Penguin Books edition of Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez, Richard Astro, Provost Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, writes that Steinbeck’s ideas on “group-man” thinking were influenced by the writing of the California biologist William Emerson Ritter (1856-1944). According to Astro, Ritter thought that “in all parts of nature and in nature itself as one gigantic whole, wholes are so related to their parts that not only does the existence of the whole depend upon their orderly co-operation and interdependence of the parts, but the whole exercises a measure of determinative control over its parts.” Ritter also believed that “man is capable of understanding the organismal unity of life and, as a result, can know himself more fully. This, says Ritter, is ‘man’s supreme glory’ – not only ‘that he can know the world, but he can know himself as a knower of the world.’”

Steinbeck’s ideas on ‘group-man’ thinking were influenced by the writing of the California biologist William Emerson Ritter.

Steinbeck illuminates “group-man” thinking in much of his Great Depression fiction, especially the idea that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. But this central tenet of Ritter’s theory is voiced most clearly by the character Doc Burton in the 1936 novel whose title—In Dubious Battle—Steinbeck took from John Milton’s 17th century poem Paradise Lost. Explaining his participation and fascination with the apple pickers’ strike, Burton says, “I want to watch these group-men, for they seem to be a new individual, not at all like single men. A man in a group isn’t himself at all, he’s a cell in an organism that isn’t like him anymore than the cells in your body are like you. I want to watch the group, and see what it’s like. People have said, ‘mobs are crazy, you can’t tell what they’ll do.’ Why don’t people look at mobs as men, but as mobs? A mob nearly always seems to act reasonably, for a mob.”

The central tenet of Ritter’s theory is voiced most clearly by the character Doc Burton in the 1936 novel whose title Steinbeck took from Milton.

As marches, movements, protests, and counter-protests increase in volume and virulence, Steinbeck’s insights into the behavior of “group-man,” through the words and actions of Doc Burton, can be viewed as prescient indeed, particularly by Americans who know their history. Midway through the book, in a passage worthy of one of history’s greatest thinkers–a passage I submit provides an outlook on life that, if adopted, could alleviate much of the rancor in America–Burton says this to the communist agent sent from San Francisco to organize the orchard strike: “That’s why I don’t like to talk very often. Listen to me, Mac. My senses aren’t above reproach, but they’re all I have. I want to see the whole picture–as nearly as I can. I don’t want to put on the blinders of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and limit my vision. If I use the term ‘good’ on a thing I’d lose my license to inspect it, because there might be bad in it. Don’t you see? I want to be able to look at the whole thing.”

Steinbeck’s insights into the behavior of ‘group-man’ can be viewed as prescient, particularly by Americans who know their history.

In “John Steinbeck, American Writer,” Susan Shillinglaw, Professor of English at San Jose State University, notes that “in most of his fiction Steinbeck includes a ‘Doc’ figure, a wise observer of life who epitomizes [Steinbeck’s] idealized stance of the non-teleological thinker.” Non-teleological thinking, she explains, is “‘is’ thinking” marked by “detached observation” and a “remarkable quality for acceptance.” Reinforcing Steinbeck’s obeisance to this philosophy–an open and tolerant approach to ideas and to the people who believe in them that is desperately needed today–Shillinglaw highlights a journal entry made by Steinbeck in 1938: “[T]here is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.”

‘[T]here is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.’

Eschewing the American impulse to classify, pigeonhole, prejudge, discount, and disparage opposing ideas and those who hold them, Doc Burton prescribes detached observation and personal experience as an alternative to blind theory and blind hatred. Looking back on the unbiased Doc-like worldview favored by his father, Thom Steinbeck told an interviewer in 2012 that Steinbeck always ended his beautifully written letters to his son with this bit of advice: “Good luck. Find out on your own.” Finding out on our own is a good way, perhaps the only way, to survive the dubious battle of ideologies raging within and around us in 2017.

Are British Newspapers Brighter? The Guardian Shines on Tortilla Flat

Image of John Steinbeck from Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty.

Word that readers of England’s Guardian newspaper chose Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row as books of the month for April pleased Steinbeck fans in and outside Great Britain. Steinbeck was an on-and-off-again journalist, and England became his temporary home twice—in 1943, when he was an American war correspondent in London, and in 1959, when he and his wife Elaine spent blissful months in a Somerset cottage that dated from Norman times. The Guardian’s current book-of-the-month blog also brings to mind Steinbeck’s critique of American war reporting from London as lazy, unintelligent, and banal. British newspapers vary in quality, but the best are brilliant in a literary way, and it’s hard to imagine an American paper giving Tortilla Flat the sustained, incisive treatment found in the Guardian blog. But American and British newspapers have one thing in common that Steinbeck, who could be cynical, would probably find unsurprising. The bad ones have caught tabloid fever, and the good ones have taken to asking for contributions to help them stay alive. Check out the Guardian newspaper’s blog on Tortilla Flat for evidence of British brilliance—and the lengths to which impecunity is driving intelligent journalism in Great Britain and the United States.

Guardian newspaper photograph of John Steinbeck from Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty.

John Steinbeck Saw “Fake News” Coming When Donald Trump Was Still In Diapers

Image of "fake news' invasion

Did John Steinbeck discover “fake news” seven decades before President Donald Trump? Based on what he wrote about the mainstream media of his day in A Russian Journal, the author of The Grapes of Wrath came pretty close.

Cover image from John Steinbeck's 1948 book A Russian JournalA Russian Journal is Steinbeck’s first-person journalistic account of the trip he took with photographer Robert Capa in 1947 to the war-battered Soviet Union. In Chapter 1, before he sets off for Russia, Steinbeck describes why he and Capa mistrusted the way the news in America was being gathered, edited, and disseminated by the dominant print and electronic media of their day. It has a familiar ring:

We were depressed, not so much by the news but by the handling of it. For news is no longer news, at least that part of it which draws the most attention. News has become a matter of punditry. A man sitting at a desk in Washington or New York reads the cables and rearranges them to fit his own mental pattern and his by-line. What we often read as news now is not news at all but the opinion of one of half a dozen pundits as to what that news means.

Steinbeck didn’t call it “fake news.” And he was complaining about bias in the media from a partisan New York liberal Democrat’s point of view. But anyone whose politics are not located in the dead center of the political spectrum today can feel his pain.

Claims of political bias or slanted news coverage from the left and right were nothing new when A Russian Journal was published in 1948, and they’ve been with us ever since. Conservatives have complained about the liberal East Coast media for half a century. In the babble of our Talk Radio/Cable News/Digital Age the mainstream media is criticized 24/7 from a thousand sane and insane places. No faction is happy with the spin of the news. In 2016 a Bernie supporter or a lifelong Nation magazine subscriber was just as likely to be unhappy with CNN’s coverage of the election as a member of the Tea Party.

Composite image of John Steinbeck on journalism

The Mainstream Media’s Loss was Literature’s Gain

Though the young John Steinbeck was sacked as a New York City newspaper reporter because he couldn’t stop using his literary skills to improve on the facts, he was basically a journalist. A literary journalist. He had a love-hate for the journalism profession and its practitioners. He envied the ability of reporters to parachute into a strange place and quickly come up with the basic facts for a news story. But he also knew from experience that no journalist or writer—no matter how great—ever gets the whole story or captures more than just a glint of what really happened in a bank robbery, a presidential campaign, or a world war. He wrote this in A Russian Journal:

Capa came back with about four thousand negatives, and I with several hundred pages of notes. We have wondered how to set this trip down and, after much discussion, have decided to write it as it happened, day by day, experience by experience, and sight by sight, without departmentalizing. We shall write what we saw and heard. I know that this is contrary to a large part of modern journalism, but for that very reason it might be a relief. . . . This is just what happened to us. It is not the Russian story, but simply a Russian story.

Cover image from John Steinbeck's 1962 book Travels with CharleySteinbeck’s journalism was super-subjective–sometimes to a fault. Russian Journal was his story about the backward, unfree, monstrous USSR he glimpsed in 1947, just as Travels with Charley was his subjective story about the 1960 America he saw on his iconic 10,000-mile road trip. Both books started out as works of nonfiction–as ambitious acts of serious, albeit personal, journalism. In Charley the many fictions Steinbeck slipped into his story about America overwhelmed the “true” facts, and after 50 years its publishers had to admit that it was so fictionalized Charley could not be considered a credible account of how he traveled or whom he really met.

A Russian Journal has suffered no such loss of credibility. It’s a great work of subjective journalism—a rare glimpse into a dark and alien world by a keen observer. Anyone teaching college students how to report and write in a precise, interesting, and powerful way would be smart to have them study how well Steinbeck did it—his way, and under trying circumstances .

Why Stanford University Delayed Ed Ricketts’s Book

Cover image from Between Pacific Tides, Ed Ricketts's marine biology text

Sea of Cortez, the record of John Steinbeck’s 1940 exploration of Baja California with Edward F. Ricketts, has become a familiar source for fans of both men, and for students of marine biology. Less well known is the story behind Between Pacific Tides, the pioneering marine biology text by Ricketts and Jack Calvin, another Steinbeck friend, published by Stanford University in 1939, the year The Grapes of Wrath appeared. My research on the history of the Hopkins Seaside Laboratory and Hopkins Marine Station, and the Chautauqua nature study movement in Pacific Grove, touches on a formative phase in the life of Steinbeck, who took a summer biology course while a Stanford University student that helped set the stage for his introduction to Ricketts when Steinbeck, who left college in 1925, moved to Pacific Grove.

Image of Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck's collaborator and friendMy research addresses intriguing questions about Ed Ricketts and his book raised by biographers, critics, and historians. The proposal for Between Pacific Tides was presented to Stanford University Press in 1930, the year Ricketts and Steinbeck met. Was the book’s publication slowed by the Director of Hopkins Marine Station Walter K. Fisher’s critical review of the manuscript? Did Stanford University Press dislike the ecological approach taken by Ricketts, whose holistic science and philosophy profoundly influenced Steinbeck’s thought and writing? Was Ricketts completely isolated from the scientific community of Hopkins Marine Station, as has often been suggested? The discovery of numerous letters between Ricketts, Stanford University Press, and invertebrate specialists around the world provides answers to these and other questions, chapter by chapter, in the book that I am writing about the delayed publication of Between Pacific Tides.

Rousing Post Recalls Cold War, Citing John Steinbeck

Image of Joseph Stalin

Image of A Russian Journal, 1948 work by John Steinbeck and Robert Capa“Revisiting John Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal from 1948”—an impassioned website post dated March 21, 2017—reminds readers that John Steinbeck and Robert Capa overcame opposition from left and right in reporting firsthand on daily life in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin following World War II. A publication of the International Committee of the Fourth International, the World Socialist site revives Cold War rhetoric in attacking the forces of fascism, Stalinism, and reactionary capitalism that combined to make the lives of ordinary Russians as miserable as possible before, during, and after the war. The language of the post sounds outdated, but the author’s idea accords with the view of John Steinbeck, whom she credits for accuracy and bravery in the face of threats at home and in Russia. “While the Soviet Union was destroyed more than 25 years ago by the Stalinist bureaucracy,” she writes, “the experiences of the Second World War continue to shape the consciousness of millions in the former USSR. Despite certain limitations, this work by Steinbeck and Capa provides valuable insight into the historical experiences of the working class and peasantry of the former USSR.” Timely praise.

Cracker Barrel Wisdom on John Steinbeck’s Birthday

Image of Craig Nagel, Minnesota newspaperman

Craig Nagel, author of the biweekly “Cracker Barrel” column in the Echo Journal, a community newspaper near Brainerd, Minnesota, celebrated John Steinbeck’s birthday with a memorable March 3 column written (as Nagel says of Steinbeck) “so simply and cleanly that his sentences seem effortless.” A Midwestern mensch in the style of Garrison Keillor, Nagel praises Steinbeck for displaying personal bravery in the face of public criticism, and for having a Twain-like sense of humor that “often masked the depth of his outrage, gentling the hatred he felt toward those who used and manipulated others.” Pequot Lakes, the Minnesota town where Nagel lives and writes his “Cracker Barrel” column, has a population of 2,200—about the size of Salinas, California when Steinbeck was born there 115 years ago. Like Salinas, it’s a small place harboring a big heart.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Stephen King’s Alternate History of America

Image of Stephen King

John Steinbeck wasn’t a fan of science fiction, but Stephen King, the reigning master of the form, is a fan of Steinbeck and his books, including Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s 1937 novella about George and Lennie plays a particularly important role in 11/22/63, King’s alternate history of America, published on November 8, 2011, five years to the day before Americans elect their 45th president. The TV adaptation of King’s novel downplayed Of Mice and Men but mentioned Steinbeck and starred James Franco, who played George on Broadway and Mac in the 2016 movie adaptation of In Dubious Battle. Like Steinbeck’s 1936 novel about the conflict between modern labor and capital, King’s horror-history of America after 1963 is powerful projection of a political divide that Steinbeck regretted but understood.

Image of James Franco in Stephen King's 11/22/63

Of Mice and Men aside, the major alteration made in Hulu TV’s version of 11/22/63 is in the chain of events set in motion by Franco’s character, a high school English teacher from Maine who time-travels to Dallas to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John Kennedy. While underscoring the danger of messing with the past, which like Texas resists interference, King’s story also deals with complexities of cause, effect, and unintended consequences around issues that preoccupy Americans from both political camps today—terrorism, race relations, and climate change, whether acknowledged (Hillary Clinton) or denied (Donald Trump).

Image of alternate history newspaper from Stephen King's 11/22/63

In King’s alternate history of America, Kennedy lives to serve two terms but fails to enact civil rights legislation, end the escalating war in Southeast Asia, or prevent the election of George Wallace in 1968. President Wallace—a proto-Trump figure with a trigger-happy VP—firebombs Chicago, goes nuclear in Vietnam, and leaves an apocalyptic mess for a series of feckless, one-term successors that includes Humphrey, Reagan, and Clinton (Hillary, not Bill). Skipping this intervening narrative, the Hulu miniseries fast-forwards to a post-apocalyptic America populated by alien “Kennedy camps” and terrorist street gangs with dirty bombs—a version of alternate history certain to offend people who revere Kennedy while fulfilling the worst fears of those who revile Donald Trump.

Image of nuclear blast in Stephen King's alternate history of America

Both groups include fans who will be disappointed in the diminished attention paid to John Steinbeck in the TV version of 11/22/63, where Of Mice and Men is basically limited to a favorite-book comment made by Franco’s character to the librarian who becomes his love interest. In the novel, long but not too long at 850 pages, Of Mice and Men provides dramatic depth, character development, and thematic amplification absent from the eight-part miniseries. Early in the book Franco’s character ponders the challenge of “exposing sixteen-year-olds to the wonders of Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Shirley Jackson.” Later, while teaching in Texas, he directs Of Mice and Men in a high school production that provides a dimension of joy sadly missing from the miniseries: “At that moment I cared more about Of Mice and Men than I did about Lee Harvey Oswald . . . . I thought that Vince looked like Henry Fonda In The Grapes of Wrath.”

Image of George MacKay and James Franco in 11/22/63

Of Mice and Men Helps 11/22/63 Connect with America

Image of Stephen King's Derry, MaineStephen King, who co-wrote and produced the Hulu series, must share the blame—if that’s the word—for shortchanging John Steinbeck in the interest of narrative compression. The loss is regrettable, and in light of another change unnecessary as well. The first incidence of time travel in the novel takes place in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, a nightmare venue familiar to Stephen King fans from his other books. This episode is important, and it includes a character named Bill Turcotte, a slow-moving, middle-aged loser who threatens Franco’s character and gets left behind in Derry. In the TV version, the Derry action takes place in Kentucky and Turcotte—a wound-up ingénue—stays in the story as a sidekick, all the way to Dallas and the confrontation with Oswald. Unlike Derry and its scary clowns, Turcotte’s Kentucky feels tame. And the time devoted to his character, played by a 23-year-old English actor with a lousy Southern accent, would have been better invested in keeping Of Mice and Men, an essential piece of Americana, in the picture.

John Steinbeck, Donald Trump, and the King of Horror

Image of Donald Trump scary clownBut that’s a quibble. More important is the attention drawn to the phenomenon described years ago by the historian Richard Hofstadter as the paranoid style in American politics. During a recent interview with the book editor of The Washington Post, Stephen King confessed that “a Trump presidency scares me more than anything else.” Exercising and exorcising paranoia is what King does in his writing, of course, so whatever the outcome of this week’s election, it’s safe to assume that a scary-Trump novel will be making us scream soon. Maybe an alternate history of America since 2011? With John Steinbeck as a modern-day time traveler on a mission, like James Franco’s character in 11/22/63, to rewrite the record and save us from ourselves?

 

Thinking of John Steinbeck? Pencil Your Own Blog Post

Image of someone thinking about a blog post on John Steinbeck, who wrote with a pencil

SteinbeckNow.com is the author website with an ambitious mission: to connect John Steinbeck, who preferred pencils, with readers accustomed to computers. Other American authors also have author websites. But most are designed for academics, or tied to venues or foundations raising funds for programs and projects. Steinbeck never wanted an academic title or degree; he even resisted when his home town attempted to name a school after him. Pitches for money made him uncomfortable and commercialism often made him angry. In this same spirit, the only non-academic author website that bears his name is non-commercial and focused on the present, not the past. Content comes from contributors who write for love, not money; new blog posts are published weekly, almost 300 since the site launched three years ago. Contributors, 48 to date, come from the United States, Europe, and Africa as well. Some write poetry, fiction, or drama inspired by Steinbeck’s life or work. A few are specialists who prefer to test their ideas online before writing their article or book. Most are amateurs who participate in Steinbeck’s books as he intended, with imagination. Thinking about John Steinbeck in a fresh or personal way? Put your thoughts in a blog post for the only Steinbeck author website created for readers like you. Content is curated and subject to editing, but turnaround is fast and layout looks appealing. Steinbeck thought imaginatively, then put pencil to paper. Now it’s your turn to write. Getting started is easy: email the idea for your blog post to williamray@steinbecknow.com.


Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway Lead John Steinbeck in Search for Single-Author Websites

Screen shot of the official Mark Twain website

If author websites are any indicator of continued popularity in American literature, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway are the current winners. According to my count of websites devoted to 82 American authors represented in panel titles at this week’s meeting of the American Literature Association, just a handful of writers come close to Hemingway or Twain in the number of author websites with their name in the URL. Happily, John Steinbeck is among them. Like Mark Twain (at six sites), Ernest Hemingway (nine), and John Steinbeck (four), William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac are the subject of at least four sites each, including one or more blog sites connecting their life and work to contemporary issues.

Just a handful of writers come close to Hemingway or Twain in the number of author websites with their name in the URL. Happily, John Steinbeck is among them.

By my count, 65 writers in this year’s American Literature Association lineup are the subject of single-author websites of one kind or another. Most are societies, study centers, or collections devoted to the author’s writing. Some are houses or museums associated with the author’s life, and 28 are blog sites that foster popularity by recording reader passion and encouraging public conversation about the author’s ideas. Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Kerouac have sites representing each category, but with four separate blog sites devoted to his life and writing, Ernest Hemingway holds the record for blog volume about an American author. Uniquely (but unsurprisingly) among the American authors I checked, Mark Twain is also the subject of a website representing the interests of an author’s estate.

With four separate blog sites devoted to his life and writing, Ernest Hemingway holds the record for blog volume about an American author.

But if blogging also equals attention span in American literature, at least a quarter of the writers on the American Literature Association marquee continue to have meaning in the lives of readers. Besides Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Kerouac, the list of American authors with an active blog site in their name includes Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Bishop, E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Theodore Dreiser, Margaret Fuller, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Olson, Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, and August Wilson. Another, Thornton Wilder, is the subject of a blog site started by family members—an idea for John Steinbeck that is, due to circumstances, unlikely to see the light of day.

John Steinbeck’s Gathering Places and This Year’s Presidential Campaign

Image of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in Iowa

If you follow presidential campaigns, as John Steinbeck did after writing Cannery Row, you’ve probably noticed that candidates like being photographed with regular folks in places where locals gather to meet, talk, and exchange ideas. Coffee shops are a prime example of the phenomenon. In my work with communities facing disruptive change, I seek out these “gathering places,” which exist everywhere—a habit resulting from my long reading of John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s life and writing are full of local gathering places, beginning with his Cannery Row fiction, set in California. They include the coffee shop on Long Island where he met with old timers when he lived in Sag Harbor, the setting for The Winter of Our Discontent, his last novel. As the recent photo of Hillary Clinton in Iowa shows, this year’s presidential campaign is being played out in informal gathering places where “winter” and “discontent” often seem synonymous.

Cover image of Ed Larsh's book about Doc's lab

My personal gathering-place journey began 25 years ago with the writing of Doc’s Lab: Myths and Legends of Cannery Row by the late Monterey resident and Cannery Row expert Ed Larsh, a member of the second-owner group that bought Doc’s lab after Steinbeck died. During the phase of research in which I was involved, I discovered a vibrant gathering place in Carmel, California, the town south of Monterey where John Steinbeck spent time at various stages in his California career. What I learned there helped me understand the social ecology of Steinbeck’s gathering places, knowledge that I have applied in my continuing work as a consultant to government and business clients seeking public support (like political candidates) for their plans and aspirations.

Image of Gus Arriola and Eldon Dedini

Gus Arriola and Eldon Dedini

The Pine: Gathering Place for Carmel, California’s Artists

Carmel, California has always had its share of artists, writers, and characters. Two of the most colorful—the syndicated cartoonist Gus Arriola (“Gordo”) and the New Yorker-Playboy cartoonist Eldon Dedini—were part of the Cannery Row circle that Ed Larsh and I needed to interview for Ed’s book about Cannery Row. In those days, if you wanted to meet Gus or Eldon you didn’t make arrangements by phone. Instead, you ventured to the Carmel post office, a gathering place with a storied past, and to The Pine, a coffee shop located a short walk away.

If you wanted to meet Gus or Eldon, you didn’t make arrangements by phone. Instead, you ventured to the Carmel post office, a gathering place with a storied past, and to The Pine, a coffee shop located a short walk away.

Early in the history of Carmel—a bohemian community almost from the beginning—residents decided that houses wouldn’t have street numbers and that mail would be picked up rather than delivered. The Carmel post office became the village center, and a famous gathering place was born. Eldon and Gus would walk to the post office to get their mail at noon, then head for the coffee shop attached to Il Fornaio Restaurant, not far from the nearby Pine Inn. I would show up at the post office at noon, catch Eldon and Gus, and go have coffee where they and their friends gathered—an efficient system that saved the time and trouble of trying to make an appointment, with the added benefit of introducing me to other locals who became part of my network in Carmel.

Early in the history of Carmel, residents decided that houses wouldn’t have street numbers and that mail would be picked up rather than delivered.

Except for a smattering of Carmelites who weren’t artists and tourists staying at the Pine Inn, the coffee shop was sparsely occupied before noon. Starting at 12:00 the pace accelerated, as artists and writers arrived and the tables filled.  An outsider, I wondered why people gathered for morning coffee so late in the day; like candidates in presidential campaigns, I usually I go for coffee early in the morning to catch locals I need to meet in new places during the course of my work. Eldon’s answer to my question about Carmel, California’s unusual noontime coffee habit made sense. “It’s foggy and cool here in the mornings,” he explained, “so we artists work in our studios first thing. Once the sun burns off the fog, it’s time to go and get the mail and catch up on the news.”  If I wanted to see writers and artists, the best time to go for coffee was 1:00 p.m.

Except for a smattering of Carmelites who weren’t artists and tourists from the Pine Inn, the coffee shop was sparsely occupied before noon. Starting at 12:00 the pace accelerated, as artists and writers arrived and the tables filled.

There is a family-like routine in such places, and Carmel was no exception. Special people had special seats at The Pine, which can be entered from the bar area of Il Fornaio or through a side door from one of Carmel’s charming hidden walkways. R. Wright Campbell, author of the book Where Pigeons Go to Die (made into a movie by Michael Landon), occupied a position along the wall right next to the main entrance. It was his seat at The Pines until he passed away in 2000. Today, an autographed photo of Campbell hangs on the wall above his table, with a plaque bearing his name. Like families, gathering places often honor members with such signs of affection after they’re gone.

There is a family-like routine in such places, and Carmel was no exception. Special people had special seats at The Pine, which can be entered from the bar or through a side door from one of Carmel’s charming hidden walkways.

Most days, Wright would hold court for a couple of hours starting at 1:00. Other writers would join in, too, talking about their projects, offering words of encouragement, and reflecting sympathetically on the problems of publication in a way familiar to John Steinbeck. The advice given and received in this informal gathering of writers would have cost money if provided in a more formal setting, and it came with a valuable support system. Like similar places in Steinbeck’s fiction—notably Doc’s lab in Cannery Row—there was no agenda, no schedule, and no pecking order beyond the respect shown to longevity on the scene. People dropped in, hung out, and interacted, plotting and strategizing together. It was democratic, organic, and free.

Like similar places in Steinbeck’s fiction—notably Doc’s lab in Cannery Row—there was no agenda, no schedule, and no pecking order beyond the respect shown to longevity on the scene.

But there’s a process for accepting new arrivals into the informal networks of most gathering places, and one was observed at The Pine, where newcomers sat at a large round table in the middle of the room—a neutral area—rather than running the risk of taking a regular’s seat at one of the booths. From the chair I occupied at the middle table I could watch and hear the group gathered around Wright Campbell. From time to time I would offer a respectful comment from the edge of the action; after several visits, they made room for me at one of the tables assigned by custom to regulars. Eldon and Gus had vouched for me, and I was in. As Eldon put it, I had become “part of the myth.”

Image of Judith Deim's portrait of John Steinbeck

Presidential Campaigns Miss the Point of Gathering Places

The gathering places described in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row fiction—like the coffee shop he frequented in Sag Harbor, New York, and the one I discovered in Carmel, California— represent epicenters of an informal culture around which people learn from, care for, and communicate with one another spontaneously. They do so without rehearsal, regimentation, or self-consciousness, developing mutual trust over time. Candidates dropping in along the presidential campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire may be tolerated at coffee shops, but they never really belong because their presence violates this principle. John Steinbeck understood the inviolable nature of gathering places from experience. I learned much from reading his Cannery Row fiction, and from my own experience in Carmel, California. Today, I have Steinbeck to thank for the core concept that continues to inform my work in communities throughout America: the enduring social ecology of gathering places like Doc’s lab on Cannery Row, the Carmel, California post office, and the coffee shop known as The Pine.

(To learn more about how gathering places can be used to solve major community issues, read about an example in Colorado.)