New Light on East of Eden From an Unlikely Source

john-steinbeck-review

Who said literary criticism is just for critics? Not the editors of Steinbeck Review. The winter 2015 issue proves that San Jose State University, the journal’s publisher, embraces diversity in many forms, and that its editors are willing to let non-critics play the specialist’s game. Among the current contributors are (1) a graduate student in history from Canada, (2) a former college film teacher, (3) a retired biology professor and dean living in Oregon, (4) a Steinbeck fan from California’s Central Valley, and (5) the W.W. Kellogg Professor of Agriculture, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University. But the unlikeliest candidate in the intriguing mix may be Daniel Levin, a pharmaceutical research executive with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cambridge University who now lives in California. Prompted by a visit to the National Steinbeck Center and curious about apparent discrepancies between an exhibit there and Steinbeck’s Hebrew in East of Eden, Levin took a scientific approach, consulting Talmudic sources, Steinbeck curators, and a Hebrew language adviser to investigate Steinbeck’s adaptation of the term timshol from the Genesis story about Cain’s banishment, east of Eden, after he kills his brother Abel. “John Steinbeck and the Missing Kamatz in East of Eden: How Steinbeck Found a Hebrew Word but Muddled Some Vowels,” the result of Levin’s exemplary study, demonstrates why, for lovers of John Steinbeck, literary criticism is too important to be left to professional literary critics. See for yourself. Subscribe to Steinbeck Review.

The 1960 Election and Steinbeck’s Pacific Grove Stay in Travels with Charley

Image of Bill Steigerwald's timeline of Steinbeck's Travels with Charley

Fifty-five Novembers ago this week, as the historic 1960 election between Nixon and JFK was coming to a photo finish, the Steinbecks–John, Elaine, and their dog Charley–were laying over at the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove on California’s Monterey Peninsula.

In time and distance, Steinbeck was a little more than halfway through his 11-week Travels with Charley road trip. He and Charley had left Sag Harbor, New York in his pickup/camper combo, Rocinante, on September 23, 1960, and would return to New York City around December 5-6. Their 75-day journey covered about 10,000 miles of mostly two-lane highway.

Based on clues found in letters and the Monterey Peninsula Herald, the Steinbeck family relaxed at the Pacific Grove cottage with Steinbeck’s sister Beth for about two weeks. They were quickly discovered by the local press.

Cover image of Dogging Steinbeck, by Bill Steigerwald

As I write in my ebook Dogging Steinbeck:

In 1960 the Traveling Steinbecks were at the cottage for only a day or two when the Monterey Peninsula Herald dispatched a writer and photographer to do a story. The resulting feature, which ran in the Nov. 4 paper, was very well written by Mike Thomas and included a photo of Steinbeck standing in the garden with a cigarette in his mouth.
 
Thomas found Steinbeck fixing a wooden front gate, which the author said he had probably built himself 30 years earlier. Describing Steinbeck as a big man with broad features, piercing blue eyes, graying hair and small goatee, Thomas said he was wearing corduroy pants and a shapeless green sweater.
 
His fingers were nicotine stained and he had a Zippo cigarette lighter on a string around his neck. Wife Elaine was there. So was “an aging poodle sitting in a car at the curbside.” When Thomas asked if he would ever move back to the Monterey area, Steinbeck said he felt like a stranger on the peninsula and repeated his Thomas Wolfe mantra – “You can’t go home again.”

1960 Monterey Peninsula Herald story about Steinbeck's Pacific Grove stay

While relaxing at his old “P.G.” home, Steinbeck saw the remnants of the once-thriving sardine fishing industry he described in Cannery Row, and he apparently revisited some of his old haunts on Alvarado Street, including the Keg, which was owned by his friend Johnny Garcia.

He also cast an absentee ballot for Kennedy, who lost California to Nixon by 35,000 votes in the 1960 election, a race that was too close to call until results from Illinois gave Kennedy the edge. (JFK was actually ahead in California for about a week until the absentee ballots were counted.) JFK lost to Nixon in then-heavily Republican Monterey County by a whopping 56-43 percent majority.

Image of the 1960 election debate between Kennedy and Nixon

Steinbeck’s ambitious search for America, which he acknowledged in Travels with Charley and in private letters was largely a failure, resumed around November 15. He drove on to Amarillo, Texas, where Elaine caught up with him for a Thanksgiving feast at a massive cattle ranch owed by the family of her ex-husband, the movie star Zachary Scott. From Texas, Steinbeck and Charley drove home alone to New York by way of New Orleans, where Steinbeck witnessed the ugly protests against the integration of the city’s public schools described so powerfully in Travels with Charley.

Image of the New Orleans desegregation protest described in Travels with Charley

He kept no expense records and took virtually no notes. His book Travels With Charley in Search of America, the fictionalized account of his trip and the people he met on it, came out in the summer of 1962. Published by Viking Press, it was a huge commercial and critical success. In late October it touched the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for a week and stayed on the Top 10 nonfiction list for more than a year.

For Dogging Steinbeck and my website Truth About Charley. I tried to create a definitive timeline of where Steinbeck was on each day of his trip. It wasn’t easy and it has some holes that probably never will be filled. It’s based on the unedited first draft of Travels with Charley; letters Steinbeck wrote from the road to his wife Elaine and others; biographies, newspaper articles, and interviews; and best-guesses. It’s as accurate as I could make it.

Image of Adlai Stevenson

The results of the 1960 election pleased Steinbeck. A lifelong partisan Democrat, he despised Richard Nixon, a fact he repeatedly made that clear in letters to his hero Adlai Stevenson in the summer of 1960 and in the first draft of Travels with Charley, before most of his political slights were deleted by Viking’s editors. In 1968, as Steinbeck’s health was getting worse, he had to endure Nixon’s political resurrection and watch him defeat Hubert Humphrey. But, as I say in Dogging Steinbeck, “Luckily, he died that year on Dec. 20, so he never had to witness his hated Tricky Dick being sworn in as president.”

Illustration showing where John Steinbeck was at various times during Travels with Charley by Stacey Innerst, courtesy Bill Steigerwald.
 

When Word Meanings Mattered: A Lesson in English in John Steinbeck’s Monterey, California

Image of word meanings on a napkin

I got the call at an ungodly hour of the morning. I don’t remember the exact time, but it was after 2:00. I know that for sure because 2:00 a.m. is when the bars in Monterey closed, and Sergio worked at a bar. He’d been in the country about a year, having arrived from a small town in the heel of Italy. He did other odd-man jobs: repairing things here and there, dishwashing, gardening, plumbing when called upon, but because of his size he was considered handy as a bouncer.

When Sergio was behind the bar, a person with fighting on his mind was certain to think twice before rolling up his sleeves. Seeing Sergio standing there with his enormous forearms and bulging biceps was usually enough. I’m sure that’s why Lester’s Bar rarely experienced trouble. No slugfests, everything peaceful; in my book it had to be because of Sergio.

When he wasn’t at the door looking threatening, he was cleaning tables and picking up empties. He did this six nights a week, with Sundays off; during the day he often took gardening jobs, working with Willy Hinze installing sprinkler systems in lawns around town. Willy was a dropout from the University of California at Santa Cruz, an ex-double major in psychology and philosophy. One day I saw Willy and Sergio hard at it after the municipal golf course changed hands and the new owner had them tearing out the iron pipes to put in new plastic tubing. The ground was soft from rain and Sergio was wallowing around in the mud while Willy sat in the bow of a cypress tree near the ninth green reading a book of philosophy: Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea.

“I didn’t have time to read this when I was at school,” Willy explained when I stopped my car to say hello. “Listen to this: ‘Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.’ Wow, pretty powerful stuff!”

“Does Schopenhauer say anything about getting muddy? Like Sergio over there, for instance?”

“Oh yeah, as a matter of fact he does,” Willy replied, turning the pages to find the quotation. “Here ’tis: ‘A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.'”

Maybe Arthur Schopenhauer was right, but I don’t think Willy ever asked Sergio about it. Yet in the end Sergio probably couldn’t have cared less one way or another. He loved work, and that was enough for him. Hard work explained his physical strength and powerful build.

“How’s Sergio doing with his English?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, I’m on it. Every day’s a new lesson. He’s getting there in leaps and bounds.”

Willy returned to his book and I to my car. I waved to Sergio as I drove away.

Ciao, Sergio, come va?

Bene, sto bene, John. I see you a presto, Lester’s Bar?”

“Not tonight,” I answered. “I need to sleep tonight.”

That was the plan, anyway—until my telephone rang sometime after 2:00 a.m. It was Sergio.

“I am with the policia, John. In carcere. You come to get me, per favore?”

The drive to the Monterey police station from my house in Pacific Grove usually took 25 minutes, but that morning I made it in 15. I was in a hurry, dressed quickly in a track suit and flip-flops, and didn’t bother brushing my hair.

“He’s ready to go if you’ll sign for his bail,” the desk sergeant said when I arrived. “It’s not serious, so the bail’s $200 dollars.”

“What did he do?” I asked. “Why is he here?”

“He finished work at Lester’s, went over to the Coffee Cup Café for breakfast, sat down at the counter, and proceeded to use foul language with the waitress. Somebody heard it and called the police. We got him for causing a disturbance, using vulgarity, and insulting a woman in public.”

The sergeant added, “I imagine he’ll tell you the rest.”

After I’d signed the bail papers, they walked Sergio to the front of the station. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man so defeated. Naturally tall and strapping. he came out looking bent and beaten.

Scusami, John. Mi scusi,” he pleaded as we walked to my car. “We talk tomorrow? I cannot talk tonight.”

“It’s already tomorrow, Sergio. I’m going to drive you home, then I’m going back to bed. When we talk, it’ll be in the afternoon, and you’d better have a good explanation. Capische?”

Capisco.”

Sergio met me at the Coffee Cup, the scene of his unexplained crime the night before. I drank in silence and listened as Sergio poured out his grieving heart.

“Okay,” I finally said, catching the waitress’s eye and ordering refills. “Here’s the thing, Sergio. It’s obvious that Willy isn’t helping you.”

I picked up a napkin from the counter and drew a picture.

“You see this?”

I spelled it out in large print, slowly pronouncing each letter: F – O – R – K.

“This is what you wanted,” I explained. “This is what you should have said.”

Slowly, Sergio nodded.

“Now let’s hear you say it.”

He leaned forward. Looking at the letters, he pronounced the word carefully.

Fork.”

“And what will you say to a waitress next time?”

“Waitress, I want a fork. Please give me a fork.”

“That’s right,” I answered as I pondered the world of will and idea that causes people, if not philosophers, undeserved pain.

“If you ever say that other word to a waitress, the police will put you back in jail.”

How to Write a Blog Post John Steinbeck Would Read

Image of Strunk and White's how-to-write classic, The Elements of Style

Remember, you’re encouraged to submit your writing to SteinbeckNow.com. We’ve published 200 blog posts since launching last year, and we’d like to share what we’ve learned from the experience. The following tips on how to write a blog post John Steinbeck might enjoy show why elements of style still matter, why revising is essential, and why learning to be your own editor makes it likelier your blog post will be published.

  1. Read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a classic guide on how to write well about anything. It’s short, sweet, and crystal clear.
  2. Remember that a blog post isn’t an academic article. Be concise, concrete, and compelling. Blog post readers are turned off by long sentences, unnecessary words, and other bad habits that can be overcome by following The Elements of Style.
  3. Choose four or five keywords relevant to your blog post subject and use them frequently in your text. If you’re writing about John Steinbeck’s connection to something in the past, for example, find keywords that people search for about the era or event. Make sure every paragraph you write contains all of your keywords.
  4. Read your first draft aloud to a friend for feedback. (John Steinbeck did, though he didn’t always take advice.) Reading aloud will prevent grammatical mistakes, incomprehensibility, and inconsistency, the most common reasons a blog post is rejected.
  5. Revise before you submit. Make sure words are spelled right, sentences are complete and punctuated, and paragraphs flow logically from your lead. Make sure you have a lead—an opening sentence that identifies your subject, states your thesis, and communicates your purpose. (It’s spelled lede in journalism school, but that’s just confusing.)

So what were the keywords used in this blog post? You guessed it: john steinbeck, elements of style, how to write, and blog post. Remember, John Steinbeck hated revising his work, but not as much as reading mistakes in print. If you’re asking yourself what he’d think of blogging you’re on to something. Write a blog post that answers the question. We’d like to publish it.

Hookers With Hearts of Gold: John Steinbeck’s Prostitutes

Paperback cover image from John Steinbeck's Cannery Row

John Steinbeck’s split-screen picture of women—Mother Virgin vs. Vestibule Whore—continues to trouble contemporary readers of East of Eden and his Cannery Row fiction. Male characters like Doc, Lee, and Sam Hamilton are complex . . . intelligent men, like Steinbeck, with mixed moral motives. Dora, Suzy, and Cathy, all prostitutes of one type or another, also show a range of feeling and behavior, but far narrower. Steinbeck’s depiction of whores almost seems bipoloar, flat and forced and, the case of Cathy, not completely convincing. Was Steinbeck, with the shining exception of Ma Joad, a male chauvinist whose writing failed to understand or value women equally with men? Reading East of Eden and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row novels in the context of Steinbeck’s contempt for conventional morality suggests that he was far from it.

Was Steinbeck, with the shining exception of Ma Joad, a male chauvinist whose writing failed to understand or value women equally with men?

John Steinbeck was, in fact, atypical of his gender and time in reversing the status of “churchy” mother-wives and the “ladies of the night” with hearts of gold who were their moral superior from Steinbeck’s point of view. In Steinbeck’s Cannery Row books, “nice women” are gossipy, negative Nancies living lives of hypocrisy, while the “working girls” offering sexual services to husbands and single men are positive, contributing members of society who display compassion and honesty without shame. Cathy, the sociopathic madam in East of Eden, is the exception who proves the rule.

In Steinbeck’s Cannery Row books, ‘nice women’ are gossipy, negative Nancies living lives of hypocrisy, while the ‘working girls’ offering sexual services to husbands and single men are positive.

But this begs a nagging question: Is it sexist to sort women into dramatically opposed categories of character, behavior, and moral worth, however heavily weighed in favor of whores? From a feminist point of view, probably so. In the context of Steinbeck’s age, however, the writer’s inversion of current values was both radical and, by today’s standards, agreeably accepting. Depicting prostitutes as positive role models was intended to shock Steinbeck’s readers, and did. But even from the perspective of modern feminism, his portrayal of their status was ahead of its time. Steinbeck’s Cannery Row whores and East of Eden prostitutes were, exceptions noted, more financially secure and less dependent on men than the wives and mothers whose husbands and son used their services.

In the context of Steinbeck’s age, his inversion of current values was both radical and, by today’s standards, agreeably accepting. Even from the perspective of modern feminism, his portrayal of women’s status was ahead of its time.

Steinbeck’s upside-down vision was no doubt rooted in his upbringing by a repressed, retiring father and a strong-minded mother with social ambitions in a small frontier town. To his way of thinking, the moral framework and sentiments about sex he learned at home and in Sunday School lacked logic and, worse, justification in the natural scheme of things. To Steinbeck, the worst aspect of Salinas culture was its hypocrisy, especially with regard to sex, but also money. Salinas hypocrites of both kinds (often the same people) populate his fiction, particularly East of Eden, one reason the novel still feels so fresh to contemporary readers.

To his way of thinking, the moral framework and sentiments about sex he learned at home and in Sunday School lacked logic and, worse, justification in the natural scheme of things.

The inspiration for Steinbeck’s characters wasn’t limited to Salinas. His Cannery Row prostitutes—notably Dora, the madam with a heart of gold—were based on real-life figures from nearby Monterey, a place he much preferred to the town where he grew up. In Sweet Thursday, a Christian Science official arrives on Cannery Row to check on a group of female Christian Science followers who, to his dismay, he learns are working for Dora, the heart-of-gold madam of a popular brothel. The idea for this over-the-top incident originated in Steinbeck’s experience, decades earlier, as a struggling writer in New York City. During his time there he dated a chorus girl and met her chorine friends, many of whom belonged to a large Christian Science church, probably the one led in the 1920s by a charismatic female Christian Science practitioner with a prosperous following.

A Christian Science official arrives on Cannery Row to check on a group of female Christian Science followers who, to his dismay, he learns are working for Dora, the heart-of-gold madam of a popular brothel.

But what of Cathy, the murderous madam in East of Eden? Christian Science was farthest thing from her deeply disturbed mind. Steinbeck biographers have suggested that Cathy’s inspiration was Steinbeck’s second wife, though that’s less important to this discussion than the profile Steinbeck creates of a heartless character—irrespective of gender—born bad. Cathy isn’t condemned because she’s a whore who refuses to remain with her husband and babies. Clearly, she was never the parenting type (nor, for that matter, was John Steinbeck). Her sin isn’t whoring; it’s monstrous, premeditated murder. Exploiting the affections of the kindhearted madam who takes her in after she abandons her home, Cathy poisons her heart-of-gold host and takes over her business, running a notorious house where anything sexual goes . . . for a price. Blackmail is on her mind, too, and her desire to expose the town’s hypocritical citizens seems somehow justified and strangely satisfying, despite her dark motives.

But what of Cathy, the murderous madam in East of Eden? Christian Science was farthest thing from her deeply disturbed mind.

And yet . . . Despite Steinbeck’s ironic moral inversion of virgin and whore, can the prostitutes who populate his fiction still be seen as stereotypes? The answer has to be a qualified yes, and it tends to blunt the impact of Steinbeck’s blow against hypocrisy for readers today. Yet he took his small town “working girls” seriously, and they got him into trouble, even among certain sophisticates in his high-flying circle of New York colleagues and collaborators. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the musical team that based the Broadway musical Pipe Dream on the Cannery Row characters from Sweet Thursday, turned Steinbeck’s heart-of-gold heroine Suzy, who worked at Dora’s and fell in love with Doc, into what Steinbeck bitterly described as a less-than-believable “visiting nurse.”

Steinbeck took his small town ‘working girls’ seriously, and they got him into trouble, even among sophisticates in his high-flying circle of New York colleagues and collaborators.

Because he was serious, I prefer to give John Steinbeck the benefit of the doubt on the subject of prostitutes. It’s important to remember that his “whore with a heart of gold” characters like Dora and Suzy are a literary trope with a moral purpose, social stereotypes notwithstanding. In Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and (Cathy excepted) East of Eden, they represent a courageous reversal of conventional values that no doubt would have offended Steinbeck’s mother, had she lived, while probably pleasing his father, who died shortly before Steinbeck’s first book success. That was in the 1930s, back in small town Salinas. But did sophisticated New York in the 1950s react that differently? Even Rodgers and Hammerstein, the kings of Broadway musical theater, choked on Steinbeck’s whores when they staged Cannery Row and failed, or so Steinbeck felt, as a result.

Carl Jung’s Psychology and John Steinbeck’s Horoscope

Image of John Steinbeck and the constellation Pisces

If you keep an open mind about astrology, as I’ve done in my investigation and application of its principles, you can learn quite a bit about John Steinbeck from his horoscope wheel. I know: reading astrology charts seems unusual for an electronic technician like me. Frankly, I was skeptical about the subject when I started—until I read the works Carl Jung and followers of the pioneering Swiss psychologist who fell out with his former mentor, Sigmund Freud. Steinbeck, who distinctly disliked Freud’s ideas about human sexuality and neurosis, was deeply attracted to Jung’s insights into human consciousness and imagination. Jung’s influence on Steinbeck is particularly compelling in Sea of Cortez, the record of Steinbeck’s expedition to Baja, California with Ed Ricketts 75 years ago.

John Steinbeck, who distinctly disliked Sigmund Freud’s ideas about human sexuality and neurosis, was deeply attracted to Carl Jung’s insights into human consciousness and imagination.

Steinbeck may have encountered Jung’s writing as early as 1922 while a student at Stanford, where he read philosophy and psychology along with other subjects that appealed to his needs as a writer. By the time he met Ed Ricketts and Joseph Campbell 10 years later, Jung had attracted the attention of these important figures in Steinbeck’s life as well. Sea of Cortez, written with Ricketts in 1941, bursts with Jungian ideas—such as the closely related concepts of synchronicity, acausality, and non-teleology—that get almost as much space as the ecology of the marine invertebrates and the culture of the people that Ricketts and Steinbeck observed along the way.

Image of Carl Jung on the cover of Time magazine

Carl Jung, Synchronicity, and Astrology Charts

I began my study of Carl Jung in 1965 and, three years later, astrology as part of a college assignment in which I intended to disprove astrology’s scientific validity. In my profession as an electronic technician at RCA’s Astro Electronic Division, I investigated further, mostly out of curiosity, but also out of respect for Jung’s rigorous empiricism. As a physician trained in the German tradition, he insisted on assembling evidence before expounding theory when he wrote about the personality, the unconscious, and the possibility that astrology had scientific value after all.

Jung insisted on assembling evidence before expounding theory when he wrote about the personality, the unconscious, and the possibility that astrology had scientific value after all.

I was three years into my study of Jung when I read “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle,” where he endorses astrology as a tool in treating psychiatric patients. To be honest, the notion angered me so much I stopped reading his work until I renewed my research on astrology in an attempt to demonstrate, scientifically, why it really wasn’t worth the time. My method was simple: do as many horoscope readings as possible, then compare astrology chart results with what I learned from interviewing the individuals I had charted. I did dozens of charts and interviews and found much to discount and dismiss. But I also turned up evidence that, to my surprise, supported Jung’s claims about astrology.

I did dozens of charts and interviews and found much to discount and dismiss. But I also turned up evidence that, to my surprise, supported Jung’s claims about astrology.

Image of the composer and astrologer Dane RudhyarDuring the same period I encountered the works of Dane Rudhyar, a long-lived and multi-talented follower of Carl Jung, born in Paris, who composed modernist music, practiced a form of humanistic astrology, and died in San Francisco in 1985. Discovering Rudhyar was a watershed moment in my study of Jung and astrology, and Rudhyar’s writing still influences me in my thinking and practice today. By reading Rudhyar, Marc Edmund Jones, and other writers on the subject, I learned about the influence of the astrological signs, the planets and houses, and what astrologists call angular relationships in our lives.

John Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts, and Sea of Cortez

I’m a practical, intuitive type, and I found interpreting chart patterns and relationships, in both their static and dynamic senses, fascinating. Probably for the same reason, I also enjoyed the fiction of John Steinbeck. What I learned from Carl Jung’s “Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” “Psychological Types,” and “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle” clarified my understanding of Steinbeck and Ricketts’s holistic, non-teleological thinking in Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck’s most thoughtful work of non-fiction.

What I learned from Carl Jung’s ‘Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,’ ‘Psychological Types,’ and ‘Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle’ clarified my understanding of Steinbeck and Ricketts’s holistic, non-teleological thinking in ‘Sea of Cortez.’

As I read astrology charts and applied what I was learning, Ricketts and Steinbeck’s perceptions helped hone my technique and increase my skill. In my business, I was discovering the truth of Carl Jung’s belief that “Astrology is assured of recognition from psychology without further restrictions,” that it “represents the summation of all the psychological knowledge of antiquity.” Jung explained why he believed this was so: “The fact that it is possible to construct a person’s characters from the data of his nativity shows the validity of astrology. I have often found that in cases of difficult psychological diagnosis, astrological data elucidated points which I otherwise would have been unable to understand.” Astrology, said Jung, could be shown empirically to be scientific, “a large-scale example of synchronicity if it had at its disposal thoroughly tested findings.”

What John Steinbeck’s Astrological Chart Reveals

What can we learn from interpreting John Steinbeck’s astrological wheel chart, shown here?

Image of John Steinbeck's astrology chart

To start with, the most influential part of anyone’s horoscope chart is the Sun, the key element in life. For example, when we say we’re a Virgo, Leo, or Aquarius, we mean that the Sun was in that particular astrological sign or constellation at the moment of our birth. Based on the location of the Sun sign when John Steinbeck—a Pisces—was born, it’s clear that Steinbeck was an Introverted Sensation Type with a Thinking auxiliary in his psychological make-up. Sensation as the primary function naturally made him more perceptive than judgmental—a helpful profile for the non-teleological exploration of human behavior demonstrated in Sea of Cortez and in his fiction.

Sensation as the primary function naturally made Steinbeck more perceptive than judgmental—a helpful profile for the non-teleological exploration of human behavior demonstrated in ‘Sea of Cortez’ and in his fiction.

Practically speaking, this means that when Steinbeck considered a situation, all the information he gathered through observation and experience went from the source—what he actually sensed—into his imaginative unconscious. There it was shaped and modified by his fears, hopes, desires, and prejudices before becoming conscious in his mind or relating to his emerging Ego.

When Steinbeck considered a situation, all the information he gathered through observation and experience went from the source—what he actually sensed—into his imaginative unconscious.

Cover image of the first edition of Sea of CortezAs Steinbeck and Ricketts suggest in the long philosophical passages that make Sea of Cortez fascinating to readers like me (and perplexing to others), one goal of what they call non-teleological thinking is to reduce the unconscious influence and stick as closely as possible to the reality of the object being perceived. In this connection, introverts rely on internal, subjective, and experienced evidence, seeing the world in themselves. Extraverts, by contrast, judge their perceptions based upon external evidence, seeing themselves in the world. Though it’s a bit of an over-simplification, it seems fair to say that John Steinbeck was an introvert with extraordinarily acute perception about human character and behavior.

Though it’s a bit of an over-simplification, it seems fair to say that John Steinbeck was an introvert with extraordinarily acute perception about human character and behavior.

Image of the Johari WindowIn the humanistic astrology of Dane Rudhyar and others, the Sun’s location in an individual’s astrology chart reveals the Self, the Soul, at the center of the psyche. This Self can be described as having three major components in the terminology developed by Carl Jung: the personality or persona, the Ego, and the Unconscious. Using the Johari Window, we can visualize these three components. The persona is represented by the “Open” and “Blind” panes. The “Blind” pane signifies the parts of our Ego that others see in us but about which we are unaware. The “Hidden” window includes those parts of our Ego that we recognize but do not wish them to see. In a horoscope wheel chart, the Sign and Degree of the cusp of the First House (the line between the 12th House and the 1st House, usually at nine o’clock) represents the way an individual projects to or is perceived by others: his or her “persona.”

In a horoscope wheel chart, the Sign and Degree of the cusp of the First House represents the way an individual projects to or is perceived by others: his or her ‘persona.’

All this suggests that how a person projects himself or herself may mask the real individual, often quite dramatically. So it’s important to remember that we are partially—sometimes significantly—responsible for the opinions others have about us: we unconsciously project our own qualities into the perceptual image those around us, coloring and frequently complicating our relationships. The influence of the Sun may be masked within the persona, and often we are responsible for the mask. Consider Carl Jung’s archetypal concept of Shadow, for instance. In Jungian terms, our life experiences provide growth lessons along a path between the image we project, our Ego, and who we actually are as defined by the sign degree of our Sun.

In Jungian terms, our life experiences provide growth lessons along a path between the image we project, our Ego, and who we actually are as defined by the sign degree of our Sun.

Humanistic astrologers recognize this truth: our journey through life includes challenges that cause the persona as defined by the qualities represented in our Ascendant to join the Ego and more closely align with the Sun or Self. As Jung suggests when discussing the Shadow, this makes the journey especially difficult when it challenges the perceptions of those closest to us and can create interpersonal problems with perfect strangers. These were issues for John Steinbeck throughout his life.

As Jung suggests when discussing the Shadow, this can create interpersonal problems with perfect strangers. These were issues for John Steinbeck throughout his life.

Steinbeck’s Ascendant is at 1 degree 4 minutes Taurus, significant because it increased the likelihood of his compatibility with Ed Ricketts, who had a Taurus Sun. Given what I’ve learned about Taurus Ascendants, I suspect that Steinbeck, with a Pisces Sun, was sometimes judged by others to be more predictable than he really was. On first meeting, his personality would have attracted someone like his wife Carol, who also had a Pisces Sun. A woman of her perceptiveness would have tacitly understood her need for a partner with stability, and when they met Steinbeck’s persona could have been mistaken for that of a Taurus. Steinbeck, with a Taurus Ascendant, would offer such an illusion.

Steinbeck’s Taurus Ascendant is significant because it increased the likelihood of his compatibility with Ed Ricketts, who had a Taurus Sun.

Most importantly, John Steinbeck’s horoscope wheel reveals a significant pattern formed by the location of planets in Sign and Houses. The majority of planets in his astrology chart are in the upper left quarter, an area that is associated with objective social types. Steinbeck’s avowed goal as a writer was social: to observe others, increase understanding, and influence change—a purpose that history has proven he met beyond anyone’s expectations, including his own. For readers today, this may be the most important lesson to be learned from John Steinbeck’s astrology chart, his understanding of Carl Jung, and his collaboration with Ed Ricketts in writing Sea of Cortez, a gift from the tide pool and the stars.

The author welcomes inquiries at wstillwagon1@earthlink.net.—Ed.

Did John Steinbeck Foresee Reality TV When Writing The Winter of Our Discontent?

Composite image of The Winter of Our Discontent and reality TV

What does today’s reality TV have to do with John Steinbeck? More than you may think—unless you’ve read The Winter of Our Discontent, set in a remote Long Island village 65 years ago. Now even more than then, it’s fair to say that America has an obsession with celebrity culture and the concept of “instant celebrity.” In its current form this obsession is, perhaps, the ultimate expression of the get-rich-quick impulse dramatized by Steinbeck in the novel: do almost nothing and reap instant rewards.

Now even more than then, it’s fair to say that America has an obsession with celebrity culture and the concept of ‘instant celebrity.’

Nothing better expresses this drive than the popularity of reality television shows like Big Brother and Survivor. Shows such as these feature contestants who do little more than lie, scheme, and debase themselves for a chance at instant riches and fame.

Defenders of reality television often point to series like American Idol and America’s Next Top Model as shows that do reward genuine talent. However, even these programs seem obliged to showcase the worst side of human behavior. Just think of the tone deaf-contestants from American Idol for an unpleasant reminder of people desperately flailing towards immediate fame and fortune while the world laughs at their failures.

John Steinbeck predicted this trend in The Winter of Our Discontent, his last novel. Let’s take a brief look at the plot, which concerns Ethan Hawley, a struggling grocer whose family was once one of the most prominent in town.

John Steinbeck predicted this trend in ‘The Winter of Our Discontent,’ his last novel.

Ethan’s people earned their prominence the old-fashioned way: working hard for generations and honestly investing the money they made from fishing, trade, and land. However, Ethan’s father squandered the family fortune with well-meaning but ill-considered plans, and despite his Harvard degree, Ethan has come down in the world.

Although Ethan is honest at heart, he feels the sting of the town’s judgment towards his fallen state. He suffers acutely from the disappointment of his family, especially his children, who view him as little more than an antiquated joke. He is a modern man in pain because of the conflict between a noble past and a bleak future.

One of the last bastions of decency in the community, Ethan is surrounded by people who have adapted to the times: they have built their success on scheming, lies, and betrayal. In the course of the novel he betrays his morals and his honesty to gain the power and financial success craved by his status-conscious wife and their teenage children, a boy and a girl. John Steinbeck’s analogy is quite clear: the Hawley family situation represents the post-World War II transformation of America from a thrifty, hardworking society into a dishonest consumer-culture.

Steinbeck’s analogy is quite clear: the Hawley family situation represents the post-World War II transformation of America from a thrifty, hardworking society into a dishonest consumer-culture.

As a result, The Winter of Our Discontent was admired in Europe and attacked by critics in the USA. Peter Lisca, a leading scholar friendly to Steinbeck, went so far as to describe the book as “undeniable evidence of the aesthetic and philosophical failure of [Steinbeck’s] later fiction” when it was published in 1961.

However, Lisca changed his tune in the 1970s, explaining that Steinbeck had skillfully grasped the essence of the emerging American condition, something readers seemed unaware of at the time, despite the radio-payola and TV game-show scandals permeating the news when Steinbeck wrote The Winter of Our Discontent.

Though Ethan Hawley refects a communal heritage under attack from within, his son Allen—a cheater who believes in looking out for Number One—represents the end result of the moral degradation underway in the popular culture of the late 1950s and 1960s. Allen’s behavior and beliefs continue to astonish readers of The Winter of Our Discontent, for they accurately and eerily predict our contemporary cult of instant celebrity and the unethical and unscrupulous means by which media fame is often achieved.

Though Ethan Hawley reflects a communal heritage under attack from within, his son Allen—a cheater who believes in looking out for Number One—represents the end result of the moral degradation underway in the popular culture of the late 1950s and 1960s.

When we meet him, Allen is something of a lazy lay-about who constantly talks about finding a way to earn a spot on a national quiz show. By the end of the novel, he actually achieves this goal by doing something neither the reader or his father would ever have imagined within his capacity: writing an award-winning essay on the theme of patriotism.

Surprised but gratified, Ethan is proud of his son until a contest runner-up reveals that Allen’s essay is a complete sham. Every single word was stolen from other writers.

When Ethan confronts him, Allen admits that he feels no guilt in his actions because he believes the ends justify the means: committing an immoral or unethical act is worth the reward of success and celebrity. In fact, he believes that he’s just doing what everybody else in Eisenhower-era America does to get ahead—lie, steal, and cheat their way to the top.

Allen admits that he feels no guilt in his actions because he believes the ends justify the means: committing an immoral or unethical act is worth the reward of success and celebrity. In fact, he believes that he’s just doing what everybody else in Eisenhower-era America does to get ahead—lie, steal, and cheat their way to the top.

Despite or because of immoral plans of his own, hatched in secret to satisfy his family’s demands for money and status, Ethan is especially upset that Allen’s actions are rewarded when Allen’s dishonesty is revealed. The essay contest runner-up admits that Allen’s deception will be kept under wraps to avoid embarrassment to the sponsors—a reminder of how the TV game show and pay-to-play radio scandals of the time were handled, to John Steinbeck’s dismay.

Today his point is even more obvious. Written in sadness and anger, The Winter of Our Discontent predicts what John Steinbeck viewed as a moral dead-end for America, one that he saw as unavoidable if left untreated. Allen’s success-at-any cost drive to win is perfectly mirrored by the vapid preening and desperate pleading for 15 minutes of ill-gotten fame by reality-show celebrities. And Americans are still watching.

Catching Up with Steinbeck In My Time Machine: Franklin Roosevelt, John Steinbeck, And Germany’s Third Reich

Page 1 image of the telegram sent by writers Including John Steinbeck to Franklin RooseveltPage 1Page 2 image of the telegram sent by writers Including John Steinbeck to Franklin RooseveltPage 3 image of the telegram sent by writers Including John Steinbeck to Franklin Roosevelt

On November 16, 1938—three years before America formally entered the war against Germany—John Steinbeck joined 35 writers in urging Franklin Roosevelt to confront the Third Reich. Responding to the outrage known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, their telegram (shown here) recommended severing economic ties with Hitler’s regime, the equivalent of today’s sanctions against Iran. Signed by Steinbeck, George S. Kaufman, Pare Lorentz, Robinson Jeffers, and other writers known by Steinbeck, the message was one of many received by Franklin Roosevelt urging action against the Nazi regime. But this one meant more than most. The signers were all working artists at the whim of a domestic audience that, as today, was deeply divided, and powerful voices—including Charles Lindbergh, Joseph Kennedy, and the right-wing radio priest Charles Coughlin—opposed U.S. intervention on behalf of European Jews for economic, political, and racist reasons. As John Bell Smithback notes in his time-machine fantasy about the rise of the Third Reich and the telegram sent to Franklin Roosevelt, John Steinbeck and other progressives were correct in their assessment: Kristallnach was a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. When he signed his name, Steinbeck had yet to meet Franklin Roosevelt, but his work was already controversial, so his action took courage. John Bell Smithback’s imaginative account of the Kristallnach atrocity and Steinbeck’s public response is a timely reminder that Steinbeck’s instinctive sympathy for victims was profound and prophetic—and that 1938 was like 2015 in deeply disturbing ways. The Third Reich was new, The Grapes of Wrath was in manuscript, and John Steinbeck was in his thirties when the terrifying events of 1933 and 1938 transpired.—Ed.

Catching Up with Steinbeck in My Time Machine

The UPS deliver man has just dropped off one of those spiffy new portable time machines that everyone is talking about. I’ve nearly finished setting it up, but I’m not going to use it to take a trip into the future. Everyone seems to be doing that, but observing what a stinking mess the world’s in I’m going to have a look into the past to see if there are any comparisons to be made. Accordingly, I’ve set the dial for the year 1933, and lo . . . here I am in Berlin! The Reichstag building has gone up in flames and the Nazis are claiming it’s the work of foreign terrorists. Consequently, they’ve issued a Decree for the Protection of People and State that gives them sweeping new powers to deal with a so-called emergency. Déjà vu: didn’t we go through this kind of thing when a few men burned down our Twin Towers?

Déjà vu: didn’t we go through this kind of thing when a few men burned down our Twin Towers?

Fine-tuning my time machine, I see thousands of people being arrested and sent to a camp where guards are being taught terror tactics to dehumanize prisoners. I thought it might be Abu Ghraib or maybe Guantanamo, but no, this place is called Dachau. Back in Berlin, though the democratically elected president of the country is a man named Paul von Hindenburg, the Nazis have gone around him to pass the Enabling Act allowing Hitler to issue laws without the Reichstag’s approval. Déjà vu again as I’m reminded of the House and Senate going around our president to manipulate U.S. foreign policy by inviting foreign politicians to speak in Washington and by addressing threatening, perhaps treasonous letters to foreign governments warning them not to declare peace.

Déjà vu again as I’m reminded of the House and Senate going around our president to manipulate U.S. foreign policy by inviting foreign politicians to speak in Washington and by addressing threatening, perhaps treasonous letters to foreign governments warning them not to declare peace.

I take a moment to catch my breath, and as I inhale I detect the scent of burning books and see 40,000 people in the square at the State Opera to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of . . . .” Hitler’s Karl Rove stands on a platform gripping a microphone, his voice rising ever higher as he screams the names of writers banned by the Third Reich: “Heinrich Mann, Walter Benjamin, Bertholt Brecht, Max Brod, Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque . . . .”

Hitler’s Karl Rove stands on a platform gripping a microphone, his voice rising ever higher as he screams the names of writers banned by the Third Reich.

Sigmund Freud is on the list; so are Gorki, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Andre Gidé, Karl Marx, Emile Zola, and Marcel Proust—”Und auch die amerikanische Schriftstellern, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck . . . .” A pillar of smoke rises over the square and sparks from books by hundreds of internationally acclaimed authors and poets, philosophers and rationalists, drift skyward. Ashes falling on my shoulders to remind me of Senator Joseph McCarthy, of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and of the American Library Association asserting that each year it receives hundreds of challenges to remove dangerous works from the shelves of American libraries. At the top of the current list are books about the imaginary childhood of a British boy named Harry Potter.

Sigmund Freud is on the list; so are Gorki, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Andre Gidé, Karl Marx, Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, John Dos Passos, and John Steinbeck.

It is late, but the crowd seems reluctant to disperse. PR people put away their motion picture cameras and groups of tough-looking men and boys in brown-shirted uniforms slink off to beer cellars. Newsmen rush to their offices, and then there is a hush. I press a button and inch my time machine forward, eager to see how the events of the evening are received overseas. Thinking that a pyre this big would sound warning bells around the world, I anticipate outrage. But what is this? Except for the living writers who learned that their books had just gone up in smoke, there are few outside Germany expressing concern about what’s happened. Within Germany, it seems to be a case of “Who needs books when we have Joseph Goebbels?” I pause to ponder this failure of reason. Is it really so different today? “Who needs factual information when we have Roger Ailes?”

Except for the living writers who learned that their books had just gone up in smoke, there are few outside Germany expressing concern about what’s happened.

At this point everything becomes a blur of red, white and black, of symbols and banners and uniforms and parades. Martial music blasts from lampposts, and at dawn I stop at a boulevard café to have a look at the newspapers. The only one at hand is Völkischer Beobachter, Hitler’s paper. He owns the whole thing, lock, stock and barrel, much, I suppose, as Rupert Murdoch owns and controls media throughout the English-speaking world today. There are fear stories on every page, and if it’s not one crazy group accused of threatening the nation it’s another; raving anarchists, murderous communists, and stealthy homosexuals are around every corner. Judging from what I read, there are unseen forces everywhere conspiring to rip out the German soul. That’s the reason given for the new Law for Removing the Distress of the People and the Reich. In an instant, German Jews are stripped of their civil rights, and I note that the man behind the decree, the one who will provide the balm, is none other than the Leader himself.

In an instant, German Jews are stripped of their civil rights, and I note that the man behind the decree, the one who will provide the balm, is none other than the Leader himself.

A group of youths march by the café in wrinkled uniforms. I turn to the editorial page and am astonished. Beneath the screaming headline—“We Need A Fascist Government In This Country”—I read this: “We need a fascist government in this country to save the nation from the communists who want to tear it down and wreck all that we have built. The only men who have the patriotism to do it are the soldiers, and Smedley Butler is the ideal leader. He could organize a million men overnight.”

Smedley Butler? What in the hell is this? He’s not even German: he’s an American general in command of an army of 500,000 war veterans back in the United States.

The Nazi editorial explains the American connection: “We have got the newspapers. We will start a campaign that President Franklin Roosevelt’s health is failing. Everyone can tell that by looking at him, and the dumb American people will fall for it in a second . . . .” So says Gerald MacGuire, a Wall Street bond salesman and one of the financiers of a group known as the American Liberty League, a corporate cabal that includes the heads of General Electric, Goodyear Tire, Bethlehem Steel, DuPont, J.P. Morgan, and Ford. Praising the prescience of these America First! patriots, the Völkischer Beobachter refers with approval to the racist ravings of Father Coughlin, the popular radio commentator from Henry Ford’s hometown. It seems Germany had highly placed friends in the United States. Why am I so shocked, I ask, as I think of today’s EIB Network and Fox News, of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Lars Larson, Bill O’Reilly, and the America First! Tea Party?

It seems Germany had highly placed friends in the United States. Why am I so shocked, I ask, as I think of today’s EIB Network and Fox News, of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Lars Larson, Bill O’Reilly, and the America First! Tea Party?

On the streets of Berlin people have lifted their arms in the Sieg heil salute, and I hear voices, thousands upon thousands, singing: “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!“ I watch transfixed as German troops march into Vienna, and I hear the world’s silence. Three months later I see Nazi soldiers marching into Prague . . . and hear the world’s silence. Then, on the night of November 10, this message is posted from SS-Grupenführer Reihnard Heydrich to all German State Police Main Offices and Field Offices:

DATE: 10 November 1938

RE: Measures Against Jews Tonight

(a) Only such measures may be taken which do not jeopardize German life or property (for instance, burning of synagogues only if there is no danger of fires for the neighborhoods).

(b) Business establishments and homes of Jews may be destroyed but not looted. The police have been instructed to supervise the execution of these directives and to arrest looters.

(c) In business streets special care is to be taken that non-Jewish establishments will be safeguarded at all cost against damage.

As soon as the events of this night permit the use of the designated officers, as many Jews (particularly wealthy ones) as the local jails will hold are to be arrested in all districts—initially only healthy male Jews, not too old. After the arrests have been carried out the appropriate concentration camp is to be contacted immediately with a view to a quick transfer of the Jews to the camps.

What follows is a night of absolute destruction, later labeled Kristallnacht, the Night of Smashed Glass. Hitler Youth and the brown-shirted S.A. have destroyed 167 synagogues and shattered the windows of an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned shops and businesses. Throughout all of Germany, Austria, and Nazi-occupied Sudetenland, mobs are roaming the streets attacking Jewish residents in their homes. Although murder did not figure in the official directive, Kristallnacht will claim the lives of at least 91 Jews. Police records of the period document a high number of rapes and of suicides in the aftermath of the violence: a fine of one billion marks is to be levied, not upon the criminals, but upon the victims.

Although murder did not figure in the official directive, Kristallnacht will claim the lives of at least 91 Jews. Police records of the period document a high number of rapes and of suicides in the aftermath of the violence: a fine of one billion marks is to be levied, not upon the criminals, but upon the victims.

Outraged, a group of writers in the United States, John Steinbeck among them, sends a telegram to President Franklin Roosevelt asking him to sever economic ties with Nazi Germany. Unfortunately for history, no action will be taken by the administration in time to help the Jews. But I don’t need a time machine to tell me that.

John Steinbeck’s Short Story “The Snake”: Context, Sources, and Process

Image of illustration from Carl Jung's Red Book

As Steven Federle demonstrates in this paper on “The Snake”presented at the Cannery Row symposium held four weeks ago at Pacific Grove’s Hopkins Marine StationFreudian analysis is frequently applied to John Steinbeck’s short story about Ed Ricketts and a disturbing incident at Doc’s Lab. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist who fell out with Freud and probed the unconscious using a different theory about dreams, provides another dimension. John Steinbeck was familiar with the dream theories of both men, and his and Ricketts’s friend, the mythologist Joseph Campbell, was deeply influenced by Jung’s version. This illustration from the Red Book—the handwritten record of Jung’s personal dreams and fantasies—suggests why Steinbeck, who liked to draw, was also attracted to Jung, an adept artist with a poet’s soul. As Campbell noted in a later context, Jung’s serpent is a powerful archetype, and Jung’s German inscription can be translated as “Endless Road,” an apt metaphor for John Steinbeck’s fiction. Like Jung, Steinbeck had German roots, supernatural encounters, and an artist’s eye, so Jung’s depth-theory holds as much water as Freud’s when thinking about “The Snake.” After you finish Steven Federle’s helpful account of the sources and writing of “The Snake,” listen to Steinbeck discuss and read the short story and decide for yourself. —Ed.

Writers are not like most people. They observe and record what they see and hear, and then they process that raw material of life through their imaginations, their own bright hopes and dark fears, to create fiction. Writers take the stuff of life as their source and transform it into something completely new.

John Steinbeck was, indeed, a writer, first and foremost, and he transformed the people he knew into characters, the places he knew into settings, and the events he witnessed, through his own struggling creativity, into the plots of the stories we are discussing today. Of course, we are in this beautiful place today because John Steinbeck lived and wrote here. Although Cannery Row is very much different than it was in 1934 (wouldn’t he be amazed?) it does not require much of an imagination to see Steinbeck walking past the Wing Chong Market on his way to the lab . . . and, as I can tell you, walking up the wooden steps into the Pacific Biological Laboratories, it is not hard to imagine Ed and John conversing inside, cold beers in hand.

Clearly, the years 1933 and 1934 were seminal for John Steinbeck. Living with Carol in his father’s cottage in Pacific Grove (desperately poor, both were the classic “starving artists”), he wrote nearly all the stories of The Long Valley, anticipating themes and settings he would later develop into his most important works.

The short story “The Snake” is my subject for today. In this story we see a marine biologist, young Dr. Phillips, modeled on Ed Ricketts. This is the first of many characters who in some way reflect Steinbeck’s good friend.

In this story we see a marine biologist, young Dr. Phillips, modeled on Ed Ricketts. This is the first of many characters who in some way reflect Steinbeck’s good friend.

Many of these short stories were drafted in manuscripts contained in hardbound, ledger notebooks; two are housed in San Jose State University’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.

The inside cover of the ledger-book containing “The Snake” features some fancy brushwork (John’s or Carol’s?) stating that the ledger book was “marvelously revived” as a manuscript. The facing page features a handwritten table of contents . . . one imagines Steinbeck carefully writing in the title as he finished each draft. Before each story, Steinbeck wrote journal pages, personal notes where he would converse and even argue with himself. In these pages he wrote commentaries on stories recently written, agonized over his struggles with loneliness and self-doubt, and even engaged in small talk. In the notes before “The Snake,” for example, he wondered about the ink he was using. He had been watering it down (no doubt to save money) and wondered if so doing would affect its drying. These were private and never intended for public view. Because of this, the journals provide a valuable window into not only his state of mind but his writing process as well.

The inside cover of the ledger-book containing ‘The Snake’ features some fancy brushwork (John’s or Carol’s?) stating that the ledger book was ‘marvelously revived’ as a manuscript.

John Steinbeck wrote “The Snake” in the summer of 1934, and it was first published in the June 1935, issue of The Monterey Beacon, a small experimental literary magazine run in conjunction with horse stables. In payment for his story, Steinbeck received six month’s use of a steeplechase horse named Cochise. The editor of The Monterey Beacon noted this “horse trade” at the head of the story, and in his letter of July 30, 1935, to Mavis McIntosh, Steinbeck notified his agent of the deal and offered her “ten percent of six month’s riding . . . .”  In February of 1938, Esquire published the story under the title “A Snake of One’s Own,” preserving, for the most part, the text of the earlier publication. Later that year, Viking published its most popular version under its original title in The Long Valley.

The plot of “The Snake” remained notably constant throughout its composition and publication, following for the most part Steinbeck’s account of the incident in his memorial essay, “About Ed Ricketts”:

Mysteries were constant at the laboratory. A thing happened one night which I later used as a short story. I wrote it just as it happened. I don’t know what it means and do not even answer the letters asking what its philosophic intent is. It just happened. Very briefly, this is the incident. A woman came in one night wanting to buy a male rattlesnake. It happened that we had one and knew it because it had recently copulated with another snake in the cage. The woman paid for the snake and then insisted that it be fed.  She paid for a white rat to be given it. Ed put the rat in the cage. The snake struck and killed it and then unhinged its jaws preparatory to swallowing it. The frightening thing was that the woman, who had watched the process closely, moved her jaws and stretched her mouth just as the snake was doing. After the rat was swallowed, she paid for a year’s supply of rats and said she would come back. But she never did come back. What happened or why I have no idea. Whether the woman was driven by a sexual, a religious, a zoophilic, or a gustatory impulse we never could figure.

The protagonist of “The Snake,” young Dr. Phillips, has “the mild, preoccupied eyes of one who looks through a microscope a great deal.” He returns to his  “little commercial laboratory on the cannery street of Monterey” after a day of collecting starfish. While busily engaged in two types of activity—preparing dead specimens (the cat and starfish zygotes) and feeding live ones (including himself)—he is interrupted by a knock on the door. A mysterious, tall woman with black eyes and a “soft, throaty” voice enters and sits motionless while the doctor continues his scientific procedures. Her apparent lack of interest irritates him, and in an effort to shock her into attention, he allows her to watch as he slits a dead cat’s throat and drains its blood. This has no effect on the woman, who calmly asks to purchase a male rattlesnake. She demands that he feed the snake, compelling the now frightened and confused doctor to place a white rat into the snake’s feeding cage. The woman dispassionately watches the kill while the scientist cries, “It’s the most beautiful thing in the world . . . it’s the most terrible thing in the world.” He glances at the entranced woman and sees that she is weaving like the attacking snake, “not much, just a suggestion.” After the snake’s jaws completely engulf the rat, the now relaxed woman leaves the emotionally exhausted doctor to “comb out his thoughts” and try to make sense out of his irrational terror. He is unable to do this, however, for all theories about “psychological sex symbols” do not seem adequate. He never sees the woman again.

The plot of ‘The Snake’ remained notably constant throughout its composition and publication, following for the most part Steinbeck’s account of the incident in his memorial essay, ‘About Ed Ricketts.’

A second account of the source incident can be found in Martha Heasley Cox’s interview with Webster F. Street, who was present in Ricketts’s laboratory that day. According to Street, the strange dark woman was “just a girl that was on the circuit” who “took a fancy to Ed.” Like the lady of Steinbeck’s story, this girl watched in fascination as the snake stalked and devoured the white rat, but unlike the fictional woman, she did not purchase the snake or the rat. Significantly, in Street’s account, it was Ricketts, not the woman, who decided to feed the snake.

In a 1993 recorded interview with Michael Hemp, the writer and philosopher Joseph Campbell described the incident in a decidedly more lighthearted way:

One day [Ricketts] invites us down to see the rattlesnake, puts this little white rat or mouse (I don’t know which it was) and the languid rattlesnake in the other box with the snake in it, the cover on top of it . . . a wire . . . and the little mouse gets in there, and there’s John standing around feeling deep about it, and the little mouse starts sniffing along the length of the rattlesnake and then suddenly seems to have gotten the idea that this isn’t a good place to be, and went over there. The rattlesnake looks over and starts to move, comes over in his direction and then (claps) like that, hits him right here. Two little red spots and the little mouse just spun around and (claps). Then came the next thing. First you’re on the little mouse’s side, you know. Now the mouse is dead so you’re on the rattlesnake’s side. He’s going to eat the thing. The rat was bigger around than the rattlesnake, but Ed said, “now watch him, he’s going to unhook his jaw.” So we watch him unhook his jaw and he comes in and begins taking this thing in and Ed said, “now see, see? He’s being digested right there . . . the saliva can digest him,” and he said, “He’s changing the shape inside there.” The most absurd moment was when all there was left was two legs and a tail sticking out. The rattlesnake got a little tired at that point and just rested a little while and then finally took it all in. This comes out as one of Steinbeck’s stories, “The Snake.”

Although Campbell’s account includes no mention of a woman who wished to see the snake eat a rat, he does corroborate that Ricketts, as in Street’s account, initiated the feeding and explained it to the observers as it proceeded. Perhaps the most significant detail in Campbell’s account, though, is the image of John Steinbeck, “standing around feeling deep about it,” while the others were humorously rooting first for the mouse/rat and then for the snake. There is, however, no sense of horror or mystery in Campbell’s memory of this “absurd” incident.

In a 1987 letter to Michael Hemp, Grove Day, Steinbeck historian and friend, described the incident this way:

[Ed’s] father had caught a rattlesnake on the golf course and put it in a cage. A young lady with us was handling a white mouse and dropped it. Somebody suggested that we feed it to the snake, which had not eaten since captivity. The snake enjoyed its lunch, eating the mouse head-first. Toward the end, the tail made the snake look as if it were smoking a cigarette. John made a Freudian story out of the incident, changing everything around.

Several times in “About Ed Ricketts,” Steinbeck insisted that he wrote the story “just as it happened,” but clearly, as Grove Day said, he changed “everything around.” The story he told in “The Snake” differs significantly in both detail and mood from these eyewitness accounts. The degree to which Steinbeck altered the incident in “The Snake” is, in fact, significant. A careful analysis of the textual variants between the version published in The Long Valley and the handwritten text, located at San Jose State University’s John Steinbeck Center, reveals Steinbeck’s writing process, transforming source materials into the unique product of his individual creativity.

A careful analysis of the textual variants between the version published in ‘The Long Valley’ and the handwritten text, located at San Jose State University’s John Steinbeck Center, reveals Steinbeck’s writing process, transforming source materials into the unique product of his individual creativity.

Steinbeck’s process was one of internalizing and personalizing the events and personalities surrounding him; thus, the incident, described in vastly more matter-of-fact ways by Webster Street, Joseph Campbell, and Grove Day, became something deeply mysterious in Steinbeck’s mind. In his unpublished working notes preceding the handwritten draft of “The Snake,” Steinbeck wrote this:

The story of the snake must be written. I don’t know what it means but it means something very terrible to my unconscious. And I’ll write it slowly out of my unconscious. It’s a terrible story. It’s a damnable story. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know. I’ll write the frightful thing though . . . Carol disapproves of it on the grounds that it is horror for its own sake. I don’t think that is the case at all. And it does have to be written. It would eat me up otherwise.

The most significant substantive variants between the manuscript and the published versions deal with the development of the scientist’s and the woman’s characters, and the psychologically devastating effect on the doctor of their momentary encounter. Changes from the manuscript to the published text serve to emphasize Steinbeck’s intent to show the doctor as a logician who loses his scientific aloofness when confronted with unreasoning, demonic vitality.

In the earlier part of the story, Steinbeck carefully deleted from the final text emotionally charged phrases describing the doctor’s actions. When, for example, the young man was interrupted by a knock on the door, his reaction in both the manuscript and published versions was a “grimace of annoyance,” but in the manuscript the young man “walked to the door and threw it open.” In the published text this act is not so violent; he simply goes “to open” the door. In both the manuscript and The Long Valley, evidence of the doctor’s unemotional, objective manner is abundant. He simultaneously feeds and strokes the cats while calmly gassing one of them in the “killing chamber.” Steinbeck removed all emotional references from the published versions when describing the scientist’s quarters; even the laboratory work light, a “painful white light” in the manuscript, becomes a more neutral “pouring white light” in the published text. With the introduction of the woman, however, the scientist becomes more emotional, a movement clearly seen in Steinbeck’s revisions. In the manuscript Dr. Phillips “felt it was wrong to do the thing, but he didn’t know why.” In the revised text, however, Steinbeck introduced the subjective element of sin and guilt into the doctor’s consciousness: “He felt that it was profoundly wrong to put a rat into the cage, deeply sinful, and he didn’t know why.”

The most significant substantive variants between the manuscript and the published versions deal with the development of the scientist’s and the woman’s characters, and the psychologically devastating effect on the doctor of their momentary encounter.

The dark and irrational presence of the woman causes him to become fearful, and in response to his growing fear, Dr. Phillips attempts to form a rational construct to conceal his terror. The manuscript states: “Lots of people have dreams about the terror of snakes making the kill; I think it’s because it is a subjective rat. The rat is a persona. Once you see this through, the rat is only a rat and you are free from the terror.”

In the revised text, Steinbeck changes the young man’s words to, “Once you see it the whole matter is objective. The rat is only a rat and the terror is removed.” With this revision, Steinbeck is intensifying Dr. Phillips’s attempt to rationalize what is taking place, thereby concealing his irrational core of fear that he will metaphorically become the rat/victim of the metaphorical snake (the woman). Steinbeck emphasizes the doctor’s fall from objectivity into irrational fear through other revisions from the manuscript. In the manuscript, he wrote: “’It’s the most beautiful thing in the world,’ the young man cried. His veins were throbbing.’” In the published text, the added words“It’s the most terrible thing in the world”bring an even greater passion to the scientist’s formerly objective perception.

Steinbeck emphasizes the doctor’s fall from objectivity into irrational fear through other revisions from the manuscript. . . . In the published text, the added words—’It’s the most terrible thing in the world’bring an even greater passion to the scientist’s formerly objective perception.

Unlike Dr. Phillips, the woman remains consistently two-dimensional throughout the story; all revisions from the manuscript to published text serve to strengthen her symbolic force by depersonalizing and flattening her character. The woman seems sensually motivated in Steinbeck’s handwritten draft, but key descriptive words giving her an air of sexual intensity were consistently deleted from the published version. In the manuscript, for example, her eyes “glittered with controlled excitement,” while in the published version her eyes simply “glittered in the strong light.” Later in the manuscript, Steinbeck used the adjective “feverish’ to describe her eyes, a word conspicuously absent from the finished text. While the woman certainly displays a curious identification with the snake, her emotions are never revealed by Steinbeck’s choice of descriptive wording; she remains throughout a faceless mystery. Her presence can be seen to derive from the dynamic interaction of Dr. Phillips’s logical function as a scientist and his emotional, poetic function as a human being. She is perceived as an evil or threatening force as a result of the young man’s refusal to acknowledge that dark, chaotic part of himself. It is interesting that Steinbeck noted this same internal contradiction in his essay “About Ed Ricketts”: “I have said that his mind had no horizons, but that is untrue. He forbade his mind to think of metaphysical or extra-physical matters, and his mind refused to obey him.”

Dr. Phillips’s movement from rational calm to illogical terror is understandable. Far from being a Freudian contest between two distinct individuals, culminating in the young man’s seduction, the process can rather be seen as the psychic rebellion of the doctor’s unconscious. His terror comes from his refusal to accept the unknowable and unexplainable.

Steinbeck’s revision of the story’s end forcefully reveals its mythic basis. In the manuscript, when the doctor tries to comb out his thoughts after the woman has gone, he sarcastically contemplates prayer: “He thought of his life and grinned. ‘Mother Biology, save me from this evil,’ he said. ‘Holy Science! protect me.'”

The satirical tone demonstrates an attempt to dismiss the intrusion of the mythic as a bizarre joke. Steinbeck deleted this passage from his final text because it was inconsistent with the dark tone of the story. In the published work, Dr. Phillips is unable to dismiss the mythic through either logic or ridicule but remains terrified and baffled by the strange encounter.

In the published work, Dr. Phillips is unable to dismiss the mythic through either logic or ridicule but remains terrified and baffled by the strange encounter.

“The Snake” is surely one of Steinbeck’s darkest stories. Several clues as to the source of its dark tone become apparent in the journal entry prior to the start of “The Snake.” One is his fear that he will fail in his goal to become a serious writer:

I work hard enough but nothing happens. When Carol works something happens. I seem to be a bad son, and a bad brother, and a bad husband and a bad citizen all for the sake of being a good writer. If I should turn out to be a bad writer then it’s complete and I have nothing to fall back on. It’s a gamble of not only my own life but the lives of everyone with whom I come in contact. I wish I knew.

Fear of failure is a recurring theme in many of his journal entries; however, before writing “The Snake,” Steinbeck pondered another, deeper, more existential fear. This centers on an undefined event or incident in his life he describes this way:

[Like a] mounting pile of sorrows outside the door. If I open the door, the sorrow would come piling in like a night snowdrift. Oh falling house, crumbling away, rotting. We believe fervently that the event has run its cycle and has come back to nothing, that when the event . . . is gone, that will be done. And we do not want to start it again. We know that by taking this course we will build loneliness in the future against ourselves, but we have seen loneliness among those who should be able to dissipate it and cannot. And the last kind seems so much the worst. We know that when we grow old we shall be grieved by a lasting loneliness, that we will have substituted nothing of any value to ourselves, but at least we will not have provided new instruments to bitterness and to loneliness. Perhaps it is selfishness. But how can one be selfish toward the unborn?

Steinbeck reveals his profound fear of separation and loneliness, both in the present and the future. He refers to a bitter old age when he (and Carol?) will be “grieved by a lasting loneliness,” resulting from “taking this course” that substitutes “nothing of value to ourselves.” What is Steinbeck talking about here? That, of course, is a matter of speculation. His final question, though—“how can one be selfish toward the unborn?”—is compelling. He often spoke of his stories as his children; could he be lamenting stories that would never find life in publication? Or perhaps does he refer to an actual, unborn child? The question is open. In the dark tone of these notes, however, we see the darkness present in “The Snake,” a story he planned to write “slowly out of my unconscious.”

In the dark tone of these notes, we see the darkness present in ‘The Snake,’ a story he planned to write ‘slowly out of my unconscious.’

Clearly, for John Steinbeck, “The Snake” was a “damnable story”; he did not want to write it but felt compelled. In the journal entry written immediately before he began composing “The Snake,” Steinbeck wrestles with personal demons: fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy to make good on his passion to become a successful writer, and, perhaps, a deep sense of loneliness and loss. Characteristically, he uses his writer’s tools, metaphor and imagery, to work through this gloom:

The mind plays. And the gulls are sweeping off the sky. And I wish I knew. Last night the sky was clear and the story was . . . deep, buried in the sky. I was lonelier than I’ve ever been. Sky over ocean is so black. It isn’t when you are out on the ocean. Not nearly so. Then you feel a rhythm with the sky.

Steinbeck identifies his fear with the black sky over the ocean, perhaps representing separation and loneliness, but fear is powerful only if not confronted. When he is on the ocean he again feels connected, and his fear is replaced by a sense of acceptance and oneness with “a rhythm“ of the sky.

This is the road out of the darkness. Just before beginning to write “The Snake,” he describes a “dark silence from the east . . . . A list of [publishers’] rejections.” Unlike Dr. Phillips, John Steinbeck found in his sheer force of will to connect a way to write his way out of the lethargy and fear he felt when he created the disturbing short story that continues to captivate readers, despite the psychological puzzle it still presents. It was a pattern that recurred throughout his troubled career:

. . . the silence is very wearing on the soul. I just have to break this deadlock with a hammer effect. I’ve done that before and I’ll do it again.

Beyond Russell Brand and Naomi Klein: William Blake, John Steinbeck, and the Politics of Poetic Power

Image of William Blake

William Blake

A summary of recent books by Russell Brand and Naomi Klein about current events, global conflict, and corporate accountability associated their views with John Steinbeck and William Blake, the English poet and artist admired by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. But how accurate is it to compare literary artists like Blake and Steinbeck with activists like Naomi Klein or Russell Brand, cultural critics whose appeal is topical and in the moment? It’s true that all four writers oppose oppression and speak truth to power in their work. But the similarity ends there, and the earlier discussion ignored another English poet: John Milton, a writer who has more in common with John Steinbeck and William Blake than Russell Brand or Naomi Klein.

Image of William Blake's "Ancient of Days"

William Blake’s “Ancient of Days”

William Blake’s dramatic etched and painted images—drawn from the Bible, world mythology, and Blake’s imagination—have been speaking powerfully since he died in poverty in 1830 and are sampled here for readers unfamiliar with his extraordinary art. His reach is cosmic, and the significance of his work is symbolic, not local or literal like modern writers. Likewise, John Steinbeck’s fiction, even at its most realistic, transcended the time and place in which it was set and tells a universal story applicable to every age. I consider both Blake and Steinbeck to be prophetic poets, like John Milton, who explored the human spirit and who will be read for years to come. Klein is an accomplished journalist and Brand’s jeremiads are often amusing, but neither achieves the depth or breadth to justify comparison with John Steinbeck or William Blake. The Bible and John Milton tell me so.

Image of William Blake's "House of Death"

William Blake’s “House of Death”

John Steinbeck, William Blake, and the Politics of Poetry

Blake and Steinbeck championed the downtrodden and called out the kings and corporations responsible, in their view, for pervasive poverty, inequality, and political corruption when they were alive. The context of Blake’s writing included the three great revolutions of his time—the political revolutions in America and France, which he praised, and the industrial revolution in England that created the “dark Satanic mills” he decried. Volumes have been written about the political origins and implications of Blake’s work within the framework of the English Romantic movement of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Like Byron and sometimes Shelley, Blake was a rebel with a cause. But Blake was also a religious visionary, and the Bible inspired his art, not political pamphlets, love affairs, or misadventures in foreign lands.

Image of William Blake's "Nebuchadnezzar"

William Blake’s “Nebuchadnezzar”

Wordsworth started in the same radical vein, supporting the French Revolution and opposing urbanization, commodification, and the industrial revolution’s displacement of England’s agricultural poor. If this sounds familiar, it’s because John Steinbeck tells a similar story in The Grapes of Wrath (a Biblical title with a Blakean ring). But Wordsworth became a conservative in old age, writing sonnets praising duty and domesticity that promoted comfort with the status quo. Likewise, John Steinbeck defended America’s intervention in Vietnam, causing various liberal friends and literary critics to view him as a turncoat against progressive principles. As with Wordsworth, Steinbeck’s late-life change damaged his reputation as a public figure. At a minimum it complicates matters when comparing him to William Blake, Naomi Klein, or Russell Brand—a passionate ranter whose first name should be Fire. Unlike Steinbeck, Klein, or Brand, Blake was involved in a lifelong project of deconstructing social theory into metaphysical truth, ridiculing parties and politicians until the day he died. Like Steinbeck, however, he distrusted polemics and rejected identification with any ideology.

Image of William Blake's "Newton"

William Blake’s “Newton”

Why do we continue to read William Blake and John Steinbeck with a shock of recognition at old truths made new? Because their politics of poetry transcends time and place and speaks to every age. (We’ll see whether Naomi Klein and Russell Brand have the same appeal for readers generations from now.) Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath portray the Biblical symbol of a barred Paradise following a human Fall, an ancient archetype that powerfully the expresses the human condition. Like William Blake, John Steinbeck discovered the origin of evil in the Snake within each of us: the self-divided consciousness that conflicts every person who is truly alive. Tip O’Neill, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, claimed that “all politics is local.” Russell Brand appears to agree, while Naomi Klein thinks global politics matter most. Neither point of view pierces the human heart where Blake and Steinbeck find the beginning of all conflict, global or local. Today we don’t read William Blake as counterpoint to John Stuart Mill, or John Steinbeck as ally or antidote to Karl Marx. Connecting Brand and Klein to Marx and Mill makes more sense than wishful thinking about “channeling” John Steinbeck.

Image of William Blake's "Satan Smiting Job"

William Blake’s “Satan Smiting Job”

Russell Brand, Naomi Klein, and the Ideology of Politics

But differences between the art of John Steinbeck and that of William Blake are worth noting. The Grapes of Wrath depicts the triumph of predatory capitalism over family farming as a fight between political interests with conflicting ideologies. While denying that he was an ideologue, Steinbeck supported the New Deal and (to his credit) took sides in the fight. Russell Brand and Noami Klein, on the other hand, don’t pretend to be above politics, interpreting current events as a clash of ideologies, not cultures or faiths. In an era of even bloodier revolution, William Blake saw every ideology as a form of mental tyranny, “mind-forg’d manacles” that tie down the soul and perpetuate the cycle of conflict among individuals, interest groups, and nations. It was the spirit, not the ideology, of revolution that engaged Blake’s imagination as a writer.

Blake believed that the work of the artist and poet is to help free individual consciousness from conceptual chains, like the prophet Ezekial in “A Memorable Fancy.” Blake’s reference to native cultures sounds very modern:

I then asked Ezekiel why he ate dung, and lay so long on his right and left side. He answer’d, ‘The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite: this the North American tribes practise, and is he honest who resists his genius or conscience only for the sake of present ease or gratification?’

John Steinbeck’s version of Blake’s Ezekial figure is the preacher Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, a prophet who endures pain to “cleanse the doors of perception” and achieves salvation through self-denial, self-sacrifice, and self-transcendence. Jim Casy dies in Steinbeck’s story but, like Tom Joad, his holy ghost lives on. In Dubious Battle presents a similar pattern of questioning introspection and self-transcendence in the character of Doc, the doubting physician who sees beyond the conflicting ideologies of capitalism and communism to a cosmic vision worthy of William Blake: Group Man as godlike, a corrupted version of Blake’s “human form divine.” Ed Ricketts has been identified by scholars as the inspiration for each of these characters in John Steinbeck’s fiction; it’s worth noting that Ricketts deeply distrusted ideology and rejoiced in reading William Blake, one of a handful of ageless poets he identified as “breaking through” to higher vision and cosmic consciousness in their art.

Image of William Blake's "The Witch of Endor"

William Blake’s “The Witch of Endor”

John Steinbeck, William Blake, and their Poetic Prophets

Blake always called his poetic vision “prophetic.” Steinbeck presents both prophetic figures—In Dubious Battle’s physician Doc, The Grapes of Wrath’s preacher Casy—in the same mode of thought and speech. Each is a seer in two senses, like Blake’s Old Testament prophets: they see into the human soul and they see into the immediate future. Doc speaks of “the Blood of the Lamb.” Casy’s dialog becomes increasingly poetic as the novel progresses, as when he prays reluctantly over a woman dying on the exodus to the Promised Land of California. Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost must also be kept in mind to complete the picture. Blake and Steinbeck were intimately familiar with Milton’s great narrative of human fall from grace, innocence, and Paradise. Blake considered Satan the true hero of Milton’s poem because Satan, not God, represents energy, imagination, and “breaking through,” and Steinbeck was familiar with Blake’s radical reinterpretation of Milton’s moral message. It clearly colors Casy’s rejection of religion and helps us understand Doc’s prophecy about the ambiguous outcome of the “dubious battle” (a phrase borrowed from Paradise Lost) between the strikers and police.

Image of William Blake's "Job"

William Blake’s “Job”

Which brings us back to Russell Brand and Naomi Klein. Neither writer has John Milton, William Blake, or John Steinbeck’s grounding in the prophetic literature or language of the Bible, and the gap is apparent. As a result, reading either one feels a bit like skating on thin ice. Firebrand rhetoric (Brand) and statistical analysis (Klein) fail to convey the sense of depth and permanence about politics found in John Steinbeck, who has far more in common with William Blake and John Milton than with Russell Brand or Naomi Klein. It might be better to describe Steinbeck as channeling these writers than to assert that Klein or Brand has channeled John Steinbeck in books that, however relevant they seem today, are too busy taking the pulse of the body politic to get to the heart of the matter.