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.

Everybody Loves Travels with Charley! Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Lifelong Learning Affair with John Steinbeck

Image of John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley map with dog

John Steinbeck loved all dogs and certain humans, and Travels with Charley continues to travel well with people of every age. My experience teaching senior citizens in an Ann Arbor, Michigan-area lifelong learning program called Elderwise proves that energetic seniors are eager to read Steinbeck books, watch Steinbeck movies, and discuss life issues—loneliness, companionship, alienation and affection—explored in Travels with Charley, Tortilla Flat, and The Grapes of Wrath. I’d like to share what I’ve learned from my experience for the benefit of Steinbeck lovers everywhere.

Lifelong Learning Rekindles John Steinbeck’s Appeal

Surprisingly, I found that lifelong learning discussions of John Steinbeck are often livelier than the university classes I taught as a college professor. This is particularly good news for the Steinbeck renaissance declared by Steinbeck scholars following the widely-publicized anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath. Recent declines in college course enrollment, scholarly publications, and Steinbeck’s presence in American anthologies have depressed Steinbeck aficionados in this country, so I was glad when I learned that the Steinbeck Society decided to focus on the author’s globalism in the international conference being planned for 2016. Meanwhile, Elderwise provides a practical example of how lifelong learning programs keep the flame alive as the torch passes to a new generation of scholars, readers, and fans in places throughout the world where John Steinbeck remains popular.

Elderwise provides a practical example of how lifelong learning programs keep the flame alive as the torch passes to a new generation of scholars, readers, and fans in places where John Steinbeck remains popular.

Established by an energetic group of volunteers in 1992, Elderwise outgrew its start-up space last year, relocating to Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Red Cross Building, where audio-visual equipment—a must for effective lifelong learning—is available and classroom space is ample. Ann Arbor, Michigan is a college town, and universities, corporations, and nonprofit organizations around the area provide an abundant supply of teachers who are passionate and knowledgeable about a variety of subjects. As a result Elderwise course offerings are impressively diverse. Current topics include the composer Shostakovich, the history of the Huron River, and the automaker Henry Ford as an educator. Pat Butler coordinates enrollment and schedules efficiently, supported by volunteers such as Elsie Orb and Ruth Shabazz, who provide able assistance to the classes I’ve taught since 1999. Elderwise began as a membership organization with a dedicated core—another must for lifelong learning programs designed to attract interest and build participation.

“GOWers” Like to Learn by Watching Movies, Too

To succeed today, lifelong learning programs also need novelty. Most people like movies, and Elderwise’s innovative  “Books into Movies” sessions partner reading books by John Steinbeck with viewing and evaluating film adaptations. As far as I know, Travels with Charley has yet to be made into a dog picture by Disney, but The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men are cinema classics, and new productions of both books are under way or discussion by the actor-director James Franco and the director-producer Stephen Spielberg. Most of my Elderwise students are what I call GOWers—they read The Grapes of Wrath in high school, perhaps saw the John Ford film, but aren’t necessarily familiar with other works by John Steinbeck such as Tortilla Flat or Travels with Charley. Movies are a good way to attract seniors’ attention, a characteristic they share with today’s college students, who prefer watching to reading before committing to any author.

Movies are a good way to attract seniors’ attention, a characteristic they share with today’s college students, who prefer watching to reading before committing to any author.

GOWers who took the Steinbeck leap in my Books into Movies series soon discovered what they had been missing. A particular topic is typically covered in a two-session course in which students read and discuss a novel, then view and comment on its film translation. My first Steinbeck selection for this series was Tortilla Flat, a better book than movie. Ann Arbor, Michigan-area GOWers shared the enthusiasm of Californians who read Steinbeck’s bestseller when it was published in 1935, praising Steinbeck’s vivid and affectionate portrayals of Monterey and its exotic, offbeat paisanos. MGM’s 1942 film adaptation forced a Hollywood ending onto Steinbeck’s bohemian narrative, and my students noted that Steinbeck’s colorfully ethnic characters were played by studio actors with an obvious Anglo-Saxon appearance. Hollywood’s racism bothered Steinbeck—a good way to connect cultural currents of our time with Steinbeck’s progressive views when teaching students who think that, since he’s dead, he’s outdated.

Hollywood’s racism bothered Steinbeck—a good way to connect cultural currents of our time with Steinbeck’s progressive views when teaching students who think that, since he’s dead, he’s outdated.

Last year I followed up with a Books into Movies class on The Grapes of Wrath in honor of the novel’s anniversary. This timing was fortuitous. The same week I taught the class, PBS aired an episode of The Roosevelts by the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, winner of the Steinbeck Society’s 2013 humanitarian award. Most GOWers are children or grandchildren of the Great Depression, so Burns’s documentary provided familiar context for Steinbeck’s portrayal of poverty, dislocation, and despair in the economic collapse of the 1930s. Participants who had never seen Ford’s film treatment of Steinbeck’s masterpiece agreed with those who had: the 1940 movie is an exquisite distillation of Steinbeck’s 455-page Pulitzer Prize-winner that Stephen Spielberg’s effort, if it ever happens, will be challenged to exceed.

Less Is Sometimes More in Lifelong Learning

Like today’s college students, lifelong learning participants can have limited attention spans. I confronted this challenge with a class I called “Short Steinbeck,” choosing Travels with Charley in Search of America and Steinbeck’s 1947 novel The Wayward Bus as examples of Steinbeck’s short-form style. Travels with Charley has been a personal favorite ever since my mother introduced me to Steinbeck’s man-drives-dog memoir 50 years ago. Including the name of the Steinbecks’ poodle in the title appealed to me at the time, and my current dog Corey (shown above) shares my admiration for the gesture. Steinbeck’s prescient commentary on American social and environmental degradation drew a more serious response from my lifelong learning class, which recognized the warning signs posted by Steinbeck about America’s cultural decline. Like readers and critics when The Wayward Bus was published, class members held conflicting opinions about the earlier book, though participants who experienced the post-war period enjoyed Steinbeck’s nuanced portrayal of the American Dream as defined by the novel’s ensemble of diverse, conflicted characters.

Travels with Charley has been a personal favorite ever since my mother introduced me to Steinbeck’s man-drives-dog memoir 50 years ago.

Long-form and short-form, fiction and non-fiction, reading and viewing: after exploring the available avenues to John Steinbeck, what is the consensus of lifelong learners about the author’s continued relevance as a writer? In brief, both positive and encouraging. One participant praised Steinbeck’s optimistic portrayal of teamwork and camaraderie among family, friends, and community, citing The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row as examples, though Tortilla Flat should be added to the list. Others emphasized the timelessness of Steinbeck’s message, whatever form it took: as everyone noted, the experiences of the so-called Okies in The Grapes of Wrath transcend the time and place in which the story was set and the novel was written. But the final verdict on John Steinbeck at Elderwise can easily be boiled down to a sentence: Steinbeck remains a great author, and today his work is more meaningful, not less, than when he was alive. Yes, the hoped-for Steinbeck renaissance has begun. Who guessed it would start with a group of senior citizens in Ann Arbor, Michigan?

Time for Change! Russell Brand and Naomi Klein Channel John Steinbeck

Image of Russell Brand and Naomi Klein

Though he’d probably be puzzled by the media contemporary counter-cultural critics like Russell Brand and Naomi Klein employ to communicate the human cost of mounting income inequality, predatory capitalism, and pending climate crisis—YouTube, podcasts, personal websites—John Steinbeck would likely agree with their call for a revolution in how we think and organize ourselves as a survival-species. I encourage you to read Russell’s Brand’s Revolution and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, both published in 2014, if like me, The Grapes of Wrath captivated your imagination and outraged your sense of justice.

Though he’d probably be puzzled by the media employed, John Steinbeck would likely agree with the call for a revolution in how we think and organize ourselves as a survival-species.

Not long after meeting Joseph Campbell—quoted by Brand and Klein in their writing about human belief and behavior—Steinbeck encountered first hand the evidence of destructive income inequality and environmental degradation in the Midwestern Dust Bowl and California labor camps of the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath was the result of John Steinbeck’s personal epiphany. Both the struggle and the enlightenment he dramatized continue in our time. Russell Brand and Naomi Klein project Steinbeck’s local vision on a global screen, exposing the noxious roots of global income inequality, climate change, and predatory capitalism—problems that are worse today than when John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath.

‘The Grapes of Wrath’ was the result of John Steinbeck’s personal epiphany. Both the struggle and the enlightenment he dramatized continue in our time.

Image of the late Joseph Campbell on PBSAs I read Russell Brand and Naomi Klein, it occurred to me that they were really channeling John Steinbeck, even when quoting Joseph Campbell or James Lovelock, the British biologist whose 1960s Gaia theory (Earth as a single organism comprised of interconnected systems) reflects advanced thinking about ecology expressed by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts in Sea of Cortez. For that matter, Tortilla Flat presages the small-group collectivism espoused by Russell Brand in Revolution, and Travels with Charley suggests the same connections between consumerism, conflict, and unhappiness drawn by Brand and Naomi Klein in their books. Events have caught up with John Steinbeck’s prophecy; as I write, his beloved city of Paris remains on security alert following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Agence France-Presse reports that the richest one percent of the world’s population will own half of the world’s wealth by next year. Like John Steinbeck, Russell Brand and Naomi Klein wish to advise us of disaster ahead.

Like John Steinbeck, Russell Brand and Naomi Klein wish to advise us of disaster ahead.

Image of John Steinbeck at work

Russell Brand’s Revolution—Change You Can’t Believe In?

Mention Russell Brand to anyone under 40—the age the hyperkinetic actor, radio host, and comedian will reach in June—and you’ll likely learn about Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, youth-market movies in which Brand played offbeat characters. I’ll show my own age and admit I didn’t know who Russell Brand was until he was called out by Bill Maher (on Real Time with Bill Maher, soon after the 2014 election) for asserting in Revolution that voting is pointless because all political parties have the same agenda: getting and keeping power and protecting moneyed interests. But watching Maher, I recognized Brand’s face from St. Trinian’s, an offbeat British comedy about an anarchic private girl’s school that I enjoyed. In the movie, Brand plays a hyperbolic drug dealer, Colin Firth is a clueless Tory Minister of Education, and Rupert Everett portrays a playboy dad and—in dreadful drag—the school’s pot-smoking headmistress, who is Firth’s love interest as well. Naturally, I bought Brand’s book.

Mention Russell Brand to anyone under 40 and you’ll likely learn about ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ and ‘Get Him to the Greek,’ youth-market movies in which Brand plays offbeat characters.

When I learned more about Russell Brand, his role in St. Trinian’s made sense. Turns out he’s an up-from-poverty populist with an ability to talk fast, a history of alcohol and drug abuse, and a slight criminal record—sort of an updated character from Tortilla Flat, but with an East London accent. As a thinker Brand firmly believes in benevolent anarchy, the form of social reorganization he recommends in Revolution. As a speaker and writer he manages, like John Steinbeck, to mix high-level messaging with low-level language, similar to the chatty social outcasts who populate Cannery Row. Also like Steinbeck, Brand attributes greed and consumerism to spiritual causes embedded in the human condition. This is where John Steinbeck’s friend Joseph Campbell, the anthropologist of myth-making, comes in handy for Brand, a recovering alcoholic whose 12-step program for curing income inequality (Chapter One: “Heroes’ Journey”) rests on spiritual insights found in the world’s great religions and literature. William Blake, whose visionary poetry particularly appealed to John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, is mentioned frequently in the same vein.

As a thinker Brand firmly believes in benevolent anarchy, the form of social reorganization he recommends in ‘Revolution.’

I marked my copy of Revolution as I read along because so much that Russell Brand says is, like his movie roles, so entertaining. And while he’s perfectly aware of the paradox that he’s trashing capitalism in a product published by an affiliate of the media conglomerate Bertelsmann, it wouldn’t be fair to discourage other buyers by over-quoting from the book. (Also, as Brand might observe, there’s them corporate lawyers, so look out.) Brand’s serio-comic perceptions are memorable because they mix things up, Tortilla Flat-like. Here are a few examples, chosen because they connected with John Steinbeck, Joseph Campbell, Blake, or my funny bone:

“We are living in a zoo, or more accurately a farm, our collective consciousness, our individual consciousness, has been hijacked by a power structure that needs us to remain atomized and disconnected.”

“Campbell said, ‘All religions are true in that the metaphor is true.’ I think this means that religions are meant to be literary maps, not literal doctrines, a signpost to the unknowable, a hymn to the inconceivable.”

“At some point in the past, the mind has taken on the duty of trying to solve every single problem you are having, have had, or might have in the future, which makes it a frenetic and restless device.”

“The alarm bells of fear and desire are everywhere; these powerful primal tools, designed to aid survival in a world unrecognizable to modern civilized humans, are relentlessly jangled.”

“At some Anglican sermon in Surrey, the ‘file-down-the-aisle, handshake-and-smile’ ending is the energetic climax of proceedings. After a polite rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ (in which Blake was apparently being sarcastic) or ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ (which Stewart Lee breaks down beautifully), there isn’t a moment of postcoital awkwardness where everyone thinks, ‘F*** me, we really let ourselves go here.’”

And that’s only from the first five chapters. There are 33 in all, and there are no asterisks in any of them, suggesting a P-13 rating if the book were a motion picture. In a hostile review, The Guardian newspaper dismissed Revolution as “The barmy credo of a Beverly Hills Buddhist.”  Then again, the London paper’s online logo boasts that it’s a past “Winner of the Pulitzer prize,” information that Russell Brand would probably identify as a sign of deep-seated corporate insecurity, and that John Steinbeck, who won a Pulitzer for The Grapes of Wrath and disliked self-promotion, would also find deeply unimpressive. Newspapers were economic enterprises with political agendas in Steinbeck’s view, one based on bitter personal experience, and certain media moguls particularly bothered him. The Grapes of Wrath could be characterized as “the barmy complaining of a Los Gatos liberal” and was called worse in print; Steinbeck went out of his way to disparage (without identifying) the ruthlessly acquisitive California publisher William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of Steinbeck’s day. Brand, like Naomi Klein, calls out Murdoch by name for creating the global media machine that protects the interests of predatory capitalism and right-wing politics everywhere: a Citizen Kane on steroids.

The Guardian newspaper dismissed ‘Revolution’ as ‘The barmy credo of a Beverly Hills Buddhist.’  Then again, the London paper’s online logo boasts that it’s a past ‘Winner of the Pulitzer prize,’ information that Russell Brand would identify as a sign of deep-seated corporate insecurity, and that John Steinbeck, who won a Pulitzer for ‘The Grapes of Wrath’  and disliked self-promotion, would also find deeply unimpressive.

Cover image of Naomi Klein's book, This Changes Everything

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Third Hit in a Row

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate got better reviews. The medium is the message, and the book’s careful composition reflects the contrast between Naomi Klein’s polish and Russell’s brand of craziness. He’s hot, hyperactive, and can seem hostile, even with a bath towel draped around his naked neck on his daily YouTube news show, The Trews. Naomi Klein is cool, calm, collected—the daughter of American professionals who left for Canada during the Vietnam War. Brand grew up on the mean streets of East London with a struggling but doting mum and a step-dad. Naomi Klein’s mother is a documentary filmmaker and her father is a physician; both are social activists committed to global causes. In May, Klein will be 45, one month before Russell Brand turns 40. His previous books were wacky children’s stories; hers—No Logo (2000) and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007)—are already considered classics of contemporary cultural criticism. She writes well and she writes often, for The Nation, Harper’s, and—yes—The Guardian; Russell Brand’s mode is oratory, on stage, on radio, and on YouTube. He’s poetry, she’s prose. Other than not bothering to finish college, neither one remotely resembles John Steinbeck in background or personality. But both share Steinbeck’s anger about income inequality, environmental degradation, and social injustice, writing from rage without being inhibited by academic or institutional affiliations.

‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate’  got better reviews. The medium is the message, and the book’s careful composition reflects the contrast between Naomi Klein’s polish and Russell’s brand of craziness.

After viewing Russell Brand’s daily Trews segment this morning—a denunciation of military-industrial profiteering and health-service cost-cutting in Great Britain—I dialed back to his October 15, 2014 podcast with Naomi Klein about her then-new book. Her clear, controlled answers to his exuberant questions were just like her writing: comprehensive, linear, and built on solid research, including copious sources, vigorous narrative, and clusters of checkable statistics. The New York Times praised This Changes Everything as “a book of such ambition and consequence that it is almost unreviewable.” The same can be said of Klein’s earlier books. No Logo (“No Space, No Choice, No Jobs”) explores corporate branding from various vantage points—economic, psychological, sociological, political—and turns up a goldmine. The Shock Doctrine connects the dots between Cold War American interventionism, both covert and undeclared (as in Chile under Pinochet), George Bush’s Halliburton-helping invasion of Iraq, and post-Katrina profiteering by firms like Blackwater. Henry Kissinger, the architect of U.S. shock-doctrine foreign policy, and Milton Friedman, the father of free-market economic ideology, receive the close attention the human damage they caused deserves.

The New York Times praised ‘This Changes Everything’ as ‘a book of such ambition and consequence that it is almost unreviewable.’ The same can be said of Klein’s earlier books.

John Steinbeck’s public support for American intervention in Vietnam—pre-Friedman and pre-Kissinger—continues to trouble the author’s admirers. Based on private correspondence, however, there’s little doubt that Steinbeck had his doubts about the war’s wisdom or justification, or that he might eventually have come around to Naomi Klein’s parents’ point of view. He was no friend of torture, assassination, or reactionaries, either; we can be confident that Klein’s compelling critique of Margaret Thatcher’s England, George W. Bush’s America, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia would resonate with him if he were alive. As Russell Brand would say, laissez-faire only sounds like a laid-back street party; it’s actually quite dangerous. As political and economic doctrine, it encourages corporate cronyism, induced-disaster opportunism, and national-security statism on an Orwellian scale. Brand and Klein remind us that the unfortunate evidence can be found on the ledgers of both political parties in the U.S., on both sides of the aisle at Westminster, and in both major post-Communist nations, Russia and China.

Cover image of Naomi Klein's books, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine

Perhaps Russell Brand is right, then: why bother to vote if the outcome will always be the same? As Klein notes, even conservatives make concessions to personal freedom (gay marriage, for example) to keep the public’s nose out of Wall Street’s business, which is avoiding regulation, breaking rules, and increasing income inequality. I know, this part’s a bit confusing, because laissez-faire economics is called neo-liberalism in Europe, rendering the term useless in discussing the economic implications of American politics. (Milton Friedman, the right wing’s Karl Marx, was a neo-liberal. Go figure.) John Steinbeck supported liberal politicians all his adult life—Roosevelt, Stevenson, Kennedy—and he actively disliked neo-liberal conservatives like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, who would be considered too moderate by Tea Party members today. I’m pretty sure Steinbeck would argue with Russell Brand about not voting, but I’m equally certain he would agree with Naomi Klein’s analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict over Palestine, where he wrote some of his most interesting travel commentary before the Six-Day War that changed the political landscape of the Middle East, it would appear permanently.

John Steinbeck supported liberal politicians all his adult life, and he actively disliked neo-liberal conservatives who would be considered too moderate by Tea Party members today.

Image of James Lovelock on earthIn a sense, This Changes Everything is a continuation of the cultural narrative begun in The Shock Doctrine. Indeed, Naomi Klein’s books can be read (and I recommend this) as a single meta-story, not unlike the alternating narrative and intercalary chapters in The Grapes of Wrath. The social and environmental consequences of laissez-faire economics—perpetual armed conflict, growing income inequality, cataclysmic climate change—all flow from a singe source in both interpretations of current events: the enshrinement of personal greed as a political philosophy, employing all of the tools that government, media, and private wealth possess to reshape collective consciousness and reify the status quo. James Lovelock, the author of the earth-as-organism theory that I first heard about in college biology, was and is a sunny optimist, now approaching the age of 96. But as John Steinbeck knew, hope can be a commodity too.

James Lovelock, the author of the earth-as-organism theory, was and is a sunny optimist, now approaching the age of 96. But as John Steinbeck knew, hope can be a commodity too.

When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Sea of Cortez, and later Cannery Row, war and drought and despair seemed liked passing phases, misfortunes to be confronted and endured and survived. Now, three-quarters of a century later, are we still that sanguine about the future? As Naomi Klein demonstrates in This Changes Everything, the global climate clock is ticking, and the accumulated power of the international petroleum industry prevents the reformation of human belief and behavior required to slow it down. I’m glad she picked Bill Gates and Virgin’s Richard Branson for special scorn in her book. As she shows, each is a wolf in liberal’s clothing when it comes to meaningful action in the current crisis: the billionaires won’t save us when the oceans rise, she proves that for sure. If not reform—as John Steinbeck warned us in The Grapes of Wrath, then what? Revolution?

Corporations are People (My Friend): Political Satire about Life in Rush Limbaugh Land

Once upon a time Mr. Exxon-Mobil got a summons from the federal government charging him with wilfully polluting the atmosphere and brazenly poisoning American rivers. It seemed to be an open and shut case as Mr. E-M’s refineries were throwing huge deposits of dirty stuff into the air, and all his chemical waste was flowing from open drains into the nation’s drinking water.

Soon after being charged, Mr. Exxon-Mobil got in touch with his good friend, Mr. Mutual of Omaha, to ask if he’d represent him in court.  “If you help me beat this rap,” he said, “I’ll be at your side when you set out to rid this nation of Obamacare and all the rest.”

Seeing it was in his financial interest to do so, Mr. Mutual of Omaha agreed. Hardly an hour passed, however, before a man named Big Casino called Mr. Exxon-Mobil from Macau, China. “If you can somehow manage to bring Israel into the equation, I’ll be more than happy to contribute twenty or so millions to your defense fund,” he said.  “Much more, if necessary.”

“Would that be Hong Kong Dollars, Chinese Renminbi, or U.S. Dollars?” asked Mr. E-M.

“I can do it in Swiss Francs if you like,” answered Mr. Big Casino. “To get around the matter of taxes, I keep a bunch of my money where my friend Mr. Mittens keeps his.”

A few weeks passed, during which time a multitude of groups formed to funnel money into negative advertising. “The best that money can buy,” Mr. Exxon-Mobil said in private to one of his  very dear friends, Mr. Good-For-What-Ails-You, the man in charge of Faux News. “Spread the word: the government is run by a group of foreign devils conspiring to deprive our citizens of their Constitutional rights.  Spread the word far, and spread it wide.”

It wasn’t long before Mr. National Repeating Rifle decided to get into the fray. “If you help me grease everyone’s palm with a gun, I’ll come aboard and help you fight to keep the government from taking away every child’s binky,” he said.

Mr. Exxon-Mobil had no idea that binkys were under attack, but he cheerfully accepted the offer from Mr. Rifle.  After all, what harm could come from everyone owning a gun?

Others heard about Mr. Exxon-Mobil’s situation through something called the Limburger Grapevine, the 24-hour-a-day messenger service that was famous for putting the words Truth and Reason into the wastepaper basket and the words Lie and Innuendo into everyday use.

As a result, a great many otherwise nameless individuals immediately saw pie in the sky in the great by and by, so they became Limburger disciples. Dressed as teapots, they went forth to see how many people they could scare into parting with their hard-earned sugar. Military generals joined hands with gentlemen of business to pat each other on the back, and soon folks in all parts of the nation were convinced that rather than being a bad man performing dirty deeds, Mr. Exon-Mobil was a good man, a charitable man, the prime example of what a trickle-down person should be.

Quite naturally, Mr. Mittens, a rather woolly-thinking man who thought most highly of himself, concluded that if he played his spotless self right he could become the leader of the entire western world. He could achieve that, he reckoned, by joining up with Mr. Exxon-Mobil, Mr. Big Casino, Mr. Mutual of Omaha, and all the rest. To get Mr. Huge Pharmaceuticals and Mr. Small Business on board, he made vague promises here, there, and everywhere.

“Down With Medicare! Down With Social Security! Down with Medicaid! Down With Women’s Rights! No Abortions, No Food Stamps, No Welfare!” he barked.

He was soon joined by a growing force of nincompoops who misunderstood him. He meant to destroy every social program that had ever been put in place by the Democrats to help American citizens. But they thought Mr. Mittens was saying he’d make life easier for them by giving them high-paying jobs that would make each and every one of them as prosperous as he and his friends were. “And we’d have bank accounts in Bern and Bermuda too,” one was heard to say.

“Oh, goodness gracious, no,” his good friend Mr. Hairy Rawhide chuckled.  “Obviously they are using only 47%  of their intelligence! But it shows our lies are working, so you go for it, Mr. Mittens. Go for it and make their day.”

Lessons from Doc’s Lab: Cannery Row’s Mack and the Boys as Consultants

Cover image from Doc's Lab: Myth & Legends of Cannery Row by Ed Larsh

John Steinbeck invited his readers to participate imaginatively in his fiction. James Kent, a consultant and community organizer, has responded with inspired ingenuity, applying life lessons learned from Steinbeck’s novel  Cannery Row in his consulting career. Doc’s Lab: Myth & Legends of Cannery Row, a collection of real-life Cannery Row profiles by the late Ed Larsh, describes how Kent used one method—modeled on the group dynamics of Mack and the Boys—to resolve an issue of survival for the community of Minturn, Colorado. Kent’s recent post on John Steinbeck’s social ecology stimulated so much interest that we wanted to share Larsh’s chapter on Kent’s methods as well. Doc’s Lab is out of print, but we requested and received permission to reproduce “Mack and The Boys as Consultants” from Kent, Larsh’s successor at the nonprofit organization that published Larsh’s book in 1995. The colorful cover art depicting Doc’s lab and its denizens is by the late Eldon Dedini, a magazine cartoonist and modern Cannery Row figure who was born in King City, California, and lived in Carmel.

Image of Cannery Row's real-life Mack and the Boys

Cannery Row’s Mack and the Boys as Consultants

Pascal Covici, Steinbeck’s editor for the novel Cannery Row, stated that Cannery Row was written on four levels and that “no critic has as yet stumbled on the design of the book.”

Had Steinbeck been a futurist instead of a great writer, he might have predicted the discovery of the novel’s design to occur in the year 1971 in a small town in Colorado called Minturn.

In the summer of 1887, the Denver and Rio Grande Western built a railroad from Pueblo, Colorado, to Leadville, Colorado, where the silver mines were producing millions of dollars in carbonated ore. The Denver and Rio Grande Western then continued to construct its line over the continental divide, from Leadville to the western slope of the United  States and down the Colorado River basin to access Aspen, another flourishing mining town, and then on across Utah to the Pacific’s Eastern Rim. But first you had to have great coal-fired steam engines called “mallots” to pull the trains over Tennessee Pass, which was very near Leadville. Once you got the trains on top of Tennessee Pass it was all down hill. Except if you were going the other way. Then you had to add four or five of the largest engines ever built to the train at a little town called Minturn, Colorado. It was up hill over the continental divide all the way from Minturn to Leadville, a town which sits at 10,200 feet.

Leadville, Colorado, where I was born and raised, is not an easy place to live. My mother, who lived there her entire life, always wanted to move. She would have moved anywhereanywhere, that is, except to Minturn.

Had Steinbeck been a futurist instead of a great writer, he might have predicted the discovery of the novel’s design to occur in the year 1971 in a small town in Colorado called Minturn.

Minturn, however, does have a colorful, romantic, and traumatic past. The ancestors of many of the Hispanics who were living in Minturn in 1971 came into that high mountain valley 300 years ago. The conquistadors came north from Santa Fe in the 17th century, bringing with them sheep and sheep herders. These sheep herders settled in the upper Eagle Valley of Colorado. The Denver and Rio Grande Western railroad in 1887 was in need of cheap labor. They found it in the Hispanic village called Minturn. The railroad hired the Hispanics as section hands and gandy dancers, a radical cultural and career changesheep herding to working on the railroad. The workers were 95% Mexican-Indian immigrants; they were Catholic, prolific, hard working, gentle, beautiful people. They erected small wooden houses along the Eagle River, a natural watershed for the high, snow-covered Rocky Mountains. The clear, crystal mountain water cascaded down through deep gorges into the Colorado River Basin.

Two miles above Minturn the river, on its way to the sea, flows through a steep canyon. It passes beneath the crest of Battle Mountain where, near the top but deep underground, rested a large deposit of zinc. And as the Twentieth Century arrived, so did the New Jersey Zinc Mine. The absentee mine owners built a company town for the Hispanic laborers. They called the town Gilman and placed it at the edge of the precipice. The closest structures to the precipice were the outhouses. The Zinc Mine then built a mill on the site, and by diverting the higher water were able, by gravity, to wash the tailings of the mill into the once-clear river some 1,500 feet below. All of this disturbance took place only a few hundred yards from where the ancient river flowed through the Hispanic town of Minturn, and where the shiny new rails carrying the giant coal-fired steam engines were belching black cinders over the freshly washed sheets that the Hispanic women hung dutifully over their clothes lines.

For those of us who were in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean at the end of the war in the fall of 1945, when Cannery Row was first published, there was a driving necessity and a compelling dream to go home. I have a strong feeling that it didn’t matter whether home was in Brooklyn, New York, Beverly Hills, California, or small towns in Colorado. Or whether you were Sicilian-Americans from New Monterey, White Anglo-Saxons from the Midwest, African-Americans from the South, or Spanish-Americans from Minturn. We all wanted to come home.

Many years later, while working for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., I was asked to investigate a small town in Colorado called Minturn regarding some educational issues involving a large number of Hispanic immigrants. I was told that there was something going on involving the national forests and a large developer who was expanding the ski industry.

That was my first introduction to Jim Kent, a community organizer and private consultant. We met for the first time in a saloon called The Saloon in Minturn, Colorado.

Image of Doc's Lab on Cannery Row

Jim Kent, Ed Ricketts, and Lessons from Doc’s Lab

Jim Kent is an applied sociologist who brings to his work the wisdom found in everyday living. Jim was born and raised in the northern mountains of Appalachia, where family networks are essential to everyday survival. He discovered the dynamics of social action through Steinbeck’s Ed “Doc” Ricketts, and he has applied this knowledge with success all over the world.

The story of Minturn, as Jim Kent tells it, is the story of ordinary people discovering that their lives were changing and wondering what they could do to preserve the things they knew and loved. In more dramatic terms, they discovered how to save themselves from being destroyed. Now, some 24 years later, the people of Minturn, Colorado are still there, in a sense, because of the influence of Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck. The issue for Kent was how to have the people discover the need to save their way of life, and a method to accomplish this, and he found the answers in fiction.

Minturn in 1971 had been in the path of the Vail ski-area expansion. Vail Associates, owners of the ski area, wanted to turn Minturn into a fancy resort town to service a new mountain which they called Meadow Mountain, and then to build on federal land in the national forests (all of which required environmental impact statements).

There is a large hill near Minturn that is referred to as Aveja Colina, a Spanish name meaning “sheep hill,” evidence of generations of a Spanish influence in the area.

That, essentially, was the context; a 19th century mining town facing a 20th century recreation machine intent on changing and developing not only the town, but the mountains and forests surrounding it.

Jim was born and raised in the northern mountains of Appalachia, where family networks are essential to everyday survival. He discovered the dynamics of social action through Steinbeck’s Ed ‘Doc’ Ricketts, and he has applied this knowledge with success all over the world.

Jim Kent came to Minturn to see what might be done to face this enormous challenge of dealing with major changes in a manner that might prevent the people from losing their culture. After a few weeks spent with the local dwellers of Minturn, Jim realized that formal organizational techniques would not work; that if the people did not create a different mechanism to work within the cultural context of their community, they would indeed lose out to the overwhelming forces coming from outside.

As a basis for Kent’s organizational work, he reached deep into the story of Ed Ricketts, as told by John Steinbeck. Jim worked in the Eagle Valley from 1971 to 1979. His story has a very successful and exciting ending.

The story Jim told me is, in essence, the story of how he moved from fiction to reality, from Steinbeck’s fiction of Cannery Row, through the understanding of Ed Ricketts’ ecological theory, and finally to the solution of a modern social problem. He had to go beyond Steinbeck’s Cannery Row to The Moon Is Down, a book Steinbeck wrote in 1943 for what was to become the CIA. What Steinbeck reported in that book concerned an informal process whereby the citizens of a Norwegian town networked together to deal with Nazi Germany’s occupation of their land. Essentially, the people, through their informal networking, drove the German occupiers into frustration. By the simple means of shunning them, by not looking them in the eye, and by not asking them questionsby not engaging them in any waythey literally controlled the situation, even though they were occupied. That was what Kent was looking for in Minturn. How could the people participate in and control the situation in the face of a very strong outside alien force, a force that to them was not unlike the occupation forces in wartime Norway?

Image of The Saloon, Doc's Lab-style meeting place in Minturn, Colorado

Cannery Row, The Moon Is Down, and Minturn, Colorado

The book Cannery Row was the civilian counterpart of The Moon Is Down. It literally took the informal system that Steinbeck describes in The Moon Is Down and connected it to place, to the working fishing community known as Cannery Row. Networks led by Mack and the Boys, and exchanges that took place in Ed Ricketts’ lab, dealt with moral conflicts and with ideological conflicts very similar to those dealt with in Norway.

What is important, though, is to note that The Moon Is Down was so powerful that when the manuscript of the story was found by a German trooper, the person on whom it had been found was summarily executed. Revealing the power of the informal network, The Moon Is Down ultimately became a handbook for the French, Norwegians, and others engaged in guerrilla warfare. Steinbeck, in writing Cannery Row, was able to describe the process of intelligent resistance in a very humorous, but significant form.

Jim Kent understood that once you can interact with your environment, you can then choose from your culture what you need to keep and what you can safely discard. If you cannot interact with your environment, and it is controlled by outsiders, then you will systematically lose your culture and lose your sense of place.

Empowerment came through the rich descriptions in Steinbeck’s novels, and that became the primary criteria for Kent’s base of networks and operations in Minturn.

Kent explained:

“If you believe in process rather than product, you work with ideas that come from the people, or from discussion with the people, ideas that are generated in the informal gatherings of society. Ordinarily, in formal situations, organizers take the point and the lead and later learn that the people they were leading became powerless once the organizers have left. My mode of operation, what I learned from Steinbeck and Ricketts, was to deal with the essence of leadership; not to come on as an authority, but to help the people feel ownership through a leadership style, utilizing a discovery process. In Minturn, we had a chance to apply Ricketts’ and Steinbeck’s social action design, the thing that had been projected in novel form, and convert it into a real-life setting.”

Descriptions in networks, according to Kent, can prevent the dissolution of a culture. The process can also assist the participants to accommodate change. The key concepts, if change is going to work, are participation and ownership.

Networks led by Mack and the Boys, and exchanges that took place in Ed Ricketts’ lab, dealt with moral conflicts and with ideological conflicts very similar to those dealt with in Norway.

Kent learned, from Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, a social-ecological approach that would be non-teleological. What gave Jim a license to intervene was the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which governed Environmental Impact Statements. It declared that developments must maintain the harmony of the physical, biological, social, and economic environments. So Jim for the first time was attempting to put into practice the social aspects of Ricketts’ theory. And also for the first time, the design and levels of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row could come to life for the average reader as a process for celebrating life rather than as just a work of fiction.

Richard Astro, who wrote a very good book called John Steinbeck and Ricketts: The Making of a Novelist, gives us a major insight into how this came about. In the last paragraphs of Astro’s epilogue he writes: “It is clear that the artist rarely operates in a vacuum. And with Ricketts’ world-view accessible to him, we may be thankful that Steinbeck chose not to write all his books in isolation.”

By analyzing the range and depth of Ricketts’ impact on Steinbeck’s fiction, one may see Steinbeck’s accomplishments as a writer with fresh perspective. The novelist’s philosophy of life is not tenth-rate, and his social and political material is not worn and obsolete. In his best works, Steinbeck fused science and philosophy, art and ethics, by combining the broad vision and compelling metaphysic of Edward F. Ricketts with a personal gospel of social action. In his own time and with his own voice, John Steinbeck defined and gave meaning to the uniquely complicated nature of the human experience.

Kent said:

“Steinbeck allowed us to see life in its broadest function in one place through Cannery Row. We had to see it all, not just one part of life as Steinbeck portrayed it. We had to see total life for Danny, in Tortilla Flat, or for Mack and the Boys. Steinbeck, of course, got the vision from Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist who, upon looking into a tide pool saw it as microcosm of the universe. As for us, we were looking at the dynamics of a small community called Minturn; at how it functioned as a dynamic universe through the people’s understanding of their own natural state. This was our way of maintaining a universe as a whole, not as fragmented parts.”

I asked Jim Kent what he meant earlier when he had said that his discovery process dealt with “descriptions.” He replied:

“Descriptions have to be disciplined by the describer being a stranger. You must be able to see what was happening by observing and by listening with your whole nervous system, rather than by just hearing the words. The describer must be reflective in order to reflect back to the people their own content, to understand the power of their words so that they could bring about change in their context. Those were key qualities of Ed Ricketts: a willingness to listen as a stranger and to reflect.”

As an organizer, Jim Kent was emulating Doc in Cannery Row.

Steinbeck allowed us to see life in its broadest function in one place through Cannery Row. . . . As for us, we were looking at the dynamics of a small community called Minturn; at how it functioned as a dynamic universe through the people’s understanding of their own natural state. This was our way of maintaining a universe as a whole, not as fragmented parts.

In mining towns on a Sunday, everybody is out either on the street or in the parks with their families. So one of the first descriptors Kent discovered was the dynamics of Sundays in Minturn. In mining, there are three shifts: days, swing shift, and graveyard. Each shift is eight hours. Therefore, there is very little time to socialize except on the one day when the mine is closed down, Sunday. Kent was able to get a picture of Minturn from having read Cannery Row. He was able to track on the notion of gathering, and where people gathered. On Cannery Row, it was Ed Ricketts’ laboratory. In Minturn, it was the meat counter of the Super Food Store, where Bob Gallegos held forth. Gallegos was like Ed Ricketts. He was a philosopher with a concept about life which was very complete, very exciting. It was different from, but also similar to, Ed Ricketts’ holistic ecological theories.

People would come to buy meat, but they would always talk with Bob about what was going on. Kent knew that in Bob he had a caretaker much like Mack, from Mack and the Boys, as Ed Ricketts was caretaker to the people who would gather at the lab.

In every situation in social ecology you have caretakers in the informal systems that make those systems work. Another informal gathering place in Minturn was a bar called The Saloon. In the early 1970s, a particular group of men would gather, have a beer or two, and talk about the business of the town. The place was owned and run by an arthritic old character named Jeff who had been known from time to time to throw disruptive types through his front window. He was considered legendary in and around Minturn.

Across from the saloon was the old Eagle River Hotel, with Oscar Gruenfeld  the proprietor. Oscar was very much like Lee Chong from Cannery Row, cautious, not to be taken advantage of. In the front of his hotel he operated a liquor store. Oscar understood that he should do everything in his power not to get involved in any process where he would have to give some of his liquor away. Every time Oscar got involved in the process with the gang across the street that gathered at the saloon, Oscar had to give up some liquor, or at least come out on the losing side.

In every situation in social ecology you have caretakers in the informal systems that make those systems work.

Ricketts talked about this as an obligation in the ecosystem, where, if you once get involved in a process, you have to be willing to go through to an ending. Kent calls that the social action of “beginnings and endings” out of Ricketts’ work. If you don’t go through the process, you never know how it would have ended, and therefore you never grow.

The theory is demonstrated in Cannery Row by showing how cautious Ed Ricketts was when someone would engage him, such as Mack, for example, in what Jim Kent calls “the Frog Economy.” Mack wanted to go on a frog hunt to gather frogs for Ricketts. In the beginning, Mack has tried to get Doc to put up money on the front end for the frogs. Then, he tried to get money for gas for Lee Chong’s old truck. Doc had thought of those ploys, so he told Mack he would call his gas-station person and arrange for Mack to get 10 gallons of gas at the station. No money was given to Mack. And when Mack got to the gas station, he tried to talk the gas station owner into first filling up half the gas tank and then giving him a buck for the other half, but the gas station man said, “No, Doc has already thought of that.” Then Mack tried to get him to put five gallons in the tank and give him a five-gallon can.” Nope, Doc has already thought of that, too.”

Finally, for humor and understanding, Steinbeck has Mack say to the station owner (by now Mack knows that Doc has thought of all the angles), “OK, but don’t forget to drain the hose into the tank!”

So the whole process of dealing with beginnings and endings is the same as dealing with the reality and being conscious of what is happening. Ricketts’ term for this was “what is.” What is right for todaynot yesterday, or tomorrow, but what is right for today. That term for consultants such as Kent, is “Issues Management.” The “what is” thing was in looking at the three gathering places. In fact, Bob Gallegos’ meat counter symbolized the whole thing, as did the street in front of Doc’s Lab in Cannery Row.

About this stage of the process Kent got a lesson in non-teleological thinking. He was talking with Bob Gallegos one day at his meat counter and Bob said, “You know, we don’t want any more growth.” When you learn to deal with process rather than product you must stay in process. Had Jim been looking for a product, he would have said, “Right on.” But Jim didn’t download his values into what Bob said and go on out on the street and begin to organize an anti-growth campaign. And here is why. When Bob said, “We don’t want any more growth,” Kent was listening and reflecting as to what he was really saying. Bob was, in fact, saying that he didn’t want any of the Vail-type growth in Minturn. But they, the Hispanics, would like to participate in some growth, in something that might take place in Minturn and the Eagle Valley, because that way they could preserve their community as long as the change didn’t come in on top of them. That understanding by Kent became the underpinnings of the work in Minturn. How could the people accommodate change in a way that would preserve their culture? What they needed was to have Minturn viewed as a total ecosystem, through the eyes of a Doc Ricketts, so to speaksomeone who could see the whole process as a biological phenomenon, with the ebb and flow of living and taking care of each other. So with Bob Gallegos as the chief caretaker, they formed an understanding of how they would operate in this new ecological system. What they needed were some more “descriptions” to find out what other people were thinking, and in what structure.

If you don’t go through the process, you never know how it would have ended, and therefore you never grow.

Steinbeck talked about the human part of the ecosystem. Bob Gallegos called it “productive harmony.” The basic philosophy was that the Hispanics were tied to the land and that tie made them a part of the mandates of the Forest Service, not only to preserve animals, trees, etc., but also human environments. In addition to the physical resources, the social aspects were part of the “harmony,” a new concept for the U.S. Forest Service. Kent said, “It was interesting to see harmony become part of the vocabulary of the Hispanics.” Gallegos, the meat cutter, described how the networks of the Hispanic community should proceed. They should proceed as being part of the ecology and not be managed or impacted by the changing dynamics.

These units Kent calls “informal networks.”  Steinbeck called them “the phalanx.” Their primary function is to keep the society together. A function of survivalcaring for each other to preserve their culture. The networks were the natural processes that moved information swiftly and accurately. As Steinbeck shows many times with Mack, that information is power.

Bob Gallegos through his meat counter put up a bulletin board so that when people came in they could see that there was an issue and that the community would have to mobilize to deal with that issue. When there were no issues the bulletin board came down. The problem, and the beauty with the caretakers and the networks, was that they were invisible to outsiders such as professional foresters, so the people of Minturn had to invite these others in to become part of the network.

If you read Cannery Row, you see beauty when people come out, when they would walk through the town. There was a routine. Steinbeck called it the “hour of the pearl”a time between the twilight and the darknessa time when things were different. That was the way it became in Minturn. As you define routines, you can then work within those routines. When you do that, you are working with an empowerment process because people don’t have to learn something that is different. They enhance and strengthen what they have.

What Kent was doing was mobilizing the quality of life that people bring to everyday living. Kent changed many names that Steinbeck used in the novel. “Phalanx” became “informal networks.” Places such as Flora Woods, Bear Flag Restaurant, and Doc’s lab became “natural gathering places,” called in Minturn the meat market and the saloon. Doc and Wing Chong of Cannery Row are “caretakers.”

The networks were the natural processes that moved information swiftly and accurately. As Steinbeck shows many times with Mack, that information is power.

The places were defined by the interaction of the inhabitants within their environment. Caretakers trained others to be caretakers. They learned the process of reflection and dialogue.

The Hispanics had a land ethic. They wanted to stay on their land, and that land ethic was very important to them. The one most important principle that Kent discovered was that they wanted this place to raise their families in. It was called Home.

One important story early on involved Mrs. Pena, who had her own house and another house next to her house which was an informal day care center. Essentially, the working women of Minturn dropped their children off at Mrs. Pena’s, and in the words of the formal system it was an illegal day-care operation. But to the people of Minturn, Mrs. Pena was their matriarch, their grandmother. And there was nothing that could ever happen in Mrs. Pena’s house that would ever hurt those children.

A developer sought Mrs. Pena out because her one house was in line with a ski run that could come off the back of Vail Mountain. The developer wanted that house and he wanted to tear it down so that they could put the ski lift in there and bring skiing to Minturn. On her own, Mrs. Pena’s dialogue went like this:

The developer said, “You know, for $25,000, I’d like to buy your place.”

And she said, “Well, it’s not for sale for $25,000.”

In 1971 the places in Minturn were worth around $6000, and so the developer persisted and he said, “Look, for $25,000 you can do anything you want to do in this world.”

And Mrs. Pena answered, “Well, you know, I’m doing everything that I really want to do in this world. The house is not for sale.”

Dejected, the developer walks away. Six months later, Mrs. Pena sells the house for $6,000 to a friend and neighbor who needed a home.

With this story Kent knew the land ethic was in place and he could proceed.

In many situations Kent had to put together the action as it would unfold, much as Mack did in the frog hunt, which Kent re-termed “the Frog Economy.”

Kent used the concept of the frog economy to get everyone in the networks transported from Minturn to the county seat, because the county was having a formal meetinga critical hearing on Minturn. The county had not gone out of its way to try to involve the Minturn people. In fact, it was going to make a land-use decision that would force Minturn to capitulate to Vail Associates’ wishes. The network needed to figure out how to get these miners and their wives down to the county seat en masse during a swing shift so that they could make a statement in a manner that could be used later to educate the people on what had happened. To do that they needed mass transportation.

Henry Pacheco knew the town manager of Vail, who on occasion could use the Vail Associates’ ski buses. They were big, beautiful blue buses with “Vail Associates” and their logo painted on all their sides. They were the buses that carried people around the town of Vail for skiing, etc., and Pacheco got it in his head that those buses owned by the developers were the buses that should take these people to Eagle for the hearing. Obviously he could not go directly to Vail Associates because if he did the answer would be a firm “no.” But by going through the town manager and capitalizing on his friendship, the town manager was persuaded to ask Vail to release the buses. There wasn’t any question from Vail. They said “fine” because the town manager had asked for the buses many times before.

Now the scene switches to the county courthouse, and Kent describes a Milagro Beanfield War. Inside, the president of Vail is standing, looking out through the courthouse window along with another key person in the network who possessed technical knowledge. He was the person assigned to Vail Associates by the network to iron out what the accommodations to Minturn would be with the ski area. Six people were standing looking out the window before the meeting startedthree company personnel, two planning commissioners, and Kent. On a workday afternoon when all Hispanics are supposed to be working in the mine, three blue buses pull up in front, and out of those buses come 120 Hispanics. Having been coached by their caretakersPacheco, Chavez, and Gallegosthe networks turned out en mass, for the first time ever, to a formal meeting. The strategy was simple: fill up the meeting room, which they did; surround the planning commission, which they did; and block the hallways in a non-threatening manner so that people just couldn’t leave the meeting.

They knew that they had only one shot. They had to keep those county commissioners and planning people there until the decision was made in their own favor. They were ready to spend the night!

The founder and president of Vail looked out the window and said loudly, “How did those people get our buses? Those are our buses!”The president, Pete Seibert, turned out to be a hero of this story. Pete Seibert had been a 10th Mountain Division ski trooper at Camp Hale during World War II and was well-liked by all from Leadville to Eagle. For the first time he began to see and understand what was happening.

In many situations Kent had to put together the action as it would unfold, much as Mack did in the frog hunt, which Kent re-termed ‘the Frog Economy.’

Pete Seibert called off the development that was happening at Meadow Mountain and Minturn. He could see the passion and knew he could not replace the significance of Minturn in the Eagle Valley. So he sat down with the caretakersPacheco, Chavez, Gallegosnot in the board room of Vail Associates, not in the formal offices of the county court houses, but in the informal settings of the kitchens of Minturn, Colorado. A kitchen table is a very important place for discussion in an informal environmentit levels the playing field.

Seibert said in Bob’s kitchen one night, “OK, I will not develop Meadow Mountain, but I want to develop Beaver Creek, and I need some tradeoffs.” He asked if the people of Minturn would be willing to allow Vail Associates to look at Beaver Creek as a way of preserving the community of Minturn and its culture. “You bet,” they said.

Kent explains that Pacheco became a local hero solely because he brought the Hispanic people from Minturn in the buses that belonged to the power structure. Pacheco often bragged, “Vail even paid for the gas and the drivers!”

That was very much like what Mack had done for the frog hunt. Remember, in the frog hunt Gabe goes off to get a part for his old carburetor and doesn’t come back for 160 days. One of the things that happens in the informal networks is that time is not linearit is tribal. Kent thinks Steinbeck has taken a bad rap. People accuse him of not being loyal and of not staying in touch with people like Tom Collins, who assisted him with material for The Grapes of Wrath and so on. But what really happens in informal networks is that time is tribal. It is okay to leave and come back after 160 days. There is really no reason to stay in touch, because when you arrive back someday, you are treated as though nothing has really happened. Again, here is profound proof from Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. If you allow time to be linear, then you judge people and you force them to lose their energy and you diminish their ability to interact with you, because once you judge them over a time-situation you have excluded them. If you read carefully in Cannery Row, time was a tribal concept, a very valuable concept to pick up on when rereading the novel.

One of the things that happens in the informal networks is that time is not linearit is tribal.

By 1977 in Minturn, the caretakers had been technically trained and could anticipate the dynamics of economics that would adversely impact their culture.

The New Jersey Zinc Mine that had been operating on top of Battle Mountain and polluting the upper Eagle Valley for over 50 years was the major employer of the Hispanics who lived in Minturn. The absentee mine owners every year would threaten to close the mine as the workers voiced a need for a higher wage. To divert a miners’ strike, the mine owners each year would announce that the mine was going to remain open. The Hispanic miners would then back off from their demands and continue to work at the same wage under the same conditions.

Bob Gallegos went to Jim Kent one day and said, “One of these years they are going to close that mine.”

What needed to be done was to have the miners learn to believe that one day the mine might close and then to actually prepare for that eventuality.

Bob Gallegos was now managing Kent’s “Life Options for the Future” project in Minturn. The mission was to get the miners to understand that the mine was in fact going to close. Had the caretakers proposed themselves as experts and called a meeting and said, “Listen, you guys, the mine is going to close. What are we going to do?,” the workers would have closed their minds and continued to do as they had for years; they would have continued to work so that they could feed their families. A classic example of the need for self-discovery in a natural ecosystem: Gallegos and the other caretakers decided to work with the natural leadersthose miners who were respected by the other miners.

There were about 12 of them. They met in Bob’s kitchen on a Sunday. The caretakers talked of things in Spanish and they talked of things in English. They did a lot of things with flip charts and they asked these miners to project what the owners would do first if that mine was going to close. They listened, and then wrote down a list of several things that they felt would probably happen.

They listed things like: the owners will stop ordering expensive wood pillars, or they will start mining out the dirt pillars where they know there is high grade ore, or they will repair worn out tools rather than buy new ones. They came up with a list of 10 items.

What the caretakers and organizers wanted were those 10 items burned on to the flip charts in the languages that the miners could see and read for themselves.

A week later, they took those 10 items and put them onto a checklist and said, “Tomorrow when you go into the mine, take the list and mark any item that you said would be happening if the mine were going to close, but only mark it if it is already happening.” The miners came back the next Sunday, and to a person they had marked nine or 10 of the items.

They owned it! They owned the discovery that the mine was going to close! The next step was to network this information in the mine, sharing the discovery with everyone.

They didn’t know when the mine was going to close, they just knew it was going to close. The message was the same concept as in Cannery Rowwhen Doc would carry the message, people would believe it.

The informal network then planned what could be done when the owners announced the closure. They had to diversify the community in a true ecological fashion. The two foundations of sound ecology are persistence and diversity.

The good people of Minturn listened as Pacheco, a caretaker, told the men over at the saloon, “For Hispanics in a small town in Colorado there is no place to go!”

“Where do we go? East Los Angeles or the barrios of north Denver? We have to make it here!”

“Is” thinking, as Ricketts explored in The Outer Shores, was to be found not in searching for causes, but rather for ways of breaking through.

A classic example of the need for self-discovery in a natural ecosystem: Gallegos and the other caretakers decided to work with the natural leadersthose miners who were respected by the other miners.

What they did in Minturn was to float ideas. The same idea as Cannery Row with Ricketts’ and Steinbeck’s “It might be so.” Ideas were put into the networks, just as the miners would be put into the mine to discover why it might indeed be closed.

Then the people would use their intuition, their instincts, and their values. That would deter them from their personal system. They had to learn how to absorb and accommodate outsiders without the outsider feeling rejected or confronted because of a different culture. It was quite like Mack on the frog Hunt in his handling of the farmer. Mack was able to literally bring the farmer into their network, and he became a part of Mack’s own agenda.

When the people of Minturn needed to bring an outsider in, they did so without being threatened. They became a part of the bigger picture until they felt they wanted to exit or there was an ending. The people became very conscious of Beginnings and Endings. The people became very conscious of Breakthroughs. The people could look at and see what was going on in another environment and make internal adjustments so that they could benefit from what was going on and sustain their own culture.

When Mack got back with the frogs, he finally found his leverage point to open up the “Frog Economy.” The frogs were worth a nickel to Doc, and if they were worth a nickel to Doc, then they must be worth a nickel to Lee Chong. But Doc, the caretaker, was not there when Mack and the boys got back. The point of this, according to Kent, is that things can get out of hand if a key caretaker isn’t there when you come to an ending. So instead of Lee Chong saying, “No, Mack, you have to wait until Doc gets back,” Lee makes the mistake of agreeing with Mack by saying, “Yes, the frogs are worth money.” So Lee Chong sets up a system where Mack and the boys can buy food and booze with frogs. . . .

Image of Jim Kent and Ed Larsh at Doc's Lab on Cannery Row

Caretakers and Endings on Cannery Row and in Minturn

They were very conscious in Minturn, when they were coming to an end, to make sure that the key actors or caretakers were in on the ending. Otherwise it would have gotten sloppy. In Cannery Row, Doc gets mad and even hits Mack. In reality, those moments are too disruptive and can bring an entire movement down. You must complete the ecological loop because that produces harmonyproductive harmony.

It was interesting to me that Kent converted Steinbeck’s social action theories concentrated in Cannery Row through the fictional mode of a novel into reality. It was even more incredible that he learned an ecological construct that included culture and real people based on a fictional Ed Ricketts. It was utterly amazing how readily adaptable Ricketts’ holistic philosophy could be to reality.

I asked Jim Kent about that and he said, “Well, today it is known as Issue Management, a term that I coined, along with the Discovery Process, but even that was based on Steinbeck, who referred to it as discipline through observation. The key, in Minturn, was to have the people become describers, because that freed them from the assumptions in their culture. It gave them some self-confidence in directing their own lives.”

I commented that there was a culture assumption in Monterey, California, up until 1948, an assumption that macho young Italians and Sicilians should be fishermen, as their fathers and grandfathers had been before them.

They were very conscious in Minturn, when they were coming to an end, to make sure that the key actors or caretakers were in on the ending.

Jim commented:

“Exactly. But at this juncture is where the parallel of Steinbeck’s social action thing expressed in Cannery Row was different from Minturn, because Steinbeck was writing fiction. He chose to limit his description to one short street called Cannery Row. What we did in Minturn was through the Discovery Process and by expanding networks. We had them think and reflect about their children, about how they could consider a preferred future and yet still retain their culture.

“They discovered the need for careers and discovered what they needed to do now to assure that their children had careers. They had to diversify the families. They encouraged the senior members of the family to continue working in the mine. By this time, they knew the mine was going to close. The other members of the family would quit their $18 an hour jobs for $4 an hour jobs.

“The people discovered how they could use the development of Beaver Creek to produce careers, how they could work with the Forest Service to produce careers.

“The people worked with Vail Associates and Pete Seibert. All of these possibilities were in the Forest Service permit to develop ski courses. They proposed a career development program, not just a promise of a $5 an hour job. They worked with banks, starting by having them hire young people as tellers. They worked with schools on reading and on survival levels of mathematics. And they worked on cultural values. They worked with community colleges with a program called a Career Conversion Program. They had another program called Life Cycle Mitigations where they negotiated with the big hotels that would be built at Beaver Creek. Ancillary to all of this, many Hispanics in the town wanted to set up their own business.”

The mine closed December 16, 1977, nine days before Christmas, but the people of Minturn were poised for new things outside the confines of their own cultural habitat. The difference of the reality of Minturn to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was that they were able to broaden their culture base as an expansion of the ecological borders.

I reminded Jim of my friend Kenneth Boulding, the great scientist and economist from Boulder, who talked about entropy of everything unless it develops the ability to change.

You need description and ownership. Mack and the Boys in the context of the social Discovery Process were geniuses. They knew how to reflect on the ecological system. Ed Ricketts, or “Doc,” through Steinbeck, was the ideal counselor. He was always in the background, but he knew how to close the ecological loops.

The difference of the reality of Minturn to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was that they were able to broaden their culture base as an expansion of the ecological borders.

Steinbeck developed a social action theory and described it through his fiction. He used his friend Ed Ricketts’ holistic philosophy and Ed Ricketts’ ecological understandings and converted them into a novel the essence of which revolved around the informal structure. It remains a piece of brilliant fiction.

Jim summed it up by saying, “When you look deeply at Steinbeck’s writing in Cannery Row and understand the real Ed Ricketts, you find a whole preventive theory. I hope others will discover that the thing started with Ed Ricketts, but that it was told by the Nobel Prize-winning storyteller John Steinbeck.”

After talking with Kent and seeing exactly how deeply Cannery Row had affected his life, I found myself deep in thought.

There are only two roads you can take to go from Carbondale, Colorado to Denver. One is Highway 82 through Aspen and then over Independence Pass, which is 12,000 feet high and closes from November to June. The other is Interstate I-70 through the Glenwood Canyon by the Colorado River and then up the Eagle Valley past Beaver Creek and Vail toward the Continental Divide, on toward Denver and the level plains stretching eastward to the Appalachians.

As you pass Avon and the huge ski area, Beaver Creek, and before you reach Vail, there is Highway 24, cutting off on your right with a sign that reads “Minturn5 miles, Leadville24 miles.” That was the route Jane and I took every week for three years on our way to a cancer clinic. We most often stopped at The Saloon in Minturn, where we talked to a third-generation Hispanic caretaker named Martinez.

“How’s it goin’?” we would ask.

“Did you see the new restaurant across the street run by Lopez called Vail’s Derriere, which means ‘Vail’s ass’? Just over the top of the hill behind this street is Vail, where all the rich tourists hang out.”

“What about the other businesses?” we asked.

Steinbeck developed a social action theory and described it through his fiction.

“Well, there are 35 businesses now in Minturn, all run by Hispanics. Joe Marcus owns the Exxon station over on I-70, and Bob Gallegos and his brother have the biggest masonry business in western Colorado. There isn’t a rock wall or stone house in Beaver Creek or Vail they haven’t built, including President Ford’s house, and Dan Quayle’s, and Ross Perot’s.”
“What happens to the young people that graduate from high school?”

“Most of them go to Colorado Mountain College for training in hotel management. There are plenty of jobs. Many of the managers are from Minturn. They can work there and live at home. Renting is very expensive here in Minturn and you can’t buy a house because there aren’t any houses in Minturn for sale.

When Jane and I would leave Minturn and head up Battle Mountain, we usually pulled over and stopped to look at Notch Mountain in front of the 14,000-ft. Mount of the Holy Cross. From there you can see the company town of the New Jersey Zinc Company. It has to be the largest ghost town in the world. The EPA in the 1980s constructed a chain link fence around the mine and the abandoned houses and declared it a Super Fund site. The mine leaks lead and zinc poisons into the fractured rock system that drops into the Eagle River that flows through Minturn on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. My uncle used to say: “The fishing ain’t very good.”

Copyright © 2006 James Kent Associates (JKA). All rights reserved. Image of Mack and the Boys courtesy Pat Hathaway Historical Photo Collection. Image of James Kent and Ed Larsh courtesy James Kent.

Of Mice and Myth: John Steinbeck, Carl Jung, and The Epic of Gilgamesh

Image of statue of the Sumerian epic hero Gilgmesh

John Steinbeck’s short novel Of Mice and Men is a powerful exploration of isolation, disenfranchisement, and problems of social integration in an era of cultural fracture. Divided by class, race, and gender, its characters struggle to assimilate into the small social world of a 1930s California ranch. But Steinbeck’s story possesses a timeless dimension as well—one that bears examination in the context of the psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of the unconscious and of two ancient narratives: the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Genesis story of Jacob and Essau.

Carl Jung and Of Mice and Men as Mythic Pattern

Some critics argue that the appeal of Of Mice and Men derives from its dramatization of universal themes, while others suggest that its continued popularity results from its depiction of the reality of the lives of migrant ranch workers: from the power of realism and relevance. However, there is at least one other way to explain the novel’s resonance with readers of every type. Certain formal elements open Of Mice and Men to a mode of criticism that is interested not in realism or in theme alone, but in the psychological relationship of theme to character, specifically the potent symbolism of the character pair comprised by George and Lennie.

Carl Jung’s psychoanalytical vocabulary and myth criticism offer insights into the significance of Steinbeck’s use of a traditional archetype in describing George and Lennie, suggesting that much of the novel’s power derives from an ancient mythic pattern. Employing the character-pair archetype also found in The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Genesis story of Jacob and Esau, Steinbeck invites us to consider a fundamental principle of personal psychology and myth narrative that is related to Carl Jung’s transcendent function of the unconscious.

Carl Jung’s psychoanalytical vocabulary and myth criticism offer insights into the significance of Steinbeck’s use of a traditional archetype in describing George and Lennie.

In this context, Of Mice and Men can be taken as an example of a specific psychological process, rendered artistically, that seeks to externalize the relationship between the conscious ego and the unconscious, a process Carl Jung describes in his 1916 essay “The Transcendent Function.” In fiction and poetry, as in myth, we see this process take place through narrative and metaphor. The purpose of the process is the achievement of  psychological balance. The tools of the process are mythogenes, the building blocks of myth—images drawn from the collective unconscious that facilitate communication between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind. In art, the result of the process is often the creation of a myth narrative.

Along with a number of classic myth narratives that express this transcendent function in the acts of gods and heroes, we can point to works of modern fiction that represent mythic patterns such as that of the “unassimilated” man or woman estranged by nature from society. William Faulkner’s character Benjy in The Sound and the Fury and John Steinbeck’s Lennie in Of Mice and Men are examples, and Lennie shares similarities, both literal and thematic, with the character Chief in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Bengy-Lennie-Chief character type is a modern iteration of an ancient archetype: the unassimilated outcast or alien who represents unacceptable or unwanted urges of the unconscious mind and who—despite friendships and affections—is unable to integrate successfully into society. He is the shepherd in an age of farming. He is mute in a time of great debate. He is the man without power over his personal history or his place in society.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Genesis, and Steinbeck’s Story

Although Of Mice and Men is enriched by the Jungian archetype of the unassimilated man, the novel’s echo of The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau is equally consequential. All three narratives depict a character pair in which one individual, the true hero, is bonded by birth and fate to the other, the unassimilated man. The parallels are striking in number, detail, and effect: on multiple levels, George and Lennie are Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Jacob and Esau. Though The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Genesis story, and Of Mice and Men differ in other ways, each focuses on a pair of characters who appear to be cut from the same cloth—the “cloth” of mythology that Carl Jung identified as the material of the collective unconscious.

In Of Mice and Men, Lennie is the character with the closest relationship to the Jungian concept of the unconscious. Driven by animal impulses that he is unable to control, Lennie enters the scene trailing behind George through the brush, “a huge man, shapeless of face, with large pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders [. . .] dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws” (Steinbeck 798). In the opening chapter, his behavior is likened to that of a carp and a horse; going to the river, he “drank with long gulps, snorting into the water like a horse” (Steinbeck 798). Animalistic images and associations are carried through to the climax of the novel in which Lennie’s uncontrolled violence is compared to that of a wild beast. In the end, he returns to the river, “as silently as a creeping bear moves” (Steinbeck 872). Throughout, he is drawn to small creatures—mice, puppies, and rabbits—and he threatens to flee the society of the ranch to live in a cave.

In Of Mice and Men, Lennie is the character with the closest relationship to the Jungian concept of the unconscious.

Enkidu in Gilgamesh and Esau in Genesis share these qualities. Born in the wilderness, Enkidu is described as having a body that is “rough” and “covered with matted hair” (Gilgamesh 63). Just as Lennie is attracted to the solitude of the river, Enkidu “had joy of the water with the herds of wild game” (Gilgamesh 63). Like Lennie, Enkidu is physically strong but mentally unprepared for social survival (Gilgamesh 65); his bond with the animals of the wild is broken when a harlot teaches him the ways of society (65). Arriving in the city, he establishes a bond of brotherhood with Gilgamesh and becomes tasked with the guardianship of the hero, who is the king of Uruk. Genesis describes Esau similarly—a hairy man, a shepherd and hunter at home with wildlife and wilderness (Tanakh 38). When Jacob wants to pass as Esau, his older brother, he puts goat hide on his hands and the neck (Tanakh 41). When Esau complains to Jacob that he is hungry, he demands that Jacob give him some of the “red stuff,” trading his birthright for a bowl of stew (Tanakh 38). Esau’s appetite for “red stuff” is echoed in Lennie’s demands for ketchup in Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck 804). Like Enkidu and Lennie, Esau is undone by a woman (Tanakh 43).

However, in the pairing of an unassimilated man with a heroic companion in Genesis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Of Mice and Men, relationship transcends individual identity. George and Lennie’s mythic significance lies in the nature of their archetypal connection with one another. As characters, they are both complementary and opposite, two halves of a codified relationship and two parts of a single unit. Their antecedents in the older stories—Jacob and Esau, Gilgamesh and Enkidu—are brothers. Steinbeck’s pair wears the same clothes (Steinbeck 797-798) and speaks a single voice (Steinbeck 812, 815), brothers in behavior if not by birth.

In the pairing of an unassimilated man with a heroic companion in Genesis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Of Mice and Men, relationship transcends individual identity.

Of the two, George is sharper and worldlier, “small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp strong features” (Steinbeck 798). Just as Jacob in Genesis conducts business shrewdly (Tanakh 47), George proves capable of negotiating, manipulating, and conducting business with surprising skill (Steinbeck 802, 842). Gilgamesh, too, is savvy, smoothing the way for his quest by manipulating the powers that be in Uruk (Gilgamesh 72). The figures of George, Jacob, and Giglamesh dominate each of the fraternal relationship, not by seniority but through their ability to integrate with society and play by its rules.

While the less adept, unassimilated character remains a social weight on his socially skillful partner, this drag is accepted by both parties. Though “Lennie’s a God damn nuisance most of the time” (Steinbeck 41), George feels the obligation to protect him at any cost. For Jacob, Esau represents a function of reality itself, unavoidable and equally permanent. The fear of Esau felt by Jacob is significant and suggests Carl Jung’s concept of the Shadow self. Likewise, Lennie and Enkidu can be seen in terms of fear and Shadow—Jung’s term for the suppressed but active elements of the unconscious (Jung 146). The tie that binds each pair of characters is deep, dark, and definitive. Viewed in social terms, the unassimilated man in all three stories prevents his more socially adept partner from fully entering into and succeeding in the world. The psychological dynamic that results creates conflict: the socialized character must eliminate his animalistic, amoral, and unassimilated Shadow self to achieve complete social integration.

Viewed in social terms, the unassimilated man in all three stories prevents his more socially adept partner from fully entering into and succeeding in the world.

But the dominant partner has other gifts as well. George, a “smart little guy” (Steinbeck 825), is able to read the signs in a situation and, in a way, prophesy the future. Similarly, both Jacob and Gilgamesh possess the power of divination, interpreting dreams (Gilgamesh 78) and seeing visions—the stairway to heaven—while wrestling with angels (Tanakh 43, 52). Early in Of Mice and Men, George predicts trouble with Curley’s wife (Steinbeck 820), repeatedly voicing his anxiety about the probable outcome: “She’s gonna make a mess. They’s gonna be a bad mess about her” (Steinbeck 835). Though this sounds to us like common sense, no other character in Of Mice and Men “gets it” as George does. The other men in the bunkhouse recognize Curley’s wife as a threat, but none sees or says what seems inevitable.

The final vision described in The Epic of Gilgamesh is particularly remarkable in relation to George’s prophetic power in Of Mice and Men. Lamenting over his dying brother, Gilgamesh cries, “The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man . . . .” (Gilgamesh 93). In this way Gilgamesh reads the last dream of Enkidu in which Enkidu is approached by a woman who questions him before awakening “like a man drained of blood who wanders alone in a waste of rushes; like one whom the bailiff has seized and his heart pounds with terror” (Gilgamesh 92-93). In narrative detail and poetic imagery, this passage presages the climactic conclusion of  Of Mice and Men: Lennie flees after being questioned by a woman; terrified, he moves alone through the brush along the Salinas River. His dream of tending rabbits in a happy future with George dies, like Lennie himself—and like Enkidu, who leaves his bereaved partner Gilgamesh in “misery,” muttering about failed dreams.

Of Mice and Men: Social Commentary or Timeless Myth?

Applying Jungian psychoanalytical theory to Of Mice and Men is not the most common critical approach to John Steinbeck’s most widely read novel. The social realism of the text and its topical themes relating to migrant labor, disenfranchisement, and the American Dream typically take precedence over readings that emphasize the work’s psychological elements, raising this question: Can a work of social realism be read as myth or as psychological allegory?

In response, one might argue that the simplicity of setting, character, and dialog—as well as the deliberate use of types and stereotypes (racial, gendered, professional, intellectual, and class-based)—invites both political and psychological/symbolic interpretation. As noted by John Steinbeck’s sometime-friend, the mythologist Joseph Campbell, formalized tropes of character and setting are precisely the stuff of myth (Campbell 12-15). As much as Of Mice and Men may be read as a social-realist text, therefore, it is realistic only insofar as it is interested in the social and political issues of its era. In style and formula it falls neatly into the timeless categories of symbolic and myth literature, forms of narrative in which the application of Carl Jung’s insights are particularly fruitful.

Can a work of social realism be read as myth or as psychological allegory?

The archetypal pair represented by George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men evokes two principles of Jungian psychoanalytic theory: the Shadow and the transcendent function, concepts related to the individual ego’s relationship with the unconscious. As in the example of Jacob and Esau, the unassimilated character is associated with impulsive, irrational, and anti-social behavior. Like Lennie, Esau represents the Jungian Shadow, characterized by “uncontrolled or scarcely controlled emotions [. . .] like a primitive” and “singularly incapable of moral judgment” (Jung 146). The individual ego both desires and fears communion with this dark element of the unconscious: in the end the ego wants to exorcise the Shadow in an ultimately transcendent function.

If Lennie is the submerged Shadow, George is the ruling ego—aware, socialized and civilized—for whom the threat of the unconscious will exist until the transcendent function is enacted and the Shadow has been purged by being brought to light. According to Carl Jung, this takes place when the two forces, ego and Shadow, achieve a direct and “compensatory relation” to one another (Jung 294). The means may be aesthetic, as the ego attempts to formalize the formless unconscious and the repressed unconscious attempts to “rise” into conscious mind. In this way the transcendent function “manifests itself as a quality of conjoined opposites” (Jung 298); the goal is for the ego to find the “courage to be oneself” (Jung 300), a state of psychological singleness that George accomplishes when he shoots Lennie.

If Lennie is the submerged Shadow, George is the ruling ego—aware, socialized and civilized—for whom the threat of the unconscious will exist until the transcendent function is enacted.

Thus George and Lennie can be interpreted as two parts of one “mind,” symbolically undergoing the necessary process of overcoming a latent set of “wild” impulses that impede full social integration. As long as George keeps Lennie with him, he will never “stay in a cat house all night long” or “set in a pool room and play cards or shoot pool” (Steinbeck 804). Impulsive, ungovernable, and “incapable of moral judgment,” Lennie holds George back from normal social activity. When Candy shows George the dead body of Curley’s wife, George’s social future in the predictable aftermath is his first concern. When Candy asks George if the plan to buy their own ranch is off, George replies by forecasting a future in which he can “stay all night in some lousy cat house. Or I’ll set in some pool room till ever’body goes home” (Steinbeck 868).

But Lennie’s representation of the unconscious goes beyond his relationship with George. Uniquely within the world of Of Mice and Men, Lennie has the ability to bring out the impulsiveness latent in other characters and to engage them in conversations about dreams, resentments, and other emotions. His conversation with Crooks demonstrates this trait, as Crooks breaks with social convention to let Lennie into his room and explore hidden feelings that he suppresses with everyone else (Steinbeck 849). A similar dynamic characterizes Lennie’s conversation with Curley’s wife when she divulges things that she “ain’t told [. . .] to nobody before” and “ought’n to” (Steinbeck 863). Not only is Lennie incapable of self-control; he inspires this incapacity, however briefly, in others as well.

Not only is Lennie incapable of self-control; he inspires this incapacity, however briefly, in others as well.

Duality of mind and will is a common theme in mythology and in modern literature. Steinbeck’s use of the archetypal character pair in Of Mice and Men dramatizes this duality, offering us a deeper understanding of its meaning. As in much American writing of the 1930s, social repression and human disenfranchisement function socially and politically as facts of contemporary life. But they are also internalized. Ironically, the humble American dream of property ownership is aligned in the narrative with irrational, unconscious urges, with the primitive and undeveloped Shadow represented by Lennie. To survive in the hard world of Of Mice and Men, characters like Crooks suppress their desire for friendship in favor of being accepted, abstractly and impersonally, by the group. Characters like Curley’s wife are shunned and isolated because they are associated with desires that the group considers taboo. Lennie, unassimilated and unsocialized, accesses these suppressed elements in others, bringing them briefly into the open until he can be eliminated.

Ironically, the humble American dream of property ownership is aligned in the narrative with irrational, unconscious urges, with the primitive and undeveloped Shadow represented by Lennie.

On a literary and functional level, Steinbeck’s archetypal character pair serve as a vehicle for demonstrating social values and for considering a compelling question: What must be eliminated from consciousness—from the ego personality—in order for an isolated individual to integrate with society? Steinbeck’s answer is painfully clear. As one partner dies, a path opens for the survivor. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the survivor is made king. In Genesis he becomes the father of nations. Unlike Genesis and Gilgamesh, however, Of Mice and Men constitutes a sad and somber commentary on group values and cultural norms. To survive, a man must put away his innocence and his love for “nice things.” He must be hardhearted and ruthless. He must not dream.

What must be eliminated from consciousness—from the ego personality—in order for an isolated individual to integrate with society? Steinbeck’s answer is painfully clear.

By the time Of Mice and Men ends, George has acknowledged and accepted the severity of this requirement, proving his emotional and psychological fitness for social survival in a difficult environment. His world is heartless, but he can cope: He has eliminated his unacceptable impulses—embodied in Lennie—by slaying them. If we accept the literary critic Alfred Kazin’s axiom that “psychology is always less true than art,” we can hope, at least, that applying Jungian psychoanalytical criticism to Of Mice and Men does not lower Steinbeck’s art to the level of psychology but raises psychology to the level of art. Seen in this light, the power of Steinbeck’s most popular novel can be located, in large part, in the writer’s use of mythic archetypes to explore a psychological truth.

Works Cited

Anonymous. The Epic of Gilgamesh. London: Penguin Books. 1972. Print.

Anonymous. Tanakh. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society. 1985. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd Edition. Novato, California: New World Library. 1949. Print.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House. 1929. Print.

Jung, Carl. “The Transcendent Function.” The Portable Jung. New York: Penguin Books. 1976. 273-300. Print.

Kazin, Afred. The Inmost Leaf. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1941. Print.

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Penguin Books. 1962. Print.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck: Novels and Stories 1932-1937. New York: Literary Classics of the United States. 1994. 795-878. Print.

John Steinbeck Explains Marco Rubio on Global Warming in Sea of Cortez

Image of Marco Rubio live on ABC

This week the issue of global warming caused embarrassing problems for Marco Rubio as the Republican Senator from Miami rolled out his unofficial entry into the 2016 presidential race. Sorry, but I couldn’t help noticing. Although I am not a Republican and no longer live in Florida, I once owned a home on the Intracoastal Waterway near Palm Beach. During hurricanes, our little beach disappeared along with half of our yard. A two-foot sea rise will leave storm water at the new owner’s front door. Another two feet will make the house, along with thousands of other coastal homes, uninhabitable. So I’ve been scratching my head over the confused case Marco Rubio tried to articulate for doing nothing to mitigate global warming—an odd position for any elected official from South Florida to take. Oops! There goes Miami Beach!

I’ve been scratching my head over the confused case Marco Rubio tried to articulate for doing nothing to mitigate global warming. Oops! There goes Miami Beach!

As usual, John Steinbeck helped me think. Because his science book Sea of Cortez is also political and philosophical, I turned to the writer’s “Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research” in the Gulf of California to help me understand politicians like Marco Rubio who (1) deride global warming data, (2) deny that fossil-fuel use is a factor, or (3) insist that it’s too late to turn back, so what the hell! During the course of speeches and interviews in New Hampshire and elsewhere, Marco Rubio denied global warming so often and so recklessly that he became the butt of a Wednesday night Stephen Colbert Show “F*ck It!” segment. What part of Rubio’s brain shut down when he opened his campaign for president? Three observations made by John Steinbeck on the biology of belief and behavior in Chapter 14 of Sea of Cortez provided clarity, but little comfort, about Marco Rubio’s recent statements regarding global warming. Hold the applause. They are nothing to laugh about.

1. Forget simplistic causation. Find provable relationships and prepare for complexity.

Sea of Cortez starts with first principles. From microbes to mankind, variation in nature is a universal principle; causative relationships are complex and outcomes aren’t always predictable. But worldwide climate disruption is a particularly violent variation with measurable relationships and very clear consequences. Denying the significance of man-made carbon emissions in accelerating global warming by implying, as Marco Rubio and others do, that . . . well, shit happens . . . is like letting a drunk drive on the theory that other things can go wrong too, so what’s the big deal? Ignition failure, bad brakes, lousy weather, all contribute to accidents on the road. But driving while drunk, like loading the atmosphere with pollutants, foolishly increases the severity and consequences of co-contributing factors.

Driving while drunk, like loading the atmosphere with pollutants, foolishly increases the severity and consequences of co-contributing factors.

“Sometimes,” John Steinbeck would have agreed, “shit just happens.” But try taking that excuse to court and see what happens there—if you survive the wreck you caused. Steinbeck was a Darwinian who tried not to judge, but deadly driving while drunk has been described by those who are less forgiving as a form of natural self-selection for stupid individuals. Unlike solitary drinking, however, global warming denial is a social disease. Following the dimwitted herd of reality-deniers, like lemmings, over the looming climate cliff? That takes systematic self-delusion and self-styled leaders like Marco Rubio. How do they operate? John Steinbeck had a theory.

2. Reality-denial is a form of adolescent wish-fulfillment. It’s most dangerous in a mob motivated by a self-appointed leader.

Sea of Cortez—co-authored with Steinbeck’s friend and collaborator, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts—develops many of the ideas Steinbeck expressed in the fiction he wrote before 1940. His 1936 novel In Dubious Battle, for example, dramatized the murderous behavior of opposing mobs, behavior worse than anything within the capacity of their individual constituents. Steinbeck’s characterization of politically-driven leaders like Mac, the novel’s Communist labor-organizer, is particularly disturbing, even today. Sea of Cortez develops both of these core ideas—the behavior of mob members and the psychology of mob leaders—using biological terms that help explain Marco Rubio and his position on global warming.

Sea of Cortez develops both of these core ideas—the behavior of mob members and the psychology of mob leaders—using biological terms that help explain Marco Rubio and his position on global warming.

Like Steinbeck’s metaphorical ameba in Sea of Cortez, Mac the Communist and Marco Rubio the Republican are political pseudo-pods who detect a mass-wish within their followers and press toward its fulfillment: “We are directly leading this great procession, our leadership ‘causes’ all the rest of the population to move this way, the mass follows the path we blaze.”  But one difference between Mac and Marco Rubio, worth noting, was apparent in this week’s events. Steinbeck’s labor agitator was a tough guy with street smarts who stayed on-message; Marco Rubio manages to look as unfixed and immature as he sounds. In right-wing global warming politics, Rick Perry—no George Bush, and take that as a compliment—seems statesmanlike by comparison. Oops! I meant Department of Education!

3. Extinction is possible. Double extinction.

John Steinbeck read encyclopedically, and in Sea of Cortez he explains what he calls “the criterion of validity in the handling of data” by citing an example from an article on ecology in the 14th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. It concerns the extermination of a certain species of hawk that preyed on the willow grouse, a game bird in Norway. Failing to note the presence of the parasitical disease coccidiosis in the country’s grouse population, the Norwegians systematically eradicated the predator that kept the infection under control by killing off weaker birds affected by the disease. The result was double extinction—hawk and grouse—caused by uninformed human behavior.

The Norwegians systematically eradicated the predator that kept the infection under control by killing off weaker birds affected by the disease. The result was double extinction—hawk and grouse—caused by unintelligent human behavior.

Like Steinbeck, I loved college biology, and the biology department at Wake Forest was very good. My freshman professor, a John Steinbeck-Ed Ricketts type named Ralph Amen, introduced us to an idea that makes Marco Rubio’s anti-global warming demagoguery more than a little scary 50 years later. “Imagine,” Dr. Amen suggested, “that the earth is an organism, Gaia, with a cancer—the human species, overpopulating and over-polluting its host. What is the likely outcome of this infection for Gaia and for mankind?” A question in the spirit of Sea of Cortez, which on reflection I’m certain he had read.

‘Imagine,’ Dr. Amen suggested, ‘that the earth is an organism, Gaia, with a cancer—the human species, overpopulating and over-polluting its host. What is the likely outcome of this infection for Gaia and for mankind?’

John Steinbeck, a one-world ecologist even further ahead of his time than my old teacher, would have answered, “things could go either way.” The cancer might kill the host or the host eradicate the cancer. But global warming presents a third possibility—double extinction. Now imagine that Marco Rubio is a soft, squishy symptom of global warming denial, a terminal disease. Then reread John Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez as I just did. Reality-based thinking is our first step toward a cure, although under a president like Marco Rubio it could also be our last. Oops! There we go—along with the planet! How in the world did we let that happen?