Text of Tribute to Geert Mak At Award Event in Holland

Image of Bill Steigerwald, Geert Mak, and Queen Maxima at award event in Holland

Bill Steigerwald (at left), the American journalist who wrote Dogging Steinbeck “to expose the truth about Travels with Charley,” accepted the invitation to address an audience in Holland that included Queen Máxima (right) when his friend Geert Mak (center), the Dutch journalist who wrote In America—Travels with John Steinbeck, was awarded the 2017 Prince Bernhard Cultural Prize. “My appearance at the ceremony for Geert Mak on November 27 in Amsterdam was a total surprise to Mak,” says Steigerwald. “It was like the old time TV show This is Your Life.” The text of the tribute to a friendship that started with Steinbeck is published here for the first time.—Ed.

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me.

Though Geert and I were born an ocean apart, and though he’s much smarter and far more accomplished than I’ll ever be, we have some things in common.

We’re both 70-year-old Baby Boomers.

We both started out life with lots of hair.

We both grew up to be journalists and writers.

And we both specialized in the kind of drive-by journalism that he used so masterfully in 2010 for what became his American history book, In America—Travels With John Steinbeck.

In America is a great mix of big-picture history, on-the-road journalism and progressive opinion. The Guardian newspaper called it “witty, personable and knowing”—and it is.

But perhaps the most impressive thing about it is that it reads like it was written by a lifelong  American, not a longtime citizen of Europe.

As a way to show how big America is and how much it had changed in the previous 50 years, Geert came up with idea to follow the same route around the United States that John Steinbeck took in 1960 for his famous road book Travels with Charley.

It was a really good idea—and I had thought of it too.

That’s why early on the morning of September 23, 2010, exactly 50 years after Steinbeck left on his iconic 10,000-mile road trip, Geert and I each drove to the great novelist’s former house on Long Island, New York.

We didn’t bump into each other at Steinbeck’s place.

I left to catch the ferry to New England an hour or so before Geert and his wife Mietsie arrived in their rented Jeep Liberty.

For nearly two months, from Maine to California and down to New Orleans, the Maks and I traveled to the same places and even interviewed some of the same people.

For the record, as we journalists like to say, the Maks traveled like adults.  They stayed in motels and drove responsibly.

I drove alone, as fast as a runaway teenager, often sleeping in my Toyota RAV4 in Walmart parking lots or beside the highway.

We never did meet on the road, but before Geert got out of New England he discovered that I was a day or so ahead of him.

He also saw I was posting a daily road blog on a newspaper website and slowly proving my case that Steinbeck had fictionalized large chunks of what was supposed to be a nonfiction travel book.

Geert, who already had his own suspicions about Steinbeck stretching the truth, realized he had to include me in his book.

Two years later, after a Dutch reader alerted me that my name was in In America, Geert and I were exchanging friendly transatlantic emails–in English.

We compared notes on Steinbeck and the road trip we shared.

I confessed to him that I was a lifelong libertarian, someone he’d call “a radical individualist.”

He confessed to me that he was “a typical latte-drinking, Citroën-driving, half-socialist European journalist and historian.”

Someday, we promised each other, we would meet in Holland over a Heineken and have a friendly debate about the two very different 2010 Americas we found along the same stretch of highway.
I never made it to Amsterdam–until now.

But in May of 2014, when Geert was in New York at a writers conference, he jumped on a plane and flew to Pittsburgh for three hours just to meet me and buy me lunch.

His visit was both an honor and a special treat.

He was even nicer in person than he was online. In addition to being a renowned European journalist and historian, he was clearly a great guy, a regular guy.

That’s a high compliment from an American, but I don’t think that’s news to many people in the Netherlands.

Hello, Geert. I’m a little bit over-dressed. But I’m here to buy you that beer.

Opposites Attract in Pursuit Of Travels with Charley

Composite cover image of Dogging Steinbeck and In America

John Steinbeck delivered the speech of his life after taking the road trip described in Travels with Charley in Search of America, the last book he wrote before being awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. Fifty-five years following Steinbeck’s acceptance speech in Stockholm, a pair of journalists who retraced Steinbeck’s route across America, and wrote separate books simultaneously, came together at a literary award event in Amsterdam attended by Queen Máxima of the Netherlands and broadcast on Dutch TV. Like their books, Bill Steigerwald and Geert Mak differ in background, language, and style. But they agree on issues, including Steinbeck’s accuracy in Travels with Charley, and their accord led to friendship. Like Steinbeck’s relationship with Bo Beskow, the Swedish artist who helped arrange Steinbeck’s speech in Stockholm, it flourished despite distance, and it led to Steigerwald’s speech in Amsterdam on November 27, when Mak was awarded the 2017 Prince Bernhard Cultural Prize for lifetime achievement as Queen Máxima looked on.

Image of Bill Steigerwald, Geert Mak, and Queen Máxima

Bill Steigerwald, Geert Mak, and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands

Writers Celebrate Meeting on John Steinbeck’s Trail

Bill Steigerwald, the investigative reporter from Pittsburgh who wrote Dogging Steinbeck “to expose the truth about Travels with Charley and celebrate Flyover America and its people six years before they elected Donald Trump,” is an American journalist with a rough edge and an independent streak. Geert Mak, the author of In America: Travels with John Steinbeck and the recipient of the award, is a Dutch journalist with European polish who writes popular history books that have drawn criticism from academics in Europe. When scholars in America downplayed or took offense at Steigerwald’s charges in Dogging Steinbeck, Mak emailed “to express my personal admiration for the job you did [and] to tell you that you became a kind of journalistic hero in my travel-story about Steinbeck.” He cited Steigerwald in the book he wrote to help readers in Europe, where John Steinbeck became a hero for writing The Moon Is Down, better understand contemporary America, where recent events have made the social criticism in Steinbeck’s American novels more relevant than ever. Mak inscribed a copy of his book to Steigerwald when it was translated from Dutch into English.

Image of Bill Steigerwald and Geert Mak's book about John Steinbeck and America

Bill Steigerwald and Geert Mak’s Book about John Steinbeck and America

Colleague Writes Postscript to Speech in Amsterdam

The speech Bill Steigerwald gave about Geert Mak was short, like John Steinbeck’s address in Stockholm, and it left time to socialize, as Steinbeck did with Bo Beskow in 1962. The irony in this description of meeting Mak in America and paying tribute in Amsterdam sounds a bit like Steinbeck, who favored satire when he reported from Europe after World War II:

Geert Mak is my age, 70, and a masterful practitioner of drive-by journalism. In America sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in Holland, as most of his history books do. It was reviewed favorably by the Guardian newspaper, which liked both Mak’s fine writing and his left wing Euro-politics.

Mak, who calls himself a proud “half-socialist,” has visited America many times and lived for a while in Berkeley. In the fall of 2010, when he and his wife were a week into their 10,000-mile Charley road trip, in New Hampshire, he learned that I was traveling a day or two ahead of him.

Mak also soon learned I was posting a daily road blog to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and slowly revealing my charges that Steinbeck had fictionalized significant parts of Charley—which for half a century had been marketed, reviewed and taught as a nonfiction book.

Our relationship flourished online and two months ago I was suddenly asked to be a surprise guest at an elaborately produced and televised ceremony in Amsterdam honoring Mak for his impressive lifetime work. He is a household name in Holland and because he praised me in In America the people there were led to think I’m an important American journalist/author. As I wrote in an email to friends from Amsterdam after my speech, “I represented our great country with as little dignity as possible and I am proud to say that in my four-minute address—my world debut as a public speaker—I did not once bash America or use the T-word, though of course our dear leader was the embarrassing elephant in the room/country/continent.”

Mak’s prize was a crazy-looking necklace and 150,000 euros, but I was told by half a dozen people that the big hug he gave me during the event after my speech was the emotional high point of the show, which to a supposed hard boiled ex-newspaperman like me is a hilarious thought.

The American mode of mocking humor started with Mark Twain, the American drive-by journalist who invented “creative nonfiction,” and the idea of Innocents Abroad, when he wrote about his first trip to Europe. Thanks to Bill Steigerwald’s dogged pursuit, Travels with Charley has now been reassigned to the in-between category pioneered by Mark Twain 150 years ago. Thanks to Steigerwald’s long distance friendship with Geert Mak, Steinbeck was on stage again at another award event in Europe held to honor the achievements of a popular writer with mixed feelings about America.

Why The Grapes of Wrath Still Matters in Oklahoma

Image of Ma Joad from Grapes of Wrath movie

“Legislature may be working toward ‘Grapes of Wrath’ revision,” a November 16 editorial in the Enid, Oklahoma News & Eagle, used this image of Ma Joad from John Ford’s film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel to remind readers that Steinbeck’s angry portrayal of preventable poverty in the Dust Bowl still resonates for residents of a state where education spending cuts have forced some communities to reduce the school week to four days in a region dominated by the wants and needs of the billionaire Koch brothers. The state’s Republican governor recently vetoed the budget delivered to her desk by the anti-tax Republican legislature, which included $60 million more in cuts to health and human services, and the three-term Republican mayor of Oklahoma City has made education an issue in his campaign to succeed her. Like the author of The Grapes of Wrath, the editors in Enid employed dark irony to highlight the human cost of poor public policy, particularly when motivated by willful ignorance and corporate greed: “Perhaps the Legislature is hoping that a modern revision of the John Steinbeck classic ‘Grapes of Wrath’ will be the secret to our state’s future success. Only this time instead of impoverished Dust Bowl-era farmers moving out of state during the Great Depression, it will be school teachers and health care providers leading the exodus.”

The Forgotten Anti-Rebel Yell In Steinbeck’s Wayward Bus

Image of rednecks with Confederate flage

Monterey County’s move to rename Confederate Corners, the isolated intersection south of Salinas, California restyled as Rebel Corners in The Wayward Bus, has renewed interest in John Steinbeck’s 1947 re-imagining of Plato’s Ship of Fools allegory, from Book VI of The Republic. Located on Highway 68 in unincorporated Monterey County, Confederate Corners got its name during the Civil War, when a handful of Southern sympathizers proposed seceding from California as a mark of solidarity with the Confederate States of America. Except for informed readers of The Wayward Bus, the Monterey County ranchers’ mini-rebellion was largely forgotten until controversy over the removal of racist flags and statues in several states of the former Confederacy erupted, post-Charlottesville, into Trumpian rhetoric around issues of ethnicity, immigration, and loyalty to the flag. Like the Ship of Fools metaphor embedded in Steinbeck’s neglected novel—which few critics recognized, then or now—the recent news from Monterey County is replete with the kind of irony that appealed to the author, a big-tent American who began writing The Wayward Bus in and about Mexico.

New Yorker Says French Editor Uses American Literature, Travels with Charley to Explain America

Image of John Steinbeck with French poodle Charley

The October 16 issue of New Yorker magazine reminds Steinbeck fans of their favorite author’s continued usefulness in understanding America and Americans. In a Talk of the Town item titled “Paris Postcard: In Search of America,” Lauren Collins reports that Francois Busnel, the host of a popular French television show about literature, is the new editor-in-chief of America, a French magazine “conceived to help French readers make sense of its namesake in the age of Trump.” Not surprisingly, Busnel looks to American literature to help explain Trump to his fellow countrymen. “We’re living in a profoundly novelistic era,” Busnel says, adding that Travels with Charley remains his favorite book about America and Americans in any age.

In 2017 the Iran Deal Included John Steinbeck’s Hometown

Image of John Steinbeck House in Salinas, California

Guest book entries by visitors to the gift shop in the basement of John Steinbeck’s childhood home show that the Steinbeck House remains popular with readers who travel to Salinas, California from other towns, states, and countries. For example the guest book page for July 17-August 17 contains entries from a cosmopolitan array, including France, Wales, the Netherlands, Hungary, Norway, New Zealand, Germany, England, Italy, and Canada. Less conventionally, guest book entries for the current year also include the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Portugal, Iceland, South Africa, and—even more surprising—the Republic of Iran. An internationalist who believed that good treaties prevent bad outcomes, John Steinbeck would like the idea that the Iran deal with the United States extended, however briefly, to Salinas, California.

Stanford University Praises John Steinbeck in Profile of English Prof Gavin Jones

Image of Stanford University English professor Gavin Jones

Stanford University—the wealthy private university in Palo Alto, California known for having world-class programs in business, engineering, and medicine—has given a new boost to the literary reputation of John Steinbeck, an erratic English department enrollee who left Stanford in 1925 without a degree. A new online profile of English department faculty member Gavin Jones makes the case for Steinbeck as an undervalued American writer and thinker who was ahead of his time in subject, style, and versatility. “One hundred and fifteen years after his birth in Salinas, California,” the story states, “Steinbeck’s life and work—the latter [of] which has long languished on high school reading lists—is undergoing a revival.” An affable Englishman who recently taught an American studies course at Stanford on Steinbeck and the environment, Jones explains the renewed attraction: “I’d like to think that Steinbeck’s work speaks to students from multiple backgrounds because his interests were so interdisciplinary.” Robert DeMott, the distinguished Steinbeck scholar and poet who also writes about fly fishing, says that Stanford University’s initiative is especially encouraging because Steinbeck teaching and scholarship have traditionally been the province of public colleges such as San Jose State and Ohio University, where DeMott taught generations of graduates including David Wrobel, another English convert to Steinbeck who was recently named interim dean at Oklahoma University. Adds DeMott: “Steinbeck’s recognition by a private university of Stanford’s stature will go far to redress Steinbeck’s underestimation by the literary establishment of his day, and to some extent our own as well.”

Photo of Gavin Jones courtesy Stanford University News Service.

Salinas, California Poetry Slam Invites Submissions

Image for poetry slam

Most Steinbeck books are fiction, but the Salinas, California native also wrote poetry in school and got better grades in versification than he did in short story writing at Stanford. This year’s Big Read poetry slam at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas honors Steinbeck’s gift for verse, and the author’s sensitivity to race and class, with an invitation to writers to compose a poem in response to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a 2017 Big Read book selection that reflects on racism in America. This is the fourth year the National Steinbeck Center has participated in the Big Read, a community literacy initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, but the first to feature a poetry slam—the idea of Jenna Garden, a Stanford student and National Steinbeck Center summer intern. Poems submitted by September 5 will be read aloud to a panel of judges who will award cash prizes on September 8. This year’s Big Read in Salinas, California also features a film series at the Maya Cinemas multiplex. The series kicks off August 28 with Lifeboat, the 1944 movie for which Steinbeck, who wrote the script, did not want credit because of racial stereotyping by the director Alfred Hitchcock, a man Steinbeck privately described as a middle-class English snob.

Steinbeck Review Features Literary Criticism, History, Bibliography, and News

Cover image of 2017, No. 1 Steinbeck Review

Penn State University Press recently released the first of two issues of the academic journal Steinbeck Review to be published in 2017. Along with news and reviews, it features essays in literary criticism by Gavin Jones, professor of English at Stanford University; Barbara A. Heavilin, editor of Critical Insights: Of Mice and Men; Harold Augenbraum, former executive director of the National Book Foundation, presenter of the National Book Award; Cecilia Donahue, a retired university teacher and a contributor to the Literary Encyclopedia database; Netta Bar Yosef-Paz, a literature teacher at Kibbutzim College, Israel’s largest college; Chaker Mohamed Ben Ali, a doctoral student at the University of Skikda, Algeria; and Hachemi Aboubou, assistant dean at Batna Benboulaid University, also in Algeria. The issue includes reviews of Citizen Steinbeck: Giving Voice to the People, a book of literary criticism by Robert McPartand, and Monterey Bay, a novel, as well bibliographies of recent books, articles, theses, and dissertations on John Steinbeck’s life and work. An annual subscription costs $35 and includes both print and digital editions of Steinbeck Review.

Coming in July: Short Stories From John Steinbeck’s Life

Image of John Steinbeck in Ballentine beer ad

Steinbeck: The Untold Stories, a book of short stories by Steve Hauk based on the life of John Steinbeck, will be published by SteinbeckNow.com on July 22. The first print project undertaken by the website, it is the product of a two-year collaboration between Hauk—a playwright in Pacific Grove, California—and Caroline Kline, a Monterey artist with a flair for illustration and a feel for John Steinbeck, whose affinity for art and artists began when he was growing up in the Salinas Valley and eventually extended to Europe. Earlier versions of four of the short stories have appeared online at SteinbeckNow.com. All sixteen feature original art work by Kline inspired by Hauk’s fictional rendering of dramatic episodes—some real, others imagined—from Steinbeck’s storied life in Salinas, Pacific Grove, New York, and beyond.