Praise for the Salinas Valley From The New York Times

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A travel feature in the February 9 New York Times focused on food and wine in Carmel-by-the-Sea and Salinas, California also paid respects to East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s fictional account of bygone days in the Salinas Valley, where agriculture is still king. If you enjoy eating, drinking, and Steinbeck in that order, What to Find in Salinas Valley: Lush Fields, Good Wine and, Yes, Steinbeck is worth your time, whether your summer travel plans include grazing your way through Steinbeck Country or packing East of Eden with the lemonade and sandwiches for an afternoon getaway closer to home.

Photograph of the Salinas Valley by David Laws.

What The New York Times, The Charlotte Observer, and Christianity Today Had to Say About John Steinbeck

Image of the New York Times newsroom in 1942

Three recent newspaper stories served as reminders that John Steinbeck remains relevant to readers, and useful to editors, experts, and leaders who make policy in his name. Of Mice and Men dominated the August 22 New York Times report on a Texas death penalty case working its way to the Supreme Court. The Grapes of Wrath appeared in the headline of a report on Syrian refugees published the same day in Christianity Today. The 1939 novel was used by a college professor with conservative ideas about government in an August 20 editorial for The Charlotte Observer. The New York Times and Christianity Today articles reflected Steinbeck’s values. The editorial in The Charlotte Observer showed why he took a dim view of academics.

The New York Times and Christianity Today articles reflected Steinbeck’s values. The editorial in The Charlotte Observer showed why he took a dim view of academics.

The New York Times piece by Adam Liptak explored the legality and ethics of the so-called Lennie standard, named for the character Lennie Small and used to decide when a person of limited intelligence should or shouldn’t be executed for murder. (Barbara A. Heavilin, who writes frequently about John Steinbeck, explains the immorality of this misreading of Steinbeck”s novel in a related blog post.)  Jeremy Weber’s Christianity Today report on refugees in the Bekaa Valley—“Grapes of Wrath: Refugees Face Steinbeck Scenario in Lebanon’s Napa Valley”—compared conditions there with California during the Great Depression. In his editorial for The Charlotte Observer“Addressing the problems of the modern-day Joads“—Professor Clark G. Ross misrepresented Steinbeck’s intentions in The Grapes of Wrath, just as those justifying the death penalty do in misreading Of Mice and Men.

Why The Charlotte Observer Got John Steinbeck Wrong

Professor Ross describes teaching The Grapes of Wrath to a group of students who are studying the Depression for the first time. His detached view of the Joads as a “fundamentally Christian, not over-educated family” dependent on government support for survival suggests that the wrong lesson was learned about the present. While faulting both Republicans and Democrats for failing workers losing their jobs to foreign labor, he claims that politicians can’t save these “modern-day Joads” anyway, because government isn’t the solution to social problems. Steinbeck thought it was and Weedpatch, the federal camp where the Joads get help, was his proof. Unconvinced by Steinbeck’s example, Ross characterizes Steinbeck’s vision as  “centered on a benevolent government within a communist society, one that would provide employment and shelter, as well as self-governance.” The commie charge isn’t new.

Steinbeck thought government was the solution to social problems. Weedpatch, the federal camp where the Joads get help in The Grapes of Wrath, was his proof.

Conservative critics raised the specter of communism to discredit Steinbeck and his novel when it was published more than 75 years ago. Critics in California denied that Okies like the Joads even existed, or if they did were as numerous as Steinbeck claimed, and they failed to feel the Joads’ or Steinbeck’s pain. Professor Ross expresses sympathy, but it’s distant and distorted by doctrine. Like that of Joad Deniers at the time, his claim that Steinbeck’s version of good government can’t succeed requires a belief that government can’t be the solution because it’s the problem. “History has proven,” he says of Steinbeck’s dream, “that such public provision of goods and services really cannot work.” Arvin, the migrant camp known as Weedpatch, proved the opposite.

How John Steinbeck Did Research and Described Experts

“History has proven” is a sad tautology, and economics remains a dismal science. That’s why Steinbeck’s joyful art is useful in putting a human face on social and economic abstractions, as The New York Times and Christianity Today did last week. Steinbeck put a human face on every subject when he wrote, and the effort often hurt. He lost his first newspaper job because he got bogged down in the human side of the stories his editor assigned. He researched The Grapes of Wrath in person, by doing, reporting on Dustbowl refugees in the field for the San Francisco Examiner, staying at Arvin to learn how it worked, making mercy runs to migrants stranded by floods in the Central Valley. Of Mice and Men was similarly inspired by actual people and events; as Barbara Heavilin notes, Lennie Small was based on a real person.

Economics remains a dismal science. That’s why Steinbeck’s joyful art is useful in putting a human face on social and economic abstractions.

Years after writing these books Steinbeck had a chance meeting on a train with a boyhood friend from Salinas. By then the author was back in the journalism business, producing a syndicated newspaper column that allowed him personal privilege, which he used, to speak his mind. Tongue in cheek, he tacked the meeting onto a tall-tale column about religion, describing his old friend, now grown, as a “professor of anthropology . . . or some such vermin.” Vermin seems a strong word to describe an expert, even if the friend was in on the joke. On the other hand, the misinterpretation of Steinbeck’s meaning by authorities in Texas, and by an academic in North Carolina, suggests why he used it.

Thomas Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s Son, Dead at 72

Image of Thomas Steinbeck

As reported by the New York Times, John Steinbeck’s surviving son, Thomas Steinbeck, died on August 11 in Santa Barbara, California, from cardiopulmonary disease, the condition that contributed to his father’s death at age 66 in 1968. A second Steinbeck son, John Steinbeck IV, died in 1992. Their mother was John Steinbeck’s second wife; the New York Times obituary detailed the course of legal action brought by Thomas Steinbeck and a niece against the non-blood heirs and literary agents of the author, who left the bulk of his estate to his third wife. While noting Thomas Steinbeck’s strong resemblance to his father, the New York Times story failed to mention the Steinbeckian character and literary quality of the younger Steinbeck’s writing, including novels and stories set on the Monterey Peninsula, the region celebrated in his father’s fiction. Also omitted was Thomas Steinbeck’s generosity to the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, which issued a statement praising his friendship and support. Robert DeMott, the John Steinbeck scholar who served as the Center’s director in the 1980s, recalled the son’s gift of his father’s typewriter and other personal items, as well as his presence at events honoring John Steinbeck over the years. Robert DeMott’s tribute to Thomas Steinbeck will be published in Steinbeck Review.

AP photograph of Thomas Steinbeck by Richard Green

John Steinbeck House in Salinas, California Receives Award from Trip Advisor Site

Image of Steinbeck House photo by David Laws

Photo of Steinbeck House by David Laws

John Steinbeck won literary honors during his lifetime, including a Nobel Prize. Now the house where he was born and reared in Salinas, California has received a high accolade from TripAdvisor.com, one of the hospitality industry’s most heavily used consumer websites. People who visited the Steinbeck House restaurant and gift shop during the past 12 months rated their experience as “excellent” or “very good” frequently enough to earn Trip Advisor’s Certificate of Excellence for the thriving Salinas venue. John Steinbeck, who could be critical of business in his writing, would be gratified. Education and enjoyment, not money, motivated members of the Valley Guild to buy the Steinbeck home, restore it, and operate an intimate restaurant, staffed by a professional chef and volunteers servers, where answers to questions about Steinbeck come with the meal. Toni Bernardi, president of the nonprofit organization, explains: “We appreciate our guests and we all strive to honor the memory of John Steinbeck’s life and work.” Today honoring John Steinbeck turns out to be a good way to pay the bills—and garner praise from the hospitality industry—in Salinas, California.

$4.8 Million Gift to John Steinbeck Center Reported By San Jose Mercury News

Image of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for John Steinbeck Studies

The April 20, 2016 San Jose Mercury News reports a record-breaking gift to San Jose State University by Martha Heasley Cox, a retired English professor with a love for John Steinbeck. In 1955—the year East of Eden became a movie—Cox arrived in San Jose from Arkansas with a new PhD to work at San Jose State, where she taught courses and organized conferences devoted to Steinbeck, wrote best-selling college textbooks, and invested the proceeds to support her passion for Steinbeck and her university. Her collection of books by and about Steinbeck became the core of the school’s Steinbeck Studies Center, the oldest academic enterprise devoted to the author in America, and she provided start-up funding for the organization, which was named in her honor. According to the San Jose Mercury News story, $3.1 million of Cox’s posthumous gift will fund the center’s Steinbeck Fellows program for young writers, and $1 million will augment the endowment of a lecture series, also bearing her name, that brings major authors—including Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, and Andre Dubus III—to the San Jose State University campus each year. The balance of Cox’s bequest will support an online database of Steinbeck materials. As noted by the Mercury News, her gift is the largest made by a faculty member in the school’s history.

Phoenix, Arizona Toasts Of Mice and Men with a Ward 8

Image of a Ward 8 cocktail paired with Of Mice and Men

The new production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men by the Arizona Theatre Company got more than a 10-out-of-10 review from The State Press, the Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona newspaper published by students at Arizona State University. “Books & Booze: ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck,” this week’s column by Carson Abernathy, pairs Steinbeck’s Depression-era work with a Gilded Age cocktail called Ward 8, composed of whiskey, lemon juice, orange juice, and grenadine. Abernathy’s novel concept for making modern fiction palatable to college readers is appealing: he ties the book in question to a drink from the past and rates the writing for style, characterization, cohesiveness, and relevance. (Lolita and The Sun Also Rises were similarly paired and reviewed in recent columns.) We think Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Nabokov would drink to Abernathy’s bright idea.

Photo for The State Press by Johanna Huckeba.

A John Steinbeck Waterfront Park in Sag Harbor’s Future?

Image of Sag Harbor sign

John Steinbeck liked Sag Harbor, the Long Island fishing village where he lived and wrote The Winter of Our Discontent, his last novel. He even set the story in Sag Harbor, which in Steinbeck’s time was still the kind of place—like Salinas, his home town—where neighbors stayed on speaking terms and the day’s news could be heard at the downtown coffee shop Steinbeck frequented when he finished his morning writing. Last week the East End Beacon, a Sag Harbor area paper, reported on plans to build a waterfront park named for the writer on property the town is considering condemning. Ed Hollander, the landscape architect hired to propose public use for the land when acquired, “envisions a literary trail, perhaps in collaboration with Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Memorial Library, which would include references to Steinbeck’s work.” In his writing Steinbeck worried aloud about over-development and ecology. So does Sag Harbor’s mayor, Sandra Schroeder. “The village does not need or want more condominiums,” she said. “What we want and need is a transformative park plan that will build on our maritime heritage and protect it for our children, their children, and their children’s children into the future.” Letters of support are welcome.

Some Walls Are Built as Bridges: San Jose State University Celebrates John Steinbeck and Civil Rights

Image of John Steinbeck award wall at San Jose State University

Some walls separate. Others connect. Admirers at San Jose State University have built a handsome wall to commemorate John Steinbeck’s enduring connection with social justice and civil rights, a tie that is celebrated in the John Steinbeck “In the souls of people” Award, given 15 times since 1996 to artists, actors, writers, and activists whose work involves social change. The award ceremony is always a happy occasion, and the February 24 event honoring civil rights leader Ruby Bridges, the brave little schoolgirl described in Travels with Charley, was no exception.

The John Steinbeck award ceremony is always a happy occasion, and the February 24 event honoring Ruby Bridges, the brave little schoolgirl described in Travels with Charley, was no exception.

The Steinbeck award commemorative wall was created by the San Jose University Student Union and is located in the busy student activity building where most award events are held. Explains Nick Taylor, director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, “The wall consists of a series of disks tracing the timeline of the Steinbeck Award, with background on the rationale for each selection and a few details about each ceremony.” The California civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, an advocate for farm workers’ rights, is a past recipient. Bruce Springsteen received the first award in 1996.

Image of February 24, 2016 John Steinbeck award event announcement

Jim Kent, a member of the John Steinbeck center’s advisory board, traveled to San Jose from Denver for the February 24 event. “As a fan of Travels with Charley,” he said, “I was thrilled to meet the young lady Steinbeck observed as she braved white hecklers during the integration of the New Orleans elementary school where she was the first black student, back in 1960.” A social ecologist who uses Steinbeck in his work empowering citizens to control their own environments, Kent was helping to write federal legislation for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty when the Civil Rights Act of 1965—which owed much to writers like John Steinbeck—passed Congress. “Ruby Bridges was the perfect choice for this year’s award,” he added. “Like Steinbeck, she is a master storyteller. She attracted a capacity crowd made up of all ages and races, and her elegance inspired five standing ovations. There’s clearly a hunger for continued engagement with civil rights in our time. This was proof.”

Santa Clara, California Drops The Ball on John Steinbeck And Dorothea Lange

Composite image of John Steinbeck's portrait and Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother"

John Steinbeck knew Dorothea Lange, the iconic Depression-Era photographer who documented the plight of itinerant farm workers like Steinbeck’s Joads, and Lange’s images illustrated the cover of Their Blood Is Strong, the collection of columns Steinbeck wrote about migrants in the run-up to The Grapes of Wrath. Eighty years later, Lange and Steinbeck have come together again in an unlikely place—the art collection on display at Levi’s Stadium, the $1 billion facility built recently in Santa Clara, California for the San Francisco 49ers football team. The irony of exhibiting Steinbeck’s portrait and Lange’s “Migrant Mothers” on the walls of a publicly subsidized sports palace seems lost upon the team’s owners and Santa Clara’s mayor, who resigned on February 9, hours after the 2016 Super Bowl was played at Levi’s Stadium.

Image of Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California

The journalist Gabriel Thompson, a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, writes eloquently about the history of community organizing, and about today’s low-wage economy. An email he sent last week noted the jarring juxtaposition of Steinbeck and Lange with big-money sports on the walls of Levi’s Stadium, and it provided a link to the investigative piece he wrote for Slate about working as a food server during the Super Bowl. “The portrait hangs directly across from the office of the food service contractor that operates at Levi’s,” he said, adding that Lange’s “Migrant Mother” (originally titled “Pea Pickers”) is also on display. He included a link to a stadium PR story that makes this pitch for buying a box seat:

Gather 19 of your closest friends and rent a suite that gives you and your crew premium parking right next to the stadium, entry to Michael Mina’s Tailgate, upscale catering with an in-suite food and beverage credit, and access to the Trophy Club, where you’ll receive a complimentary glass of champagne and appetizers upon arrival. The suites are outfitted with comfy leather theater-style seats, Internet access and plenty of flat screen monitors to ensure you don’t miss any of the action. Prices vary by game but expect to shell out between $20,000 and $40,000 for the ultimate in VIP hospitality.

Image of Mission Santa Clara in Santa Clara, California

John Steinbeck, a critic of conspicuous consumption, celebrated common men and women in his writing. During college he worked for the Spreckels sugar company, which operated ranches in the rich agricultural area between King City and Santa Clara, California, south of San Francisco. Later, Santa Clara’s fragrant orchards gave way to development; today the city of 110,000 is home to tech giants including Intel, along with Santa Clara University, where a center for business ethics fronts a quiet entrance plaza anchored by the Mission Santa Clara church. Levi’s Stadium is across town, on land provided by the city not far from Intel and Mission College, a public institution. A local referendum to stop the San Francisco 49ers project failed, following a massive media and mail campaign and heavy lobbying by city leaders. According to news sources, controversy surrounding lost soccer fields—and suspicious side deals—continues to dog Santa Clara officials who went to bat for the project.

Image of Ma and Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck would recognize the present problem with Santa Clara. He wasn’t much of a sports fan, or civic booster, and his father became treasurer of Monterey County after the incumbent embezzled public funds. Today, Santa Clara residents are scratching their heads over the sudden resignation of their mayor, a former code-enforcement officer—an act, according to San Jose Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold, that disqualifies the ex-mayor from further office, “including secretary of his homeowners’ association.” According to the paper, the three women on the seven-member Santa Clara city council are asking hard questions about Levi’s Stadium, and the Hispanic city manager is complaining about racial discrimination.

Photographic image of John Steinbeck at work

Steinbeck would also recognize the unintentional irony—and the awful syntax—in another assertion, pulled from the PR piece quoted earlier, about the costly amenities at Levi’s Stadium:

Being that this stadium is located in the most-cultured half of California, an emphasis on art is a given. Spread throughout the elite Citrix Owners Club, the Brocade Club, BNY Mellon Club East and West and SAP Tower of suites, this collection, curated by Sports and The Arts specifically for Levi’s Stadium, is comprised of over 200 pieces of original artwork and 500 photographs that celebrate the history of the San Francisco 49ers as well as California’s stunning landscape. You’ll find charcoal sketches of notable figures such as John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac as well as timeless psychedelics of the storied Fillmore made famous by Bill Graham. However, the portraits stadium-goers still pose next to the most are those of Joe Montana throwing to Jerry Rice and current quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the run.

Image of Mission Santa Clara sign in Santa Clara, California

When the city of Salinas wanted to name a school or library for John Steinbeck, he suggested choosing a bowling alley (or whorehouse) instead. For followers of the Levi’s Stadium story from Salinas and Monterey, there’s an upside to Santa Clara’s cluelessness about Steinbeck: Cannery Row may be tacky, and the National Steinbeck Center needs money, but neither place violates the spirit of John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange like the San Francisco 49ers’ opulent new home in Santa Clara, California, where Steinbeck and Lange hang within view of noshing VIPs, high above ordinary football fans who can’t afford a five-figure seat.

Photo of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California by Michael Fiola (Reuters).

Ruby Bridges to Receive Steinbeck Award at San Jose State University, February 24

Image of Ruby Bridges

Near the end of Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck celebrates the inspiring courage of Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old schoolgirl who advanced the cause of civil rights by breaking the Southern segregation barrier at a New Orleans elementary school 56 years ago. San Jose State University will honor Bridges’s lasting contribution to civil rights on February 24 by conferring the Steinbeck “In the souls of the people” Award—a program of the school’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies—on the 61-year-old author, activist, and advocate, who has been called the first foot soldier in the modern civil rights movement.

Image of Ruby Bridges in New Orleans, 1960

Steinbeck wrote Travels with Charley in sadness, and occasional shock, at the state of America in 1960, when he was 58, and he chose the South as the last stop on his journey of rediscovery and reconciliation because he recognized racism and civil rights as the fundamental conflict to be resolved if the country he loved was to survive. Watching grown white women curse the diminutive black girl entering William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans turned his stomach, as it did Americans reading newspaper accounts of the widely reported event. Though Ruby Bridges isn’t identified by name, Travels with Charley captures her image, braving the kind of mob Steinbeck depicted better than anyone, like a contemporary news photograph:

The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first skip the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.

Image of John Steinbeck

Thanks in part to Travels with Charley, Ruby Bridges became an icon of civil rights for succeeding generations—a platform she has used brilliantly as a writer and speaker to advance the values of tolerance, understanding, and equality embraced by Steinbeck in his time. “John Steinbeck expressed concern over an injustice and wrote sympathetically of me when I was a young girl,” she explains. “In a way, we’ve come full circle. I now get to honor him by receiving an award bearing his name. I’m so proud to be part of this.”

Ruby Bridges will speak and accept the Steinbeck Award a public event—“An Evening with Ruby Bridges”—beginning at 7:30 p.m. on February 24 in San Jose State University’s Student Union Theater on the school’s downtown San Jose, California campus. Tickets are available at the Event Center Box Office (408-924-6333) or at Ticketmaster.com.