A Year with Steinbeck Book 16: A Russian Journal

Here we are – America just celebrated another Independence Day. I’ve eaten plenty of my special Tiki Dogs with Supernatural Sauce (thanks Ron Effinrules for creating this culinary delight) and I’m reading John ‘America’s Greatest Author’ Steinbeck. The pride of my people swells in my heart.

The Famous Tiki Dog and Supernatural Sauce
The Famous Tiki Dog and Supernatural Sauce

Of course, I’m reading A Russian Journal and about to dig into the war correspondences. So I’m not sure the swelling is as patriotic as I’d imagine. Sometimes I think I’m obstinate and obnoxious as a matter of choice instead of selective breeding.

A Russian Journal is an interesting time capsule from The Cold War. In an effort to write about Russia and her people, Steinbeck sought to avoid the growing scourge of punditry in which, “A man sits at a desk … reads the (news) cables and rearranges them to fit his own mental pattern and his bylines.” He goes on to say that, “What we often read in the news now (1948) is not news at all but the opinion of one of half a dozen pundits as to what the news means.” I like to think Steinbeck would be apoplectic over the current state of ‘news’. Fox News might have even killed him.

Steinbeck and photographer Robert Capa
Steinbeck w photographer Robert Capa

Steinbeck sought to humanize the Russian people. To describe to Americans what 1948 Russia looked like. Keep in mind, there were no visits, there was no reporting, and there was no way of peering behind the Iron Curtain. All America and the world knew was what we were told. Steinbeck wanted to show us who The People were: what they wore, what they ate, and how they made love, and how they died. It was a simple concept no other journalist considered. After all, it was much easier to be a part of the propaganda machine than question it.

Again, Steinbeck viewed the experience with the understanding that the experience would be alienating and uncomfortable, but, “we determined that if there should be criticism, it would be criticism of the thing after seeing it…”

A Russian Journal is must for die-hards and young journalists everywhere. It acts a historical thesis in support of adventure and first-hand experience. It seeks to get its readers to realize that we are all the same and we all deserve understanding. Classic Steinbeck.

I'm sure it means something entirely different
I’m sure it means something entirely different

“Censorship can control film, but it cannot control the mind of an observer.”

“The camera is one of the most frightening of modern weapons, particularly to people who have been in warfare, who have been bombed and shelled, for at the back of a bombing run is invariably a photograph.”

“…Russian people are like all other people in the world. Some bad ones there are surely, but by far the greater number are very good.”

A Year with Steinbeck Book 15: Zapata!


“He’s in the mountains. You couldn’t find him now. But if we ever need him again – he’ll be back.”


In 1991, Robert E. Morsberger reprinted the screenplay Viva Zapata! along with a series of collected essays and the significantly large and more expansive narrative script. The first narrative is a “long narrative that provides extensive historical and cultural background, along with a more detailed life of Zapata… .”

In this initial narrative, Steinbeck tries to explain the causes of Mexican Revolution to Americans in the most straightforward manner possible: All the while attempting to be authentic and true to the people of Mexico.

In the current wave of Americana music, numerous reviewers (including myself) have discussed the level of ‘authenticity’ in the music. We try to attribute the instrumentation, vocals, and lyrics, to some zeitgeist we never experienced. The concept of authenticity has come to represent a romanticized ideal of what early troubadours were like. What we fail to realize in this quest of authenticity are the conditions necessary for the music to exist. Part of what makes ‘olde thyme music’ so appealing is at longing for a past which no longer exists. Beyond the moonshine and quarts of beer lay ringworm, abject poverty, blacklists, a Great Depression, no credit, and no wi-fi. Sure, times seem simpler, but it’s because we aren’t living in them.


Steinbeck, in a lengthy introduction to the original screenplay, creates a solid thesis for authenticity. Despite his obvious romanticism and respect for the Mexican people, he realizes that the only possible way to tell the tale of Mexican rebellion is to go against traditional Hollywood and utilize actual Mexican actors and locations: A rarity for the time. Steinbeck writes, “Nearly every American production company gets into trouble in Mexico because of a lack of knowledge of local courtesies and local practices.” He also suggests that by not remaining true to the people, they become stereotypes and caricatures. An ignorance capable of hurting everyone.

Today’s quest for authenticity in a scene almost demands a comedic over-generalization. Steinbecks’ quest understands that Zapata’s story is in itself ‘semi-mystical’ and that the film needs to be ‘simple, direct…it must also have a quality which indicates that it is a world story…for its meaning is exact.’ It is a perfect excuse for the romantic, so long as director Eli Kazan also understands, the ‘explosive qualities’ unique to the Mexico that created such a folk hero. Steinbeck goes on to warn that ‘the hatred and suspicion of the gringo is very strong in Mexico’ and that there should be as much a ‘cushion’ as possible. In order for Steinbeck and Kazan to tell a story for the world, one must show absolute respect for the ‘beloved hero of the people’.

So, I guess the question and overuse of authenticity is best answered by intent. Is the spirit of the people more important than the actuality of the world at the time? Does the truth of the story trump the truth of events? Discuss amongst yourselves.


Next week, I’ll be releasing Episode 50 of Bibliodiscoteque: Travels with John. I’ll be playing some ‘authentic’ revisionists in order to create a soundtrack for reading Steinbeck, drinking quarts of beer, and going on road-trips with your favorite companion. Stay tuned.

Book 15 is slated to be the play Burning Bright followed by Steinbeck’s Russian Journals.


“The villain here, as everywhere, and in all times, was greed.”

“They (the men in power) ignored the explosive qualities in their own people; and why shouldn’t they have so ignored them, for the people were disarmed, they had no weapons, they had no learning. The middle class was destroyed, the schoolteachers dominated. The priests, those who favored the people, had little power…These are the conditions which brought about Emiliano Zapata and which brought about out story.”

“It is not propaganda in any sense.”

“This was a slavery of dept. A man who owed money could not leave the land until it was repaid, and by a process of charging more for food and clothing than a man could possibly make, the probability that he could ever escape debt was very remote.”

“The pay and wages were exactly pegged to the point where a man could not possibly ever, in his whole life, get out of debt. It was not called slavery, but it was the most effective kind of slavery.”

A Year with Steinbeck Book 14: The Red Pony


Animals – Miller Williams

John and his sister Mary and a Red Pony

I think the death of domestic animals
mark the sea changes in our lives.
Think how things were, when things were different.
There was an animal then, a dog or a cat,
not the one you have now, another one.
Think when things were different before that.
There was another one then. You had almost forgotten.

I hate to sound like an adolescent kid forced to read The Red Pony for the first time in some cinder block cell of a classroom, but Steinbeck is a F*@#ing horse-killing maniac!

Yeah, you’re damn right that warrants an exclamation mark.

To me, the death of an animal in literature is a bit of a cheap shot, but as Williams mentions, the death is a sea change. As readers, it is my opinion that we steel ourselves against the death of humans. We reach a turning point in our adult lives when our parents and friends die and we understand, firsthand, the effects of death’s proximity. The impact of a human character’s demise fails to wield the same emotional impact.


But forced to helplessly watch a pony sicken and slowly die is cruelty. We feel more for dead animals than we do people: It’s the same with Of Mice and Men’s dead puppy, or The Grapes of Wrath’s dead dog, or the deck full of dead fish from The Log from the Sea of Cortez. These animals have not snapped any necks, beaten anyone with a shovel, or handed out any similar cruelties. In other words, animals in literature rarely deserve their deaths.


In The Red Pony, when an old paisano named Gitano comes to the ranch, Jody (the story’s protagonist) finds his father using the cruelty of slaughtering a beloved horse to torment the old man. It is reminiscent of Curley’s fear that his uselessness on the ranch is tied to his old dogs. When the mutt is unceremoniously executed in the woods, Curley fears he is not far behind. However, Gitano’s absent reaction angers Jody’s father who pushes the issue in an effort to cast his hurt onto the old man. In this transference of fear, Gitano becomes a scapegoat carrying off the responsibility of death. The chapter ends with Gitano taking the ancient horse for one final walk into the mountains – providing it the death it deserves.

But the slaughter doesn’t stop there. Nope.

John and his sister Mary and a Red Pony
John and his sister Mary and a Red Pony

In the third chapter, Steinbeck murders a third horse to show that death isn’t the only brutality. Often birth can be just as horrible.   As can adolescence.

By the final chapter, Jody’s experiences with death boil over as he spends several paragraphs readying himself to smash the numerous fattened mice living under the hay. He is absolute in his bloodlust until his grandfather drops out of the rodent-cide in lieu of sitting in the sun and resting his bones. When Jody questions his where his grandfather’s bloodlust has gone, the old man bestows the final death lesson: The death of Westward Expansion and the American Dream. Man, Steinbeck argues, no longer ‘hungers’ for exploration. Instead, men line the shores, angry and frustrated, ‘hating the ocean because it stopped them’. This savage war against the mice becomes a symbol of anger and frustration turned toward the innocent.

This ‘hating’ is what tears us from the land: We are repulsed by death and the natural order because we are disconnected from it. We buy our meats, we don’t worry about predators, and we balk at slaughtering our dinner. We pollute and we clear cut and exterminate because we hate. We take the world for granted and we feel we owe it nothing in return.

This all brings us back to Williams’ poem. We have forgotten too much over the last century: We have forgotten about the purpose of the land and our need for it. In The Red Pony, Steinbeck takes one of mankind’s greatest achievements, the domestication of the horse, and ties it to our desire to manifest our destiny.  Jody doesn’t just grow up in these chapters, but so does the American.

“School had just opened two weeks before. There was still a spirit of revolt among the pupils.”

“Why don’t you just call him Gabilan? That means hawk.”

“The pony would probably throw him off. There was no disgrace in that. The disgrace would come if he did not get right up and mount again.”

“He hated his brutality toward Gitano, and so he became brutal again.”

“’I’ll kill everyone tomorrow,’ he promised.”

“He wished he could have been living in the heroic time, but he knew he was not of heroic timber.”


A Year with Steinbeck Book 13: The Pearl


The Pearl, for those who don’t know, is one of Steinbeck’s most famous works. It is a folktale about a father’s love for his child, corrupt authority, and greed. In it, Kino is late to save his child from the potentially deadly sting of a scorpion. Kino and his wife race to save Coyotito’s life, a wretched beast of a doctor refuses treatment until Kino discovers “the pearl of the world”. This pearl becomes the epicenter of a covetous attack on Kino and his eventual downfall.


It’s a tale written, along with Of Mice and Men and The Moon is Down, as a script. Steinbeck strips back his philosophy –laden prose into a brutal examination of humanity in action. He allows the characters to generate the moral ambivalence and comments on society. The outcome is three of his most powerful pieces.

The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden clearly show Steinbeck’s ability to craft a world and convey multilayered story-arcs, but The Pearl’s impact comes from its brevity. It is the lack of intercalary chapters and universalities that drive the story home. This is the literary equivalent of a grenade. It only serves a single purpose: to drive home a singular theme.


There is no doubt that The Pearl carries with it a terrible parable of greed. The novel is used in hundreds of schools across the country and read by thousands of kids. However, it never seems to carry the same weight as Of Mice and Men. As I write this, it dawns on me that the only two authors taught in nearly every grade in every school are Shakespeare and Steinbeck. I suppose it has to do with both author’s ability to nail down the human condition so concisely, but I think is has to do with sound.

Both Steinbeck and Shakespeare craft their lines like poetry. They not only able to summarize their land and feelings of their people, but there works carry in them a vernacular. A sound of the people. A song. As Steinbeck writes in America and Americans, “The songs of the working people have always been their sharpest statement, and one statement that cannot be destroyed. You can burn books, buy newspapers, you can guard against handbills and pamphlets, but you cannot prevent singing.” As he writes in The Pearl, “The Songs remained…” These are but refrains of Shakespeare’s lines from The Merchant of Venice, “The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; / The motions of his spirit are dull as night / And his affections dark as Erebus: / Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.” (5.1.91-7)
There is no doubt of music’s impact on humanity. Steinbeck’s strength is to hear the sounds and rhythm of the world and, for all its discord, transcribe it as a tablature of prose.


Steinbeck is a romantic. Of that there can be no debate. His novels strike to the heart of American fears and passions. But he understands that lengthy sermons (even Steinbeck’s token preacher, Casey, leaves the church) tend to be ignored. That once a hypocrisy is exposed, the story and the lessons lose their value. Understanding his own human faults, Steinbeck crafts his prose like operas because we trust musicians to be morally ambiguous. We cut them slack so long as the song remains the same.

The Pearl is a folksong in that it sings out warning. We are all some part of Kino’s world; whether we ignore those in need, deceive our neighbor, or struggle against impossible odds. The Pearl is a story that could be ignored as easily as the murder of Kitty Genovese. But as a song it resonates. The tune sticks with us and we are never the same after hearing it.



A Year With Steinbeck Books 11 & 12: Part II


For everything that America and Americans is, King Arthur isn’t.

It was Steinbeck’s desire to bring Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur into the modern world; freshen it up for a new audience. Unfortunately, Steinbeck’s attempt to preserve or enhance Malory’s voice drains the text of anything truly trans-formative or even uniquely Steinbeck-ian. I’m willing to entertain, since I didn’t care for Tortilla Flat, that I may just have issues with Arthurian Legend, but it seems to be something deeper.

Steinbeck, at his best, has the ability to transform a cold beer into the Eucharist or a loaf of roadside bread into a complex metaphor for human compassion. At his worst, Steinbeck still has the ability to elicit complex emotional responses, but here, he is simply providing (what reads like) translation. And the only way it moved me was to quicken my desire to finish the novel.


The work though does have some moments where Steinbeck’s narrative voice breaks the nature of the text. These rare cases involve moments of violence and themes familiar to Steinbeck’s standards. Lines like, “Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some are made small by victory”, are so powerful that they make the read worth the experience, but only as that of a miner searching out precious gems.

Here is where my troubles began...
Here is where my troubles began…

I will add that I always imagined Arthur as a competent king: A success of monarchy. Here, it becomes obvious that he was not really good at his job. Steinbeck chronicles numerous leadership flaws and Arthur’s refusal to  listen to the academic wisdom of Merlin. It is a cautionary tale, written in a time of America’s war in Vietnam. In its translation can be seen discourse about the fault of leaders and their inability to comprehend the voice of reason. This intentional deafness often results in a push for war and the assumed honor that comes from sending thousands of young men off to die. Perhaps that is why those moments when Steinbeck’s voice shines through are descriptions of war and the brutality of armed conflict. Steinbeck is showing the reader that some hundreds of years of human history have failed to make us a better people.

Here, in this children’s book, Steinbeck presents a mirror of American policy in Vietnam, the problems associated with two distinct Camelots: the mythical and the material. He presents a King whose failures as a ruler come from his refusal to  foresee consequences. It is an Arthur who routinely fails to learn. As for Arthur’s Round Table Knights, their desire to impress the king and be recognized for their individual achievements leads them to murder their children and ignore the suffering innocents in their single-minded quests. Just as Lydon Johnson weaved a tale of no more troops in  Vietnam and then sent several thousand more.

And Merlin, the scholar with insight and foresight, able to read the threads of Fate, remains routinely ignored. He is only listened to when things are at their worst. I’m sure Steinbeck must have seen himself in the grizzled old wizard. It isn’t necessarily evident in what Steinbeck translates, but what he adds to the translation. His depictions of battles echo the violence he must have seen in the various wars he covered. The images are presented to strip the romanticism from the battlefield. Despite the valiant chivalry of Arthur’s men, Steinbeck presents them as humans capable of lust, murder, pride, and vengeance. These aren’t knights on high, or infallible government officials, they are men. Warts and all.

The country’s conscious didn’t need romanticized war in 1960’s. Not when the daily body count was broadcast across the evening news. Not when there were constant reminders of the men who died for a baffling array of confusing reasons and more lined up in continual progression. Steinbeck understood that the best way to reach the masses was through the youth. If the old refused to change, then the children must be exposed to the horror of war and learn about alternative resolutions.

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is not a simple translation, but a parable of protest.

A Year With Steinbeck Books 11 & 12: Part I


Part I: America and Americans
Part II: The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

The hardest part about packing for a Steinbeck-tour of California was what novel to bring.I’m a relatively light packer and can frequently shove a week’s worth of clothes into one backpack, but the real concern was, ‘Which unread book do I think will help best capture the experience?” Translation: “What book do I want to be seen reading?” The selection process was akin to choosing the proper wine with dinner. My master reading-order-list told me it was time to read The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (Steinbeck’s posthumously released tale of King Arthur), but I wanted something with a bit more punch. A tale that was bold in language and rich in Salinas flavor with a bouquet to bring out the flavor of the scenery and experience.


So I selected the 1966 essay collection, America and Americans. Incidentally, this decision was rather fortuitous as Steinbeck crafted the project during his writing of The Acts of King Arthur. Steinbeck’s literary procrastination mirrored my own desire not to jump right into Arthur as well. As a professed romantic, I was filled with a sense of kinship: As if my decision was somehow justified by the spirit of Steinbeck and the Salinas Valley. Kizmet, baby.

The first pressing of America and Americans differs from the Penguin repress in that the Penguin ed. contains numerous additional essays on war, celebrities, and travel. It even includes his Nobel acceptance speech which I recently purchased in a hardcover collection of other Nobel speeches. The Penguin ed. made for a perfect travel copy by adding more bang for the buck and an innate ‘destrucatability’ I don’t often ascribe to pristine first editions. I did miss out on the black and white photos from the first pressing, but there really is no strong connection from image to word.


The text of Steinbeck’s America and Americans covers his ruminations on the changing face of the American Dream and the make-up of the dreamers. One of Steinbeck’s strengths is that of the armchair philosopher. By the 1960’s, Steinbeck had grown from starving artist to National Treasure, from accused Commie sympathizer to Presidential confidant, and from simple writer to vibrant wordsmith. His characters capture every quintessence of humanity, but his insight into the workings and motivations of those characters are his true talent. Steinbeck understands human behavior in a way most never will.


America and Americans reads like the cheat sheet for Steinbeck’s novels. In it, he takes great pains to spell out his views on the people he worked so tirelessly to define. It’s a harsh criticism of America, but deserved and constructive. It is the ballast for every politician who flavors speeches with condescension and apologies. Steinbeck treats his readers like young adults ready to hear the truth as opposed to those who treat Americans as children needing protection. It can be a hard lesson, but if more people recognized the faults, then perhaps they begin preventative maintenance.

America and Americans is an essential text for anyone considering themselves a patriot or wearing a tiny metal flag to prove love of country. Guthrie’s guitar may have killed fascists, but these essays declare war.


“What can I say about journalism? It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the first thing the dictator controls. It is the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap.”

“The town motto, given it by a reporter ahead of his time, was: “Salinas is.” I don’t know what that means, but there is no doubt of its compelling tone.”

“I wonder if all towns have the blackness – the feeling of violence just below the surface.”

“The Songs of the working people have always been their sharpest statement, and one statement which cannot be destroyed. You can burn books, buy newspapers, you can guard against handbills and pamphlets, but you cannot prevent singing.”

“America was not planned; it became. Plans made for it fell apart, were forgotten. From being a polyglot nation, Americans became the worst linguists in the world.”

“We are able to believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and at the same time we are convinced that it is the best government in the world, and would like to impose it upon everyone else.”

“Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence.”

“The paradoxes are everywhere: We shout that we are a nation of laws, not men – and then proceed to break every law we can if we get away with it. We proudly insist that we base our political positions on the issues – and we vote against the man…”

“We are afraid to be awake, afraid to be alone, afraid to be a moment without the noise and confusion we call entertainment.”

“Man is indeed wonderful, and perhaps his gaudiest achievement has been to survive his paradoxes.”

“When students cheat in examinations, it may be bad for them as individuals but for the community it means that the graduate is traveling with false papers and very shortly the papers – in this case the college degree – lose their value.”

“I have named the destroyers of nations: comfort, plenty, and security – out of which grow a bored and slothful cynicism, in which rebellion against the world as it is and myself as I am are submerged in listless self-satisfaction.”

“A dying people tolerates the present, rejects the future, and finds the satisfactions in past greatness and half-remembered glory…A dying people invariably concedes that poetry is gone, that beauty has withered away.”

A Year With Steinbeck: My Spring Vacation


This past week I returned from visiting family in California.

I don’t get out to the West Coast often, but as it was during my ‘Year With Steinbeck’ project, my wife and I took the time to swing by Cannery Row and The National Steinbeck Center.

While visiting my wife’s family, I should note, that I got a chance to speak about this project with people who live in the surrounding areas of Salinas and Monterey about the Love/Hate relationship people of California have with Steinbeck. My Uncle John, even grabbed me a copy of a San Francisco paper about the history of The Grapes of Wrath and an article about Ed Ricketts’ son. It’s great to see, regardless of opinion, Steinbeck remaining such a strong and polarizing figure. As Oscar Wilde once said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”


We began our trip with a visit to the Monterey Aquarium.

For those who haven’t been: Go. It is a bright and vibrant building with massive tanks and schools of active happy looking fish. We managed to catch an exhibit called Tentacles which featured numerous cephalopods. I was reminded of Steinbeck’s discourse about Doc’s octopod tanks from Sweet Thursday and the mood coloring of the devil fish; so it was cool to see several displays that built upon Ricketts’ work.

Ed and the Squid
A bookshelf to admire

Although Ricketts wasn’t named in the octopod exhibit, there was a display at the entrance featuring pieces from his original lab – including specimen and excerpts from his book shelf. I have to admit to getting more excited than I should have when I discovered that we shared the same edition of Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold.

Black sweatshirt. Khaki pants. Fishing cap. Steinbeck Cosplay.

On the road from the aquarium I had a chance to see Pacific Biological Laboratories (home to Doc and workplace of Ed Ricketts). Despite the busy street barely anyone even gave the brown shingled building a cursory look. Here was the home to one of America’s premiere biologists standing silently among the eateries and Otter-themed store. I found myself explaining my adoration of the façade as “Disneyland for the Steinbeck fan”. A tour of the interior would simply have pushed me over the edge.


Just a frog’s leap from Pacific Biological are two statues in Steinbeck’s honor. One, is bust of Steinbeck (created by Carol Highsmith), the other is a fantastic statue depicting characters from Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. There is no plaque explaining the context and, as I leaned in to snap pictures of Suzy, Ricketts, and Flora from the Bear Flag, people asked why I was so interested. I’m thinking of opening a tiny Steinbeck bookmobile next to the street food vendor. Perhaps I’ll give soapbox lectures and readings imagining myself as a Hal Holbrook-esq educator.


The following day I stopped off at The National Steinbeck Center which houses some spectacular ephemera. The highlight for me was seeing a photograph of the real Samuel Hamilton. I’m currently two-thirds through East of Eden and every time I read it, he remains my favorite character. Perhaps it is because we share the need to fill silence with rhetoric and rambling as it isn’t my handiness on a farm.

Part of the Ricketts’ Lab recreation

Other highlights included the wooden box with timshel in Hebrew carved into it and the guts of Rocinante (his camper from Travels with Charley).

Riding around Salinas, I got to thinking about Steinbeck’s readers and what others must think of the center. What do the legion of fans feel looking at nine foot tall copies of East of Eden, German movie posters, and building facades? Why do we pose next to busts and stare at dead fish soaked in formaldehyde? Why did I get enormous amounts of pleasure standing in a replica steam engine listening to a terrible musical rendition of Sweet Thursday?


I guess that Steinbeck fans are romantics. I hesitate to call him The American Writer, but for me he is. His characters are men and women searching for their place in the world: Farmers, academics, migrants, soldiers, and whores, fighting against the inevitability of life’s ambivalence. Strong people – resolute and firm as oak, but, at the root, lonely and afraid. Steinbeck manages to put a face to Americans of all types and I believe that those who hate him based on his characters, simply don’t like seeing their reflection.

Steinbeck: As Seen on TV…or in some books.

A Year with Steinbeck Book 10: The Pastures of Heaven


The Pastures of Heaven is a collection of tales about the residents of a lush but unlucky valley in Monterey, California. In these pages,  Steinbeck weaves together critical turning points in the lives of his characters (both ficticious and culled from real life) to create a narrative about failure and humanity’s ability to deal with misfortune. Its a story about an haunted land and a cursed people.  Take for instance the story of Tularecito, the handicap character who can paint beautifully, but flies into violent rage when the images are destroyed. It’s theme is simple: There are those who will always fail to understand the motivations of others.

If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, can a thousand words paint a single picture? I’ve thought about this question a great deal since finishing The Pastures of Heaven and come to the realization that Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World is the single image.


Yes, the painting is based in Maine and was completed decades after Pastures was published, but there is a strength of will in the face of adversity that echoes Steinbeck’s lines.

The model for Wyeth’s painting, laying a fair distance from her farm house, suffered from a polio-induced paralysis in her legs. Despite being alone and unaided, Christina looks onward toward the horizon. What lay before her is struggle and adversity, but there exists an unseen attitude in her posture that, to me, has always been a determination. Steinbeck’s view of the valley is much like that painting; folks struggling against their own handicaps and emotional failings. It’s a book which makes beautiful the struggle of mankind.


Interesting note: Steinbeck alludes to Cervantes’ Travels with Donkey in the text. Cervantes wrote is when he was still dependent on his family for financial support; just as Steinbeck was for the early part of his career. Cervantes recounts his 120-mile solo journey through France. Of course, Steinbeck will allude to the title with Travels with Charley when he writes about his solo adventure across America.

Next Up: I’m off to Monterey! I’ll post a few pictures.

“Allen Hueneker not only walked like an ape, he looked like an ape. Little boys who wanted to insult their friends did so by pointing to Allen and saying, “There goes your brother.” It was deadly satire.”

“When Alice was born, the women…prepared to exclaim that it was a pretty baby…Those feminine exclamations of delight designed to reassure young mothers that the horrible reptilian creatures in their arms are human and will not grow up to be monstrosities….”

“It seems to me that a good thing or a kind thing must be very large to survive. Little good things are always destroyed by evil little things. Rarely is a big thing poisonous or treacherous. For this reason, in human thinking, bigness is an attribute of good and littleness of evil.”

“Well, I think a man ought to see everything he can. That’s experience. The more experience a man has, the better. A man ought to see everything.”

A Year with Steinbeck Book 9.5: Working Days


“It is a very long novel, the longest that Steinbeck has written, and yet it reads as if it had been composed in a flash, ripped off the typewriter and delivered to the public as an ultimatum. It is a long and thoughtful novel as one thinks about it. It is a short and vivid scene as one feels it….All this is true enough but the real truth is that Steinbeck has written a novel from the depths of his heart with a sincerity seldom equaled. It may be an exaggeration, but it is the exaggeration of an honest and splendid writer.”

Joseph Henry Jackson – New York Herald Tribune (April 16, 1939)


I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath about a dozen times cover to cover. It’s a novel brimming with characters that transcend the page and have within them such vitality that they become corporeal. Visiting Ma Joad, Tom, and Preacher Casey, often feels like going home.

But I’ve never thought much beyond the text. I’ve played with the themes and motifs. I’ve underlined scores of quotes and even made a custom run of T-shirts with the land turtle on them. Sometimes, while cleaning my bathroom, I’ve ruminated on how strange it would be to experience indoor plumbing for the first time, I’ve oft considered picking up the tab for a stranger, and I’ll never look at a used car dealership the same way.

Between June and October 1938, Steinbeck crafted The Grapes of Wrath and maintained a journal chronicling his progress and distractions.  In Working Days, editor Robert Demott has collected and annotated these entries. The end result is a unique view into the mind of Steinbeck.

I’ve always had a fairly ignorant view of what it takes to craft a novel of this magnitude. I’ve supposed that Steinbeck, after several aborted attempts, bend the prose to his will like molten glass. That each stroke of the pen (he wrote the novel free-hand on 12×18 ledger pages) crafted and shaped the flow of the narration until it cooled into its final work of art. I’m not so ignorant to assume that it was without its hang-ups and heavy re-edits, but to read about Steinbeck’s uncertainty and trepidation was enlightening.


This isn’t a critical analysis. You are not going to read about the birth of a novel. Nor are there revelations regarding symbols or the multiple layers of meaning. This is, simply put, a journal. It is filled with worry over the construction of a new house, dinner guests, opening bills, and other daily distractions. However, for those interested in a writer’s routine and life, it is also humanizes Steinbeck: showing that genius and excellence don’t come easily.


I read a recent discussion online from a person who called himself a writer, yet complained that he had no time to put word on page. He took great offense to a professional working writer saying contradicting his dream of holding the title. Sure, he had two novels completed in his head, but nothing tangible to show for it. Regardless, he was disgusted at the implication he shouldn’t wield the title anyway. To that man, I would recommend Working Days. Aptly titled, is proves that writing isn’t just craft, but work. Hard work. Steinbeck tossed aside some 700 pages before he settled on the final draft and, all the while expressed his concern about not being an actual writer. If a man with several successful novels under his belt -who would eventually win the Nobel Prize for literature – doubted the title perhaps we are using it wrong.

The word ‘writer’ implies mystery: Uncorrected first drafts overflowing with original concepts and multiple pressings covered in embossed lettering. Fortune and glory.  Steinbeck was a worker. Every day he punched the clock, slogged through ink wells, and stretched the edge of his nerves in order to bring the voice of the American poor to the forefront. No wonder it is easier to romanticize the craft.

Incidentally, The National Steinbeck Center is hosting a fundraiser (through indiegogo) to create an oral history film to help show the continuing relevance of The Grapes of Wrath today. Help them out.

A Year with Steinbeck Book 9: The Grapes of Wrath Part I


Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.
– John Steinbeck; as quoted in Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life


The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most important novels in the last 75 years.  Not only has it lived in controversy, but it has spoken to numerous generations of the hardships and defeats of the twentieth century family. Even if it doesn’t speak to you, it certainly spoke for you. GoW brought immediate attention to the thousands afflicted by the Dustbowl, The Depression, and the abuses of Big Business and banks.

Few other novels have spoken to both the educated and the uneducated with the same voice; a voice of compassion and understanding. Steinbeck’s microcosmic tale of the Joads strikes to the heart of anyone with a sense of empathy for the working poor. The word on the street is that Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath to be understood on several different layers. These layers are a scaffolding of understanding allowing anyone with a fourth grade reading level to pick it up and dig in. He recognized the key to a good message is making sure your audience understands the point.

However, what fascinates me beyond the words and phalanx theory (the idea that we are all one collective soul) is Steinbeck’s legacy of music and protest. It’s my belief, that without The Grape of Wrath, 60’s protest music, the folk revival, punk, and even hip-hop, would not exist. Follow me for a bit, reserve questions until the end, and email any point/counter-points.

After watching the film version of Grapes, Woody Guthrie was compelled (Peter Seeger remembers it as greatly urged) to write a series of Dust Bowl Ballads. Soon after, Woody magnificently condensed the legacy of the Joads into two three-minute tracks. Sparknotes wishes it could be this concise.

Guthrie, of course, was a monumental influence on non-protest singer Bob Dylan (who did his best Guthrie imitations on his eponymous first album) and Dylan even cited Grapes as a favorite novel saying of Steinbeck, “John Steinbeck is great.”

The obvious jump that most then make is to Springsteen’s response to Guthrie’s call with “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. It’s a great track (and well covered by Rage Against the Machine), but it’s not the only answer to The Dust Bowl Ballads; simply the best known.



The Clash’s Joe Strummer went through a college-age phase requesting people call him Woody, after the late folksinger.  But it was Steinbeck’s voice of defiance (as set to music by Guthrie and echoed down the line) which helped Strummer find the words to protest and emote. Take for example Strummer’s famous line, “Without people you’re nothing” as a mirror for Preacher Casey’s “Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.” Part of Strummer’s overwhelming appeal was his faith that humanity could improve itself. A hope that somewhere buried under cynicism and anger people would fight for humanity.

Strummer disciple and punk icon Henry Rollins even cites Steinbeck’s importance on his own literary life; “Growing up, I loved great literature. I lived for your Steinbecks and your Hemmingways as a kid, and I read them all again as an adult and got the better version of the story. My comic books were reading things like the The Grapes of Wrath…”


Steinbeck’s words have fed  artists and writers continually in  the 75 years since The Grapes of Wrath’s initial publication and shows no signs of turning fallow. For as long as there is an artist railing against society, The Grapes of Wrath will be there. Whenever a songwriter speaks out against the faceless bureaucracy of The Man, GoW will be there. Whenever an instrument of art is used to kill fascists, Guthrie and Steinbeck will be there.

And some people won’t understand it. But the music will play for them anyway.

Next week: Part II – Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath