What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.
That excerpt from John Steinbeck’s influential 1962 travelogue Travels with Charley – a sort of wiser, grayer and deeper On the Road – hints at his humble nature, as if his words and stories and literary legacy are time-stamped to his era.
Author Ted Conover has written about Mexican illegal migrants, modern vestiges of hobo life and guarding inmates in prison (the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing) – in all cases living, working or traveling with his subjects. Scheduled to deliver the keynote talk (7:30pm Thursday) at the 30th Steinbeck Festival, he bears witness to Steinbeck’s enduring legacy.
“My daughter is 13,” he says by phone from the road. “One day I got home and she’s in the living room crying with this little book in her lap. It was Of Mice and Men. She had gotten to the end, which is a part where it’s hard not to cry. [Steinbeck] has the same emotional impact, so many years later.”
For his own recent book, The Routes of Man, Conover explores how people, societies and landscapes are changed by roads that cut across the Andes, East Africa, the West Bank and China. But the rambling man/author, who describes Steinbeck as a “spiritual companion” on many of his travels and “one of those people I feel are in the room when I’m writing,” has yet to visit Salinas.
“I hope to go to the Steinbeck House and visit Doc Ricketts’ Lab,” he says.
He comes to join in a commemoration that, like the Carmel Bach Festival and Shakespeare Santa Cruz Festival, marshals accomplished and creative people across multiple venues over many packed days. It takes a supreme talent for one person to warrant that kind of attention. Steinbeck appears to be one of them.
The Steinbeck Festival is vast. It’s headquartered at the National Steinbeck Center (which former NEA head Dana Gioia commented was the “best modern literary shrine in the country; and I’ve seen them all”) but stretches out to locales like Cannery Row and Carmel Valley, and, this year, in simultaneous celebrations in East Berlin, Ha Noi, Vietnam, and along Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The festival rebuilds itself every year on a familiar foundation: Explore different aspects of Steinbeck’s works and life in talks, readings, art, films, tours, workshops, mixers and other miscellaneous events.
There’s enough to him, says Susan Shillinglaw, to occupy a big chunk of a person’s career. An English professor at San Jose State, Shillinglaw serves as scholar-in-residence at the National Steinbeck Center, having wrote or co-edited several books including John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews and Steinbeck and the Environment. She has been an integral academic component to the festival since 1988 – 10 years before the Steinbeck Center opened – when it took place at Sherwood Hall under the aegis of John Gross.
“I’ve taught Steinbeck for 20 years,” she says. “People ask if I get tired of it. I don’t. Because I see [him] from different perspectives, recently from the environmental perspective.”
Her talks, “Steinbeck Around the World” (9:15-10:15am Friday) and “Steinbeck and Russia” (3:30-4:15pm Saturday), mirror the festival’s bigger picture, encapsulated in its title, Journeys: Steinbeck Around the World.
Another mirror is reflected in a 2004 trip to the Sea of Cortez in the Baja Peninsula she took with her husband William Gilly, a biology professor at Hopkins Marine Station who studies and publishes scientific papers on, among other things, Humboldt squid.
“He was the chief scientist on that trip,” Shillinglaw says of the boating expedition that retraced the scientific journey Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts embarked on, which formed the basis for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez.
Gilly is taking the 12:30-1:30pm slot on Saturday in a talk titled “Steinbeck and Ricketts: The Sea of Cortez, 1940 and Today” ($10/member, $18/general, $10/lunch). Shillinglaw and Gilly together co-teach a Stanford course in “holistic biology,” melding philosophy, biology, history, oceanography and literature on a platform of Steinbeck, Monterey Bay and the Sea of Cortez.
Shillinglaw says that despite objections to Steinbeck’s political stance on the Vietnam War, Arthur Miller admired that he “never backed away” and was “very much in touch with America.”
“Even when he was very ill, he went [and reported on] Vietnam,” she says. “I went to Japan on a speaking tour; the Japanese love Steinbeck. To them he represents America, the voice of the people, the sense of place, how place shapes people’s attitudes. And Steinbeck and Ricketts were interested in Buddhism and Taoism, in living in the moment.”
Steinbeck is revered and followed in other countries for different reasons. As a journalist in the 1950s and ’60s, he traveled to and wrote about various corners of the world, including a former part of the Soviet Union, Georgia, in 1947, which prompted a film crew from the breakaway republic to come here two years ago to document his legacy, Gilly says. His Cannery Row inspired a group of Bulgarian biology students to re-create a marine laboratory in 1968 modeled on Doc Rickett’s Lab, using the book as a template, down to placement of the furniture and the free-flowing bohemian atmosphere. Their lab, dubbed Eastern Biophysical, was in Sozopol on the Black Sea. Two of them came to Cannery Row’s Wave Street Studios last year to talk with author Michael Hemp about Steinbeck’s lasting influence on them.
“We’ve gone through great effort to include international scholars and enthusiasts,” says Steinbeck Center Executive Director Colleen Bailey. “The ‘International Fringe Festival’ portion [no relation to Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where Bailey performed as a kid and where Salinas High School kids are performing now] is getting the East of Eden International Bookshop in [former] East Berlin to do a folk music festival, and the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris is giving out free ‘steins’ of Beck’s beer.”
“Writing about so much poverty made Steinbeck a rich man - one of those strange dissonances of his success that he had a hard time overcoming.”
Steinbeck wrote about universal human stories in easily understandable prose, “more lucid than Faulkner,” Shillinglaw offers by way of example, and that, in turn, translates succinctly. A delegation of Japanese Steinbeck scholars is coming to speak (10:30-11:30am Saturday), led by Professor Yuji Kami, executive director of the John Steinbeck Society of Japan (2:30-3:30pm Friday). Petr Kopek, assistant professor of English and American Studies at the University of Ostrava, Czech Republic, will talk about “Steinbeck Behind the Iron Curtain” 11:15am-noon Friday. Historian David Lee sent a prerecorded talk from the Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam, “The Moon is Down’s Journey through Europe, 1942-1945” (1:30-2:15pm Friday) about Steinbeck’s World War II novel and its effect across the war-torn European landscape.
Those speakers and authors will describe Steinbeck’s influence across the world, in what should make for a broad-reaching program.
“[Festival manager] Lori Wood has been instrumental in getting other cities [around the world] involved,” says Shillinglaw. “Colleen’s bringing in a diverse audience – school kids, teachers, academics, the community. The festival has something for everyone.”
Plenty will be said, also, about Steinbeck’s impact on American soil.
Author Thomas Hummel and photographer Tamra Dempsey crisscrossed the country to compile the 2009 book A Journey Through Literary America, which explores the lives and works of America’s most celebrated authors and their correlation to place and region, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Willa Cather, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth and, in a section titled “Reeling Westward,” John Steinbeck. (He’s followed by Robinson Jeffers.)
Appointed with Dempsey’s crisp photos – including the Corral de Tierra setting for the adapted play The Pastures of Heaven (2:30-5pm Sunday) – it chronicles Steinbeck’s early financial and literary struggles, his admiration for manual labor and laborers, his three marriages, his triumphs, and his love for the Salinas Valley and Monterey Peninsula, as well as his contentious relationship with certain of its citizens and ag concerns, which, along with the 1948 car crash death of Ed Ricketts, prompted him to move away permanently.
Hummel notes that “writing about so much poverty made Steinbeck a rich man – one of those strange dissonances of his success that he had a hard time overcoming.”
After the free opening reception for Dempsey and Randy Wells’ photography show (5-8pm Friday, in conjunction with Oldtown Salinas’ First Friday Art Walk) and the Pastures of Heaven mural unveiling by Jose Ortiz and the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts, Hummel will speak at 6-6:45pm about the “intersection of literature and place.”
Jackson Benson, the author and editor of 14 literary critiques, including the 1984 PEN-WEST USA-winning The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, will be interviewed by Shillinglaw on the topic “My Journey with Steinbeck” 12:30-1:30pm Friday. Former English teacher and headmaster Greg Zeigler will continue the motif in his talk, “Travels with Steinbeck: In Search of America 50 Years Later” (2:30-3:30pm Saturday), about his re-created trip with an Airstream trailer and miniature poodle, Max, in tow. Steinbeck’s account of his storied 1960 voyage, published in 1962 (the same year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature), is heaped with attention this year for its 50th anniversary.
In addition to the stacked line-up of authors (all of whom assemble 5:30-6:30pm Saturday at the Center for a free group booksigning), the festival spreads its wings with tours of the Ed Ricketts’ original Pacific Biological Laboratory on Cannery Row (11am-noon, 1-2pm and 2:30-3:30pm Thursday); a bus tour of locales from Steinbeck’s books and life (11am-4:30pm Thursday); a virtual tour, “Google Lit Trips: A Grapes of Wrath Virtual Ride-Along,” with Google Certified Teacher Jerome Burg (9:30-10:15am Saturday); a limited tour with Steinbeck Center archivist Herb Behrens of the museum’s collection and recent acquisitions (10:30-11:30am Saturday, free with admission); and workshops for teens throughout.
But a special visit marks a real landmark not just in the pages of Steinbeck’s books, but in the pages of U.S. history.
In 1960, Steinbeck, in his campered truck he named Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse) and with Charley as companion, came to New Orleans just as the NAACP was making a push to desegregate the city’s school system. According to the author’s accounts, when Steinbeck pulled into gas stations in the South with his wife’s black poodle in the passenger seat, attendants would comment to him, “I thought you had a nigger next to you.”
Several black children had been tested and selected to cross the color barrier. Ruby Bridges, at age 6, was one of them. She would enter the all-white William Frantz Public School with a phalanx of federal marshals to buffer her from a rabid mob on Nov. 14, 1960.
The showdown was commemorated by Norman Rockwell’s famous painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” in which Bridges, dressed in white, stoically marches amongst her police protectors, a tomato splattered on the wall behind her. Rockwell learned about the scene from reading Travels with Charley.
“Steinbeck watched her walk up those stairs,” says Executive Director Colleen Bailey. “He was, at that point, an international literary master. It must have been significant [to Bridges] to have this man write about her.”
Bridges, in turn, wrote about Steinbeck in her book, Through My Eyes, which she will sign at her talk, “My Journey Up the Steps,” 11am-noon Sunday. It’s must-see for its historical importance. Actually, there’s a lot of must-sees in this 30th retrospective of a hometown hero.
What Steinbeck “set down” as true in his time, far from being “rearranged” by others, still rings true today.