It has always seemed strange to me... the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second. -John Steinbeck
1. John Steinbeck
2. John with his sister Mary, sitting on their red pony, Jill, at the Salinas Fairgrounds in 1909
3. Modern Main Street in Salinas
4. The renovated Steinbeck House
5. “Cup of Gold” John’s first novel
6. John and Carol
7. “Tortilla Flat” his break out novel
8. “Tortilla Flat” the movie, with Spencer Tracy
9. Hedy and her invention
10. Fourth grader
11. “In Dubious Battle” A Communist?
12. “Of Mice and Men”
13. “The Grapes of Wrath,” and a Pulitzer
14. The movie, with Henry Fonda
15. Ed Ricketts
16. The National Steinbeck Center
17. John and Gwyndolyn
18. John and Elaine
19. The Garden of Memories, in Salinas. John’s final resting place
20. “Cannery Row”
21. “Sweet Thursday”
22. Pacific Biological Laboratories today
23. “The Pearl”
24. “East of Eden”
25. Jennifer Lawrence
26. “The Winter of Our Discontent”
28. “Travels with Charley”
The Roaring 20‘s had F Scott Fitzgerald. The Depressed 30‘s belonged to Steinbeck.
Oh I know what you’re going to say... what about Hemingway? Well he was off in Europe, writing about Europeans half of time, now wasn’t he?
Alright Joyce, what about James Agee, or Raymond Chandler, Nathaniel West, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Margaret Mitchell, Sinclair Lewis... hell, even Fitzgerald wrote “Tender is the Night” in 1934. The one novel Hemingway published during the 30's was about a fishing boat captain who ran contraband between Florida and Cub...
God Damn it!
Okay! There were many fine writers who produced fine work during the 30‘s. There’s lots of fine writers writing around all over the place all of the time! There’s probably some writing right now! But what was the 30‘s most famous for in America?
The “Monopoly” game?
No! Good sweet Jesus... what else!?
Uuuhh, the Great Depression?
Exactly, and John Steinbeck was most known for writing about average men and women trying to get by during those challenging times.
Not all of his books took place during the Depression, or concerned...
I’m going to shoot you. Get out of here Herkimer.
Alright, alright, I’ll leave.
Okay, as far as I can say any writer is my favorite, I’ve always put John Steinbeck at the top of the list (that list consisting in part with Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Mark Twain, J D Salinger, John Nichols, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alice Yenour, Edger Allen Poe, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Christopher Buckley, Thornton Wilder, Carl Sagan, Franz Kafka, Shirley Jackson, James Clavell (despite his infatuation with Ayn Rand), and of course Dean Koontz (despite his infatuation with James Clavell), to name just a few (I like you too Stephen King!). He wrote what I consider my favorite book, “Cannery Row,” because it artfully, sympathetically, and mystically tells the story of simple people devoid of ambition, who simply enjoy living, and do not strive for what is normally described as the American Dream, the acquiring of material possessions and maintenence of a typical middle class life style, you know, people I can relate to.
“If you're in trouble, or hurt or need - go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help - the only ones.”
A story set within the midst of the Great Depression, it tells of Mack and the boys, who only want to throw a birthday party for their friend Doc, who has a constant fear of getting his head wet, is the inventor of the beer milkshake (which unfortunately brought all the boys to the yard), and "has helped many a girl out of one trouble and into another." It tells the story of Mary Talbot, who also likes to have parties, quite often just for the neighborhood’s cats. It tells the story of Lee Chong, and his magical grocery store where any commodity can be located, except female companionship, which can be found across the street at Dora's brothel. It tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Sam Malloy, who live in a giant boiler abandoned in a vacant lot, which Mrs. Malloy likes to decorate with window curtains even though the boiler has no windows. The book devotes an entire chapter to the plight of a gopher (not named) which digs a burrow in a corner of a vacant lot on Cannery Row and waits for a female with whom to mate, but none appears. And the book describes the greatest frog hunt in the history of literature.
Anyway, I’m very fond of this book and hope to read it a few more times before I leave this Earth.
John Steinbeck would have been 112 years old today if he hadn’t died on December 20th, 1968, of heart disease and congestive heart failure, in New York City at the age of 66. Apparently the rumors about smoking cigarettes are true.
Oh, if only the miracles of modern medicine were available back then he would surely still be with us!
Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California (almost 60 miles from where I was born 53 years later, in San Jose, directly north of Salinas), located in one of California's richest farming regions... where people grow things... like lettuce.
"I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers," he wrote in the opening chapter of “East of Eden.” "I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer-and what trees and seasons smelled like."
His father, John Ernst Steinbeck, was at one time or another the manager of a Sperry flour plant, the owner of a feed and grain store, and the treasurer of Monterey County. His mother, Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, was a former teacher, whom John’s eventual passion for reading and writing would be inherited. He was of German, English, and Irish descent.
John had a relatively happy childhood, although the family was never wealthy, and grew up with two older sisters, Beth and Esther, and one younger sister, Mary, who can be seen above.
At age fourteen he decided to become a writer and spent hours writing stories and poems in his upstairs bedroom.
John graduated from Salinas High School in 1919 and went from there to Stanford University in Palo Alto, mostly at the urging of his parents. There he studied only the subjects that interested him personally, classical and British literature, writing courses, a smattering of science, and Maldivian mud weaving. He stayed there for five years, not terribly committed toward his studies, routinely taking time out to work with the migrant farm workers on the nearby ranches. There he learned of their plight and developed a great sympathy for the weakest among us, the defenseless, a huge empathy that would be characteristic in his later work.
He left Stanford in 1925 without taking a degree, and moved to New York, briefly working as a construction worker while honing his craft.
“The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true."
He returned to California after success at publishing his work eluded him. He worked for three years as a caretaker for an estate in Lake Tahoe (the largest alpine lake (a lake that’s high in altitude) in North America), while working on his first novel.
There he met Carol Henning, a native of San Jose. She would become his first wife.
“Cup of Gold: A life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History” was published in 1929. An historical novel, loosely based on the life of Henry Morgan, the Welsh privateer, pirate and admiral of the English Royal Navy, and his sacking of the city Porto Bello in modern day Panama.
“You see, I have been at revaluing myself in the last few days. I may have some value to historians because I have destroyed a few things. The builder of your Cathedral is forgotten even now, but I, who burned it, may be remembered for a hundred years or so. And that may mean something or other about mankind.” from “Cup of Gold”
This was Steinbeck’s only truly historical novel, and was rather atypical of his later work, and was not what one would call successful.
John and Carol were married in January of 1930 in Eagle Rock, California (named, you guessed it, after a large rock outcropping resembling the profile of eagle's head), a neighborhood of Northeast Los Angeles, moving to a cottage owned by his father in the city of Pacific Grove, on the Monterey Peninsula, adjacent to the city of Monterey, one of my favorite cities on the planet, and the location of much of John’s stories.
Carol looked for work to support them, as John continued writing. His parents also subsidized them by providing rent free housing, and other supplies which allowed him to write.
He next published three small works, “The Pastures of Heaven,” in 1932, which consisted of twelve interconnected stories about a valley, the Corral de Tierra, in Monterey, which was discovered by a Spanish corporal while chasing runaway Indian slaves; the first three chapters of a 100 page four chapter book (the entire book published in 1937) “The Red Pony,” (picture above), in 1933, about a pony that is red, and “To a God Unknown,” also in 1933, which concerns a God that nobody knows about... or the life of a homesteader and his family in California. The homesteader eventually develops a relationship with a tree.
“To a God Unknown,” took Steinbeck five years to write at only 240 pages, longer than “East of Eden” (610 pages), and “The Grapes of Wrath,” (619). This is what he wrote about it in his journal, "the trees and the muscled mountains are the world — but not the world apart from man — the world and man — the one inseparable unit man and his environment. Why they should ever have been understood as being separate I do not know."
In 1935 John published “Tortilla Flat,” and experienced his first commercial success, and is my second favorite Steinbeck book next to “Cannery Row.” Set in Monterey, it tells the tale of a group of paisanos, a small band of errant friends, of Mexican-Indian-Spanish-Caucasian descent, enjoying life and wine in the days after the end of the World War One.
The book certainly had it’s critics though, many siting the characters as bums and miscreants.
In a foreword to a 1937 Modern Library Random House edition of the book, he wrote: "..it did not occur to me that paisanos were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish. They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat...good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes. If I have done them harm by telling a few of their stories I am sorry. It will never happen again."
This story was the first of John’s to be turned into a film in 1942, starring John Garfield, the lovely Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesle, better known probably as Hedy Lamarr, and my favorite American actor, the equally lovely Spencer Tracy. Here’s a scene.
The film was directed by Victor Fleming, of “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Gone with the Wind,” fame. Not bad for a relatively unknown novelist.
As a side note, the lovely Hedy Lamarr was not only an exotic Austrian actress, but an important inventor as well. Together with composer George Antheil, they developed an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, first developed as a way to stop allied radio controlled torpedoes from being jammed by the enemy during World War II, and as any fourth grader knows, later helped to set the way for the modern wireless Internet service we enjoy today.
Smart and sexy, just the way I like’em.
Encouraged by his wife Carol, John attended a few meetings of the nearby Carmel's John Reed Club (an American federation of local organizations targeted towards Marxist writers, artists, and intellectuals, named after the American journalist and activist John Reed). Although he found the group's zealotry distasteful, he was drawn to the communists' sympathy for the working man. Farm workers in California were suffering, and he set out to write a "biography of a strikebreaker," but from his interviews with a hounded organizer hiding out in nearby Seaside, he turned from biography to fiction, writing one of the best strike novels of the 1900s, “In Dubious Battle,” published in 1936.
This is what he had to say about this work: “This is the first time I have felt that I could take the time to write and also that I had anything to say to anything except my manuscript book. You remember that I had an idea that I was going to write the autobiography of a Communist. ... There lay the trouble. I had planned to write a journalistic account of a strike. But as I thought of it as fiction the thing got bigger and bigger. It couldn't be that. I've been living with this thing for some time now. I don't know how much I have got over, but I have used a small strike in an orchard valley as the symbol of man's eternal, bitter warfare with himself.”
And this about socialism, the poor and middle class: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
In 1943, with John now famous, Carlos Baker (American writer, biographer and former Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature at Princeton University) "revalued" the novel. He opened by saying "Among Steinbeck's best novels, the least known is probably “In Dubious “Battle." Steinbeck, he said, "is supremely interested in what happens to men's minds and hearts when they function, not as responsible, self-governing individuals, but as members of a group.... Biologists have a word for this very important problem; the call it bionomics, or ecology." He said that "Steinbeck's bionomic interest is visible in all that he has done, from “Tortilla Flat,” in the middle Thirties, through his semi-biological Sea of Cortez, to his latest communiqués as a war correspondent in England." He characterized “In Dubious Battle” as "an attempt to study a typical mid-depression strike in bionomic terms."
In 1958, the critic Alfred Kazin (no relation to Diego) referred to “In Dubious Battle” and “The Grapes of Wrath” as "his most powerful books.
And President Obama told the New York Times that it is his favorite book by Steinbeck.
I have to admit I have not read this... yet. I shall endeavor to do so forthwith.
John and Carol built their first home in Los Gatos, California, that year, which is located in the San Francisco Bay Area at the southwest corner of San Jose, Carol’s hometown.
Carol is credited with important intellectual and editorial contributions to his best work. She helped edit his manuscripts, urged him to cut the Latinate (having to do with Latin, an urge to use I face everyday myself) phrases, typed his manuscripts, suggested titles such as “The Grapes of Wrath,” and offered ways to restructure.
1937 saw the publication of one of John’s most popular and celebrated works, “Of Mice and Men,” the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in search of work during the Great Depression in California. At 187 pages, “Of Mice and Men” is technically a novella, yet Steinbeck wanted it to be read as a play as well, a novella/play form, structured in three acts of two chapters each. He wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel. The title was taken from Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse," which reads: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley." (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry).
“Of Mice and Men,” was chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection before it was published. It also made the American Library Association's list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century (54 times since publication), ranking at number 4, due to allegedly "promoting euthanasia", "condoning racial slurs", being "anti-business", containing profanity, and generally containing "vulgar" and "offensive language."
The novella was indeed made into a play, earning the 1938 New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play, beating out my favorite play of all time, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” It’s also been an opera, and a theatrical film, starring Lon Chaney, Jr, the son of the famous silent film star and master of make up, Lon Chaney, who was the original star in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925). Other than playing “The Wolf Man,” in 1941, this was Lon Jr’s most notable role (except of course for 1959‘s “The Alligator People,” which the Fox Movie Network, FXM, has been recycling a lot recently). He shared the film with Burgess Meredith, who would go on to have a very distinguished career which included being the original “Penguin” in the “Batman” television show (1966 to 1968), the early Rocky movies, “Grumpy Old Men,” 1993 and 1995, and a classic “Twilight Zone” episode as well, entitled, "Time Enough at Last" (1959, he actually appeared on ”The Twilight Zone” 4 times). Here’s a clip.
Another theatrical film version was made in 1992, directed by and starring Academy Award nominee and CSI: NYer, Gary Sinise, John Malkovich (a double Academy Award nominee), and our lovely friends ("Five feet of heaven in a ponytail," according to director David Lynch) Sherilyn Fenn and Ray Walston.
There’s also been a virtual s--tload of other fine adaptations as well.
“The Long Valley,” a collection of 12 short stories which take place in the Salinas Valley, including "The Chrysanthemums," and the complete “The Red Pony” novella was published in 1938.
And the next year saw the appearance of “The Grapes of Wrath,” Steinbeck’s epic tale of the Joad family of Oklahoma, who are forced from their farm during the Dust Bowl and the Depression, who along with thousands of other “Okies” hit the road for California, which they believe to be a land of boundless opportunity.
Well, we know better than that, don’t we?
“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
Often cited as his greatest work, it was derived from "The Harvest Gypsies", a series of 7 articles that ran in the San Francisco News, from October 5 to 12, 1936. The newspaper commissioned that work on migrant workers from the Midwest in California's agriculture industry.
The title can be found in Chapter 25, “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."
I have no idea what that means, but the phrase can also be found in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," lyrics at least by Julia Ward Howe, written in 1862:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
And she in turn may have picked up the phase from the Book of Revelation 14:19–20, which is in the Bible I’m told: “And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.”
John wrote: "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects]. I've done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags."
For this effort Steinbeck won the annual National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for novels, and it was cited prominently when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.
Here’s an interview with John after a he gained a broader perspective of the events depicted in “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Steinbeck biographer Peter Lisca wrote “The Grapes of Wrath,” "was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national talk radio; but above all, it was read."
According to The New York Times it was the best-selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940
Bryan Cordyack of the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science wrote, "Steinbeck was attacked as a propagandist and a socialist from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The most fervent of these attacks came from the Associated Farmers of California; they were displeased with the book's depiction of California farmers' attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a 'pack of lies' and labeled it 'communist propaganda.'”
Steinbeck wrote, "The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad. The latest is a rumor started by them that the Okies hate me and have threatened to kill me for lying about them. I'm frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing. It is completely out of hand; I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing that is not healthy."
Nevertheless “The Grapes of Wrath,” was made into a classic film in 1940 (clip above), starring Henry Fonda, and directed by John Ford, of “The Searchers,” “Stagecoach,” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” fame.
The Grapes of Wrath was also a Canadian folk rock band of the 80s and 90s.
Steinbeck wrote “The Forgotten Village,” in 1941, the script for a documentary film concerning the conflict between traditional life in a Mexican village, and the introduction of modernization.by outside interests. It was narrated by Burgess Meredith.
Carol accompanied John on a long voyage to the Gulf of California, along with Steinbeck’s close friend, professional biologist and writer Ed Ricketts. This trip would result in the publication of “Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research,” in 1941. The book is kind of a travelog, and a journal of travel and research. They would sail around, commenting on what they did and saw. Ricketts would become the model for “Doc” in “Cannery Row.” Carol would soon become John’s ex-wife, as they divorced in 1942. Her collection of letters and memorabilia are housed at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, on the campus of San Jose State University, “The only university research archive in the world dedicated solely to John Steinbeck's life and work,” and not to be confused with The National Steinbeck Center in Oldtown Salinas.
The biography “Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage,” describes their relationship during the years they spent together, and her own contribution to the history of American literature.
Gwyndolyn Conger was a professional singer almost 20 years younger than John. They met in Hollywood while he was still married to Carol (hey, he’s my favorite author, not saint), and were married in 1943, having two children, Thomas (Thom) Steinbeck and John Steinbeck IV. They moved to Monterey for a few months in 1944 but lived in New York for most of their marriage, divorcing in 1948.
Some say they divorced because Gwyn was unfaithful, and some say the character of Cathy Ames, or Kate, the human monster with a malformed soul, was based on Gwyndolyn.
There was a lot of infidelity going on in those days it seems. Not now of course, but back then.
Actress and stage manager Elaine Anderson Scott was married to the film actor Zachary Scott when she met John in Carmel in 1949. They married in 1950 and remained together, living in Manhattan and Sag Harbor, until he died in 1968.
She passed away in 2003, after being the executor of the Steinbeck estate for 37 years, working to keep John’s books in print and editing a volume of his letters. She is buried with other members of the Steinbeck family in the Garden of Memories, Salinas.
In March of 1942, “The Moon is Down,” was published, a novel about a military occupation of a small town in Northern Europe by the army of an unnamed nation at war with England and Russia.
A non-fiction account of Steinbeck's experiences with several Bomber crews of the US Army Air Forces during the Second World War was published that year as well. “Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team.”
In 1945, my favorite, “Cannery Row,” was published, followed 9 years later by the only sequel Steinbeck ever wrote, “Sweet Thursday,” in 1954, which picks up the story of the inhabitants of Cannery Row, in Monterey after the end of World War II.
Doc’s company, Western Biological Laboratories, was based on Ed Ricketts Pacific Biological Laboratories, which has been preserved and can be seen today. I have seen it myself.
A film was made entitled “Cannery Row,” in 1982, starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger, which was loosely based on both novels, “Cannery Row,” and “Sweet Thursday.” It was so loosely based that it sucked big time, and isn’t worth consideration if you’re a fan of the books.
Elaine hated it.
In 1947 “The Wayward Bus,” was published, which made more money for John than any of his previous works, although considered by critics as one of his weaker novels.
To make up for “The Wayward Bus,” his classic, “The Pearl,” was published that year as well (first serialized in 1945). The novella (96 pages) tells the story of Mexican pearl diver, Kino, who comes upon an enormous pearl, which he needs to sell in order to pay a doctor to help his son who has been bitten by a scorpion. Everyone soon hears of the "The pearl of the world," and many want it. He tries to sell it but the buyers all collude together to lower the price they are willing to pay for it. He is attacked over the pearl, kills a man in defense of it, his son is killed because of it, and eventually winds up throwing it back into the sea.
The next year, 1948, John lost his friend Ed Ricketts, who had been hit by a train while driving over some railroad tracks. This was a great blow to the writer, and some say his worked declined after his friend's death.
Yet Steinbeck’s favorite novel, “East of Eden,” was published in 1952. The epic story of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and the way they interacted, was considered his most ambitious work, and was very popular.
"It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years. I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this."
The second half of the book was adapted to film in 1955, starring James Dean in his first performance in a motion picture. He would make only two more movies, “Rebel Without a Cause,” and “Giant,” before he left show business to make breakfast sausages. The film also starred Julie Harris (The Haunting), Richard Davalos, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, and Burl Ives, and was directed by Elia Kazan, of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and “On the Waterfront,” fame. Here’s a clip.
The whole book was made into a television mini-series in 1981, which aired on ABC in 3 installments, and starred Karen Allen, Anne Baxter, Timothy Bottoms, Bruce Boxleitner, Lloyd Bridges, Howard Duff, Warren Oates, and Jane Seymour as the aforementioned Cathy Aimes.
“I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places. They are accidents and no one's fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishment for concealed sins.
And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?”
That is how Steinbeck first introduced his character Cathy, who began her career by killing her own parents.
In September of last year the Los Angeles Times reported that another theatrical version of “East of Eden,” will be produced, and the lovely and talented 23 year old Academy Award winning actress Jennifer Lawrence has been cast as Cathy Aimes. I look forward to seeing that.
And wish Ms Lawrence luck this Sunday night as she very well may win another Academy Award for her performance in “American Hustle.” Good luck!
Anyway, this is what Steinbeck had to say about dogs: “I've seen a look in dogs' eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts."
And power: “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts... perhaps the fear of a loss of power."
The same year “East of Eden,” came out, so did the film “Viva Zapata!” screenplay written by John Steinbeck. A biographical film starring Marlon Brando, Jean Peters, and Anthony Quinn (who won an Academy Award for his performance) and directed by Elia Kazan. The film is a fictionalized account of the life of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata from his peasant upbringing, through his rise to power in the early 1900s, to his death.
In 1955 John published my favorite short story of his, “The Affair at 7 Rue de M —” the true tale of his battle with his son’s chewing gum. Here’s a link to it.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Says Richard in Shakespeare's play “Richard III,” and from which John discovered the title of his last novel.
“The Winter of Our Discontent,” was published in 1961, and it tells the story of Ethan Allen Hawley, a former bigwig who was reduced to working in a grocery store on Long Island, and his efforts to deal with that situation.
Atlantic Monthly’s Edward Weeks in his review of “The Winter of Our Discontent” viewed it as a Steinbeck classic: "His dialogue is full of life, the entrapment of Ethan is ingenious, and the morality in this novel marks Mr. Steinbeck's return to the mood and the concern with which he wrote ‘The Grapes of Wrath.'"
Others thought otherwise. A few years after publication Peter Lisca called Winter "undeniable evidence of the aesthetic and philosophical failure of the writer’s later fiction.”
Who was right? Who remains right? Beats me. I do know this was the last piece of Steinbeck fiction published before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, for his "realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception." Here’s his acceptance speech.
The selection was described as "one of the Academy's biggest mistakes" in one Swedish newspaper. The reaction of American literary critics was also rather untoward. The New York Times asked why the Nobel committee gave the award to an author whose "limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing", noting that "The international character of the award and the weight attached to it raise questions about the mechanics of selection and how close the Nobel committee is to the main currents of American writing.... [W]e think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer ... whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age"
Well all I’ve got to say to that is “F--K’em!” Ha, ha, he won and you lost, you little bitches!
In 1960, John bought a pickup truck and had it modified with a custom built camper top which was kind of rare at the time, and drove across the U. S. with his standard poodle, Charley. Steinbeck named the truck Rocinante after Don Quixote's skinny horse. He started in Long Island, New York, and roughly followed the outer border of the United States, from Maine to the Pacific Northwest, down into the Salinas Valley in California, across to Texas, up through the Deep South, and then back to New York, a trip encompassing nearly 10,000 miles.
This resulted in 1962's “Travels with Charley: In Search of America.” According to Thom Steinbeck, John’s oldest son, the real reason for the trip was that he knew he was dying and wanted to see his country one last time. Thom has said he was surprised that his stepmother Elaine allowed his dad to make the trip, his heart condition bad enough that he could have died at any time.
But he made it through another eight years before he passed... Travels with Charley being his last original work published before he left us.
Finally, all of us here at Joyce’s Take appreciate the life and work of this remarkable man, and of course, wish him a happy birthday.
“It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure on the world."