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Feature

A Bard for the Powerless

The Steinbeck Centennial

By Lisa Rogers | HUMANITIES, November/December 2001 | Volume 22, Number 6

When John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath appeared in 1939, its portrayal of the struggles of migrant workers outraged landowners and union organizers alike in California’s Salinas Valley. It undermined authority, critics said, at a time of economic upheaval. Some accused Steinbeck of spreading communist propaganda.

Despite the hostility, the book went on to win a Pulitzer Prize the following year, and in 1962 Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“Steinbeck was not just a bard of the people in the thirties; he continued to be engaged through World War II, through Vietnam, until the end of his life. Steinbeck is part of a stream of American literature trying to find the voice of the people,” says Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English at San José State University and director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies.

To celebrate the centenary of Steinbeck’s birth on February 27, 1902, libraries, universities, and museums across the country are planning special events. “Bard of the People: The Life and Times of John Steinbeck,” a national presentation of exhibitions, public programs, and publications illuminating Steinbeck’s work as a socially engaged writer, has been organized by the Center for Steinbeck Studies and the Mercantile Library of New York. It will run through November of 2002.

“He was passionately interested in portraying the difficulties that the common man and common woman faced in the world at the time he was writing,” says Harold Augenbraum, director of the Mercantile Library in New York. “He saw himself as someone engaged in the major questions of the time. The idea is to use his literary work to explore some of the questions we face today.”

The centenary is generating interest around the world. “Steinbeck is very popular in many countries,” says Augenbraum. “In Latin America I think there’s always been an interest in Steinbeck’s political and social engagement.” There are Steinbeck societies in France and across Eastern Europe. In England, several of Steinbeck’s works are being reprinted as special school texts. “The Japanese Steinbeck society is reprinting works with beautiful bindings and special slipcovers,” according to Augenbraum.

“I think that Steinbeck’s range appeals -- humor, hard-hitting realism, playful prose, angry prose,” says Shillinglaw. “Steinbeck championed the guy often stuck in the middle, left out, marginalized, powerless. And how many of us, at one time or another, have not been there?”

Steinbeck is accessible, Shillinglaw says. “He always tried to write lucid prose, like Hemingway. And like Hemingway, he tried to get rid of adjectives. He also has a stateliness of language -- cadences of some sections are clearly modeled on the King James Bible.”

She draws a contrast with another writer of the day. “He really seems to understand the pain, the loneliness, the anxiety, and alienation of people. I think that Steinbeck’s books -- unlike Fitzgerald’s, for example -- are not about money or people of privilege,” she says.

The appeal stems in part from Steinbeck’s portrayal of a community. His characters range from the powerful to the insignificant; to omit one would injure the whole. “The concept of living in place is essential,” says Shillinglaw, “how we are connected to our environment in the largest sense -- people, plants, animals, cultures.”

Some of Steinbeck’s characters and theories were inspired by his friends and acquaintances. Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist in Monterey and one of Steinbeck’s friends, became the basis for a recurring character in Steinbeck’s work, perhaps most famously incarnated as “Doc” in Cannery Row.

Ricketts and Steinbeck spent years developing their ideas about how to view the world. They believed in understanding matters as they are, Shillinglaw says, not how they came to be or where they were headed.

“A book like Cannery Row simply isn’t regarded as the complex ecological text that it is. It’s seen as a mildly funny book, charming, short, engaging. But it’s a very serious book. . . . You should read it as if you’re looking at a tidepool. Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is at twilight. Each character is a specimen in the human community.”

When Steinbeck wrote about Ricketts later, he captured the dispassionate scientist’s view in The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

“‘Consider now,’ he would say, ‘if you look superficially, you would say that the local banker or the owner of a cannery or even the mayor of Monterey is the successful and surviving individual. But consider their ulcers, consider the heart trouble, the blood pressure in that group. And then consider the bums over there -- cirrhosis of the liver I will grant will have its toll, but not the other things.’”

An understanding of place is important to Steinbeck, but Shillinglaw believes that Steinbeck goes beyond physical place in Cannery Row. “It is really a complex book. He’s trying to encompass an ecological whole that’s also psychological and spiritual, if you will. There is a lot in it that is Darwinian, a constant metaphor of death and survival.” Each organism fits into a special place in the ecosystem and ensures the health of the whole.

In Cannery Row, Steinbeck writes, “The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn’t very long but in its course it has everything a river should have. It rises in the mountains, and tumbles down a while, runs through shallows, is dammed to make a lake, spills over the dam, crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamores, spills into pools where trout live, drops in against banks where crayfish live. . . . Frogs blink from its bank and the deep ferns grow beside it. Deer and foxes come to drink from it, secretly in the morning and evening, and now and then a mountain lion crouched flat laps its water. The farms of the rich little valley back up to the river and take its water for the orchards and the vegetables. The quail call beside it and the wild doves come whistling in at dusk. Raccoons pace its edges looking for frogs. It’s everything a river should be.”

Through his friendship with Ricketts, Steinbeck was drawn to the study of coastal biology. He often went collecting with Ricketts to the Great Tide Pool in Monterey Bay and spent many hours in his friend’s lab preserving specimens. In 1940 he accompanied Ricketts on a specimen-collecting trip to the Gulf of California. The story of their journey and philosophical ruminations was published in 1941 under both their names as The Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journey of Travel and Research. Ten years later, the narrative portion, with its interwoven themes of scientific study and philosophical exploration, was published separately as The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

“This little trip of ours was becoming a thing and a dual thing, with collecting and eating and sleeping merging with the thinking-speculating activity,” Steinbeck writes in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. “Quality of sunlight, blueness and smoothness of water, boat engines, and ourselves were all parts of a larger whole and we could begin to feel its nature but not its size.” The Log has been problematic for readers and academics because its authorship is unclear. At times Steinbeck insisted that both he and Ricketts were the authors; at other times he took the credit for himself.

“I have a letter from Steinbeck to someone in New York in which he claims to have written the whole thing,” explains Steven Webster, senior marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “But the whole Easter Sunday chapter is Ed’s essay on non-teleological thinking that he’d been working on for a long time. Also, Steinbeck wrote nothing during the trip. Ricketts wrote everything, apart from the ship’s log, which is very limited. . . . There were people who said Steinbeck couldn’t tell the truth and Ed Ricketts couldn’t lie.”

Webster will be part of the centenary events next year when he gives a presentation about the journey to the Sea of Cortez. He says he will address questions about the Sea of Cortez and why Ricketts and Steinbeck were interested by it. “There is no doubt that Ricketts was a skilled ecologist and ahead of his time. He had a very holistic view of the world. What he was really interested in was how critters interacted with each other. . . . One of my favorite quotes comes from The Log: ‘It’s advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.’”

“Bard of the People” activities are already under way across the country. “Dorothea Lange: Human Documents,” which runs from November 18 through April 7 at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, shows how Lange and Steinbeck both captured the human condition during the Depression -- one on film and the other in words. In the exhibition are photographs from the Oakland Museum of California, which received a grant from NEH to make their 23,000 Lange photographs available to the public through a database. A website, steinbeck100.org, details centennial events planned through the next year. A recent addition to the website is an application for NEH-sponsored funding for public programming on Steinbeck topics.

The grants will help libraries hold special events on Steinbeck. “It’s not just the big cities,” Augenbraum adds. “We have had applications from libraries in very small towns. One is Fayette, Iowa. Others have been from rural Illinois, Arizona, and Louisiana. It’s very exciting to be able to reach out to these small towns. I think it’s something that Steinbeck would really appreciate.”

About the Author

Lisa Rogers is a writer in Bethesda, Maryland.

Funding Information

The Mercantile Library of New York has received $274,026 in NEH support for “Steinbeck: Bard of the People.” Exhibitions and public programs will take place through November 2002. A calendar of events is available at steinbeck100.org.