By Katharine Beutner
“The notion of bringing the public into the academic environment struck me,” says Jim Quay. Quay, who is now executive director of the California Council for the Humanities, was describing his experiences as a producer at California Public Radio at the time he met Walter Capps, a professor of religious studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. In the years immediately after the Vietnam War, Capps was inviting Vietnam veterans to speak to his classes. “Needless to say, it was very powerful,” Quay says. “He did this beginning in 1979, when no one--believe me, no one--was talking to Vietnam veterans.”
In 1983 Quay produced a documentary series for public radio entitled “Vietnam Reconsidered: Lessons from a War.” This program, like much of his work, centered on what Quay calls “the raw experience” of powerful events--it presented testimony from people who had experienced the war, not just scholarly analysis. And it focused Quay on the role the humanities could play.
A year later he left radio to become executive director of the California Council for the Humanities. Since then, he has worked to unite the state’s diverse residents by “finding ways to structure conversations so that people can talk about the most sensitive and deep issues in their lives.” In contemporary California, where nearly half the population was born elsewhere, the migration story provides a way to connect disparate communities. For this reason, the California Council for the Humanities chose The Grapes of Wrath as the inaugural tale of their new California Stories initiative. John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book relates the tale of the Joad family, Dust Bowl victims displaced from their Oklahoma home who seek a new life in California. In October, 144 libraries will host discussions and programs about the novel. The Council hopes to inspire as many Californians as possible to read and think about The Grapes of Wrath. Although it is unlikely that the entire state will read the book, Penguin Books says that sales of the novel have tripled in California since the program’s introduction in May.
California Stories began after 44 percent of Californians surveyed in the 1990s answered yes to the question, “Do you, or does a member of your family, have a story that you think is part of California’s story?” Quay notes that of those who answered positively, nearly all began telling their stories to the surprised surveyor. Quay says, “The story was usually about how and why they or some member of their family came to California.” Inspired by the snippets of narrative, the California Council designed programs intended to document California’s stories, including The Grapes of Wrath initiative and three granting programs that will sponsor documentaries and oral history projects.
Quay’s own story begins in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He migrated to California in 1970 after spending several years as a conscientious objector working for the Department of Social Welfare in Harlem. Later, while traveling with his wife, Quay fell in love with California--“something in both the landscape and the energy of the people here.” He received a doctorate in English literature at University of California Berkeley and became a creative writing instructor at University of California, Santa Cruz. Quay explains, “I wanted to teach in a university, I think, because that was a place where you could ‘tell truth to power,’ as the Quakers sometimes say.” Writing classes, unlike traditionally formatted lectures, focused on student interaction and response. Since that early position as a writing instructor, Quay has attempted to help others articulate their stories and find parallels and common elements in their life experiences.
“For better or worse, California actually stands for something in the global imagination,” Quay says. “It’s a place where innovation begins, a place of conspicuous consumption, a place where dreams both grand and tawdry are pursued.” He paraphrases a passage from American Politics by Samuel Huntington: “Critics say that California is a lie, because its reality falls so far short of its dreams. But they’re wrong. California is not a lie; it’s a disappointment. But it can only be a disappointment because it’s also a hope.” Quay’s goal, and that of the council, is to sponsor projects that will constitute “a kind of great conversation about the current status and meaning of those hopes and disappointments and dreams.”