There was the time, an unsubstantiated story goes, that Ed Rickets drove young novelist John Steinbeck over the hill from the Monterey Peninsula, California community of Pacific Grove, to Carmel, just a few miles away, to meet Poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife Una.
This was, oh, maybe the mid 1930s. Ricketts, the dashing marine biologist, was much of the world; Steinbeck, still young, could be socially awkward, perhaps remnants of his Mother's excessive control when he was a boy; Jeffers was a strong, handsome figure, often quiet, with penetrating eyes, but probably with more of a sly sense of humor than most people realized.
As the story continues, Ricketts traipsed into the kitchen to converse with Una as Steinbeck and Jeffers settled down in the Jeffers' living room. Now this is no ordinary living room, as you can see the next time you are in Carmel and Tor House is open to the public.
Jeffers had built Tor House himself, levering boulders up from Carmel Bay _ and living the perfect creative life, working with his hands in the morning, shaping stones into walls, writing verse in the afternoon, crafting words into poetry.
Steinbeck could have taken a few minutes observing the unique surroundings and might even have engaged Jeffers in a discussion on masonry. But after a bit this would have dried up _ Jeffers might not have liked talking about fitting stones together anymore than he wanted to discuss creating verse _ and a silence descended. And got worse and worse.
From other stories, which have been substantiated, Jeffers didn't really mind silence at all. Steinbeck, feeling at a distinct disadvantage, would have, and on the trip back to Pacific Grove is said to have said to Ricketts, ``Nice man, but don't leave me alone with him again.''
Well, Jeffers and Steinbeck are back together again, at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California in a show that opens Saturday, Oct. 4 and runs through Nov. 30, called ``Jeffers & Steinbeck: A Habitat of Thought.''
Lila Staples, a professor at Cal State University-Monterey Bay, is the guest curator. Staples' show is an investigation of the writers' words paired with photographs and paintings as they relate to Monterey County and California's Central Coast.
Seldom have two writers been so connected to a particular land as Jeffers and Steinbeck have to this region, one of the reasons Deborah Silguero, the National Steinbeck Center's curator of collections and exhibitions, thought the subject would make a strong exhibit.
Of the great American novelists of the mid-20th Century, Steinbeck is usually the most noted for conjuring a sense of place in his literature, and the Central Coast and Monterey County is his strongest presence, one reason it is often referred to as ``Steinbeck Country.
But by the time Steinbeck had come along, Jeffers, with his powerful poetry, had appropriated Carmel and the rugged Big Sur Coast. That was okay _ Steinbeck did well with Monterey, Pacific Grove and the Salinas Valley, all the way down to the southern tip of the county. And while Steinbeck's ``To a God Unknown'' ``trespasses'' a bit on Jeffers' territory, it remains the poet's, not the novelist's.
In his ``California Classics,'' which is itself a classic, Lawrence Clark Powell wrote that between them, Jeffers and Steinbeck had pretty much claimed, in a literary sense, all of the Central Coast. Staples might agree. In her artistic statement for the exhibition, she writes that their words ``echo a deep response to the landscape of California's Central Coast.''
And, she writes beautifully:
``Both writers shared an intense intimacy with the landscape. For Steinbeck his native surroundings served as a microcosm for the human experience, his characters defined by their backyards and canyons and vacant lots and sidewalks. For Jeffers the natural world offered a tangible source for exploring the vastness of intangible thought _ mortality, eternity, meaning.''
Both men loved working with the ``land,'' Jeffers with his stones and boulders, taking on a project _ including building Hawk Tower, which had to be dangerous _ that most of us would leave to a contractor.
As a young man Steinbeck worked on Salinas Valley ranches, the Big Sur highway project and as a caretaker at Lake Tahoe. In later years, intermittedly returning to the family's Pacific Grove cottage, he'd settled in comfortably by spending the first few days pruning and cutting back limbs and weeds; he wrote he enjoyed it.
About Jeffers and what could have been an overlooked sense of humor. There is one story _ yep, unsubstantiated _ that Charlie Chaplin once visited him in that same Tor House living room. When Chaplin found it impossible to deal any longer with the silence _ and remember, this is the greatest silent filmmaker of all time _ he began to perform; a bit of a pantomime, perhaps the twirl of a cane and tip of the hat, a pratfall unlikely. When this got no reaction from Jeffers, at least one that Chaplin could detect, he cleared his throat and said he'd better be moving on. Jeffers said, without a hint of irony or saracasm,``Must you? This is so enjoyable.''
And Bruce and Jean Ariss, now both gone, told this story: when they arrived in Monterey, in the early `30s, it was with Jeffers' address in Carmel, given to them by a Cal professor, a Jeffers' friend. For days on end the young couple took the bus to Carmel and stood across the street from Jeffers' home, unable to gather the courage to knock on his door. Sometimes they stood so long the buses had stopped running, and they trudged over the hill to home.
One night they went to a party and standing across the room they saw Jeffers. The Poet smiled mildly and walked across the room to them and said, ``Hello. When are you going to knock on my door?''
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Lila Staples will give a presentation at the National Steinbeck Center today, Saturday, Oct. 4, at 3 p.m. titled ``Jeffers & Steinbeck's California: Word & Image.''
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...