By Steve Hauk
I think you can fall for a writer's character as much as his or her art. Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is one of the world's great plays, but I am equally charmed by the Russian playwright's grace, sensitivity, and look. Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare are also writers whose lives intrigue me as much as their work.
In the last year I have added John Steinbeck to that list. I've always greatly respected his work, especially Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, and I live only a few blocks from where he did some of his finest writing in a small Pacific Grove, California, cottage. (At right is a painting by Peggy Worthington Best, whom Steinbeck chose to illustrate a special edition of Tortilla Flat.)
But it wasn't until hearing stories of threats on his life and coming across important documents—a pistol license application, letters, a shipping invoice for guns—that I realized how persistent, how resolute, how doggedly courageous he must have been, and suddenly I liked him very much as a person, never mind any faults he might have had. (People said he drank too much, but others wondered how he could write so many important novels while drinking heavily; some said he could be curt when approached by strangers, but if you think someone's out to get you, it's probably wise to be guarded.)
In February I posted a blog entry on Red Room touching on the subject of Steinbeck, threats, and guns, It was picked up by various newspapers, television stations, and blogs, giving some indication of Red Room's reach and how potent this new community already can be on important literary and social issues.
One of the contacts came from Paul Douglass and Sstoz Tes at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studiesat San Jose State University. They asked if the Steinbeck Review could republish the piece. I said yes, realizing the story would get out to the extensive world of Steinbeck scholarship, especially since this issue is the first edition of the Review under the banner of Blackwell-Wiley of Boston, whose wide distributorship includes universities and libraries.
It also made me a little nervous, to be frank. One of the first emails I received from Blackwell-Wileyaddressed me as "Professor Hauk." "A professor I am not," I emailed back, realizing I would probably be the only author in the Review without letters following my name.
Well, the Steinbeck Review came out last week, in book form and on the internet (Blackwell-Wileys E-Journals),and this Friday evening, September 5th, we are opening an exhibition at Hauk Fine Artsin Pacific Grove called "Steinbeck Armed (A Colt Revolver) With the Truth.'' It will run through October 18th.
The exhibition has just sort of "happened."
For instance, a woman, Darlinda Ball, came into the gallery, and she happened to have two letters from Steinbeck to her late father, George Dovolis, who was a policeman in nearby Monterey. The letters discussed guns—it was important, revealing stuff, and Darlinda, raising kids in what is becoming an increasingly hostile world, feels gun violence is an issue that still needs to be faced. "Use the letters as you feel best," she said.
Next, a man brought in a vintage photograph of artist Henry Varnum Poor, who just happened to be a character reference on Steinbeck's pistol application. Historic paintings popped up which tied directly or indirectly to Steinbeck's time here in the Monterey Bay area. Our contemporary artists, such as Belle Yang, picked up on the theme and created strong pieces. (The example at right, entitled "Ching Chong Chinaman," illustrates a scene from Cannery Row. More of Belle's work, some done especially for Red Room, can be seen here.)
Finally, a 1944 painting was found in a local thrift store of a man whom most of the people who see it say, "Without a doubt, it's Steinbeck," while others say, "No way." Well, we'll have people vote on it. The main thing is that the painting and the other material "spoke as one," telling this is an exhibit that should be done.
What I've learned from studying Steinbeck and the gun issue is that what you choose to write about can endanger your life. Fitzgerald and Hemingway were contemporary to Steinbeck, but the issues they wrote about, while important, didn't make people want to kill them. What Steinbeck wrote about—the exploitation of human beings for profit—could get you killed back then. It can get you killed now. That's why I admire the fact that, after having been openly threatened, Steinbeck decided he needed to arm and defend himself instead of backing down from exposing injustice in his writing. Fortunately, this Nobel Prize winner never had to use his guns
(Judith Deim had a studio on Monterey's Cannery Row in 1939. A friend of Steinbeck's, one night she heard an argument on the Row and after witnessing it did the above painting, called "The Argument." The man with the goatee is believed to be Ed Ricketts, the great marine biologist immortalized by Steinbeck as "Doc" Ricketts in Cannery Row.)
Steve Hauk's video documenting this exhibition is here.
More original Red Room content can be seen here.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...