where the writers are
The Other Side of Eden
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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.Tortilla Flat

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 Steinbeck permit applicationmust 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.Ching Chong Chinaman

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.

The Argument

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.

Comments
8 Comment count
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Thanks for this.

Now I must read your original blog on Steinbeck, whose writing I have  relished. Unfortunately,  I am not  a person who can remember what I have read, but I do remember sobbing when I finished East of Eden. And somehow, in that emotional malestrom, I made the decision that I would someday name my first daughter after my mother.  I have never been certain why that decision came from that book, but there is a second Katherine. 

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Sue, the subconscious can be . . .

. . . very powerful, something that I think is in a lot of Steinbeck. It's good there is a second Katherine. I enoy your reminiscences of life in rural Illinos; my father had a farm sales company, and I traveled with him on occasion in the summers in Missouri, Illinos and Iowa.

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Steinbeck and Ricketts

Mary Lynn Archibald

Hi Steve,

I loved the real life info you contributed, as I've always been interested in both men.

I think my favorite book by Steinbeck is Sea of Cortez, as it gave great insight into the personalities of both men, their quirkiness and their genius. Also, I confess I have a bias toward California authors, being a native Californian myself—one of the few...

Best, ML

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Mary Lynn, I think the great thing on Steinbeck . . .

. . . and Ricketts is yet to be written. By the way, we live in the house Ricketts lived in in the `30s, but I searched in vain under it looking for an ages old tape recorder (dictaphone machines then?) with 1930s interesting conversations on it. We did find an old board with the word ``Yokohama'' printed on it, and feel it probably came off a packing crate Ricketts received at his lab.

By the way, we found out our home had been Ricketts home AFTER we remodeled the kitchen and had thrown out the old kitchen sink. I have always felt it might have been an historic sink, having perhaps held many sea specimens.

About native California writers _ Jack London, Mary Austin, Bret Harte? I don't know. A list would be interesting.

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Steve:

 As someone who  grew up with the  writings of  John Steinbeck, I was truly shocked and puzzled by the dismissive attitude I  saw in Academia, when I  did some refresher research on the man and his work, a few years ago.  I should not  have been, for I  knew that, in my years as a high school teacher, at least one of my colleagues in the United States was fired almost every term for teaching OF MICE AND MEN.  It was not the several bad words scattered through the book; it was Steinbeck's attitude against power and for mankind  that caused the trouble.

   GOPAC  which trained Sarah Heath Palin and thousands of others, from the 1970's on,  has been taking over school boards,  city councils, and library commissions.  One of their self-appointed tasks has been to get rid of writings and writers who do not further their narrow extremist agenda.

  I'm very glad  to see you come to Steinbeck's defense.  He was a proud writer in a tumultuous era, when "a man could stand up," but he (or she) could be shot or lynched, too.

  It can and did  happen  here -- and could again.

              Alex Fraser 

 

Macresarf1 -- Glenn Anders -- Alex Fraser

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Alex, it could happen again,

I agree. It's a bit scary.

Just come from our opening of perhaps as many as a few hundred people over several hours and it was great, people trying to understand what Steinbeck was about and what he went through. But earlier today I had several people in who created an almost equal split between those who loved what Steinbeck stood for and those who hated what he wrote. I was, and have been for a few months, amazed at the passion he stirs in people. People take him ``personally.'' For me this exhibit and writing about Steinbeck and guns and threats has been exhausting.

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Courage

A fascinating post, and I will try to make a point to see the exhibition. I grew up in the Salinas Valley, and Steinbeck has figured into my reading, and my consciousness for years. East of Eden is by far one of the best books ever written. And if readers really want to understand the depth of Steinbeck's respect for the struggle humans face in oppressive conditions, read the conclusion of Grapes of Wrath. This scene is so true, so raw and yet tender you'll want to read it more deeply and look away at the same time.

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Lee, we have had a number of people in

from the Salinas Valley for this exhibit, including some great people from the National Steinbeclk Center, but as I'm sure I've already mentioned, I'm amazed by the passions Steinbeck stirs in people. Some are euphoric about Steinbeck but then there is the polar opposite _ toward the end of the evening a man mentioned that he brought up Steinbeck to a Salinas woman recently and ``she didn't say anything, she just spit!''

What you say about Steinbeck writing about the ``struggle humans face in oppressive conditions,'' I just read this:

`` . . . Steinbeck is such an excellent story-teller that readers can't see the woods for the trees. They pegged him as a Communist after `Grapes of Wrath' because he portrayed so movingly the plight of the dispossessed `Okies' _ losing sight of the deeper symbolism embodied in the turtle, slowly, blindly crossing the road.''

This is found in the Monterey-San Francisco magazine ``What's Doing,'' edited by the artist-writer Bruce Ariss, the piece signed simply ``TJ.'' It was the March, 1947 issue of the magazine.