Bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies, …
And every flower that sad embroidery wears.
–John Milton's “Lycidas”
It takes courage to live as John Steinbeck did—as an active participant in the present, as a citizen of the world. If he had been here during the spring of 2011, he would have shared our concern for the victims and the survivors of the tsunami in Japan, of the tornados that tore through the American South, and of the Mississippi River floods. He would have watched and wondered at the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, with a paradoxical sense of both skepticism and hope. He would have fussed and fumed over the rising cost of gasoline—especially as it affects the working class and the poor. He would have equivocated between ecstasy and sadness in receiving the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of the United States Navy Seals.
And he would have mourned with us the passing of our friend and colleague, Michael J. Meyer, for whom there are memorials by his son Craig Meyer, Barbara Heavilin, and Brian Railsback in this issue of the journal. In “Lycidas” John Milton mourned his Cambridge friend Edward King, bringing an epic catalog of flowers of “sad embroidery:
Bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Jessamine,
The white Pink, and the Pansy freakt with jet,
The glowing Violet,
The Musk-rose, and the well-attir’d Woodbine,
With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears. (ll. 142-50)
If he were still alive, Steinbeck undoubtedly would add to ours his own “flower that sad embroidery wears”—-though he’d probably be somewhat bemused by the depth of Mike's devotion to all things Steinbeck.
This issue of Steinbeck Review speaks of the magnanimity that undergirds Steinbeck's life and writing. It shows itself in his involvement with politics, domestic and international, with ecology, with industry and economics, with Maine and Hollywood, with the intricacies of every kind of human relationship. It also manifests itself in the devotion of others to him—of admirers such as Roy Simmonds and Michael J. Meyers, who dedicated large parts of themselves to understanding and championing Steinbeck and his work.
Many Steinbeck Review readers have expressed their appreciation for the serial publication of Roy's Simmond's book manuscript, The Composition, Publication, and Reception of John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus. This issue features Chapter Two, “‘New York is a wonderful city’: January—April 1946.” This chapter describes a hectic personal life during this time period—-from Gwyn's difficult second pregnancy, to cramped living quarters while their new home was being refurbished, to a meeting with “Russian author Ilya Ehrenburg, accompanied by officials from the State Department,” and more. Against this domestic and professional backdrop, Simmonds highlights the angst of Steinbeck's struggles with finding a suitable place to write, the task of getting down to writing itself, and fear of losing his “creative gifts”:
It is clear that Steinbeck was suffering from a writer's block of tremendous proportions. As much as anything else, the failures of both The Wizard of Maine and The War and San Pedro had obliged him to scrutinize his abilities as a writer, and, indeed, to suspect, that, with “the strongest juices,” as he referred to them, having dried up, his creative gifts had deserted him. He consoled himself with the thought that the commencement of work on a new book had always been “difficult” and “dismaying” in the past. Searching through the notebooks he had kept over the preceding ten years, he consoled himself with the confirmation that they recorded exactly the same sort of doubts he was experiencing now.
The Simmonds book will continue in the Fall 2011 issue of the journal with Chapter Three, “‘The book is really being written under difficulties’: May—July 1946,” which, as the title suggests, continues to document Steinbeck's struggles with writing during this time.
The first article in this issue is co-authored by Mimi R. Gladstein and James H. Meredith: “John Steinbeck and the Tragedy of the Vietnam War.” The article traces Steinbeck's considerable involvement in the war, both as a correspondent for Newsday and as the father of two sons stationed as soldiers there. John IV's duty in Viet Nam is especially important to the article, since Steinbeck himself asked President Johnson to send him to Viet Nam, and because John IV wrote extensively about the experience afterward. Although Steinbeck is largely criticized for his support of the war, Gladstein and Meredith point out that Steinbeck changed his mind about the war (partly because he was able to reflect on the war after reporting on it and partly because of John VI's experience). Because of his deteriorating health, however, he was never able to write about his changed position. The article is a complicated study of the relationship between Steinbeck and his oldest son, of the interplay between timing and literary reputation, and of the more covert tragedies of this war and perhaps any war.
Rick Marshall's essay, “Steinbeck's Cognitive Landscapes in The Grapes of Wrath: The Highway as Commentary on 1930s Industrialization” dispels the myth of Steinbeck as an anti-capitalist and anti-industrialist, exploring the cognitive landscape he creates in Grapes as an indicator of the balance in his economic perspective. Marshall believes that the highway—as central to that landscape and as symbol of both industrialization and freedom—illustrates the struggle between opportunity and oppression in Steinbeck's imagination.
The Intercalary Section begins with an interview with Robert Cathcart, conducted by Audry Lynch. Now in his nineties, Cathcart met Steinbeck in 1925 and sustained a friendship with him throughout the author's life. Cathcart characterizes Steinbeck as a determined writer, disdainful of public acclaim, a man who surrounded himself with many interesting friends. Next, Ed Sams writes of his experience attending Cal Shakes's production of John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven at the California Shakespeare Theater. Sams states that the Shakes production “presents Steinbeck word for word, detail by detail, as each appears in the book.” He describes the atmosphere of the production as comic—surprising, given the dark naturalism of Steinbeck's work in this text. Finally, in “Russell Lee and The Grapes of Wrath” Arthur Krim traces a little-known project: Roy Stryker's proposal that Lee illustrate The Grapes of Wrath. Although the deal was eventually dropped, vestiges of Lee's project remain, especially in his photographs of the migrant family of Elmer Thomas as they left Oklahoma in 1939.
We regret very much the absence of “Steinbeck Today” in this issue of the journal. Because of professional responsibilities, Lloyd Willis will no longer be able to serve as editor of this section. We want to extend our warmest appreciation to him for his revamping of this section, for his keen insights, and for his excellent articles. We are now in need of someone to fill this position. Anyone interested should contact Dr. Barbara A. Heavilin at email@example.com for a job description.
This issue also provides several reviews of books of special interest to Steinbeck readers and scholars. The late Michael J. Meyer reviews Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, a collection of poems presented through the eyes of a fourteen- year-old Oklahoma migrant girl in 1934. Always with a keen eye for good pedagogy and the use of Steinbeck's works in a classroom, Meyer calls the book “a fine parallel text to read with Grapes of Wrath.” Next, Greta Manville reviews two important guides by Robert B. Harmon: Steinbeck First Edition Book Covers: An Illustrated Guide, and Steinbeck Review Index, Vols. 1–6:2, 2004–2009, highly endorsing both for serious students of Steinbeck. Then Brian Railsback calls “clarity” the virtue of Petr Kopecky's The California Crucible: Literary Harbingers of Deep Ecology. He sees Kopecky's book as a fine introduction to Steinbeck's “deep ecology,” a work of ecocriticism, and an “excellent jumping off point for the thoughtful reader, student, or scholar.” Finally, Stuart W. Leslie recommends Industrialism in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, edited by Louise Hawker, as an eclectic collection of excerpts from a large range of sources that illuminates Steinbeck as an important social critic and as a great novelist.
Because Steinbeck always walked with his times, with each issue of Steinbeck Review we are left wondering what he might have had to say about today's world. The events of the spring of 2011 would surely have stirred him to share with us—out of his big heartedness, that extended beyond his love for people to include a deep concern, to include a compassionate concern for the earth itself—some wise, sad, and beautiful words, adding to ours a “flower that dark embroidery wears.” But where might he focus–on Japan, on Alabama, or on the states along the Mississippi delta? Or might he focus on the earth itself, as he did in The Grapes of Wrath and elsewhere? One thing we know for certain: that he would care deeply.