The Steinbeck Journal

Steinbeck kept journals. He was one of the greater letter writers among 20th century authors. He wrote journals to help him think about the novels he was writing. In particular, his Journal of a Novel is a fascinating companion to the last big book he wrote, East of Eden. I’ve decided to keep a journal of this cultural tour, my first time taking a group to Steinbeck’s California. Russ Eagle is already there, hiking, reading, scouting, and drinking in the landscape of his favorite writer. He’s going to be leading a good deal of the instruction.

I fly Friday. I’m reading Jay Parini’s excellent biography of Steinbeck, learning things I never knew and being reminded of things I once knew. I did not remember how crazy and unhappy his second marriage was, to Gwyn, almost from the beginning. She resented his fame, which put her own artistic ambitions in the shadows. She resented that he went to Europe to report the war (WWII) shortly after they were married in New Orleans. She resented that he expected her to stay home raising their two sons while he did what writers do—spend long hours alone in front of sheets of paper, drink, brood, withdraw into some private artistic space of his own. She resented the closeness of his friendship with Ed Ricketts, who had more influence over his art than any other individual. He knew they needed to split up, but he did not want to lose access to his two sons, and he was afraid that he would not hold up well in the emotional turmoil of a nasty divorce.

Monterey rejected him during his life—loathed him, in fact—and now the city is banking on his fame and pretends to pay respect to the colorful bums they found appalling during his life. For this round of Steinbeck work, I read his Russian Journal for the first time, reread Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, and I’m about to finish Travels With Charley. Speaking of which, I am also looking back through Bill Steigerwald’s odd but compelling investigation into the historicity of Travels With Charley.

I love Steinbeck, particularly his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, but I have a kind of uneasy feeling that he is not quite of the first rank in most of his work. This makes me feel guilty, but my view is not that different from that of Steinbeck himself. He had a complicated view of his own talents, a nagging suspicion that Grapes was a kind of literary fluke.

One of my deepest impulses is to follow the lead of Steinbeck, Kerouac, Least Heat Moon, Caldwell, Pirsig, and others. I am certain that my basic outlook would improve dramatically if I spent a year on the road “in search of America.” I love the people of the small towns of North Dakota, and I love the small towns, which are the real North Dakota, more than the “cities,” such as they are. I would never want to travel in a luxury or even full-size RV. That seems merely decadent, but a miniature van-style RV, or a truck camper like Rocinante, would be deeply satisfying, I feel.

I’m most eager to see my friends from previous tours, and to meet new folks who are mostly listeners to the Jefferson Hour, if I understand the roster correctly. And I am beginning to think of the summer Lewis & Clark adventure tour. I have some still embargoed news about all of that, which I won’t be able to reveal for the next month or so.