Consultation No. 3 – With John Steinbeck


Here we are up to our ankles in yet another imagined conversation with an American writer whose work has been, and continues to be, acclaimed for the passion of his characters, even when he leaves them subject on occasion to a side-splitting, acerbic humor. Charley, Steinbeck’s dog,  has been dead some forty years on the date of this interview, and I thought it prudent to put that sad thought to rest early.

GF: First, sir, even as I express my gratefulness for your agreeing to this interview, you have our deepest sympathies. You have left Charley to us all for posterity.

JS: With a sad look toward his scuffed shoes – “Thank you. He was a dear friend and companion.”

GF: Some of your larger work is rightly accepted into the American literary canon, but I’m curious: you’ve written so many novellas, these largely eluding such recognition. Why?

JS: It’s one thing to have your work accepted for literary reasons, but to have Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath vilified by lowbrow politicians, and by doing so to excoriate me and my views of American life, is the cheapest of shots. Do you think I gained the personal popularity of writers such as Twain by my literary efforts? No! I was considered a subhuman being by politicians and the press because I professed to be a socialist, even a communist, and so – to answer your question – the novellas were relatively easy writes. I had to do them, for money to live on.

GF: After all these years, do you regret writing so many short novels?

JS: “Of course not. Not every long-winded novelist can compress the essence of a novel into two hundred pages.” Another look to his shoes. “The money, as I said. Besides, men don’t read enough; they don’t have the patience with story that women do. I wanted men to read more.”

GF: You were the best, in my opinion, at writing with such mood. You didn’t have to argue politics or social situation in your books; you let your characters speak their sadness and despair, their woundedness, even as they left your readers with hope.

JS: That hope, it’s the only thing that keeps this country going. We always believe things will be better tomorrow. We always look the other way at slavery, abusive labor, cheap wages, genocide of America’s first people, the raping of the land, and countless wars in hoping that something good will come of it all. And this hope you speak of: money, not human values, underscores it all.

GF: All right. But can you leave us with something of a positive note?

JS: With an incredulous look, he says, “But I have. My novels. The essays, the novellas, from A Cup of Gold to Cannery Row, should  continue to speak to generations of young readers who want desperately not to leave their enthusiasm and idealism behind in their pursuit of a decent life.

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Hope and Catastrophe

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After the attack on the U.S. by Al Qaida, I – like most Americans – was moved to do…something. Now, I'm a fairly undemonstrative person, anyway, and not one to rush into jingoism in instances like 9/11. So after letting the whole thing ferment for a couple of days, I thought: such events are not only terrible – they're an opening to move the status quo, to change things for the good.

But what can one person do – even a group of people? 

Of course, we all know what the nation chose – war. Maybe that was appropriate, maybe not. But I chose to see if I could raise awareness to the event in terms of using the chaos following 9/11 in some small way to direct our attention to the event as an opening to bring peace to solutions, to nations, to people. 

I had been building a small bridge in the backyard  - a decoration for the landscaping that was to come. The more I looked at that bridge, the more I came to see it as a symbol of the way I was understanding 9/11.

So I had a small plaque made, with the date on it, and a few simple words:

The Peace Bridge

With that done, I scrolled down my email list (not a long one a decade ago) and sent all on it a message of what I'd done and why. I asked that everyone who desired to see 9/11 as an opening to a better world turn their thoughts in that direction on the day I and my wife dedicated the bridge. The dedication was a simple one – I simply read off the names of those who had responded.

Now, ten years later, we've taken time to remember these events, to think of how they've shaped the world, how they've changed us. It's probably too soon to pass judgment on the ensuing decade of events – there've been two long wars in the Middle East, but then there's been the Arab Spring. There's been the freedom-cramping Patriot Act, but there's been a rising national awareness of the value of our freedoms. And we continue to debate these events, their wisdom, their results.

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Eventually that moment and the events it set off will crystallize, and we'll understand that we've done with it. Part of my time of reflection these past days has been to wonder if a better world will ensue. I honestly don't know – but there's still hope.