Learning To Love Steinbeck
(Or boozy, skirt-chaser makes it big in books.)
Thursday, June 25, 1998
Steinbeck. Steinbeck! I never wanna hear that name again. Thus spoke one of my English teacher colleagues as he was leaving the Peninsula for a job down south. His tone was a mixture of relief and hostility.
Eighth grade: The pony dies.
Tenth grade: Baby bags bullet.
Eleventh grade: Scratch the loyal friend.
So why teach Steinbeck? Isn''t there more to life than death? The answer for me came, ironically, at a funeral. While paying my last respects to an amazing man I''d barely known, Howard Matson, I wandered into the room where the church had set up a few tables full of old books for sale. I bought a half dozen or so, including a worn-out rubber-banded-together paperback called Cannery Row.
The next fall, when I was in my usual funk over having again failed to secure my first million by selling one of my own masterpieces, I finally, hesitantly and reluctantly, picked the book up.
That''s all it took. I was hooked. I was in love--with a soft-hearted, scheming con man, a generous tight-fisted shop owner, a collection of vagrants, prostitutes and most of all, Doc, the emotional solar center around whom they all seemed to orbit.
I couldn''t wait to get home every afternoon and find out what scam Mac and the boys would be cooking up. As the autumn sun set across my weedy, neglected backyard, you might even find me sitting in an old beach chair drinking cheap wine from a jam jar and growing misty-eyed and maudlin over one of Mac''s dodgies gone bad.
I went to the library and asked if Steinbeck had written anything else like Cannery Row. Yes, I learned he''d penned a sequel, Sweet Thursday. But it wasn''t on the shelf.
"Let me check. Click. Click. Click. It''s been returned. Maybe it hasn''t been shelved yet. Let''s look over on the returns cart."
Yes. There it was, but like other first loves, nothing subsequent can ever quite match their intensity. Sweet Thursday was good, but no Cannery Row. Something was missing in the tone, in between the lines. On a hunch, I checked a couple dates. Doc had died in the late ''40s and Thursday had been written in the ''50s. The despair behind the light-hearted story line seeped through. Desperate in my own right, I returned to the library. "Did he write anything else--uh--fun?"
Yes again! Got it. Read it. Loved it.
I''ve been a Steinbeck fan ever since.
I''m still trying to make my first million. I even produced a beautiful little gem of a musical down at the Wharf Theater featuring Larry Hosford and his exquisite songs and starring Taelen Thomas as John Steinbeck.
I dressed my kids and their friends up as wharf rats, complete with little penciled-in mustaches and beards. They passed out handbills advertising the show by the thousands. It was cute. You shoulda been there.
Oh well. As Larry H. might say "them grapes of wrath make a bitter, bitter wine."
(If you ever get a chance to see Travels with Steinbeck with Larry and Taelen, check it out. Through diligence and application, I''ve worked my way down from producer to roadie. Should you see a three-part panel painting of Doc''s lab behind them, I was there.)
In the classroom, Steinbeck--and all authors--remain a rocky road. My own genuine enthusiasm for his artistry will only get most of them to open a book and peer doubtfully into its first few pages.
After that, it had better be good or it''s tap dance time again up at the front of the room. Some of the better dances I''ve done include extracting "wisdom quotes" from whichever book we''re reading. It dawned on me that Steinbeck (and I now believe all great authors) nonchalantly drop accumulated observations about love, hate, envy, work, sloth, drunkenness, sobriety, faithfulness, infidelity and so forth, into their stories.
The students spot these, write them down in their notebooks, and then defend them against attack. Do they represent true wisdom?
"...and children thought he was a very funny old Chinaman as children think anything old and strange is funny. But the children did not taunt him or shout at him as they should, for he carried a little cloud of fear with him. Only one brave and beautiful boy of 10 named Andy from Salinas ever crossed the old Chinaman. Andy was visiting in Monterey and he saw the old man and he knew he must shout at him if only to keep his self respect."
That''sfrom Cannery Row. Have you ever verbally accosted somebody for no apparent reason? Now you know why. You did it to keep your self respect.
"They drew into themselves and no one could foresee how they would come out of the cloud. For there are two possible reactions to social ostracism--either a man emerges determined to be better, purer, kindlier, or he goes bad, challenges the world and does even worse things. This is by far the commonest reaction to stigma."
Cannery Row, again. Ever been falsely accused, convicted and shunned? How did it feel? Did you behave better afterwards? Or worse?
Here''s one from The Winter of Our Discontent.
"When she had gone up to the bathroom, I put my note to her in my pocket. And I still didn''t know. Does anyone ever know even the outer fringe of another? What are you like in there? Mary--do you hear? Who are you in there?"
I''ve also borrowed a scavenger hunt-type activity from an English teacher out at York School. It needs to be updated, but it looks like a good way to get the kids down to the Row to see the places in the story while they''re still around. It involves going to places mentioned in Cannery Row to answer questions posed by the teacher.
I also find it worthwhile discussing with them whether a particular book is true literature. Is it, as the dictionary defines, "written material of enduring value and exhibiting artistic skill?"
I still have a nice time each year exciting a bunch of jaded Steinbeck haters, tired of dead ponies and babies, into falling in love with Mac, Lee Chong, Doc, and maybe even the local boy from the next town over who made them all live--forever.
Piper Loomis is an English teacher at Pacific Grove High School, where he has taught for 14 years.