A Man of His Times
Steinbeck Festival explores the author’s relationship to the wild and turbulent ‘60s.
Thursday, August 2, 2007
A towering figure on the cultural landscape of Monterey County and the world, John Steinbeck’s early works gained enormous critical and popular attention in their day (1937’s Of Mice and Men, ‘39’s Grapes of Wrath, ‘45’s Cannery Row). But the prolific writer had a significant impact in his later years, too, which the Steinbeck Center recognizes with the theme of the 27th Steinbeck Festival: “A Summer of Love: A Culture of Discontent, Steinbeck and the ’60s.”
Over the span of four days, the Steinbeck Center will host many events and “happenings” at the Center and elsewhere as part of the festivities.
This year’s theme explores the flipside of the 1960s Summer of Love by focusing on Steinbeck’s relationship to the radical movements and cultures of dissent that characterized that era.
Anchoring the festival are various panels headed by Steinbeck authorities, academics, and entertainment figures who weigh in on the author’s works. If that sounds a little heavy for summertime activity, Steinbeck Center Education Coordinator Amanda Holder promises a buffet of events that are as fun as they are informative.
“There are a number of ways people can enjoy this,” she says. “They can go for immersion or pick and choose.”
The festival will feature walking tours and bus tours, discussions, a panel of rock-poster artists, film screenings, a barbecue – even a play has been drawn into the orbit of events. And they have been scheduled in a way that lets people maximize and tailor their experience in an open-ended way.
One could start with the Morning Social, filling up on tea, coffee and bagels with other festival attendees before taking in a panel discussion like “First to Last: Steinbeck’s Unending Quest,” then head off to Pacific Grove for a rare tour of Ed Rickett’s Lab. Or one could stay put in Salinas for an Oldtown walking tour, followed by the film screening of the documentary Berkeley in the 1960s back at the Center, after which more panel discussions begin. That same itinerary can end with a wine reception, immediately followed with the working-hero play Nickel & Dimed.
“People can come to singular events or get a passport for all four days or just for one day,” Holder says.
Here, a look at some of the most promising possibilities:
• The Long Valley Tour offers an all-day excursion to the places where Steinbeck grew up and that served as settings for his books; at key locales, actor Anthony Newfield reads scenes from Steinbeck’s books.
• Susan Shillinglaw, San Jose State University professor of English and Steinbeck Center Scholar-in-Residence, will discuss into Steinbeck’s Winter of Our Discontent, his last novel, about the moral decay of a small Eastern town (based loosely on people and events from Monterey).
“I’m interested in Steinbeck’s critique of America,” she says. “It’s an interesting novel if you look at it as a post-modern novel of many conflicting voices in confusion.”
• Another panel will engage Steinbeck’s support of the Vietnam War as part of his campaign against the spread of communism. (Interestingly, Steinbeck himself had often been accused of allegiance to communism by various critics.)
In various other panels, the parallels between the 1960s and today’s times will be addressed by Shillinglaw and others.
“[Steinbeck] was a trenchant observer and critic,” she says. “If you look back at his points about the environment, waste in American culture, racial issues, and how we treated ethnic groups, he’s very contemporary.”
The festival’s “Culture of Discontent” banner does not stand in opposition to the “Summer of Love” celebration happening at the same time, she says. “It’s better to see it as a dialogue, as one whole part of that cultural moment.”
• On Friday, a 4pm wine reception segues into a 1960s-themed “Eat-in” barbecue, followed by the Rock Poster Artists panel and/or Oldtown Salinas’ First Friday Art Walk, featuring rock art influenced by Steinbeck’s books, after which Nickel & Dimed will be staged.
In describing America, Steinbeck wrote of “our wonder at its size and diversity.” That could easily apply to this annual event – any festival that contains a discussion panel titled “Steinbeck’s Unending Quest in Cup of Gold and The Winter of Our Discontent,” and face-painting for kids has range.
THE 27TH STEINBECK FESTIVAL takes place Aug. 2 to Aug. 5, at the Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St., in Salinas, and various other locations. Tickets, passes and a schedule of events can be found at steinbeck.org or 775-4721.