Ten years later, he recalled those months working on The Grapes of Wrath: "A few times I have in work heard the thundering and seen the flash which must have been the universe at work. In that participation there was a glory that shadows everything else." - "A Journey Into Steinbeck's California", by Susan Shillinglaw
Flipping through A Journey Into Steinbeck's California (highly recommend), I stop at the black and white photo of a book burning in Bakersfield. The Grapes of Wrath was banned in many libraries throughout California as "unfit for its patrons." Even John Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas burned the tome. "A lie, a damned lie," foamed Congressman Lyle Boren of Oklahoma on the floor of the Senate. "We would not want our women and children to read so vulgar a book," wrote Executive Secretary Harold Pomery of the Associated Farmers.
I spotted a hardcover edition of The Grapes of Wrath in my mom's bookshelf when I was woman-child of eleven, or twelve. I snuck off to my room where I'd hungrily wolfed children's classics like The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and the Nancy Drew series. To say reading The Grapes of Wrath was a turning point in my life would be an understatement. Books opened up a window to worlds I knew not existed - inviting fresh air, natural sunlight, moist rain - into my overwise parched, caged immigrant upbringing.
I grew up in that reading of Steinbeck's classic. Plus it plunged me headlong into classics and my adoration of electrified writing that continues to enrich my life.
A flake of the croissant descends like an oak leaf unto the biography and I think about Steinbeck conceiving his signature works Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath surrounded by the orchard blossoms of apricots, almonds, and plums in his hillside home with vistas of enveloping oaks and the town of Los Gatos below. It's also later in Los Gatos at the Biddle Ranch where Steinbeck "recovered from his exhausting pull to write The Grapes of Wrath in five months."
The thunderbolt of inspiration sometimes pulls you in a rarified, accelerated, dizzying direction. Pull is an apt word.
Years ago up on the ridges above Estes Park, Colorado, I felt the electric charge vibrate through the grasses, smells were heightened as if all the live things overflowed perfume and everything pulsed in advance anticipation of the splitting sky.
The first time I circumnavigated the ivory gingerbread 1891 Victorian mansion, a gem lying deserted in Los Gatos, I saw the whole thing. Even though the how was a mystery. Still is a mystery. I can't claim the vision. It simply is there. The seeing is like a current, like the perfume before the thunder. There, I saw a contemporary arts center with working artists' studios and a Colette's of Paris-like showroom. Here, I see a tea salon for writers and for those who venerate the sung word (lyrical prose, poetry, songwriting) to congregate. And I saw it before I learned anything about Los Gatos' artistic legacy, or Steinbeck's pull there.
It's a white grey day in California. So I justify being inside, writing here, on a rare September day where the sunny Mediterranean aura makes way for more reflective Irish pasture haze. I realize anyone that can afford to set foot in Palo Alto, stroll the broad University Avenue and walk upstairs to the Caffe de Doge with strawberry jam, a croissant and Italian espresso certainly can afford to be a philanthropist. It's all a matter of putting your wealth, in all its guises, where your heart is.
There is a persistent myth that one needs to be as wealthy as the Medicis in their day to be a patron of the arts, or to a philanthropist. I fell for it myself. I think the final dissolution of the fantasy came when I read about the postal clerk and librarian jointly earning less than $50,000 a year residing in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.
Nothing surprising there. Yet over the decades they cultivated friendships with artists and bought paintings, drawings, sculptures from the likes of John Cage, Christo, Donald Judd. This modest couple donated their $10 million art collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
It came down to their love of art, not their salary, in the end.
p.s. This post is in honor of Banned Book Week, September 23-30. Outright book burnings are rarer these days; stifling challenging, controversial, provocative books has become more sophisticated.
p.p.s. Upcoming Literacy and Literary Arts events I'm supporting/attending:
October 2nd. Very next salon has a The Red and the Black theme. Private home in Noe Valley, San Francisco. Inquire for invite. (Think red and black visual art, food, and couture plus life imitating art, human rather than omniscient Godlike narrator, Napoleanic empires and clergy.)
October 5th. Literacy for Change Benefit dinner in support of First Book, Room to Read and Bring Me a Book Foundation, sponsored by Kepler's Books. In attendance: Jason Roberts (of The Writer's Grotto), Andrew Sean Greer, Beth Lisick, James Dalessandro and others. Tickets are $85 per person. Private home in Atherton. Call Kepler's 650-324-4321 for more information.
October 6-14th. Various events. LitQuake Festival.
October 10th. Next meeting of my new Bluestocking Lit Salon (named after 18th century London meetings: "The entertainment was rigorous intellectual conversation, mixed with tea and literature readings," at Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Coffee (every other Tuesday, 7-9 p.m.). Teri Hope, the owner, is an enthusiastic supporter of community arts and an artist herself.
October 17th. An evening with the lyrical word (tentative, but 92% sure date) at Vino Locale in Palo Alto (they're all about local wine, food and art). I'm encouraging them to reinstate their Tuesday open mic by hosting Salon #5 there on a Tuesday night and thus inviting salonists to participate in original song and prose.
Bonus: "It's a beautiful morning and I am just sitting in it and enjoying it. Everything is ripe now apples, pears, grapes, walnuts. Carol has made pickles, and chutney, canned tomatoes. Prunes and raisins are on the drying trays. The cellar smells of apples and wine. The madrone berries are ripe and every bird in the country is here - slightly tipsy an very noisy. The frogs are singing about a rain coming but they can be wrong. It's nice." - letter written by John Steinbeck writing from their ranch off Santa Cruz Highway circa 1938