Phil Laverton has been the postman in Winchelsea for the past 24 years, in recognition of which the Mayor and Jurats have made him an Honorary Freeman. On Wednesday, however, in the New Hall he adopted a new role for the Second Wednesday Society as he delivered a comprehensive illustrated account of the life and works of John Steinbeck.
For the second time in as many weeks I have been confronted by the stark images of gaunt and emaciated faces against the backdrop of the 1930s US Dustbowl. (Report of Rye Festival, Go for Gold By Being Green/ Environmental Chocolate 28 September 2018)
Phil traced Steinbeck’s early life and influences and his development as a man and a writer. Born in Salinas to a “just about making it” family in 1902 young John by all accounts had a happy childhood. At 14, largely prompted by his fascination with Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, he had decided he would be a writer.
From 1919 to 1925 he dropped in and out of Stanford University, sampling knowledge, experiences, poker, whisky and women until he left without a degree. His biography renders this as “taking only those courses that interested him without seeking a degree”.
During this period he worked as a casual labourer doing odd jobs, as a hand on various local ranches and as a labourer dredging a canal. He gathered experiences and stories from the “men on the road”, the bindlestiffs. He made farther exploratory and not wholly successful forays to Panama and New York before returning to the Salinas Valley.
It was during this formation period that he met Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist who had a laboratory in Monterey and who would become his lifelong friend. It was he, in Phil’s account, who introduced Steinbeck to science and philosophy and non-teleological thinking. They were, it would seem, also somewhat kindred spirits in that Steinbeck described him, maybe only partially prompted by his physical appearance, as “part Christ part goat”.
Phil paid tribute to Steinbeck’s contribution to American literature tracing his motivations and his writings on the working class and their tribulations during the Great Depression. He particularly identified Tortilla Flat (1935) which was critically well received and dealt with the paisanos, Dubious Battle (1936 with the labour unions and striking grape pickers, Of Mice and Men (1937) with migrant workers in the general context of Steinbeck’s concern with US immigration policy at the time and finally the 1940 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939). In this book, for many his best, Steinbeck drew on material he had written in the San Francisco Chronicle regarding the problems of migrant workers.
There were a couple of points in the presentation when the resonance with current circumstance seemed to elicit recognition from the audience.
Cannery Row (1944) set in Monterey, East of Eden (1953) in the Salinas Valley, and Travels with Charley (1962) were selected by Phil from Steinbeck’s declining years. The travelogue, a humorous account of his travels through America with his pet poodle emulating Stephenson’s Travels With A Donkey, was well received and coincided with Steinbeck’s award of the Nobel Prize.
Steinbeck died in 1968 in Sag Harbour, New York City.
Image Credits: Gerard Reilly .