- Steinbeck Today
Kathleen Hicks posed a provocative question in this space last year: “What if Steinbeck just went away?” (206). Since that understandable expression of anxiety, the number of Steinbeck projects completed, undertaken, or announced for the future suggests that Steinbeck will not be going away any time soon. The following summary of recent developments happily confirms how deeply Steinbeck’s life, work, and spirit continue to stir and stimulate contemporary readers, writers, artists, and audiences to participate creatively in his fiction, as he hoped they would.
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Planned by the International Society of Steinbeck Scholars for San Jose, California, the upcoming Steinbeck conference has a primary focus on Steinbeck as an international writer. As the winner of the Steinbeck “in the souls of the people” Award presented last year by the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University reminded those present for the award event, the topic chosen for the 2016 conference could not be more timely. The recipient of the 2014 award, the fourteenth in its history, was the Afghan-born writer Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Hosseini’s best-selling novels are set in his native country, where he has established a foundation to aid Afghan women and children with funds from international book sales and movie adaptations of his fiction. The presence of two particular women who embody Steinbeck’s sense of social engagement and imaginative empathy enhanced the award event and emphasized Steinbeck’s international appeal. One was Jan Sanchez, the San Jose high school teacher who introduced Hosseini to Steinbeck after Hosseini’s parents moved their family to America. The other was Najia Karim, an Afghan American activist who wrote a poem in Farsi inspired by The Grapes of Wrath, a reminder of Hicks’s report here a year ago that the translation of Steinbeck’s works into Farsi, the literary language of Afghanistan and Iran, continues despite the turmoil of war and political controversy (206).
The closing months of 2014 brought additional evidence of health in Steinbeck’s international reputation and ability to inspire creative work. Written for radio broadcast in 1944, “With Your Wings,” Steinbeck’s short story about an African-American airman’s homecoming, appeared in print for the first time in The Strand, a literary magazine published in Michigan. The unearthing of this long-forgotten story attracted wide attention and coincided with events involving three artists who were moved by Steinbeck’s writing to create new works in unexpected forms. A theatrical treatment of In Dubious Battle by the San Francisco playwright John F. Levin received its first public reading in October, the same month the Pacific Grove writer Steve Hauk completed the manuscript of “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life,” a collection of short stories based on little-known dramatic events within Steinbeck’s lifetime. Meanwhile, music critics were giving rave reviews to Brooklyn Rider Almanac, a recording of new works commissioned by New York’s Brooklyn Rider string quartet from a dozen composers celebrating their favorite authors. Bill Frisell, a well-known jazz guitarist with crossover appeal, wrote “John Steinbeck,” the last piece on the CD. [End Page 200]
In December 2014, SteinbeckNow.com featured Cannery Row historian Michael Kenneth Hemp’s account of a revealing letter Hemp received from Steinbeck’s Stanford friend A. Grove Day regarding the origin of another Steinbeck story, “The Snake.” In February, the Cannery Row Foundation, Hemp’s not-for-profit organization, presented a symposium on Ed Ricketts and Cannery Row at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, a stone’s throw from Ricketts’s lab. Leading the stellar speaker lineup was Richard Astro, author of John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist. During her remarks, Susan Shillinglaw announced that she would be celebrating Steinbeck’s birthday the following week by reading the part of...