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  • Steinbeck Today
  • William Ray (bio)

Outreach by Steinbeck organizations in California dominated the news about Steinbeck since the last issue, though encouraging developments occurred elsewhere as well. Of particular interest to those concerned about the future of Steinbeck studies in the United States are recent events at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies in San José, at, and at organizations in New York and Alaska.

As predicted last year by sources who were involved in the deal, the sale of the National Steinbeck Center building to California State University Monterey Bay finally closed, providing financial relief to the twenty-year-old Steinbeck institution while guaranteeing its continued operation as an educational resource and destination venue in downtown Salinas. Susan Shillinglaw, the Center’s acting director since June, became its permanent chief executive officer in November, enhancing the Center’s reputation for connecting Steinbeck to the community in which the author grew up, and to which he reacted as an adult. Shillinglaw’s reputation as a Steinbeck teacher and scholar at San José State University and as the codirector of the summer National Endowment for the Humanities Steinbeck teaching institute in Pacific Grove and Monterey offered renewed hope for future collaboration among Steinbeck groups around the writer’s home state.

Initiatives undertaken during Shillinglaw’s leadership in Salinas include revival of the annual Steinbeck Festival; lectures by guest authors, including Steinbeck’s great-great niece Molly Knight, a sports writer; innovative projects such as “Democracy in the Fields,” a multimedia narrative about area farm workers involved in the Cesar Chavez movement for worker rights; and “Sweet Thursdays,” a series of evening presentations on subjects of interest to fans of Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts, and their circle of friends. Shillinglaw’s “Sweet Thursday” fall lecture on Steinbeck and Ricketts’s 1940 expedition to the Sea of Cortez was a repeat of the multimedia presentation on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the voyage given at Chautauqua Hall in Pacific Grove, California, last summer. [End Page 66]

Later in the year, Steinbeck’s new biographer, William Souder, spoke at the Pacific Grove Library about the environmental writer Rachel Carson, whose pioneering books—beginning with The Sea Around Us—coincided with popular interest in the subject of ecology following the publication of Steinbeck and Ricketts’s Sea of Cortez in 1941. In Monterey, work continued on a milestone environmental education project announced one year ago: the creation of a permanent home for the Western Flyer, the vessel Steinbeck and Ricketts used for their voyage to the Baja, California, coast. Once it is restored and relocated to Monterey, the Western Flyer will become a floating facility for teaching future generations about the fragile ecology of the Monterey Bay—a major concern of Steinbeck and Ricketts in Sea of Cortez.

Meanwhile, another living Steinbeck icon, Ruby Bridges, was honored by the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University, where the charismatic civil rights leader received the fifteenth Steinbeck “In the souls of the people” award on February 24. Readers of Travels with Charley will recall the book’s climactic scene in New Orleans, when Bridges, age six, faced a mob of white protestors during the battle to integrate an elementary school in the city, the last stop on Steinbeck’s road trip with Charley. Like Dolores Huerta, an earlier recipient, Bridges was selected for the award because of her role in advancing civil rights for all people—a cause espoused by the writer.

Bridges’s appearance at the San José State University Student Union attracted more than eight hundred attendees of diverse ages, races, and occupations—another encouraging sign of Steinbeck’s enduring relevance. The event coincided with the completion of a handsome display honoring past recipients of the Steinbeck award, created by the Student Union as a permanent record of the award’s distinguished history. This event also raised funds for Steinbeck in the Schools, an ongoing program of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. In December, the Center celebrated the life of its energetic founder, and in May 2016 it will host an international Steinbeck conference.