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  • Martha Heasley Cox:February 26, 1919–September 5, 2015
  • Paul Douglass (bio)

I first met Martha Cox in 1991, not six months after I arrived at San José State University, fresh from Atlanta, where the college for which I was teaching had closed. Feeling unbelievably lucky to have landed a faculty job in the aftermath of that disaster, I was excited to be teaching at SJSU, and very excited that day to attend a reading by Maxine Hong Kingston in the Music Auditorium. Kingston had just survived the Oakland Hills Firestorm which burned her house to the ground, taking with it all of her manuscripts, including her new novel, The Fourth Book of Peace, which she eventually abandoned. We listened, riveted by Kingston’s description of the uncontrollable blaze that permanently scarred the psyche of the Bay area, and how she escaped death on her bicycle. I learned that night that Kingston was speaking to us because Martha Cox had endowed a lecture series, one which has hosted Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Wallace Stegner, Arthur Miller, Joyce Carol Oates, J. M. Coetzee, Kiran Desai, John Barth, E. L. Doctorow, and many other distinguished writers. Martha had retired in 1989, but she was clearly not done with the university where she had taught for thirty-four years and where she had founded the Steinbeck Research Center that now bears her name.

She was already a legend at San José, and to meet her was to recognize her steely-eyed focus on the books and authors she loved, including some pretty hard-living and hard-driving individuals, from Ernest Hemingway to Nelson Algren. She also had a passion for Steinbeck, whom she taught by taking her students regularly on tours of Fremont Peak, Salinas, Monterey, and Cannery Row, hoping to bring Steinbeck’s characters and environs to life. Although I remember Martha as the woman who made such a difference to SJSU, she had a tremendous impact on Lyon College as well, where she established a faculty chair. Terrell Tebbetts, inaugural holder of the chair, notes that she wanted always to “keep her alma mater well connected to both the literary and the scholarly worlds.”

Martha was a self-made woman who built up her personal wealth through hard work, ambitious publishing, and careful investment. She wanted to make every moment and every dollar count. She was a lover of books who bought [End Page 73] them for reading, not as collectibles. It was the content of a book that counted to her. When I recently packed up her library in San Francisco to bring the books to the Steinbeck Center, I found that even the autographed ones had been thoroughly thumbed. She was a personal friend and bibliographer of Nelson Algren, and had received books from him with many notes, but these books were worn by use. Most of her Steinbeck books were heavily annotated paperbacks with yellowing pages beginning to fall out.

Once Martha decided to focus on Steinbeck, she devoted herself avidly to procuring materials that would bring about her vision of a Steinbeck Research Center at SJSU. She enlisted support from everyone who would listen, including Warren French, Peter Lisca, Robert DeMott, Jackson Benson, and all the members of the John Steinbeck Society founded by Tetsumaro Hayashi. She became friends with Thomas Steinbeck, John’s surviving son, and Thom’s wife Gail. She got to know the author’s widow, Elaine. She martialled her students, such as Ray Morrison, who helped her solicit donations to get SJSU’s Steinbeck Collection started, chiefly with photocopies of papers, reviews, and articles from archives at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, the University of Texas at Austin, the New York Public Library, the Lincoln Center Library, and the archives of Viking Press.

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Fig 1.

Martha Cox with Webster “Toby” Street, a classmate of Steinbeck’s from Stanford. Early 1980s.

Collection of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.

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In later years, I would pick Martha up for events on campus, such as a reading by Joyce Carol Oates or Norman Mailer, and then-Dean Karl Toepfer would take her back into the...