Travels With John

His Protestant great-grandfather settled in the Holy Land and got married there, before moving to America. He himself grew up thinking he was Jewish, and only read his father's books when asked to, in school. A conversation with Thomas Steinbeck, on the occasion of the publication of a new Hebrew translation of his father's last work.

One day in 1934, while traveling by train from Chicago to New York, Pat Covici was reading a book by an unknown writer, which he had bought for 10 cents in a used-book store. The trip went by comfortably. Covici had a whole seat to himself and became immersed in the book. He alighted in New York, enchanted by what he had read, and walked quickly to the nearest telephone booth, where he dialed a number. When the phone was picked up on the other end he shouted, "Get me this Steinbeck. Immediately."

Pascal Abraham Covici, a Romanian-born Jew, immigrated to America with his parents in 1896, when he was 12. The family settled in Chicago, where Covici became a journalist, editor and publisher (among other works, he published the memoirs of the Jewish-Zionist author and playwright Ben Hecht). The people on the other end of the line located the representative of "this Steinbeck," who turned out to be Elizabeth Otis, from the New York literary agency of McIntosh & Otis. She said she knew little about Steinbeck, but said that he lived in California and that his latest manuscript had been rejected by seven publishers.

Covici asked to see the unwanted novel. A year later, in 1935, he published it. "Tortilla Flat," a collection of short stories, scored an enormous success, and John Steinbeck was delivered from his anonymity. (A Hebrew translation, by the "Canaanite" poet and essayist Yonatan Ratosh, was published in Israel in 1954.) For the next 30 years, Covici continued to edit Steinbeck's works, first for his own publishing house and afterward for Viking, to which he moved, taking Steinbeck with him. This week, Steinbeck's last book, "Travels with Charley - In Search of America," originally published in 1962, appeared in Israel in a Hebrew translation put out by Ahuzat Bayit.


"Travels with Charley" is an amusing and touching book about a big man (Steinbeck) who embarks on a journey in the company of a French poodle from a good home, which is described as being intelligent, diplomatic, refined and judicious. Their trip, which began in the autumn of 1960, lasted four months and covered some 16,000 kilometers across 34 states. They traveled in a large pickup truck equipped with a cabin that was dubbed "Rocinante," like Don Quixote's horse.

"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch," Steinbeck writes at the start of the book, striking a bit of an apologetic note, and continues: "When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am 58 perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tripping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don't improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable."

Later on, Steinbeck reveals another reason for making the trip. A year earlier, he had come down with a serious heart ailment and did not want to become like others in similar straits, who "pack their lives in cotton wool." He was concerned that people would start whispering behind his back, suggest that he slow down, stifle his impulses and "hood [his] passions." Steinbeck writes that he contemplated this temptation "with a kind of horror. For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory ... I've lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby."

"Dad already knew he was very sick then," Thomas Steinbeck, the writer's son, says by telephone from his home in Santa Barbara. "He knew he didn't have much time left, and the trip was the way he chose to say farewell to the America he loved so much. I didn't know that at the time, but I know he knew. His wife, my stepmother Elaine, knew he was in a bad state and let him make the trip. After that he didn't travel much and didn't write much anymore, apart from articles and letters."

Steinbeck set out on the journey to rediscover America. He is an attentive, observant writer, not speaking much and not imposing himself on the reader, but absorbing the sights and sounds. He is naive in the positive sense of the word. He always preferred the company of ordinary people over pompous celebrities, his son notes. Friends who tried to talk him out of making the trip told him that everywhere he went, people would know him on sight, so the authenticity of the encounter would be lost. But that didn't happen. No one recognized him during the entire journey.

"I believe that people identify things only in context," Steinbeck writes in the book. "Even those people who might have known me against a background I am supposed to have, in no case identified me in Rocinante."

Thomas Steinbeck: "People expect celebrities to travel in style, but my father always dressed and behaved very simply. He didn't talk to people from above, and usually he kept quiet and listened. He would say that one of the most terrible things that can happen to celebrities is that everyone recognizes them, and then they lose their freedom." Steinbeck truly despised that, recalls his son, and said a person should win fame because of his talent and not because he was a writer, because any idiot can publish a book if he is a celebrity, which of course does not mean he is a good writer.

The highlight of the journey came in a charged encounter with Southerners, who were in a panic at the time following the emergence of the civil rights movement, and the beginning of the end of the segregation and racism laws. Steinbeck witnessed whites in New Orleans rioting because of a black girl going to a white school, who had to be escorted by police. He returned from there mentally bruised and hurting.

He himself ran into suspiciousness and hostility in the South, prompted by the sight of his New York license plates. But only once did he lose his temper: He threw a white hitchhiker out of the car who went too far with his racist rants. Did Steinbeck find what he was looking for? That's hard to say. Probably he found what he wasn't looking for: Along with rare manifestations of love, he experienced much wickedness, racism, prejudice and ignorance.

Hope deferred

More than a century earlier, Steinbeck's grandfather had also set out on an adventurous trek. In 1849, a group of Protestants left Dusseldorf, Germany, for the Holy Land. The group included a man named Friedrich Grossteinbeck, his brother (Steinbeck's grandfather, who shortened his surname) Johann (John) Steinbeck, their sister Maria Katharina and her husband Gustav Thiel, another couple and their three children, and another man named Muller. The group's members were millenarians (from the Latin word mille, for thousand), who believed in the End of Days, which would be heralded by the Second Coming of Jesus, ushering in 1,000 idyllic years of flourishing and spiritual exultation. According to their belief, Jesus would reappear only after the Jews had returned to the Holy Land and become Christians. The role of the group was to hasten the redemption by preparing the ground for the Jews' return to their homeland.

With the concurrence of the community's priest, who gave them his blessing and some money for the trip, the group traveled by train to Berlin, went on to Vienna via Trieste and then to Izmir (Smyrna), Turkey. From there they sailed to Beirut and then boarded another ship for Jaffa. On the way from Jaffa to Jerusalem, next to the Arab village of Latrun, Maria Thiel gave birth to her first-born child, a daughter, with the aid of women from the village. In Jerusalem the group's members engaged in a variety of jobs, including agriculture. Johann Steinbeck, a carpenter, worked in his profession.

In 1851, the group moved to Jaffa and settled on the west bank of Wadi Musrara (Ayalon Creek). From Peter Klassen, the first German to settle in Jaffa, they bought 30 dunams (7.5 acres) of land and started to work it. They grew vegetables and fruit trees, produced cheeses and butter, and sent home enthusiastic letters. In his letters Friedrich Grossteinbeck described fresh sea breezes and the pastoral atmosphere. In 1853, the Germans were joined by a group of American Christians from Philadelphia, led by Clorinda Minor. The Americans, too, hoped to speed up the second coming.

The two groups, the Germans and the Americans, established a colony together, which they named Mount Hope. But the colony's farming proceeded with lethargy, and Minor sent a letter to the Jewish-American publication Occident, urging the Jews of the United States to support their brethren in the Holy Land. "Our poor Jewish brethren are so enfeebled by want and inaction," she wrote, "that ... much patient love and wisdom [are needed] to deal truly with them. Even when they are well disposed, they are like children about active business; and the more experience we have, the more we are convinced that they need the tender care of 'nursing mothers,' as well as fathers, to elevate them ... This we could gladly do, but we have not the means. If any of our Hebrew friends in the United States will help us, we will do all in our power, and return them an exact account of every expenditure ... only let not the opportunity pass, and the sufferers perish while help is deferred." (Quotation and other data from Yaron Perry, "John Steinbeck's Roots in Nineteenth-Century Palestine," Project Muse,

The letter's publication did not generate the hoped-for assistance, but two years later help arrived in the person of the British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, who bought the land and leased it to Minor. In the meantime, another American family, that of clergyman Walter Dickson from Massachusetts, joined the colony in 1854. Two of Dickson's daughters would later marry the Grossteinbeck brothers: Almira married Johann and Mary became the wife of Friedrich.

Throughout the colony's existence, it suffered from harassment and attacks by the Muslim population, which regarded them as interlopers and infidels. In January 1858, five Arabs attacked the colony, murdered Friedrich, raped his wife, Mary, and her mother, Sarah, and made off with their belongings.

The incident caused a furor and preoccupied the Ottoman authorities, who under the pressure of the American and Prussian consuls, brought the five criminals to justice. Nevertheless, five months after the attack all the members of the Steinbeck and Dickson families left the country for the United States. On an obelisk in the old cemetery of Groton, Massachusetts - the home of the Dickson family - is a memorial plaque that tells the story of the colony in Palestine. In 1942, the Shevah School, in Tel Aviv, was built on the ruins of Mount Hope. A sycamore tree, planted by the settlers, stands in the schoolyard.

Unpleasant realism

During the American Civil War, the Steinbecks moved to California and settled in Salinas, north of Monterey. In 1863, Almira Steinbeck gave birth to John Ernest Steinbeck, who would become the county treasurer. He married Olive Hamilton, a teacher. In 1902, their son, John Steinbeck III, was born, the third of four children. The others were girls: Elizabeth and Esther, his older sisters, and Mary, the youngest child in the family.

Steinbeck, like his parents, was born in Salinas and graduated from high school there. In 1919, he began his studies in Stanford University, but dropped out due to poor grades. In 1925, he sailed to New York on a freighter via the Panama Canal. There, he did odd jobs - as undertaker, assistant to a house painter, construction worker on Madison Square Garden and carpenter, like his grandfather. He devoted his spare time to writing.

"Dad always wrote. He always knew that one day he would be a writer, ever since he was a child," his son says. "His mother was a teacher and she saw to it that he got a decent education."

A year later, Steinbeck returned home, and in 1929 he published his first novel, "Cup of Gold," which was not a success. He married Carol Henning, and the couple moved into the family home in Pacific Grove, not far from Salinas. The newlyweds were supported by Steinbeck's parents. His next two books also failed to attract much interest; in fact, until the fateful encounter with Covici, Steinbeck was an unknown.

In 1936, he published "Of Mice and Men," a novella, which he adapted into a play. Two years later came the novel that gained him worldwide fame and is considered his greatest literary achievement, "The Grapes of Wrath," for which he received a Pulitzer Prize. Like most of his work, "The Grapes of Wrath" is about California. It describes the tension in an emerging society of migrants and is set against the backdrop of the Depression of the 1930s and the "Dust Bowl," the drying up of the land in the Midwest due to drought. The California authorities did not like Steinbeck's books, which were not flattering to them. In his hometown of Salinas the book was banned and copies of it were burned in public.

In 1942, Steinbeck divorced Henning and the following year married Gwyndolyn Conger, a singer and composer, who became the mother of his two sons, Thomas and John Steinbeck IV (who died in 1991). The couple moved to Manhattan.

In World War II, Steinbeck joined the army and served in Europe as a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune. When Thomas was born, in 1944, his father was already a famous author, though some major achievements still lay ahead: In 1952, "East of Eden," Steinbeck's novel about the history of the Salinas Valley, was published; in 1955, the film version, directed by Elia Kazan and starring James Dean, was released. (Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell had won Oscars for their performances in John Ford's 1940 film adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath.") In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the sixth American to be so honored (after Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, Pearl Buck, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway). The award cited Steinbeck's "realistic and imaginative writings, combining ... sympathetic humor and keen social perception."

Nevertheless, in the 1960s Steinbeck did not enjoy high regard or critical acclaim in his native land. Indeed, the American press expressed astonishment at the enormous popularity of his books and scoffed at the Nobel. He was said to be a Depression writer who, in the same way that Charlie Chaplin got stuck in silent movies, could not get beyond the 1930s.

"Steinbeck wrote Midwest and West Coast agricultural realism," says Dr. Hedda Ben-Bassat, from the English literature department of Tel Aviv University. "That is not the type of literature the Americans enjoyed reading. His contemporary, Hemingway, was then busy with the wars of others. He was far away, in the islands, Cuba, Spain or Paris, and wrote nothing controversial against America.

"Steinbeck dealt with the nitty-gritty of life, examined realistically the dream and its shattering, wrote about unemployment, injustice, the unpleasant things, and reached the melancholy conclusion that America was a two-faced land. In the 1960s, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, America was already long past the Depression and was not afflicted by unemployment, so the Americans weren't eager to listen to what he had to say."

His father's son

In 1948, Steinbeck divorced his second wife, and in 1950 married Elaine Scott, with whom he lived until his death in 1968. He loved women, but only intelligent ones, his son Thomas says, and women loved him. That was odd, he adds, because no matter how great he was, he was shy; that must have endeared him to women.

Steinbeck and Scott lived in Manhattan, not far from his two sons, who were being raised by their mother. "You could say it was a kind of joint custody," Thomas says. "Dad was a great traveler. There were periods of a few months when we didn't see each other, but we usually spent our summer vacations together, and when he was in New York we were at his place. We lived on 78th Street and he was on 72nd, so a lot of times after school we would go and have lunch with him."

Thomas Steinbeck, now 63, styles himself a writer, even though he has so far published only one book, "Down to a Soundless Sea," a short-story collection (Hebrew translation 2002). Externally he resembles his father, sporting a fine mustache and sometimes also a beard. "The older I get, the more resemblance there is between us," says Steinbeck, who is currently completing a novel and is also working on a biography of his father, in which "I describe how it was to grow up as my father's son. The book will be entitled 'Notes From an Ungrateful Child.' It's a private joke. When he got angry at us, he would give us that certain look of his and say, 'You kids have no sense of gratitude.' He never shouted or lifted a hand, just delivered lectures that could drive you crazy."

Did you have a special childhood as the son of John Steinbeck?

Steinbeck: "For me there were two Steinbecks. One was John Steinbeck, whose fame I was not aware of, and the other was my dad, with whom I had a lot of adventures. We traveled with him in Africa, Europe and across the United States, and everywhere we went his agent treated us like kings. We were also in Japan, where he was treated like God. But he was, and remained until the end, very attentive and generous. Our home was modest - he never agreed to luxuries. As a boy, I knew he was a writer, but I didn't understand why he couldn't get a job, like my friend's fathers. They all left in the morning and went to work, but my father left the breakfast table and went to his room. Throughout my childhood I thought he was unemployed."

What kind of environment did you grow up in?

"A very warm one. I had a lot of Jewish friends and I was in their houses quite a bit, went to synagogue with them and celebrated all the holidays. In fact, until the age of 12, I was sure I was Jewish - after all, my name was Steinbeck and I had been circumcised. It never occurred to me that I wasn't Jewish."

How did you discover that you were a Christian?

"Some of my friends were very rich, and when they had their bar mitzvah their parents threw big parties and invited cantors from Israel, and the kids received expensive presents. One friend even took the whole school to Bermuda. It was all very glitzy, and I wanted a bar mitzvah, too. One day, when I was 12, I drew up an eight-page list of all the things I wanted to do for my bar mitzvah, and I went to talk to Dad.

"It was a Sunday. He was sitting reading the paper, and I started to read out what I had written. He went on reading, and listened to me very patiently with one ear. When I finished, he folded the paper slowly, gave me an amused look and said, 'Son, I don't want to break your heart, but you were baptized a Christian.' I was totally dumbfounded. My whole spiritual foundation collapsed. I had been so sure of my identity that I was totally distraught. It was like finding out that there is no Santa Claus. I didn't know what to tell my friends. If I were to tell them the truth, they would accuse me of betraying them and think that I had been spying on them all these years."

As a writer, is the name Steinbeck useful or a hindrance?

"It doesn't constitute a problem. Most people don't know who he is anyway. It's amazing how ignorant we in America are. It's incredible how hard it is to find people who can put together a coherent sentence - so on top of that are we supposed to demand that they know who Steinbeck is? True, it made an impression on my agent, and maybe it affects the sales of my books a little, but no more than that."

Do you feel competitive with respect to your father's writing?

"Not really. We are different writers. We write differently. I write short stories, which I love the most, and my father was a novelist. His style is different. On the other hand, he was my inspiration. Not because of the books he wrote, but because of the books he gave me to read. His house was filled with books and he saw to it that I read the important things, and that got under the skin. At home I didn't read his books. He never asked me to. I only read them in school, where they were compulsory. In high school I also understood his importance as a writer."

What would your father think of America today if he were alive?

"He would be very angry and his heart would break. If my father were alive, President Bush would be a lot more bothered by him than by the war in Iraq. He would hate him and write about it everywhere. Just the way [the president] uses language would have offended my father: We have a president who can't put a sentence together properly. Even when it's written for him, he twists it around. My father would be very angry at him and would not remain silent, and that would probably cause a lot of trouble for him. But he was used to that - being in trouble because of his independent opinions."

Is he held in high regard today in the United States?

"Those who still remember him have the highest regard for him. I once asked him, 'How do you know that you are a famous writer?' He said, 'No one knows until he has been dead for at least 26 years.' The fact is that 26 years after my father's death, his books moved from the fiction shelf to the classics shelf. 'Travels with Charley' sells well, too. There is a company that sells trailers, and if you buy one and you have a dog, they give you the book as a present." W