Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945; e-mail: email@example.com
John Steinbeck exhibition on display through April 30
A small black-and-white photo in a glass case shows Nobel laureate John Steinbeck in full battlegear in Vietnam's Delta.
"Steinbeck spent most of his time in the combat zones, accompanying ground and air patrols on missions, both routine and dangerous, throughout the country," the caption reads. "He spent one night on a mountain near Pleiku, armed with an M-79, covering his son's position."
Visitors to "John Steinbeck: From Salinas to Stockholm," the new exhibition that is on view in the Peterson Gallery of Green Library through April 30, may not remember that the writer traveled to Vietnam in 1967.
"I didn't," says William McPheron, the William Saroyan Curator of American and British Literature at the Stanford University Libraries, who wrote the captions and texts for the exhibition.
"Like Dos Passos, Steinbeck was a darling of the left in the 1930s. So there was a lot of controversy about his endorsement of the American effort in Vietnam."
In the process of putting together the new show, McPheron, working with exhibits designer Becky Fischbach, had to decide which of the library's extensive holdings of Steinbeck manuscripts and artifacts would be displayed in the 20 glass cases that flank the grand staircase and extend into the airy second-floor rotunda. Their final choices, which include handwritten manuscripts, foreign editions of The Grapes of Wrath, cigarette cards that advertise Steinbeck novels in English and Afrikaans, and press woodcuts, are represented in the catalog Fischbach designed that is available through Special Collections.
As he sifted through film stills of Tortilla Flat, read Steinbeck's typed screenplay for The Red Pony, examined a first edition of To a God Unknown and studied letters to family members, McPheron says he discovered a new, multidimensional writer.
"I'd read his major novels but curating the exhibition really redefined my whole sense of who he was and gave it a complexity and nuancing that hadn't existed before.
"I think part of his continuing appeal is that here was a writer who was always struggling with his relationship to his work. You get the sense that writing didn't come easily and naturally to him."
The exhibition marks the gift to Stanford of the Wells Fargo Steinbeck Collection. Some artifacts record the writer's relation to Hollywood and his work as a journalist in Russia. Other materials trace Steinbeck's life from his childhood days in Salinas and his student days at Stanford through his apprentice years in New York to his decades of popular success that culminated with his winning of the Nobel Prize in 1962.
McPheron says part of the purpose of every library exhibition is to give students and faculty a glimpse of the archival resources that are available for research and teaching. And then there are the unforeseen surprises.
"It's weird coming to a Stanford exhibit [on Steinbeck] because my family's on display," freshman Molly Knight recently wrote in the guest book. "Mary Steinbeck, who is John's younger sister, is my great-grandmother. She died before I was born so I never got to meet her. I never met Uncle John either, but I do have a lot of stories to share about him since he lived with my mother's family while he wrote Travels with Charley."
Knight adds that she hopes one day to be able to buy back the Wells Fargo collection from the library. Until then, she writes, "Thanks for honoring the memory of Uncle John."
In one letter Steinbeck wrote in 1956 from that family home at Sag Harbor, N.Y., he noted the retirement of his former English professor, Margery Bailey. "My clipping, I guess from the Chronicle, says you spared neither administration nor students from sharp rapier thrusts," he writes. "I can hear your voice saying 'Did you ever hear of a dull one?'"
Steinbeck adds, "I may not have had the gifts of a writer," but also notes that he learned the "trade," thanks in part to Bailey's influence.
McPheron says the exhibition opens a number of windows on Steinbeck's career, from his involvement with filmmaking to his days as a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, to his contributions to the American propaganda effort in World War II, for which he wrote The Moon Is Down.
"He thought that novel would mobilize American sentiment and he wanted to set it in the United States, against the backdrop of a foreign invasion," McPheron says. "But the government said no, that would undermine morale. So Steinbeck shifted the setting to an unnamed country, which is believed to be Norway, and both the book and play were attacked as seeming unpatriotic."
The thread that runs through the writer's lifework and that now connects the materials in the exhibition, McPheron says, is Steinbeck's introspective nature.
"He's a much more self-conscious and experimental writer than he is generally given credit for," McPheron notes. "And I think he deserves a more sophisticated reading than he's usually given, particularly for his later work.
"East of Eden, which most critics panned, is probably his best book. As an allegorical tale juxtaposed to a social-realist representation of Salinas and overlaid with a debate about the possibility of ethical choices, it's a fascinating book for the early 21st century."