SEA OF CORTEZ

John Steinbeck

For a month Steinbeck joined an Exhibition to collect species of fauna in the Gulf of California, once known as the Sea of Cortez. It is not a travel book, although the parts where the author breaks into travel are the most interesting. 

This is mostly a go-out-and-find-a-new-species book. It some ways it is like Moby Dick, Melville writing about whales and killing them with heavy political overtones. It is also like Theodore Roosevelt’s book about traveling up the River of Doubt(?) or the River or No Return, in the middle of the Amazon in 1913. Roosevelt almost killed himself and everyone else. That story became repetitive – one portage after another, shortage of food, equipment lost, people missing, everything what should happen in the jungle did. It was tiresome reading. I stopped halfway and flipped to the end.

Likewise, Steinbeck has days where everyone searches for species. One collection day is like other collection days. I didn’t care if it was Easter Sunday. He observes about some scientific writing (Chapter 10) “In some reports it is impossible because of inept expression…” Steinbeck does write adequately, but the reader really has to love species. Steinbeck takes another shot in Chapter 17: “The literature of science is filled with answers found when the question propounded had an entirely different direction and end.”

Upon arriving in La Paz Steinbeck gives warning to California, which no one has heeded: “On the water’s edge…a new hotel…before long and the beautiful, poor, bedraggled old town will bloom with a Floridian ugliness.” That is the California’s coast line from San Francisco, south, looks like: plastic, cement, steal and glass along with the old, reliable El Camino Real. Today, Steinbeck might agree that Cannery Row has become a hippie, freak Disneyland.

Steinbeck writes about Mexican youth: “At last we stopped in front of a mournful cantina where morose young men hung about waiting for something to happen. They had waited a long time – several generations – for something to happen.” (Chapter 9)

Further on, Steinbeck wonders: 

“It would be interesting…to explain to one of these Indians our tremendous projects, 

our great drives, the fantastic production of goods that can’t be sold, the clutter of 

possessions which enslave whole populations with debt, the worry and neuroses that go 

into the rearing and educating children who find no place for themselves in this world: 

the defense of the country against a fanatic nation of conquerors, and the necessity to

become frantic to do it; the spoilage and wastage and death necessary for the retention of the crazy thing; the science which labors to acquire knowledge, and the movement of 

people and goods contrary to the knowledge obtained.” (Chapter 21) 

Avoid the species but read this book.

A RUSSIAN JOURNAL

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck got an assignment from the New York Herald-Tribune to visit the Soviet Union, and to take, photographer, Robert Capa with him.

There were incidences of deprivation, some caused by Soviet society and authorities – can’t see something, can’t go somewhere or permission arrived too late. Other inconveniences arose by being in remote Moscow (suspicious of the West), in the Ukraine, Stalingrad or in Georgia. Note that Steinbeck had to travel to each location from Moscow. He could not go from the Ukraine to Stalingrad. There is a sense that neither Steinbeck nor Cape knew much history, sociology or psychology of Russia or of the Soviet Union. Yet, Steinbeck’s observations ring true.

It is a writer’s notebook. He strives to put together a story, an understanding of the great nation and its people. Everyone works but removed from political power with no ambition, most citizens of the Soviet state present the feel of human beings everywhere. None mentions internal politics, complains about officials (harvests are good), or fears the Secret Police. People dance and sing. In the country and in the smaller cities (Kiev was mostly in ruins in 1947) there seems no disparity in income, no flashiness of individuals, no errant ideas coming from any source. There is no free marketplace of ideas. Everything is collectively harvested and lumped like rye gathered from a field. 

Steinbeck disapproved: 

I believe one thing powerfully – that the only creative thing our

species has is the individual lonely mind. Two people can create

a child but I know of no other thing created by a group. The 

group ungoverned by individual thinking is a horrible destructive

principal. The great change in the last 2000 years was the 

Christian idea that the individual soul was very precious. 

Page XXV. 

In the absence of the individual, arts in the Soviet Union were withering. Before 1917 the Russians had a thriving musical community: Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Stravinsky departed. Prokofiev returned and left, and in the mid-1930s he stayed. But great performers and conductors left as the Communist regime oppressed. Think about Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff being criticized and controlled by Stalin and his bureaucratic goons, like Khachaturian, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were denounced. 

Among writers every city and town had an organization or union. Steinbeck is not complimentary of Simonov, playwright of The Russian Question. The American stopped interviewing after the first try. Questions were two paragraphs long, the first part being unconnected to the second. Steinbeck asked for a translation from the Russian of an answer he had given. It wasn’t close to his response. 

Steinbeck wonders, “We had made contact with many Russian people, but were the questions we had wanted answered actually answered? I had made notes of conversations, and of details…But we were too close to it. We didn’t know what we had.” (Chapter 9) “[W]e had to see something every minute…We were living a life which for virtue had only been equaled once or twice in the history of the would.” (Chapter 8) 

Steinbeck felt constrained. His assignment with photographs rushed into journalism was incapable of being told, except to tell of experiences and observations of the Russian people: Moscow everyone seemed afraid and could not act without multiple authorizations that something could be done or photographed. And in the country where few restraints hampered Steinbeck and Capa – yet they were among citizens, common and surviving and somewhat happy with no ambitions, no knowledge, no ideas and no dreams.

What perplexed Steinbeck was not the difference between city and country folk. It was the dreams of people – most people have dreams and imaginations. He could not observe those, work and hope for the future. Perhaps Steinbeck needed more time and exposure – he had a trip to Tchaikovsky’s home but found little inspiration there. In the Soviet Union as happens in all totalitarian states inventiveness and originality is suspected and shunned. Steinbeck likely saw these circumstances and was frustrated.

AMBROSE BIERCE, OOPS

This nineteenth century person is known in California and in journalism and by dictionary readers. When a Library of America volume of his writings came my way, I bought and read.

Bierce (mostly revised and published in 1909) cherishes Nineteenth Century expression eschewing advances in the language and literature by Melville, Twain and others. He wasn’t  journalistic, using excess words per sentence and attempting to create structures, possibly parallel to one another within a sentence. That today is eliminated by using the correct verb. (It’s his style, right?) When writing a Memoir, what sort of author has the parenthetical, If memory serves me correct?

Having read books about the Battle of Shiloh, Easter Sunday, 1862, I was interested in Bierce’s first-hand account. A lot of men died at Shiloh. For a reader of a battle it is important to know direction – north, east, south, west, or ahead, left, right, behind, or the time on the dial of a clock. Bierce tell little of that or the intensity of the fighting – I never learned whether 20 bodies were piled up before Bierce or whether he looked out and saw 50 bodies covering a field. Where did the shooting come from? Was anyone in command?

Anyone writing about battles, military maneuvers and placement of men and armies runs into the excellent Autobiography of US Grant (1885)  There is no nonsense on any battlefield; there is none on paper. Straightforward facts allow irony, humor, social commentary to rend the reader’s imagination. Grant conveys, A Union unit of African-American teamsters and cooks were ordered to do something by their general in early May 1864. The General left. Grant conveyed further, that General did not see those teamsters and cooks until July 1864. What happened to that unit seems obvious. Any officer of rank came across them and gave a new order, or countermanded orders, and the Unit was under his command. An entire story can be told of that unit, while the Union Army fought from Northern Virginia to the James River.

If anything like Grant’s few sentences every appears in Bierce, it is hard to find.