By Stephen A. Cooper
Reflecting on “the soul of artists and writers,” nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed that art “performs the task of preserving, even touching up extinct, faded areas; when it accomplishes this task it weaves a band around various eras, and causes their spirits to return” (104). Well over one hundred years later, this razor-sharp rumination has lost none of its acumen and it adeptly describes the stimulating experience awaiting readers of Steve Hauk’s ingenious new book, “Steinbeck: The Untold Stories.” Accompanied by memorable and imaginative illustrations by artist C. Kline, Hauk, an award-winning writer, playwright, and art dealer, has masterfully fused real historical events with fiction to birth sixteen short stories about the characters and complexities in the life of one of America’s greatest writers, Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck.
A former journalist with easy and engaging storytelling flair, Hauk has long indulged his deep-seated appreciation for Steinbeck’s literature, and he even lives in the same Pacific Grove, California, house once owned by Steinbeck’s closest friend and collaborator, marine biologist Edward Ricketts. In addition to his considerable authorial output, Hauk owns an art gallery in Pacific Grove whose mission statement provides considerable insight into both Hauk and his “untold” Steinbeck stories: “A vibrant artistic community does not function in a vacuum – its artists generally engage with the community and other artists, writers, poets, photographers, and scientists to create a more meaningful society and culture.”
Indeed, it is hard to discern a difference between the spirit of creative collaboration inherent in the guiding principle of Hauk Fine Arts and that which developed in the early 1930s on Cannery Row between Steinbeck, Ricketts, and a rotating circle of friends and acquaintances who shared their artistic and intellectual sensibilities. Steinbeck drew much of his inspiration from this creative hotspot while writing his most popular fiction.
Describing its enlightened, electric vibe in her book A Journey into Steinbeck’s California, Susan Shillinglaw writes, “Ricketts’s lab was New Monterey’s salon, a tiny Bohemian enclave of artists, writers, and musicians who were invited for parties and dinners or simply dropped by in the evenings to see what was happening. ‘There were great parties at the laboratory,’ Steinbeck recalled, ‘some of which went on for days.’” Stressing the influence these low-key, habitual get-togethers had on Steinbeck and his fiction, Shillinglaw observes: “They discussed any and all subjects . . . . If Pacific Grove was Steinbeck’s home and writerly retreat, the lab in New Monterey was where ideas were forged. In the little laboratory by the sea, John Steinbeck’s mind moved outward . . . . What happened at the lab was the kind of relaxation and friendship that Steinbeck assigns to the paisanos in Tortilla Flat or Mack and the boys in Cannery Row” (108; 113).
Writing about the “collective mind,” Nietzsche concluded, “a good writer possesses not only his own mind but also the mind of his friends” (119). As if channeling the cerebral connection that existed in Ricketts’s and Steinbeck’s circle, he exhorted, “The most fortunate instance in the development of an art is when several geniuses reciprocally keep each other in check; in this kind of a struggle, weaker and gentler natures are generally also allowed air and light.” Similarly, crime fiction writer Lawrence Block opines in his book Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, “Many of the characters with whom we people our fiction are drawn from life, and how could it be otherwise? One way or another, all our writing comes from experience, and it is experience of our fellow human beings that enables us to create characters that look and act and sound like human beings” (72-73).
Granting rare access into Steinbeck’s “collective mind” by drawing on chance meetings, conversations, and formal interviews conducted over decades – as well as through correspondence and artifacts that he has collected – Steve Hauk’s imaginative stories offer stirring profiles of Steinbeck’s friends and contemporaries, who, in turn, allow admirers of John Steinbeck a new window onto his influences, his times, and more broadly, the burden and ecstasy of his genius.
Resisting hagiography, Hauk’s stories do not always present a flattering portrait of the artist, a fact the famously self-loathing Steinbeck might have appreciated. For example, in the “The Elevator,” Hauk painfully dramatizes the dependent but dysfunctional relationship between Steinbeck and his first wife, Carol. Invited to a party just as his writing career is finally beginning to pay dividends after the acceptance of his second novel, Tortilla Flat, for publication, Carol drinks to inebriation as she watches Steinbeck charm an attractive, younger woman – a literature student from Berkeley “who wanted to know about John’s book” (29). In another story, “The Application,” germinating from Steinbeck’s application for a gun permit following several jarring threats he had received, we learn that “his first wife Carol had also wanted children and he’d told her repeatedly it was ‘either babies or books’” (59).
“It’s fiction but it’s based on a lot of things that happened” Hauk told a reporter for the Monterey Herald. Hauk noted “that the stories reflect the pressure Steinbeck felt from those who didn’t appreciate what he was writing and his political views and sympathy for the plight of migrant workers.” Most of Hauk’s stories are about the people who knew Steinbeck personally, such as Ed Ricketts and several of Steinbeck’s childhood friends and schoolmates, with whom he stayed in touch despite increasing fame. And then there are glorious yarns about the young artists, actresses, and writers with whom Steinbeck rubbed shoulders, from whom he drew inspiration, and who in turn drew inspiration from him. A few of the stories in Hauk’s collection, however – and arguably his best – concern people who had little to no contact with John Steinbeck at all, and yet, like so many people worldwide, were deeply moved, even forever changed, by his books.
Take the gut-wrenchingly beautiful story “On Stolen Time” about a terminally ill man named Paul. By indulging his passion for book collecting, and especially first-edition books by John Steinbeck, Paul is able to beat back death, if only temporarily: “Paul thinks of himself as a saver of words, not a writer or a critic, but the kind of person . . . literature needs” (147). Paul (and Steve Hauk) understand what Nietzsche concluded was “the real immortality, that of movement.” Specifically, “what once has moved others is like an insect in amber, enclosed and immortalized in the general intertwining of all that exists” (126).
The son of John Steinbeck’s longtime friend and editor, the late Pascal Covici, Jr., a writer and scholar, maintains that “the sense that some sort of ‘awareness’ has taken place is precisely what Steinbeck’s best work – perhaps what most good writing – leaves with a reader.” With the power to move and captivate readers, Hauk’s Steinbeck: The Untold Stories achieves this empathic standard and enters the world of artistic endeavor with the power to move and captivate readers for all time.
- Block, Lawrence. Writing the Novel from Plot to Print. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1985. Print.
- Covici, Pascal, Jr. The Portable Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Print.
- Mayberry, Carly. “Pacific Grove Playwright and Gallery Owner Pens Fictional Account of Steinbeck,” Monterey Herald, 6 June 2017. Web.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human (A Book for Free Spirits). Translated by Marion Faber with Stephen Lehmann, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984. Print.
- Shillinglaw, Susan. A Journey into Steinbeck’s California. Albany, Calif.: Roaring Forties Press, 2006. Print.
About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq *Note:“Steinbeck: The Untold Stories by Steve Hauk (review)”was first published in the Steinbeck Review, Vol. 15 No. 1, 2018, pp. 76-79. Copyright © 2018 The Pennsylvania State University. This article is used by permission of the Pennsylvania State University Press.