John Steinbeck was my father

John Steinbeck IV, living in La Jolla, talks with Reader writers.

John Steinbeck, father of John Steinbeck IV.  "My brother and I, we talked with him a lot about things, languages and history and cultures and customs. We traveled around the world with him."
  • John Steinbeck, father of John Steinbeck IV. "My brother and I, we talked with him a lot about things, languages and history and cultures and customs. We traveled around the world with him."

John Steinbeck IV, John Steinbeck's son moved to La Jolla 18 months ago. In 1970, during a winter and spring offensive in Laos, John was holed up during the monsoon in an old French hotel in Vientiane, and again read The Grapes of Wrath. "By that time I was writing. I saw the nuts and bolts of his writing. That was a impressive to me as the historical value of the book, and what the book did to America."

John Steinbeck IV.

John Steinbeck IV.

John Steinbeck IV, younger son of John and Gwyn Steinbeck, was born in 1946 in Manhattan. His parents were divorced in the late '40s. John and his older brother Thom lived with their mother, frequently visiting their father (whose Third Avenue and 72nd Street apartment was seven blocks from their mother's). Between father and sons, said John. "It wasn't like a vast separation.

John and Thom "hit the England prep school circuit, got thrown out of a lot of schools." (John, at 15, "left school before Timothy Leary thought it was interesting," he explained. "I decided to educate myself.") In 1965 he was drafted and served for a year as an information specialist with the U.S. Army in South Vietnam. In 1968 his first book, In Touch (A.A. Knopf), was published.

As a boy, John remembered seeing the film version of The Grapes of Wrath when his father screened it for guests. "I was quite young. It was the most depressing thing I'd ever seen in my life."

As a boy, John remembered seeing the film version of The Grapes of Wrath when his father screened it for guests. "I was quite young. It was the most depressing thing I'd ever seen in my life."

Returning to Vietnam in 1968, John helped create Dispatch News Service, which uncovered the My Lai massacre. In 1970 he won an Emmy for his work on a CBS special, The World of Charlie Company. During the early 1970s John traveled through Asia and studied Buddhism and wrote nonfiction pieces that were published in major magazines. In 1975 he moved to Boulder, Colorado, to continue Buddhist studies. He stayed in Boulder for 12 years, studying and teaching at the Naropa Institute (one of whose founders is Allen Ginsberg). He and his wife Nancy, a psychotherapist, and their two children moved to La Jolla 18 months ago. (John explained: "We were doing movies. We wanted to be close to Hollywood but not in L.A.") The live in a simply and exotically decorated to-story house overlooking the ocean and Scripps Institution of Oceanography

A vice president for Steinbeck Films, Inc., which manages past and present film projects generated by his father's novels as well as other material, John is at work on development of a documentary film, The Log from the Sea of Cortez: The Second Voyage of the Western Flyer. Also, he teaches and practices "Straightforward Buddhism — the foundation of Buddhist philosophy, practice, and study."

A bulky, bearded man, barefoot, John Steinbeck IV opened the front door, invited us to come in. We wriggled out of our shoes ("You can leave them on if you want," John assured) and followed him across the ivory cotton carpet into a small, white-walled room. Displayed on the south wall was a hanging on which were ranked various avatars in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. Rapidly, his voice raspy, John tolled off these avatars' names and histories. On a low table beneath the hanging were bowls that held incense, rice, coins, a pocket knife.

In the house's lower level, along the stairway leading up to bedrooms, books spilled from bookshelves. Had John's father prodded him to read? "Correctly suspecting he had given birth to a petty thief, my father encouraged me to read by locking in a leaded glass-front bookcase books that he thought were essential — the Iliad, Lao-Tse's Tao Te Ching, Mark Twain, the Bible, King Arthur and His Knights, and other tales of chivalry. Then he hid the key where he knew I would find it and threatened me within an inch of my life if he ever caught me in there. Needless to say, I learned to read rapidly"

On the patio, we settled on chairs beneath an umbrella shading a round table. Ravens dive-bombed through evergreens above us, cried: "Caw, caw, caw." Nancy, John's blonde wife, brought coffee in white mugs, went back into the house to answer the telephone. Their son, a teenager, slipped out the back door and stood by his father, waiting for a break in conversation to say he was going, that he would be back in an hour. He was introduced, look us each in the eye, shook our hands, and said good-bye.

We sipped our coffee. So, what had it been like to be the child of one of the United States' most famous writers? "I didn't know John Steinbeck was my father until the next-door doorman said to me when I was about five, 'Do you know your father is John Steinbeck?' 'Yeah,' I said, But I had no idea what that meant.

"Steinbeck —" John paused, explained that he spoke of his father alternately as "Steinbeck" and "my father" "—Steinbeck is a beloved writer. People loved him. I'm not sure that's all completely deserved, being his son. But people really feel they knew him in a way that really touching to them."

He'd had, John admitted, "a lot of practice with being John Steinbeck. I've always been very generous with who he is and what that's about. Not my brother. It gets in his way a little more; he's more 'Get our of my face.'"

John's brother Thom lives in Los Angeles. He's a screenwriter, an artist, a painter. He makes things, he has very gifted hands."

Are they close? "Our phone bill last month was $750. He's my best friend, the only guy who knows what I know, including Vietnam, growing up with my mother and my father. He's the only person who knows what I know. I always think it's very sad when I hear of siblings — one's in Buffalo selling insurance and the sister's teaching school in San Diego and they haven't really talked in 16 years."

About his father, John said, "My brother and I, we talked with him a lot about things, languages and history and cultures and customs. We traveled around the world with him. I had a great education. He had a lot of eclectic interests as I do or my brother does: Why a crossbow arrow will penetrate your breast at a certain number of miles per hour.

"My love of words and communication I got from him. When I was not doing my homework in boarding school, I was reading encyclopedias. He made me think learning things was not a choice, not a duty, but a really exciting thing to do. Not even that, but excitement itself."

One of us, a doctor's son, mentioned that his father had urged him to follow in his footsteps. Was there pressure on John to become a writer? He shook his head, no. "I stated writing so close to the time he died that he was surprised by the fact I was even doing it. The fact that I did it tolerably well was nothing but a source of pleasure to him. He said, 'Oh, the kid can write.' My book was in galleys before he died, and he had the galleys on his bed when he died.

"Being a writer, I am compared to him sometimes. Fortunately, I write nonfiction.

"I'm sure there are all sorts of deep-seated psychological issues — myself comparing myself to him, being under the shadow of whatever those words are. They aren't crippling at this point, but they're there. I am sure that for children of famous people, there's a certain amount of pathology that goes around. Drugs and alcohol have been fatal to a number of my friend.

"Artists are by nature not particularly gifted as parents. They can be very self-centered, very abusive often and dysfunctional when it comes to raising children. So the kid kind of has to raise himself. Often it is expecting too much for that muse to operate and for the person to be a parent."

His father, John allowed, never had to be a parent, "except on his time and on his terms, and then he was very good at that, very good. Very Huck Finny. Had he had to do it day in, day out, he couldn't have made it, no chance that he would've been any good at it."

Oh, yes, John said, his father was a disciplined worker. "He would get up at five in the morning, generally, and fiddle around with breakfast. Then he would sharpen pencils for a long time. he had a box of not such dull pencils here ... " John reached with his right hand into an imaginary box ... "and an empty box here." He reached with his left hand into a second, imaginary box. Laughed. "I'm talking about 400 pencils. He had one of the first electric pencil sharpeners ever made He'd take a pencil," John mimed, "put it in the sharpener, and by the time he had them all sharpened, when this box was full, he had gotten over what all writers have: that morning inhibition: 'Am I really going to put my mind on a piece of blank paper?' By the time the 400 pencils were sharpened, he'd negotiated all that. And then he would write, from six or seven in the morning until noon. Then quit and go fishing or whittling or invent. I thought that was really enviable, that he only worked until noon. But he did it with a great deal of discipline. He didn't give himself vacations. He didn't gnash his teeth about stuff. He worked out a lot of his mechanical problems by writing letters to his close friends and editor."

We talked, then, among ourselves, about Steinbeck the writer, how as the '30s passed into the '40s and '50s, he remained popular among general readers, even while, critically, his reputation dwindled. "When my father was a boy," John said, "if you were a farm person, or anybody who didn't live in the city, there were no good reasons to read unless you were reading the Bible or the directions to the combine. If you had time to read, it was because you weren't doing your chores."

"He wrote simply, not in the way that Hemingway is considered to write simply, but he wrote in a way that people who are intimidated by books could actually follow the story. It wasn't playing down to them at all, and his books gave them confidence they could read and understand. It wasn't something that was Greek to them. He kind of made it okay for people to read a book without being ashamed. His place in history is very valuable in that sense.

"He had a very pixie sense; he'd write anything. he liked writing for things. So if he saw, say, an outboard motor that he wanted to have but didn't feel he should spend the money on it, he'd call the Evinrude company and say, 'I'd like to borrow one of your motors and use it fishing, and if I like it, I'll say I like it.' And then they'd give hi the outboard motor. He thought that was one of the best parts of the job. Of course, he was well into the dollar-a-word category when this worked out for him, but he liked it a lot.

"He liked writing frivolous pieces and he liked writing short stories, the serious ones in the traditional sense. He liked doing send-ups of Poe. He wrote for Sports Illustrated — phony sports columns. He wrote a piece for them about what sports mean to him or something like that.

"He brought a lot o this into his real life. In one of the Sports Illustrated articles, he had written that one of the sports he liked — he was making them up — was fishing contests without baiting the hook. Actually, he did fish that way a lot, not baiting the hook. Actually, he did fish that way a lot, not baiting the hook, because, he said, 'It won't disturb them.' Also, he fished that way sometimes in order to work out problems in his work."

In another of his Sports Illustrated articles, Steinbeck had discussed racing oak trees. John was visiting him and saw, next to his father's writing desk, a baking dish filled with peat moss and on the peat moss were rows of acorns, turned upside down. "I didn't let him know I'd read the Sports Illustrated article," John said, "and I asked him, "What are you doing here?' and he said, 'I'm racing oak trees.'" John's laughter interrupted his story, then he continues, repeating to us his father's answer, "'Well, it hasn't caught on yet, but if it does, I have one of the first stables.'

"It was so strange. He had a very funny private little thing going on. You'd go into the attic where people had mousetraps. He'd have a plate of poisoned grain, and he'd have signs all over, 'Mouse Beware. This is Poison. Do not Eat.' He was a funny guy."

John's father was a friend of Lyndon Johnson and the elder Steinbecks were frequently invited to the White House, as private guests. "There's a picture of us, with me shaking Lyndon's hand. When I was sent off into a very insecure area of Vietnam, I had a copy of this picture and i gave it to my company commander. I had written under the picture, 'Hey Lyndon, why me? Why Vietnam?'"

Steinbeck had supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam, John fought in Vietnam, as did his brother Thom. Their father's support of President Johnson's policies in Southeast Asia infuriated many U.S. leftists. "Steinbeck," John said, "had the reputation of being a conscience for Americans."

After John landed in Vietnam, his father asked him if he thought he should visit the country. "I had just arrived. I was quite hawkish at the time. I thought the Communists put bombs in crowded movie theaters and we were doing nothing other than trying to save these people. I didn't realize our bullets didn't always hit just Communists. I was very naive.

"And other people, including my father, didn't know much then about the war. So he went over to have a firsthand look. He stayed six weeks and wrote a series of pieces for Newsday.

"He was quite pro-U.S. involvemnt, and he lost a lot of readers. There were more people who were 'Let's get out of here, this is ugly.' I think we both misread the situation.

"After he left Vietnam, about three months later, and I began learning Vietnamese and actually hanging out with Vietnamese people, I begin to see that this [U.S. involvement in Vietnam] was not cool, and I shared that with my father and we had a little parting of the way. But not for long. He came around there." It was a time, John reminded us, when "the so-called generation gap was in full gap."

I asked John about his father's response to the New York Times' suggestion, after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, that the award committee might have found someone better than he to whom to give the literature prize. "I'm sure his feelings were incredibly hurt, that he was incredibly pissed off. I think he had a certain amount of insecurity because he was a Western writer. He lived on the East Coast with the Ivy League literate crowd. Bu the never pretended to be an intellectual. He was a shy man, and I think it made him insecure and then furious. They were such snobs.

"I do know that one person came up to him in Stockholm, when he went there for the prize, an East Coast kind of lady, and said to him, almost like she was musing over her scones, 'I wonder how long it would take to earn $50,000 tax-free,' and he looked at her and said, 'Forty years, lady, I just did it.'

"He worked very hard at what he did. He was poor for a long time. His success of any remark was in in his late 30s. He worked hard and he worked a lot of things, did a lot of manual labor, was a night watchman, helped build Madison Square Garden, poured cement ffr it."

What things remind him of his father? "Some odors — a certain Florida toilet water. I noticed very pleasantly the other day, I walked into my office and it smelled like my father's office.

"A certain humor — my brother and I share a lot of his humor. My brother is quite like him. Without even thinking about it, my father, walking down the street, would tip his hat to a dog. My brother does that. It's nice when you know it's spontaneous and genuine, nothing cranked up about it.

"But when it's most touching is when you see your own hands picking up something in a way that your father did or your mother did."

John is a Buddhist, and one of us asked if he would expect to see his father again. In another reincarnation? "I don't think so," John laughed pleasantly.

The question was rephrased. "Was there a thing you two were working out?"

"I think everybody has that. I communicated with him a lot better after he was dead then when he was alive. Reincarnation and the metaphysics of incarnation have nothing to do with it, however." John gazed past us across the lawn, then returned his glance to our faces. "He's alive when I salute a dog walking down the street.

"After he died, I got some writing some lessons from him. I got some lessons about how to deal with people like the New York Times. Sometimes it's by reading something he told to someone else. I'd say, 'I needed that this morning, and guess what, I am getting this through my own ancestors.' Not necessarily in meditation or samahdi or anything spooky-mooki-mudo like that. Very practical things.

"The most gratifying thing he gave me, both before and after he died, was to know that the most refined highest wisdoms and human knowledge we find in the everyday, ordinary world, not in a library of Sanskrit, not at Oxford, but from the guy down the street. That guy knows as much. The common wisdom is the most profound. Ordinary mind is enlightened mind. Fortunately, my other training also reinforced that truth.

"Not that my father didn't believe scholarship was useful, but that it had its place. If he needed to learn something about the language of the Middle Ages, he would go to the books or scholars who could teach him, but he did that only so he could learn what ordinary people said in the Middle Ages."

As a boy, John remembered seeing the film version of The Grapes of Wrath when his father screened it for guests. "I was quite young. It was the most depressing thing I'd ever seen in my life." Aged 13 or 14, he read the book. "And was equally depressed."

In 1970, during a winter and spring offensive in Laos, John was hold up during the monsoon in an old French hotel in Vientiane, and he again read The Grapes of Wrath. "That's when I got the most out of the book as a writer. By that time I was writing. So then I actually saw how deft he was I saw the nuts and bolts of the writing. That was as impressive to me as the historical value of the book at the time it came out and what that did to America in terms of becoming aware of the Dust Bowl and Depression from the farmers' point of view.

"Contained in that realization were a couple of interesting factors. People read Steinbeck as being 'oh-so-realistic' and really catching the sound of the way people talk. If you look at The Grapes of Wrath, closely, nobody talks like that. It's a big kind of cartoon in the fresco sense of the word, an overdrawn image of the way people might talk.

"But by the time it filters down to you, it sounds real. Kind of like Chinese political theater, it's supposed to reach the guy in the last row. It resounds hugely."

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