No Californian wrote about this undervalued labor more famously than John Steinbeck, whose career reminds us how tricky it is to sort out the perishable and the eternal. Not so long ago he was reckoned one of the world’s major writers, a Nobel Prize winner translated into scores of languages (I remember being in a Moscow bookstore where his novels lined shelf after shelf). These days, he’s badly out of fashion — almost no one would call him an all-time great. No one, perhaps, except the city fathers of Salinas, who have erected the National Steinbeck Center in honor of their greatest homeboy. The irony, of course, is that, during the writer’s heyday, the local landowners despised him for such “red” novels as The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle, the very books that lured us to the Steinbeck Center in the first place. Now that he’s safely buried, this mediocre museum is being used to promote local tourism and the rebuilding of the city’s quaint Old Town. Does this mean that Steinbeck actually won — the folks who once hated him now get their identity from his work? Or have his enemies exacted ultimate revenge by exploiting his name to push their own interests?
When you’re hooked up to the mass-media IV, it becomes very easy to think that the world stinks — innocent people get bombed, madmen send deadly letters, the rich show their respect for the WTC dead by lobbying for extra tax breaks. But as we drove home after a week in the pear world, even the southernmost reaches of the San Joaquin Valley now felt suffused with a rich autumnal beauty. Cotton bales cast long purple shadows in the golden afternoon sun; clumps of tumbleweed lined the meridian like a pride of crouching lions guarding our way; in the far distance, the mountains shimmered with impossible promise, like the reflection of a mirage.
Arriving back in our unnatural city, a desert disguised as an oasis, I turned on the TV to see how the tank world had survived my inattention. Okay, it seemed. Afghan men stroked their clean-shaven chins, women beamed at being relieved of their burkas, Saturday Night Live was doing skits about Kandahar. The stack of unopened magazines and newspapers rose to my knees, many of them filled with the usual Thanksgiving corn.
But for once this didn’t bother me. I thought about how I’d soon be heading home for the holidays and how my own aging, frail mother always leaves food on her patio to feed the animals. “Look at the squirrel!” she’ll cry, no matter who’s talking or what news may be on TV. And then pointing at some bushy-tailed critter nibbling on a cob of dried corn, Mom will cackle happily, delighted by simple things, the undiminished wonder of the world.