Saturday, August 04, 2012

It’s Not Just a Sound Bite. Steinbeck’s Echo Gets Louder in "Homer from Salinas: John Steinbeck’s Enduring Voice for California" (and everyone else who’s listening)

I saw the news today. Oh boy. Apparently, depending on which of our presidential candidates you ask, the economic numbers tell different tales. (By the way, the numbers show unemployment rising from 8.2% in June to 8.3% in July). According to Mitt, ever the voice of the shrinking middle class (that voice, by the way, is coming from far above), the numbers are a “hammer blow” to the nation’s workers. And no, that’s not a cool sexual reference. If you ask our current man in the white house on the hill (also a voice coming from above…he is on a hill mind you), he states that things are getting better but “we’ve still got too many folks out there looking for work.” What is causing this, you may ask each candidate? Each one says it’s the other guy.

Thanks gents. You’ve made it perfectly clear that people are still getting screwed; it’s just a matter of lubricant. I’m impressed with both of your abilities to dilute into sound bites a problem more and more people are facing.

With election rhetoric heightening and finger pointing coming to that wonderful height of US politics known as “The other guys did it,” I can’t help but consider John Steinbeck and his oeuvre. Yes, I said it: the writer’s name that in my years of teaching high school English and university survey courses generally brought sighs of forced reverence and hidden questions of relevance. However, if you look closely at what this Californian covers, in an earnest desire to discover honesty in his words (and even some painful recognition of ethnic stereotyping and dubious characterization), what you’ll find are deep and fundamental questions of identity, ethnicity, poverty, and the exploitation of the dispossessed. You could easily flip a switch and have Steinbeck writing about our nation today.

And this kind of thoughtful consideration, this honest assessment, is exactly what you will find in Homer from Salinas: John Steinbeck’s Enduring Voice for California, deftly edited by Dr. William A. Nericcio and published by San Diego State University Press. From noted scholars, performers, artists, and photographers, this mélange of lectures, screenings, debates, discussions, and visual artifacts brings Steinbeck to the forefront of contemporary discussion. This “chaemera-like publication,” as Nericcio calls it in his introduction, compiles some of the most interesting moments from a Steinbeck celebration at San Diego State University in 2007. A celebration that took place right around the time the election season was ramping up before Obama’s first run at the office.

Questions about immigration, the economy, and the growing lower class (read impoverished, abused, taken advantage of) were all over the lips of politicians’ as much then as they are today. And in this volume of thoughtful analysis, creative response, and honest assessment, Steinbeck is given a modern day treatment that begs the question: has anything changed?

Nericcio’s collection is comprised of a beautiful mix of scholars, children’s writers, poets, and artists. The end result is an examination of the issues that plagued this nation in one of its worst economic and social times, that plagued it in 2007, and that sadly still plague it today. It proves that Steinbeck’s writings are an honest, if sometimes flawed, assessment of the “hammer blow” of “folks out there looking for work.” Echoes of this can still be heard today in the workers’ cries and the protestors’ chants, railing against the machine that’s running them over.

Homer from Salinas
is not simply a look at Steinbeck and California’s past; it is a look at the ever-changing, and troubled, United States. This is a thoughtful work that digs Steinbeck out of the dust bowl and work camps of The Great Depression and foresees him center stage in the debates of the Occupy movement and Minuteman radicalism of today’s Great Recession. It would be a welcome novelty if our political leaders could be as relevant and honest as Steinbeck and this collection.

Buy it today from SDSU Press. High school and university classrooms cannot afford to be deprived of the thoughtful debates that this collection ignites.