Saturday, May 31, 2014

STEINBECK AND ME by Arletta Dawdy

John Steinbeck inspired many writers over the years, especially those with a nascent social conscience.

In December of 1947, I traveled from New Jersey to Florida by Greyhound bus with my grandmother and mother. My first exposure to racism happened in the border states when, at a bus stopover, I spotted a drinking fountain labeled “Colored Only.”  I’d never known water fountains that put out colored water. Nine year olds were much more na├»ve, innocent and unfamiliar with the ways of segregation in that era. At least it was so for this Northern child. By the time my Southern education ended six months later, I was wiser and took my objections to a soap box and two careers.

Reading about Jane Addams’ work at Hull House in Chicago when I was barely fourteen impressed me with lessons in social change and helping others to improve their lives.  Then, I found John Steinbeck and devoured his work, book by book, article by article. It helped to be a library monitor at Occidental College for the access to so much of his early work and that of Jack London, buried in the periodical stacks.

In June 1960, Steinbeck wrote to his editor and great friend, Pascal Covici: “I nearly always write─just as I nearly always breathe.” I graduated from OXY that same month, never believing I was capable of writing novels. Social work  called to my heart and off.
I went in Jane Addams’ footsteps.

I have to wonder if that long trek along the Atlantic coast by bus and then again out to California cemented my understanding of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. It is a book I returned to frequently and find its characters continue to teach me. Before the National Steinbeck Center opened in Salinas, I prowled Monterey’s Cannery Row, noted his friend Ed Ricketts’ lab, found his boyhood home, dreamed of his ventures around the valley, haunted the Salinas library exhibits.

Then, the Center opened sixteen years ago and my pilgrimages beganI also began to think a lot about GRAPES with its 75th anniversary celebration this year. One of the characters began to “speak” to the writer-me and the third book in my Huachuca Trilogy begged to be written…even if in fits and starts.  A forty year career in social work led me to write professionally about the human condition: in home studies; individual and family assessments; about group dynamics and program analysis; and in court reports. My hesitation over that first essay test in college was gone; I could write masterfully but could I write fiction? I started in the 1980’s and haven’t stopped.

Thank you John Steinbeck!

Writers, what writers have influenced your path to the printed page?
And readers, whose books have you devoured in the past…or present?
Everyone, what kind of books do you like to give or get as gifts?


  1. Dear Jean,
    Thank you for inviting me to your blog! I've revised this entry after reading it locally, including a bit from BY GRACE to show the Steinbeck influence. I'll post it on my blog in the future. .Arletta

  2. It's been great hosting you this week, Arletta. I look forward to reading BY GRACE.

  3. Interesting blog, Arletta! I love Steinbeck too. Besides all the Stevenson I read in the course of writing "Stevenson's Treasure," my writing has been influenced by those other lusty writers of the past century, Hemingway and Jack London. I don't think too many have done it better when it comes to spare, realistic prose and outdoors action. Shakespeare, too, is no slouch and kind of stands above all the rest in creating unforgettable characters!

  4. Marilyn CampbellMay 23, 2015 at 1:06 PM

    I just discovered this site and read your comments about being influenced by Steinbeck. This answered several questions about the influence of your experiences in social work upon your writing. I look forward to reading your books.