What will the Times say this time? On February 27, the centennial of John Steinbeck's birth, his long-time publisher Penguin, along with booksellers, arts institutions, colleges and libraries, will be throwing the author—whom the New York Times editorialized as unworthy of the Nobel Prize when he won in 1962—one heck of a year-long celebration.
On the publishing front, Penguin has much planned for Steinbeck, whose works already sell about two million copies a year. The house has repackaged six of his paperback classics: East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, The Pearl and Travels with Charley in Search for America, now available individually and in a boxed set. In addition, this month Viking is releasing a new hardcover collection of Steinbeck's nonfiction, America and Americans, edited by Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson. It includes essays, works of journalism and the original ending for Travels with Charley. From the Library of America comes a third volume of Steinbeck's work, Steinbeck: Novels 1942—52, edited by Robert DeMott.
On the actual birthday, soon to be declared John Steinbeck Day in New York City by mayoral proclamation, Penguin is throwing a party at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. Actors from the Broadway production of The Grapes of Wrath will read, followed by a discussion led by Benson and DeMott. One of the biggest celebratory events takes place on March 19 at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, co-sponsored by PEN and the Mercantile Library. Mercantile director Harold Augenbraum said that while plans for the Lincoln Center event are still being finalized, Arthur Miller, Studs Terkel, Bill Kennedy and Dorothy Allison are already on the bill.
Fittingly for a writer of the people, many of the Steinbeck centennial events are happening at the grass roots. Augenbraum and Shillinglaw (who is the head of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University) are co-directors of the national Steinbeck Centennial, which is distributing individual $500 National Endowment for the Humanities grants to 106 libraries in 39 states. "I think it is really the most widespread single author event in American history," said Augenbraum.
An admitted latecomer to the centennial, but certainly not an insignificant player, is the California Council for the Humanities, which is kicking off its first California Reads program by trying to get the entire state to read The Grapes of Wrath. Julie Levak, the organization's director of external affairs, told PW that when the organization picked Steinbeck as its first choice for the statewide program, it was unaware of the centennial. Still in the planning stages, the state program, called "California Is My Story," will occur in the fall. "We are looking for innovative ways of engaging people in humanities projects through story," said Levak. "The Grapes of Wrath is the quintessential California book and it provides a portal to discussion of immigration and displacement that so many Californians can relate to."
Judging from the national attention the centennial will get, however, Steinbeck is one writer who plays far beyond his hometown of Salinas, Calif. "He was a socially engaged and concerned man," said Shillinglaw. "People sensed his empathy, and that makes him very readable."
Steinbeck's social consciousness is a major reason why Judith Balk, director of the Chester Public Library in Chester, N.H., applied for an NEH grant for a week's worth of Steinbeck programs in February. "This is Robert Frost country," she said. "I think Steinbeck wrote about the same problems New England has," from migrant workers to keeping oceans clean to homelessness and poverty. "I wanted to bring back an awareness and appreciation for his writing and for the issues he writes about," she said.
Lorraine Borowski, the director of the public library in Decorah, Iowa, another of the 106 libraries planning to hold NEH grant-sponsored events for the centennial, said she thought Steinbeck had an "earthiness" that appeals to people. "It's a commonness," she explained. "He wrote about displaced people, people in strife and sociological issues that anyone can identify with personally, or through their ancestry."