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Fellows Find: John Steinbeck’s “ideal woman”

By Heidi Kim

 

Cover of July 1950 issue of “Flair” magazine.
Cover of July 1950 issue of “Flair” magazine.

Heidi Kim is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She visited the Ransom Center in December 2012 on a travel fellowship to research her monograph in progress, Invisible Subjects: Asian America in Postwar American Literature.

Some archival trips, like my recent trip to the Harry Ransom Center, are highly directed expeditions. I was on a mission to look at the revision of specific sections of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden (1952). But there is also always the pleasure of the archive, given time and an extensive collection like the Ransom Center’s, which draws a researcher to explore the small pieces of an author’s oeuvre that can shed light on the concerns of his more famous works.

One of the detours I took was to look at a piece of Steinbeck’s with which I was not familiar, a minor feature in the short-lived but highly ambitious fashion magazine Flair (the Ransom Center holds a rare, complete set of its run). In Flair’s July 1950 “All Male Issue,” several famous men, including child actor Brandon de Wilde and industrial designer Raymond Loewy, were asked to draw and describe their ideal woman. Steinbeck drew a curvaceous nude, a sketchy, muscular outline emphasizing her attributes. The caption read:

“Novelist John Steinbeck snorted as he drew, sounded off: “Guys that talk about the ideal woman just don’t like women. I don’t want an ideal woman. I just like dames. Anyway, the ideal woman is for kids. I think a couple of centuries from now people are going to look back on these times and think all babies were born from mammary glands…”

For any Steinbeck scholar, this brings up an all-too-familiar debate about his unrealistic or misogynistic depictions of women—certainly a fair critique in some respects. However, through this almost defiantly sexualized sketch, Steinbeck was also exploring a growing concern about the repression, conformity, and over-civilization of the postwar era, popularly identified with the 1950s. In his mind, this was far more perverse than the healthy animal sexuality and physicality he extolled in his 1930s naturalist works, sometimes to a degree that readers found uncomfortable. The best-known example is the ending of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), in which the character Rose of Sharon, who has just had a stillborn baby, breastfeeds a half-dead, starving man and smiles mysteriously.

I’m skeptical of Steinbeck’s flippant claim that he was “just” drawing a dame rather than an ideal woman, and that the ideal woman is “for kids” (implicitly only for kids). A domesticized dame who can make a home and family was decidedly his ideal woman, as embodied by Abra in East of Eden. She likes to cook and is also a “straight, strong, fine-breasted woman, developed and ready and waiting to take her sacrament,” that is a sexual awakening from her boyfriend, who is living in an ecstasy of religious purity. Similarly, Suzy, the prostitute with a heart of gold in Sweet Thursday (1954), is no good at “hustling” because she is “too small in the butt and too big in the bust,” a state of body that reflects her state of mind: affectionate, faithful, and nurturing.  Steinbeck’s heroines have generous hearts and generous bodies.

This is not simply objectification; as a naturalist (or post-naturalist) writer, Steinbeck depicts one facet of danger to mankind as the unfitness or unwillingness to bear and nurture in a harsh world where, in Darwinian fashion, fertility of land, women, or even mind contributes to survival. As with animals, human fitness must be shown physically. The purely evil Cathy of East of Eden has a boyish body with undeveloped breasts that do not enlarge even during her unwanted pregnancy, seemingly through sheer willpower. Her body mirrors her stunted moral sense and her deviant use of sexuality as power, and symbolizes how unfit she is to be a force of good in Steinbeck’s myth-inflected narrative. In death, her already insufficient body vanishes from life and human history: “And then her eyes closed again and her fingers curled as though they held small breasts. And her heart beat solemnly and her breathing slowed as she grew smaller and smaller and then disappeared—and she had never been.”

Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains

By Ady Wetegrove

Photo of Sanora Babb. 1938.
Photo of Sanora Babb. 1938.

Coming of age on the American High Plains, American novelist Sanora Babb was familiar with the endeavor for dignity among the people living in the poverty-stricken area. With her intimate knowledge of the landscape, she provided access to the daily circumstances of individuals struggling to survive in the Dust Bowl. Babb sought to depict the High Plains as a featureless physical space, while humanizing “the Great American Desert” as the stage on which people’s daily lives unfolded.

The Ransom Center holds the Sanora Babb papers, and some of the materials are highlighted in the Center’s web exhibition Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains. In her fiction, Babb sought to illuminate the stories of those families who left little written account of the unrelenting duress and the socio-economic strife that characterized the American High Plains at mid-century. Materials from this collection are also featured in this Sunday’s premiere of Ken Burns’s new documentary The Dust Bowl on PBS, which draws heavily on Babb’s novels and documentary writings.

Before the stock market crash in October 1929, Babb moved from Colorado to Los Angeles where she found work as a scriptwriter for a radio station and began publishing her literary work in experimental activist magazines. These “little magazines” helped Babb get her foot in the door, and she soon met writers Dorothy Parker, Ralph Ellison, Genevieve Taggard, Nathanael West, John Howard Lawson, Theodore Dreiser, and B. Traven.

Increasingly involved in political activism and social advocacy, Babb worked with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to set up tent settlements for the dispossessed in California’s farmlands. Babb’s employment with the FSA, as well as her own childhood experiences, provided the subtext for her first novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, which chronicles the lives of displaced High Plains families and their struggle to find work as seasonal harvesters in California.

Although Random House accepted Babb’s novel for publication in 1939, the contract was rescinded when John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was published during the same year. According to Random House editor Bennet Cerf, the market could not support two books with similar subjects. Although both Steinbeck and Babb explore the Dust Bowl exodus of the 1930s, the authors interpret the difficult conditions in starkly different terms. In Whose Names Are Unknown, the intimate world of human relationships relies on testimonial witnessing, while Grapes of Wrath employs symbolic means to represent the condition of “Oakies.”

Disappointed that Whose Names are Unknown was eclipsed by Steinbeck’s work, Babb turned her attention to the manuscript of her second novel, The Lost Traveler (1958). Babb continued to work as a writer and publisher into her eighties, publishing An Owl on Every Post (1971), Cry of the Tinamou (1997), and Told in the Seed (1998). A re-edited manuscript of Whose Names Are Unknown, published in 2004, received critical recognition as a rival to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

In good company: Author busts keep watch over scholars in the Reading Room

By Elana Estrin

Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.
Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.

It’s hard enough to do archival research without the subjects themselves peering over your shoulder. But if you visit the Ransom Center Reading Room to pore over the letters, manuscripts, and papers of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Robert De Niro, or Edgar Allan Poe, they are all there to supervise your research—or at least their busts are.

Fourteen busts perched in the lobby greet Ransom Center visitors, and 29 busts keep an eye on the Reading Room. Many of the sculptures—such as Walt Whitman, Tom Stoppard, and Ezra Pound—represent those whose collections are housed at the Ransom Center. Figures whose archives are not at the Ransom Center—such as Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence—are represented in other archives. The sculptors range from the well known, like Jacob Epstein, to the unidentified, to Leo Tolstoy, Jr., who sculpted his father’s bust.

According to Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears, who oversees the busts, such sculptures are part of the English literary tradition.

“The busts are part of the library’s high-end furniture. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s the distinguished look of the library that provides that atmosphere for research.”

If researchers happen to be studying one of the luminaries whose bust oversees the Reading Room, it may behoove them to examine the bust. The sculptures and the stories behind their production often enhance what researchers learn from the subjects’ archives.

For example, the marble bust of Edith Sitwell radiates her formidable personality.

Another example comes from one of the most unusual busts at the Ransom Center: that of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. Sculpted by Hugh Oloff de Wet two years before Thomas’s death, the bust is thought to be the only sculpture made of Thomas while he was alive. De Wet sculpted Thomas’s disheveled tie to hold the head up high, wrinkles etch his face, and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. Before arriving at the Ransom Center, the bust was missing until it turned up at London’s Festival Hall in 2003. Shortly after, a woman named Peta Van den Bergh wrote a letter to The Guardian saying that her parents were mutual friends of Thomas and de Wet, and de Wet sculpted the bust in his parents’ sitting room. “The idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from Dylan Thomas himself,” Van den Bergh writes, “Having walked around and inspected the head, he proclaimed that something was missing and stuck his own cigarette in its mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it.” Van den Bergh recalls that de Wet finished quickly, which allowed him to capture Thomas’s “ruffled, pressurized character.”

In addition to de Wet’s Dylan Thomas bust, the Ransom Center also has de Wet’s busts of Ezra Pound, Edmund Blunden, Roy Campbell, and John Cowper Powys. Mears counts de Wet’s sculpture of Ezra Pound, which he calls “raw and striking,” among his favorite busts at the Ransom Center. According to Mears, de Wet visited Pound at his home in Rapallo, Italy in 1965. As was his practice, de Wet chatted with Pound to relax him while drawing an initial sketch. He then sculpted the bust alone in order to “mould and twist and pinch and knuckle and knead the red mud as fast as [my hands] could follow mnemonic contours extruded from my mind.” When de Wet showed Pound the finished product, Pound said, “You had finished when you began.” In addition to the bust, the Ransom Center also holds de Wet’s initial sketch and a photograph of the wizened Pound posing beside his bust.

The Ransom Center’s busts of Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling, John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, and William Carlos Williams are all by boxer-turned-sculptor Joe Brown. When he retired from boxing, Brown started making money by posing for students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Unimpressed by a boxing sculpture the instructor made, Brown gave sculpting a try. He placed his first three sculptures in an exhibition, thus launching a successful career. Brown later taught at Princeton University as both a boxing and sculpting instructor.

In a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, Brown recalls a conversation between his student and Robert Frost when Frost posed for his bust, which is displayed in the Ransom Center lobby.

Student: “How do you go about writing a poem?”

Frost: “Well, first something has to happen to you. Then you put some words on a piece of paper and ride them like a horse until you have a poem.”

Student: “I think I should set myself a program and write two, four, even six hours a day, whether I feel like it or not. Do you think that’s a good program?”

Frost: “It sounds like a good program. I’m sure it’ll improve your handwriting.”

Student (angered): “I’m serious.”

Frost: “I’m serious, too. You want me to give you the truth wrapped in a bundle so that you can put it under your arm and take it home and open it when you need it. Well, I can’t do that. The truth wouldn’t be there anymore.”

Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

The Art of the Letter: What we can learn from illustrated letters in the collections

By Elana Estrin

Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.  © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.
Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks. © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.

John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.

The Writer’s Project: Searching for something to say

By Alicia Dietrich

Noah Gordon. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Noah Gordon. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Noah Gordon is a Master of Arts student in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He teaches tenth grade American Literature as a student teacher at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. He recently spent time at the Ransom Center gathering materials to use in his classroom with high school sophomores and writes here about that experience.

Your high school English teacher probably wanted only your final draft. Even process-based writing instructors expect the final version to represent the author’s best work: scrubbed of grammatical errors and clunkers, defined and refined in logic and narrative structure. As much as possible, the product should be perfect.

It’s no wonder that writing is so daunting for most students. The only writing that they see covered in red ink is their own. Most of the canonical books they read have been edited and revised until every warty word has been excised, leaving a deceptively smooth, unblemished sheen. But how often do students see the actual process?

Now, with 34 tenth graders coming under my charge, I’m about to teach American Literature. How can I help my future students to make meaningful connections through reading and writing?

I visited the Harry Ransom Center to study how professional writers write and in an attempt to make literature more relevant to my life. My experience led me to wonder what would happen if my students read the day-by-day slog recorded in Steinbeck’s journal while they read The Grapes of Wrath. Could the corrections, carets, and scribbles in Whitman’s proofs of Leaves of Grass bring my students closer to writing their own poetry? I imagine a student reading “Two Minutes,” a short story by 14-year-old Tim O’Brien, and saying, “Well, I could do better than that.”

Reading through Anne Sexton’s teaching materials from Wayland High School, I was struck by how difficult teaching teenagers can be, even for a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet. And yet, thumbing through her students’ poems, I was inspired. It was exhilarating to look at drafts that I wasn’t supposed to see, to gain intimate access to each author’s life and to see the students’ vital search to find their words.

Your high school English teacher also probably wanted your work to appear effortless. But exposing the hard work may be the chief power the Ransom Center holds for students: the archive reveals not just the process, but also the project of writing. Every author’s project begins with finding something worth saying to someone. The Ransom Center is a catalog of each frustrated attempt as accomplished wordsmiths struggled to write precisely what they meant.

This is the spirit that I want to bring to my classroom: that meaningful connection is possible through the reading and writing of words. For our writing to be purposeful, we must find something meaningful to say. We must have a project. What becomes clear after reading the preserved papers is that they were written by human beings for other human beings.

I hope to share with my students what I learned from my week at the Center: that the canon’s authors’ godlike craft comes not solely from the natural ability, but from hard work, and that they, my students, potential authors of great literature, have much to contribute.