Steinbeck Conference

Kelsey Healey

This May, the John Steinbeck Society of America will present an international conference: Steinbeck and the Politics of Crisis: Ethics, Society, and Ecology. The conference is sponsored by the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies which publishes the Steinbeck Review  and maintains an extensive bibliography of articles and books on Steinbeck and his works.

This conference focuses on ethical issues of different kinds and explores some new ways of looking at Steinbeck’s work. The individual papers are grouped into themed sections that reflect some of the major trends in Steinbeck studies. An attention to global and social consciousness, for example, is seen in the sections on “The Female Space,” “Reports from Overseas,” or “Steinbeck and Race in America.” Some of the papers in these sections will take a feminist critical approach to Steinbeck’s novels, or looking at  race relations and what it means to be “American.” Interestingly, the conference will also hear from some international perspectives on this American writer. I find it especially interesting that there will be two papers on Steinbeck’s relationship with Japanese culture, as this is a connection I have come across in my own research.

Other sections of the conference include “Eco-criticism,” “Fresh Critical Approaches,” “New Economic Approaches,” and “Man and Machine.” These sections cover a variety of topics which indicate that readers and scholars are constantly looking at Steinbeck’s works in new ways. As the world around us changes, so do our ways of reading and understanding these texts. For instance, one of the papers to be presented is entitled “John Steinbeck, Spaceship Earth Cosmonaut.” Over the span of the three-day conference, many other topics of interest will be explored as well.

The conference on May 1-3 will be immediately followed by the 33rd annual John Steinbeck Festival on May 4-5; this year’s festival’s theme is “Home.” The festival will honor this particular theme by celebrating the specific places that Steinbeck considered “home” (Salinas, CA, for example) and also exploring the concept of “home” in American culture.

Some other things I discovered, via the Center for Steinbeck Studies website: the John Steinbeck Society periodically presents the “John Steinbeck Award” to recognize “writers, artists, thinkers, and activists whose work captures the spirit of Steinbeck’s empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of people who by circumstance are pushed to the fringes. The phrase “In the Souls of the People” comes from Chapter 25 of The Grapes of Wrath.”

I learned that the first recipient of the award was Bruce Springsteen in 1996– which fits in perfectly with my own research that connects these two. Other recipients of the Steinbeck Award include Rachel Maddow, Dolores Huerta, Garrison Keillor, Arthur Miller, and most recently, John Mellencamp in 2012.


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