Friday, October 23, 2015

My Apologies, John Steinbeck, But I Care About Things Like This

Remember.  No matter where you go, there you are.
 ~ Buckaroo Banzai
(The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, movie released in 1984, script by Earl Mac Rauch.)

There are moments when my consuming interest in natural history, and, in particular, things paleontological and geological, wreaks havoc with my non-scientific reading.  There I am, engrossed in a work of fiction or non-fiction that has no ostensible link to natural history, when the author touches on the natural sciences.  A little current crackles somewhere in my brain and I say to myself, “Hey, look at that!” – and mentally, if not literally, I underline the passage.  I cannot ignore this alert.  And that initial surge of excitement may come with a critical edge – Did the author get it right or not?  Do I really know one way or the other?  Damn, it would be so much easier just to let it slide, assume it true, and continue in the author’s company heading to wherever he or she wants me to go.  Instead, I’m compelled to take off on a bit of research.

I just reread John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley:  In Search of America, published in 1962.  Steinbeck recounts a journey he took in 1960 across America traveling in a specially outfitted camper truck with his French poodle Charley (surely one of the best road buddies in literature).  This was all in an effort to get reacquainted with America, a place he felt he’d lost touch with after living for many years in New York, France, and England.  He wanted to recharge his literary batteries and also felt the need to prove that he was physically able to make this quest.  Steinbeck, who had been in poor health, was, in fact, counseled not to do it.

This book has carried different messages for me depending upon when I read it.  It was a gateway drug for an adolescent who found the idea of abandoning one’s self to the road nearly irresistible (though I did resist it).  With my teenage years having faded long ago in the rearview mirror, I was disappointed to find that the book has lost much of its allure.  Structurally, it’s disjointed and uneven, littered with set pieces.  There’s a strong current of dissatisfaction with much of what Steinbeck encountered.  The carping can get tiring; the reader sometimes wants out.

Yet, Travels does have sparks of beautiful prose as well as occasional insights into America that still ring true.  Steinbeck wrote movingly on environmental degradation, media-fed anger and hatred (he described the vitriol spewed by a white crowd at a solitary African American child integrating a school in New Orleans, and how leaders of the protesters were fueled by their coverage in the press), and the (not unique) propensity of many Americans to blame, however irrationally, someone else, some other group, for their ills (a Minnesota shopkeeper opined that, in 1960, what really set people off in a public way were the Russians who were felt to be behind everything wrong; before that it was Franklin Roosevelt – “Andy Larsen got red in the face about Roosevelt one time when his hens got the croup.”).

Travels is, I think, a lesser work from a first rate author who was past his literary prime.  To add insult to injury, there’s evidence that he made up at least some of the book, fabricating dialogue, exaggerating how much time he actually spent camping out in his truck, minimizing how often he was joined by his wife, . . . .  (Charles McGrath, A Reality Check of Steinbeck and Charley, New York Times, April 3, 2011.)

This matters more to some people than others.  Bill Barich, author of Long Way Home:  On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America (2010) struck a good balance.  He is quoted in the 2011 New York Times piece as saying, “I’m fairly certain that Steinbeck made up most of the book. . . . But I still take seriously a lot of what he said about the country.  His perceptions were right on the money about the death of localism, the growing homogeneity of America, the trashing of the environment.  He was prescient about all that.”

(Barich’s book is an interesting read.  His journey across America did not follow Steinbeck’s path, but, rather, was an attempt to do what Steinbeck set out to do – take the pulse of America.  Unlike Travels, which cannot be used to trace a precise track across the country, Barich’s Long Way Home is an almost too painful town-by-town account of his journey.  He’s also guilty of at least one egregious error of fact.  When he’s in Dodge City, Kansas, he mentioned the radio and TV show Gunsmoke which was set there.  He asserted that the show’s main character, U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, was “modeled on Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled Lew Archer . . . .”  (p. 164)  Ouch, Chandler’s private eye was Philip Marlowe, author Ross Macdonald’s was Lew Archer.  As a devotee of the hardboiled detective genre, I almost quit the book at this flub.)

To be honest, made-up dialogue and the like really don’t bother me much.  Travels smacks of fiction almost from the outset.  Steinbeck’s harrowing rescue of his boat when Hurricane Donna slammed into Long Island (where he was living) just before he was to go on the road may be true, but it certainly reads like fiction.  Jay Parini, in his introduction to the 1997 Penguin edition of Travels, described this rescue as “a paradigmatic moment in the larger arc of the story” (p. xii) in which the hero plunges into the fray, achieves his goal, and returns to his loved one.  All a bit literary.

Someone suggested to me that Travels is like the drawings in a good birding book that, to facilitate identification, emphasize or exaggerate the key elements of different bird species.  The images don’t faithfully represent any individual specimens, rather, they capture critical truths about the different species.  So it is with Travels with Charley.  It may not be great literature and its details are suspect, but it still offers up some key truths about America.

But some realities shouldn’t be open to abuse, no matter how worthy or benign the intent.  The following brief passage in Travels triggered my natural history alert:
Beside the road I saw a very large establishment, the greatest distributor of sea shells in the world – and this in Wisconsin, which hasn’t known a sea since pre-Cambrian times. (1997 Penguin edition, p. 98)
To Steinbeck, seashells in Wisconsin were anomalous, not because the nearest sea was now hundreds of miles away (as I, with my tepid prose, would have summed up the disconnect), but because Wisconsin “hasn’t known a sea since pre-Cambrian times.”  It is a great line, powerfully capturing the alien nature of seashells in Wisconsin.

The geologic time scale table below shows the periods of the Paleozoic Era.  It's helpful for the discussion which follows.  (The data in this table are from the International Chronostratigraphic Chart for 2015, published by the International Commission on Stratigraphy.  Figures have been rounded to the nearest million years.)

Geological Time Scale of the Paleozoic Era
Period Numerical Age
Permian 252 to 299 million years ago (mya)
Carboniferous 299 to 359 mya
Devonian 359 to 419 mya
Silurian 419 to 444 mya
Ordovician 444 to 485 mya
Cambrian 485 to 541 mya

If, as Steinbeck would have it, seas last lapped somewhere in Wisconsin before the Cambrian Period, they wouldn't have done so for more than 541 million years, a long, long time ago, to be sure.

Let me start with one of my discoveries from my little research distraction:  the Silurian trilobite Calymene celebra, first described by paleontologist Percy E. Raymond in 1916, was made the Wisconsin state fossil in 1986.  (P.E. Raymond, New and Old Silurian Trilobites From Southeastern Wisconsin, With Notes on the Genera of the Illaenidae, Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Volume LX, No. 1, 1916.)  A lovely specimen is pictured below.

Kentuckiana Mike, author of the always interesting blog Louisville Fossils, kindly gave permission for the use of this image of a specimen found in the Racine Formation near Milwaukee.  This picture originally appeared on his blog in the post Calymene celebra Fossil on March 21, 2013.

A marine arthropod from the Silurian Period?  What this means is that C. celebra lived in warm, shallow seas in Wisconsin much more recently than 541 mya.  Seashells in the same time period?  The Wisconsin fossil shells depicted in the following plates are from the Silurian and Ordovician Periods.

The images of these plates are reproduced with the kind permission of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and are taken from the Common Paleozoic Fossils of Wisconsin, written by Ross H. Nehm and Bryan E. Bemis, Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, Educational Series 45 (2002).  They appear on pages 16 and 17 of that publication.

To sum up the Wisconsin and seas connection, I turn to the “Geologic History of Wisconsin” page, part of Milwaukee Public Museum’s extensive and informative online exhibit titled The Virtual Silurian Reef which does it nicely :
About 520 million years ago, during the late part of the Cambrian Period, a shallow inland sea spread across much of Wisconsin. . . .
An inland sea persisted across eastern and southern Wisconsin during the following Ordovician and Silurian Periods. . . .
During the Devonian Period, the inland sea retreated to southeastern Wisconsin, and by the end of the Devonian, it was gone.  For the following 360 million years, Wisconsin was a land area that did not accumulate any permanent sedimentary deposits.
I was taken with the idea of reefs in Wisconsin during the Silurian (my distractions often have their own distractions).  Turns out that these reefs that sliced across the southeastern side of the state during this period are quite fascinating and the subject of much study.  According to geologist Donald G. Mikulic, “The Silurian reefs of the Milwaukee region were the first recognized fossil reefs in North America and among the first Paleozoic reefs described in the world.”  (The Reefs That Made Milwaukee Famous, Geoscience Wisconsin, Volume 18, 2001, p. 7.)  This isn’t new information.  Actually, it was in 1862 that geologist James Hall first put forward in print the hypothesis that the limestone hills and ridges in the Milwaukee area were the remains of reefs.  As he examined the distribution of fossils in this Silurian limestone, he concluded that the only satisfactory explanation was that “[t]he entire mass appears like a coral reef, where the broken corals and shells are packed in a calcareous sand . . . .”  (Physical Geography and General Geology, Report of the Geological Survey of the State of Wisconsin, Volume 1, 1862, p. 63.)

Back to the original distraction.  Does it really make a difference that Steinbeck was wrong to assert that Wisconsin had no seas from before the Cambrian?  That he was off by perhaps 180 million years?  I guess the rational person would say, no, it doesn’t matter because, any way you slice it, the disappearance of seas from Wisconsin took place way back when.  Before the Cambrian or at the end of the Devonian, who cares?

Well, though I know it’s anal and an overreaction, I care.  These kinds of facts matter to me.  Maybe Steinbeck knew when the seas actually receded from Wisconsin (this knowledge was out there when he wrote Travels), but I suspect he found the phrase “pre-Cambrian times” to be a more creative and eloquent way to say “a long time ago.”  If that’s the case, then I’m greatly disappointed (and would only be a bit less disappointed if he were actually just uninformed or being sloppy).  I don’t think geological facts like this are to be manipulated as one might massage, or generate out of whole cloth, some conversations or parts of an itinerary because they better serve a narrative arc.

So, in the end, rereading Travels was a mixed bag:  I found some aspects of the book that I enjoyed, and some things that truly bothered me, such as my inability to recreate my warm, teenage feelings for it, the uncomfortable sadness and bitterness that course through the account, and, yes, that geological transgression.

Steinbeck’s take on America is laced with disenchantment springing, not just from what he found about the contemporary state of America, but, also from where he was in his life.  In his quest to rediscover America, to re-energize his muse, and to recover the young man he once was, I think he forgot Buckaroo Banzai’s admonition:  Remember.  No matter where you go, there you are.
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