Celebrating Steinbeck: Sag Harbor's Favorite Literary Resident - 27 East

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Celebrating Steinbeck: Sag Harbor’s Favorite Literary Resident

author on Apr 27, 2015

[caption id="attachment_37301" align="alignnone" width="835"]John  Steinbeck with binoculars. (Photo courtesy of the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor). John Steinbeck with binoculars. (Photo courtesy of the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor).[/caption]

By Annette Hinkle

Though John Steinbeck is known the world over as an author defined by his West Coast roots and his embodiment of the every man spirit, in his later life Sag Harbor was the place that truly became home for him.

Mr. Steinbeck and his wife, Elaine, stumbled on the village largely by accident in 1953, and from the moment they drove down Main Street and saw Sag Harbor for what it was — a rough and tumble working class town that was down on its luck, Mr. Steinbeck knew he had found the place he was looking for — an East Coast village that reflected the energy and character of his native Salinas, California.

In 1955, the Steinbecks bought a tiny waterfront cottage on a spit of land at the end of Bluff Point Road where Mr. Steinbeck kept his boat. It was (and still is) an idyllic setting where he built Joyous Garde, the tiny writing studio in which he penned “Winter of Our Discontent” and “Travels With Charley,” as well as many letters before his death in 1968.

This weekend Sag Harbor celebrates John Steinbeck, arguably its most famous resident, with a series of events including discussions about the author and his work, a photo exhibition and a community dog walk inspired by Charley, Steinbeck’s standard poodle and his stalwart traveling companion.

Though he would hardly recognize Sag Harbor today, there was something about this place at that time that attracted Mr. Steinbeck. On Sunday, playwright and author Joe Pinaturo joins author Tom Clavin at the John Jermain Memorial Library to talk about Mr. Steinbeck’s time in the village.

Mr. Pintauro’s early days in Sag Harbor overlapped with Mr. Steinbeck’s tenure here, and he recalls the effect the author’s presence had on residents.

“John himself was like Zeus walking down the street,” remembers Mr. Pintauro. “ He would always drink at the Black Buoy and sit at the short end of the bar closest to the door. You could see him through the portholes.”

Though he didn’t know Mr. Steinbeck well personally, Mr. Pintauro says, “I knew about his desire to bridge America.”

“He wanted to be the writer who could bring the country together from coast to coast. He found a voice, a great voice — almost biblical — and he wanted it to represent the largeness of the whole American invention of the new world,” says Mr. Pintauro. “He embraced the common man. In Sag Harbor, it was almost as if he discovered a forgotten place and he saw all the hallmarks of early history that were being forgotten.”

“He thought, this is where I want to be — where it’s untouched. Sag Harbor was real, it had suffered,” he adds. “The sadness of the architecture, the absence of interference to repair or renovate. I think it charged him. This was the mother lode that was unmarked by time.”

Dr. Richard Hart, a philosophy professor at Bloomfield College in New Jersey who specializes in applied ethics, will be at Canio’s Books on Saturday at 5 p.m. to talk about Mr. Steinbeck from another point of view — through his ethical philosophy. Specifically, Dr. Hart will help put the author’s work in context by looking at it from the point of view of the various philosophical overtones he sees emerging in his novels.

“I have a long standing interest in the interface between literature and philosophy,” explains Dr. Hart. “When I started reading Steinbeck 25 or 30 years ago, it was clear he had a keen philosophical mind, though he resisted being called a philosopher or scholar. He distrusted the suit and tie crowd.”

“His wit, charm, sense of irony, those wonderful figures of speech are all reasons I love his work, and all are deeply rooted in a thinker and, I think, a philosopher of some maturity,” adds Dr. Hart. “He would hate that – me a philosopher focusing on his work.”

Though Mr. Steinbeck might have hated the label, the consciousness of his fictional characters cannot be denied — and that is where Dr. Hart truly sees the author’s ethical philosophy revealed.

“Obviously my take on Steinbeck is not that of an ethical theorist,” says Dr. Hart. “He’s not a Kant, and has no interest in an abstract theory of ethics. But I find in his work echoes of ancient Greek philosophy, especially Socrates and the focus on inquiry, investigation and questioning, but also in terms of a good life — living as a person of character.”

“The other echo I hear is that of American pragmatists like John Dewey and William James and a focus on lived experience and how every situation we face is rooted in context, both the social and institutional,” he adds. “I think Steinbeck was very big on that, even if he didn’t consciously realize it.”

“His philosophical side was hard wired and he couldn’t help himself being a philosopher,” he says.

What also was likely hard-wired in Mr. Steinbeck were the personal experiences that defined his generation and were shaped by the 1920s and ‘30s — an era fraught with hard times and a reliance on those of strong moral character.

“He had a deep passion and sensitivity for humans, especially the oppressed and the disadvantaged,” adds Dr. Hart.

In Steinbeck’s novels, Dr. Hart sees the author’s philosophy revealed through the drama of moral experience. His characters are constantly forced to confront moral dilemmas and issues, yet in the end, consciously choose to live a moral existence.

“Steinbeck’s ethics are also tied to social progress, it’s not only about making life better for individuals, but altering the structures to make society better,” adds Dr. Hart. “That’s kind of an interesting take on ethics. It’s not always thought that they need to be connected to societal movements, but I firmly think that is where Steinbeck’s is.”

And it’s a philosophy that may help explain Steinbeck’s attraction to the down-on-its-luck Sag Harbor of the 1950s and 1960s, which has since been transformed into the totally different (and upscale) village we see today.

“He was very prescient. What Steinbeck was forecasting, not just in Sag Harbor but the whole country, was excessive materialism and people’s obsession with what they have, not who they are,” says Dr. Hart. “He was so deeply in touch with his time, the people and their experiences. In what I see of his essays or letters from Sag Harbor, he deeply loved the place, but he could see what was on the horizon — and it was not so pretty.”

The third annual Steinbeck Festival begins Saturday, May 2, 2015 at 5 p.m. with Professor Richard Hart speaking on John Steinbeck’s ethical philosophy at Canio’s Cultural Café (290 Main Street, Sag Harbor). On view in Canio’s gallery will be "Trucks and Dogs," an exhibition of photographs by Kathryn Szoka inspired by Steinbeck's “Travels with Charley” featuring Sag Harbor work trucks, their drivers, and their faithful canine companions.”

Also on Saturday at 5 p.m. Bay Street Theater hosts a VIP reception at a private waterfront home which includes a boat trip around the point where the Steinbecks lived.

The “Travels With Charley” dog walk, led by animal advocate and TV personality Jill Rappaport, begins Sunday, May 3 with registration at 10:30 a.m. at Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf. The walk begins at 11 a.m. and passes several cultural institutions, including the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, which will have water bowls and biscuits for the dogs. Bones and bagels will be served back at the theater.

On Sunday at 2 p.m., Joe Pintauro and Tom Clavin discuss “John Steinbeck & Sag Harbor: A Love Story” at the John Jermain Memorial Library on West Water Street in Sag Harbor. The library will have a collection of Steinbeck materials when it reopens is Main Street space later this year, and director Catherine Creedon welcomes anyone with Steinbeck materials to consider donating them to the library. Call 725-0049 for details.


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