When the Cove Men’s Shop door swung open, store owner David Lee glanced up to greet his customer as he would anyone who visited the Sag Harbor shop.
Except, on this particular day a half century ago, he did a double-take.
“Good morning,” Mr. Lee said—and then, cautiously, “You’re Mr. Steinbeck, aren’t you?”
“No,” the man said. “In Sag Harbor, I’m John. Out of town, maybe I’m Mr. Steinbeck.”
And with that, an unlikely friendship was born.
John Steinbeck—the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner who wrote 27 books, many of them classics, and won a Nobel Prize for Literature—called Sag Harbor home from the 1950s until his death in 1968. There, he worked in his waterfront writing refuge, “Joyous Garde,” when he wasn’t fishing or walking his dog, Charley, and, later, Angel.
But his most famous—or, perhaps, infamous—work, “The Grapes of Wrath,” was written 3,000 miles away, on the opposite coast, and nearly a lifetime before he settled on the East End. It was the 1930s, and Mr. Steinbeck, who started writing at age 14, was working on an investigative journalism piece about the government housing crisis and migrant workers in California.
He was horrified and enraged by what he found—dilapidated roadside camps, flooding, starvation, dying children. The news assignments tempered his anger and fueled nearly three years of research. He took notes and wrote scenes, knowing that he would, someday, rip the veil off this social and economic issue.
On April 14, 1939, he did.
Mr. Steinbeck lashed out with a 496-page novel about the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s—recently re-released by Viking, modeled on the first edition and featuring the original cover illustration, to commemorate the book’s 75th anniversary—by following a fictionalized Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, on their journey to the promised land of California.
As soon as it hit shelves, the book was denounced and rebutted, according to Susan Shillinglaw, who teaches English at San Jose State University and is the former director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies there. It “scraped nerves raw,” she said, was lambasted in Congress, and burned and banned across the country—even in his hometown of Salinas, California.
His dream had turned into a nightmare, Ms. Shillinglaw said during a lecture at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, despite the positive reviews from critics, a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the National Book Award and an endorsement from Eleanor Roosevelt.
“In the places it was banned and denounced, it was also read and discussed. And that was the point,” she said last week during a telephone interview. “It doesn’t preach revolution, but it comes close to saying that if this is allowed to continue, people won’t tolerate this kind of abuse. They still won’t.”
It’s a message that resonates even today, 75 years later. Last week, The New York Times reported that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a tenacious group of tomato workers, has successfully improved horrid conditions in Floridian tomato fields and has even raised wages. In 2005, following a four-year boycott of Taco Bell, parent company Yum Brands agreed to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes, earning workers at least $60 more per week. And they are just the beginning.
“You see, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is still relevant,” Ms. Shillinglaw said. “It’s a book for all times, maybe Steinbeck’s best book. Certainly one that he put his heart and soul into.”
On Thursday, May 1, Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor will kick off the second annual Steinbeck Festival with a film festival, culminating on Saturday, May 3, with “The Grapes of Wrath,” starring Henry Fonda and John Carradine. The night before, a VIP cocktail party at a private waterfront residence will also include a chartered boat ride past Mr. Steinbeck’s modest home and “Joyous Garde,” the small studio on the property named for Lancelot’s castle, hinting at the author’s love for the King Arthur saga.
There, he wrote “The Winter of Our Discontent” and “America and Americans,” Ms. Shillinglaw said.
“He was a very modest man, unassuming. He didn’t want to be lionized and praised. That’s true of his houses, as well,” she explained. “He had very simple houses, even when he had a lot of money. He was a water fiend and had to be close to the water. He once said, ‘I love fishing. And if you don’t bait the hook, even the fish won’t bother you.’ He was that kind of a fisherman.”
When he wasn’t at home, he could be seen walking up and down Main Street—first with his French standard poodle, Charley, his companion during a 1960 road trip around the United States made by Mr. Steinbeck that became “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” which he also wrote while living in Sag Harbor.
During one of his strolls, Mr. Steinbeck popped into Mr. Lee’s store once again after seeing his display window full of polka-dotted, patterned, colorful bow ties.
“Dave, I want a couple of those bow ties,” Mr. Steinbeck said, his friend recalled.
“Sonny, you don’t seem the bow tie type,” Mr. Lee replied.
“No,” Mr. Steinbeck agreed. “They’re for Charley.”
Remembering Mr. Steinbeck with his poodle and, later, an English bulldog named Angel, former “Today” and NBC News corespondent Jill Rappaport will lead the “Travels with Charley” Dog Walk on Sunday, May 4, in Sag Harbor,
“He was very proud of him,” Nada Barry said of Mr. Steinbeck and Angel, while the crowd at Canio’s told stories about the late author. “It was an amazing scene.”
“He was part of Sag Harbor,” Mr. Lee said.
“I know,” Ms. Shillinglaw said. “That’s how he would want it.”
The second annual Steinbeck Festival will kick off on Thursday, May 1, with a film festival running through Saturday, May 3, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Visit baystreet.org for full schedule. A VIP cocktail reception will be held on Saturday, May 3, from 5 to 7 p.m. at a private waterfront residence with complimentary boat rides past Mr. Steinbeck’s home and writing studio. Jill Rappaport will lead the “Travels with Charley” Dog Walk on Sunday, May 4, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. A VIP Festival Pass is $150, which includes all movies, cocktail party and dog walk. Tickets are $35 for the dog walk only, $30 for an all-movie pass, or $10 per film. For more information, call 725-9500.