You remember how, when you are going away for the summer, and the last evening you open up the refrigerator and take out all the leftovers, bits of pate, a small square of corned beef, tomatoes that have seen better days and a single wedge of lemon meringue pie. So you have a clean-out-the-refrigerator dinner and anything left over, you throw away.
Well, in the last nearly three months, I have stored small leftovers, observations, ideas, pictures, hopes, speculations and jokes to tell you, I have a notebook full of these. They are not important nor illuminating nor even very instructive. But hating waste, I propose to write you a clean-out-the-notebook letter and what is left after I’ll throw away.
- John Steinbeck, Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War (p.108)
In trying to decide what to write about for a year-end blog post I kept finding I had too many ideas and stories that never made it onto this blog or newsletter this year. Then I came upon the above quote by John Steinbeck, written in 1967 to an American newspaper as part of his dispatches as an embedded journalist during the war in Vietnam.
Whether it’s preparing to leave for summer vacation, or the side benefit of large post-holiday feasts, leftovers can be delicious in their own right. I hope you will be amused by some of the leftover bits and squares and wedges I have to share with you about my reading and writing adventures in 2021.
A small square of corned beef
One of the joys of this past year was connecting with my weekly Transcendentalist reading group via zoom. We read and discussed some classics and also did some deep dives on Transcendentalist-adjacent writers of the mid-19th century, such as The Hermaphrodite by Julia Ward Howe.
(If you've heard Howe's name before it's because she wrote "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the first Mother's Day anti-war proclamation. I wrote about Howe's feminism in my Woman Thinking book, but I did not know about "The Hermaphrodite" at that time!)
How wrote the novel manuscript in 1846-47, but it was never published in her lifetime. It has been edited and published now in this 2009 edition:
It is the story of Laurence, an intersex person who is raised as a boy (because, given the choice, his parents realize he'll have an easier time as as boy), but who, as an adult, alternates between masculine & feminine gender identities and has emotional-erotic relationships with both men and women. Radical stuff for the 1840s (and beyond)!
The story is not only an incredibly "modern" take on understanding that sex, gender, & sexuality are all separate concepts, but it is surprisingly sensitive in taking the Romantic-era interest in philosophical androgyny (Howe's contemporary Margaret Fuller wrote that "Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism") and placing it in an actual body in order to consider how such a person might live a life, and to form a feminist critique about the arbitrariness of gender identity and roles.
There are so many great passages, but here's an example that is relevant to talking about trans and non-binary identities today (remember this was written in the 1840s):
Those who have followed my vagabond fortunes thus far with some brief interest and goodwill will be now compelled to greet me in a new guise. What will you say to me, fair reader, if I present myself before you in feminine masquerade... Will you recognize me with an astonished smile, and a "who would have thought it?" or will you treat me as men and women are apt to treat an old friend in an equivocal position, and pass me staring at nothing, or at me as if I were nothing? Let it be as you please, quite as you please. If you know me not now, you never knew me, and so, questioned or unquestioned, let me pass.
- Julia Ward Howe, The Hermaphrodite (p. 130)
Tomatoes that have seen better days
I took a weekly creative writing workshop with a fabulous group of advanced fiction writers this past year. In addition to writing some new young adult fiction that I'm excited about, I spent a lot of time revising and rethinking my historical novel on Clover Adams by returning to some of the historical sources that piqued my interest in the mysterious 12-year marriage of Clover and Henry Adams, esteemed historian and kind of a jerk.
Here is Henry writing to a friend right before his wedding to Marian “Clover” Hooper, in June 1872:
In fact it is rather droll to examine women’s minds. They are a queer mixture of odds and ends, poorly mastered and utterly unconnected. But to a man they are perhaps all the more attractive on that account. My young female has a very active and quick mind... but she really knows nothing well.
Clover, in fact, knew many things quite as well as Henry did and, specifically, became a skilled photographer. Here are her photos of Henry at work at his desk, and of him at leisure with their dog.
Photographs by Marian Hooper Adams held at Massachusetts Historical Society https://www.masshist.org/features/clover-adams/album8
No photo exists of Henry & Clover as a couple, who were married from 1872 until her death in 1885.
Clover Adams obituary, National Republican, Washington, D.C., December 10, 1885
You will not be surprised to hear that, based precisely on the details as told in this obituary, some writers have addressed the question of whether and what role Henry Adams might have had in her death, emotionally or…
I'll just say two things about that:
1. Clover was severely depressed after the death of her father earlier that year, had a history of mental illness in her family, and wrote letters about not wanting to live.
2. Henry was fixated on family legacy (being an Adams and all) and was unhappy about his childless marriage, and there were rumors of an affair with a woman (a Senator's wife) who was pregnant at the time of Clover's death (and with whom he subsequently remained very close and was involved in the child's life).
A single wedge of lemon meringue pie
Lastly, a return to John Steinbeck… In something of a departure for someone whose main scholarly interests are 19th and early 20th century women’s history, in 2021 I set a personal goal to read all of Steinbeck’s published works in one year. Living on the Central Coast of California in “Steinbeck country,” I have visited the National Steinbeck Center many times and Grapes of Wrath was already one of my favorite novels. I had read several of Steinbeck’s other well-known books, but he had an amazingly prolific publishing career that spanned from his first novel in 1929 (Cup of Gold) to his last in 1961 (The Winter of Our Discontent), in addition to numerous short story collections, stage plays, screenplays, travelogues, and newspaper articles. I decided 2021 was going to be THE year to follow one author’s writing career and I can now say that I have read ALL of John Steinbeck’s works published in his lifetime, fiction & nonfiction, plus a screenplay, two editions of his novel-writing journals published after his death, and the newest biography just published in 2020.
I haven’t decided yet what I am going to do with all of my notes and insights from a year of Steinbeck, but I know I absorbed something about the writing life from following a single author’s development and themes over a full career.
(Note: I co-moderated a public Facebook group dedicated to tracking the Steinbeck 2021 journey and you can still read the posts and conversations about each book there. Feel free to join and keep reading Steinbeck in 2022!)
The last book I read for the Steinbeck challenge is the published edition of newspaper dispatches he wrote as an embedded journalist with American troops in Vietnam in late 1966 and early 1967. Steinbeck’s 20-year-old son, John Steinbeck IV, was then serving in the war and, just as he had during World War II, John senior wanted to get first-hand knowledge of the war and relay some truth as he saw it.
After learning of my Steinbeck obsession via Facebook, one of my dear friends sent me a gift of this mug printed with a famous photo of Steinbeck (center), John, Jr., and President Lyndon B. Johnson meeting in 1966. I love it! And this is why I appreciate social media!
I think I'll go fill up my Steinbeck mug and toast 2022 with some leftover pizza from New Year's Day!
(If you're not yet a subscriber & would like to keep up with my historical and literary musings in the coming year, please join my mailing list below!)