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Travels with Steinbeck

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Fifty years ago this month The Grapes of Wrath, a novel that awakened the nation to a tragedy in its midst, first appeared in bookstores. Soon recognized as a native classic, the book, through the eyes of Tom Joad, tells the desperate story of the “Okies,” impoverished farmers lured from Dust Bowl-stricken Oklahoma to California by false promises of jobs and money. Nearly all American schoolkids can name the novel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author: John Steinbeck.

It’s a safe bet that virtually none of those kids, nor their parents, have heard of Horace Bristol. Yet without him there might have been no Grapes of Wrath. In 1938 Bristol, then working as a photographer for LIFE magazine, set out to document the plight of California’s migrant farmworkers and recruited Steinbeck to write accompanying text. After the pair had spent two months exploring labor camps in California’s Central Valley, Steinbeck agreed that the story was very good—so good, he told Bristol, that he had decided to renege on his deal and use the material in a novel.

Bristol later moved to Japan, where, in 1956, during a period of depression after the death of his first wife, he burned all his early photographic work. Or almost all—in 1979 his mother-in-law shipped him a trunk of forgotten photos from his treks with Steinbeck. Now 80, remarried for 33 years and living in Ojai, Calif., Bristol says he bears no grudge about his former colleague breaking their agreement. However, his own book was never published, and Bristol is anxious to straighten out the story behind the birth of a famous novel:

I called Steinbeck in late 1937 because he had written sympathetically about migrant workers, and he was a Californian, so I thought he would be ideal. He was well-known at the time, but not as famous as he would get to be later. He said, “Come on down, and we’ll discuss it.” I lived in San Francisco at the time, and he had a little house in nearby Los Gatos, a white cottage under the oak trees. His wife, Carol, cooked a very simple lunch, and we had a couple of bottles of wine. I thought he was a very sympathetic person, who obviously cared for the downtrodden of the world.

I wanted to do a book on migratory labor and hoped to convince LIFE to run a photo essay when the book was published. They weren’t interested; at that time they liked pretty starlets with as little clothing as possible. I proposed the article to FORTUNE, and they offered Steinbeck a considerable amount of money. But he decided his reputation would suffer doing this for such a capitalistic magazine. So he turned it down. We decided to go ahead and do the book and hope that LIFE would ultimately use a story.

We both worked on other projects during the week, so I would come and pick Steinbeck up on Fridays in my big Buick station wagon. I would bring food for the workers that would fill up a stomach and not be fancy-cheap cuts of meat, beans, potatoes and vegetables. All together it couldn’t have cost more than $8 or $9, but Steinbeck was very generous and always wanted to pay his share of everything. We’d drive down to the Central Valley, wherever the camps were set up or there was news of labor difficulty. On the way down, we talked about whatever was happening in the news. He always led the conversation.

These migrants were coming from Oklahoma trying to find a place to work. One thing John resented very much was that somebody representing the large, wealthy farmers had printed up fliers telling about all the wonderful jobs and good working conditions in California. Of course, it wasn’t true. It was raining a lot of the time, and these people were actually living in mud.

Steinbeck was almost paranoid about the attitude of the farmers toward him. They thought he was a communist, and he was afraid that the farmers were out to get him. I would always have to sign for the motel—a different one each time—because he didn’t want to be identified. We shared a room because he was worried about somebody sneaking up on him, things like that.

The next morning we would eat hot-cakes and bacon and eggs and coffee, and then go out to the camps and see these poor devils who were really, really hungry. It made me feel guilty, and I’m sure he felt guilty too. If the people hadn’t eaten anything, we would dole out what we had. The food never lasted longer than breakfast, that’s for sure.

When we got to the camps, Steinbeck really led the way. He had a wonderful way with people, and they just opened up and talked to him. I would be taking pictures, sort of in the background, using a Rolleiflex. They seemed so beaten down that they didn’t have any resentment about being interviewed or photographed. They were basically rather religious people who thought this was just God’s way of doing things, I guess. There were many more people than there were jobs. These people had absolutely nothing. They had no clothes to wash. They had to pick up wood along the roadside for cooking and heat.

Unfortunately, Californians in those farming communities were not sympathetic. They thought the migrants were lazy. Partially, I think, they wanted to believe this was sort of God’s visitation on these people for their sins.

Nobody wanted to realize that these people came from farms of their own in the Dust Bowl and that most of them were just blown out and no longer able to make a living. They had been smalltime farmers, maybe sharecroppers, and decent, God-fearing people. They were victims of ignorance in that they didn’t know how to plow their land so it wouldn’t be washed or blown away.

We had a limited time in which to take pictures, and it went by very fast. I don’t remember Steinbeck taking notes. I think he was becoming saturated with the mood of the people he was dealing with.

Some farmers had living quarters for which they charged so much a night, because they liked to have people on hand to work on their own property. We were not very well received at these camps. The owners didn’t like outside interference, and they didn’t like cameras at all. They would have the deputy sheriffs tell us to move on. They were armed with sawed-off baseball bats and ax handles, which they used to beat people up.

One night Steinbeck and I were near Monterey, and we dropped in on Doc Ed Ricketts, who was a marine biologist and who later became the hero of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. His place was half laboratory, half home. There were a lot of beautiful girls there from Hopkins Marine Station and from the nearby whorehouse, and they were all playing records.

Ed came out of the bedroom with a beautiful Chinese girl. I don’t know whether he was actually buttoning his pants, but you got the idea that he was. He went over and changed the record, put on some Gregorian chants. We went there twice, and I was quite shocked. John’s wife was a very nice, attractive girl, and he was a little too friendly with these girls for my puritanical way of looking at things. They seemed to know him very well.

Anyway, I worked with Steinbeck a total of seven or eight weekends, and finally, when I had maybe 500 or 1,000 pictures, I told him I felt I had enough for the book. And he said, “Well, Horace, I’m sorry to tell you, but I’ve decided it’s too big a story to be just a photographic book. I’m going to write it as a novel.” There had been no hint of this. I thought I was lucky to have him with me. But he decided it wasn’t what he really wanted to do.

I dropped the matter then, which was a mistake. I should have gone ahead and done the book anyway, but I wasn’t smart enough. Years later, when I read in Jackson Benson’s biography of Steinbeck that he had been researching the Okies for months before I met him and never mentioned it, I was just sort of surprised. Then I felt very unhappy that Steinbeck was not gracious enough to have mentioned the book we planned to anyone. But I understand this was a characteristic of his. He was secretive, and he wanted to feel that anything he did was his, and nobody else had any influence on it.

The Grapes of Wrath was a powerful book that needed to be written. And John was so right that a book we would do together would never have any of the strength or the influence of a powerful novel. That period in America’s life became vivid, in part, because of his ability to put it together. I like to feel The Grapes of Wrath has an influence on young people today.

I saw him for the last time in New York during the war, at a nice restaurant, the 21 Club or some place like that. He was with a group of New York socialites. He was civil. I don’t think I played much of a part in his life, certainly not as much as he played in my life. He didn’t seem to be the idealistic young man that I had believed in. It’s a very common thing that success changes people.

That may be unfair, but I’m too old to have my feelings changed about anybody. Steinbeck lived his own life and did a great job, and it’s very petty for a lesser person to criticize him, and I don’t want to appear that way at all.

I found out that he wasn’t one of nature’s noblemen, but who the hell is?