A russian journal, p.1
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       A Russian Journal, p.1
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           John Steinbeck
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A Russian Journal

  Table of Contents


  Title Page

  Copyright Page














  Born in Salinas, California, in 1902, John Steinbeck grew up in a fertile agricultural valley about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast—and both valley and coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919, he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years, he supported himself briefly as a laborer and journalist in New York City and then as a caretaker for a Lake Tahoe estate, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929). After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California fictions, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and worked on short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938). Popular success and financial security came only with Tortilla Flat (1935), stories about Monterey’s paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-novelette The Moon Is Down (1942). Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), The Pearl (1947), A Russian Journal (1948), another experimental drama, Burning Bright (1950), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) preceded publication of the monumental East of Eden (1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history. The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books include Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), Once There Was a War (1958), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966), and the posthumously published Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969), Viva Zapata! (1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), and Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (1989). He died in 1968, having won a Nobel Prize in 1962.

  Born Endre Erno Friedmann in Budapest, Hungary, on October 22, 1913, the self-styled Robert Capa became one of the most celebrated war photojournalists of the twentieth century. He left Hungary at seventeen, and until he died, in 1954—killed by a land mine in Indochina—he roamed the world photographing war. With his beloved companion, photographer Gerda Taro (killed in 1937), he first saw action during the Spanish Civil War, where his empathetic portraits of human anguish won him international acclaim. In 1938 he traveled to China and witnessed the Japanese invasion; he covered World War II, Israel in 1948, and Indochina in 1954. During his life he published five photographic texts: Death in the Making (photographs by Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, 1938); The Battle of Waterloo Road (text by Diana Forbes-Robertson and photographs by Capa, 1941); Slightly Out of Focus (1947); A Russian Journal (1948); and Report on Israel (text by Irving Shaw and photographs by Capa).

  Susan Shillinglaw is a professor of English and director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. She co-edited Steinbeck and the Environment and John Steinbeck: Contemporary Reviews. She edits The Steinbeck Newsletter and has published articles on Steinbeck.


  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

  New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,

  London W8 5TZ, England

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,

  Victoria, Australia

  Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue,

  Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

  Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road,

  Auckland 10, New Zealand

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:

  Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

  First published in the United States of America

  by The Viking Press, Inc. 1948

  This edition with an introduction by Susan Shillinglaw

  published in Penguin Books 1999

  Copyright John Steinbeck, 1948

  Copyright renewed Elaine Steinbeck, Thom Steinbeck, and

  John Steinbeck IV, 1976

  Introduction copyright © Susan Shillinglaw, 1999

  All rights reserved

  Parts of this book appeared in the New York Herald Tribune

  and other newspapers.

  Photographs on pages 72, 80, 95, 151, Copyright 1948

  by The Curtis Publishing Company.


  Steinbeck, John, 1902- 1968.

  A Russian journal / John Steinbeck ; with photographs by Robert

  Capa ; with an introduction by Susan Shillinglaw.

  p. cm.—(Penguin twentieth-century classics)

  Originally published: New York : Viking, 1948.

  eISBN : 978-1-440-65750-4

  1. Soviet Union—Description and travel. 2. Steinbeck, John,

  1902-1968—Journeys—Soviet Union. I. Title. II. Series.

  DK28.S8 1999

  914.704′842—DC21 99-29499



  IN 1946, WINSTON CHURCHILL announced that an “Iron Curtain” had been drawn closed across Eastern Europe. In the winter of 1947, the cold war began in earnest. The Soviet Union, fierce ally of the United States in World War II, had become a menacing presence, a foe barely understood. “In the papers every day,” John Steinbeck begins his text, “there were thousands of words about Russia,” and yet, he continues, “there were some things that nobody wrote about Russia, and these were the things that interested us most of all.” His quest, and that of photographer Robert Capa who accompanied him, was to discover the “great other side,” the “private life of the Russian people.” Steinbeck and Capa’s modest book about the lives of Russians, A Russian Journal, published in 1948, attempts only “honest reporting, to set down what we saw and heard without editorial comment, without drawing conclusions about things we didn’t know sufficiently.”

  In many ways, that is what John Steinbeck had been doing quite successfully for twenty years, writing books about ordinary people: paisanos, Oklahoma migrants, enlisted men in World War II, Mexican peasants. A Russian Journal does not sound the epic chords of The Grapes of Wrath, certainly, but it has some of that book’s empathy and humanity. Indeed, one explanation for the appeal of A Russian Journal is that this book, unlike so many other accounts of Russia published at the time, engages and informs in Steinbeck’s most characteristic manner: expressing empathy and understanding for working people; capturing with a journalist’s eye the telling detail; seeing “nonteleologically,” recording merely what is witnessed; and finally leavening the narrative with a wry humor absent in many more ponderous contemporary accounts of travel through Soviet-approved locales. If not the most erudite or wide-ranging book about postwar Russia, Steinbeck and Capa’s is just what they claimed for it: “It is not the Russian story, but simply a Russian story.”

  The collaboration between Capa
and Steinbeck was, in fact, serendipitous. The two had met in London in 1943, and renewed their friendship in New York in March 1947, planning to leave for Russia as soon as possible, until, on May 14, Steinbeck took a nasty fall from a window of his apartment, shattered his knee, and spent a few weeks recovering (the knee, however, would give him problems throughout the trip). Each restless and independent, neither Capa nor Steinbeck, in fact, particularly cared for collaborative ventures. As early as 1936, when writer John O’Hara passed through Pacific Grove, eager to meet and then work with John Steinbeck on a stage adaptation of the recently published In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck declared that he “liked him and his attitude. . . . I think we could get along well. I do not believe in collaboration.” Yet despite his protest to the contrary, collaboration came easily to Steinbeck; he initiated or was drawn into several joint projects, many completed—as was his 1940 trip to the Sea of Cortez with marine biologist Edward Ricketts (Sea of Cortez, 1941)—some aborted, as was the one with O’Hara. In particular, Steinbeck gravitated toward visual artists, filmmakers, and photographers. Robert Capa, famed war photojournalist, formed with Steinbeck perhaps the happiest of Steinbeck’s alliances with an artist in another medium.

  Capa, whose celebrated war photos had frozen individual human torment and exuberance, shared Steinbeck’s compassion and curiosity. Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1913, Capa possessed the qualities of exuberance, tolerance, and a humanitarian spirit that captivated Steinbeck. As biographer Richard Whelan notes, Capa’s political philosophy, similar to Steinbeck’s own, was formed when Capa was a rebellious teen: “democratic, egalitarian, pacifistic, semi-collectivist, pro-labor, anti-authoritarian, and anti-fascist, with a strong emphasis on the dignity of man and the rights of the individual.” Forced to leave Budapest in 1931, he had been in exile most of his life, wandering the world as witness to the ravages of war, sometimes shooting photos for Time, Life, and Fortune, always focusing on the human drama, the ordinary in the extraordinary. Capa photographed people, not events, aiming his camera, notes Whelan, on the “edge of things . . . studies of people under extreme stress.”

  The two artists’ forty-day trip to the Soviet Union in 1947 was, like Steinbeck’s 1940 trip to the Sea of Cortez with Edward Ricketts, an expedition of the curious. Like Ricketts and Steinbeck on the earlier journey, Capa and Steinbeck also “wanted to see everything our eyes would accommodate, to think what we could, and, out of our seeing and thinking, to build some kind of structure in modeled imitation of the observed reality.” If the structure of Sea of Cortez melds two approaches, the “conventionally scientific” and the experiential, this travel narrative opts for the single lens: “We would try to do honest reporting, to set down what we saw and heard without editorial comment, without drawing conclusions about things we didn’t know sufficiently.” Theirs was a journal, a photo essay. The structure they chose for their book—indeed, the dominant metaphor of A Russian Journal—is the Soviet Union as a framed portrait.


  With the onset of the 1940s, the world had altered its step. “Things are very bad in the world, aren’t they,” Steinbeck wrote to his editor Pascal Covici in 1940. “Everything seems to be going to pot, everything as conceived before I mean. Maybe out of the fighting and the struggle there will come some kind of new conceptions. I don’t know.” Throughout the 1940s, John Steinbeck sought “new conceptions” for his own work. He began the decade composing a scientific travelog, ended it working on his most personal and experimental novel, East of Eden. A Russian Journal is part of his ongoing effort to discover fresh material, to forge new literary forms, to rekindle in his writing, as he wrote in his journal during a dark moment in 1946, “the glory that shadows everything else and that makes me seem like a grey and grizzled animal now. . . . So long since I’ve done the old kind of work—so long.”

  In the late 1930s, John Steinbeck had found that glory while writing his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). For a decade prior, he had been perfecting his craft and publishing in quick succession the works most often associated with John Steinbeck, social historian: the short stories in The Long Valley (written in the early 1930s, collected in 1938); the comic tour de force, Tortilla Flat (1935), and the labor trilogy, In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath. By the end of the Depression John Steinbeck, novelist of the people, was a “household name,” noted the promotional material for the 1940 John Ford film The Grapes of Wrath. That name, however, became something of a burden for the author who had fiercely declared in letters his need for anonymity in order to write. The world’s gaze was upon him in the 1940s, expecting high sentiments from this chronicler of the poor. Critics and reviewers waited for the familiar voice of the proletarian writer to return to the gritty themes of the 1930s. He resisted. “I must make a new start,” he wrote his college roommate, Carlton Sheffield, in November 1939. “I’ve worked the novel . . . as far as I can take it. I never did think much of it—a clumsy vehicle at best. And I don’t know the form of the new but I know there is a new thing which will be adequate and shaped by the new thinking.” At the cusp of the new decade, his initial course was scientific and ecological, “things more lasting,” he remarked to Sheffield. John Steinbeck, novelist, transformed himself into John Steinbeck, marine biologist, as he set out in March 1940 with friend, biologist, and intellectual soul mate Ed Ricketts to explore the littoral of the Sea of Cortez; the 1941 account of that trip, Sea of Cortez, is one of Steinbeck’s neglected masterpieces, a rich brew of scientific observation, philosophical musing, and humorous anecdotes capped by Ricketts’s catalog of specimens discovered on the trip.

  As a travel narrative, collaborative project, and structural experiment, Sea of Cortez is paradigmatic of Steinbeck’s work throughout the restless 1940s, culminating with A Russian Journal at the end of the decade. “He tried to enter the great world, so to speak,” remarked Arthur Miller. His search for inspiration sparked a kind of frenetic decade of experimentation; he wrote film scripts, journalism, travel diaries, plays, novellas. Indeed, travel became a kind of panacea for Steinbeck during the 1940s. Claiming that “there’s an illogic there I need,” he went to Mexico several times throughout the decade. In 1941, at the urging of documentary filmmaker Herbert Kline, he wrote a script about health problems in a remote Mexican village, The Forgotten Village. After the war, he repeatedly returned to write and then film The Pearl, and in 1948 he went again to Mexico to work on a film treatment of Emiliano Zapata’s life for Elia Kazan’s great film Viva Zapata!

  Steinbeck’s contributions to the United States’ involvement in World War II also shattered his self-containment of the 1930s and carried him far from his native California—first to Washington, D.C., in 1941, where he was interviewed by a newly formed information and propaganda agency, the Foreign Information Service; then to New York City, where he settled with Gwyn Conger, the woman who would become his second wife. There he wrote his first contribution to the war effort, The Moon Is Down (1942), a play-novelette about an occupied Scandinavian country that won wide approval in Europe among underground groups resisting Nazi oppression. In America, Steinbeck’s novel—and the play and film of the work that followed in quick succession—received a less enthusiastic response, for the country was not prepared to see invaders, clearly Germans, as human. Disappointed, Steinbeck went on to other war-related projects: he wrote radio scripts for the FSI early in 1942; later, he was asked to write a text about training air force bombing crews, an assignment that called for Steinbeck and photographer John Swope to visit training sites around the United States.

  Once again settled on the East Coast, he worked doggedly on the text of Bombs Away, The Story of a Bomber Team (1942), writing to his college friend Webster Street: “I get farther and farther away from the old realities and more and more immersed in this dreamlike war. When it is over I’m not going to be able to remember what it was like.” Other war-related projects followed: with childhood friend Jack Wagner, Steinb
eck wrote a “sample script” for a film, A Medal for Benny, about a small town’s reception of their war hero, a ne’er-do-well from the wrong side of town. Early in 1943 he wrote a novella for Hitchcock’s famous movie about survivors from a torpedoed freighter cast adrift at sea, Lifeboat. Finally, in mid-1943, he was given the assignment that used his talents most successfully: that summer, he was sent overseas by the New York Herald Tribune as a war correspondent to England, West Africa, and ultimately to cover a diversionary mission off the coast of Italy.

  In many ways A Russian Journal is the final chapter of this war journalism. When in Stalingrad, “an expanse of ruin,” Steinbeck writes that “Our windows looked out on acres of rubble, broken brick and concrete and pulverized plaster, and in the wreckage the strange dark weeds that always seem to grow in destroyed places.” In that terrain, “there was a little hummock, like the entrance to a gopher hole. And every morning, early, out of this hole a young girl crawled.” In this one vignette about a hounded, dazed child, Steinbeck captures the agony of besieged Stalingrad. Framed by a window, the verbal composition is crafted to accompany Capa’s photos. Indeed, one of the most remarkable qualities of A Russian Journal is the way that Steinbeck’s reporting and Capa’s photojournalism intersect. Steinbeck’s method seems purely photographic, as if the project itself—collaboration with a photographer—dictated style and approach. As he insistently notes in the first chapter of A Russian Journal, the writer and photographer intend to record only what is seen, nothing more. The photograph is an apt metaphor for visiting the Soviet Union in 1947, where visitors were shown so very little of Stalin’s domain, always circumscribed.


  “John was actually a missionary. He was essentially a journalist . . . I think he could see things going on. . . . I mean journalist in the power of observation.”—Toby Street

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