Reader, you find me at present precisely halfway through reading East of Eden. John Steinbeck is one of those authors who has always been on the periphery of my literary interests without ever serving as the main attraction. There was an old copy of The Pearl in my house growing up, the blurb of which I must have read a dozen times without ever cracking open the book itself. Then there was a fairly lacklustre readthrough of Of Mice and Men when I was a teen, followed by a handful of his essays at university, but that constituted the grand total of my dalliances with Steinbeck until recently. Now, as if it were a penance for years of taking the easy route, I’ve decided to jump in at the deep end by reading the longest book he ever wrote — a 600-page tome Steinbeck considered his opus — and, I’m happy to report, it’s been a breeze so far.
I had a strong suspicion that I’d like reading Steinbeck this go-around the minute I opened the cover to find a reproduction of a hand-drawn illustration of a pig with wings, underpinned by the phrase ‘Ad Astra Per Alia Porci’. It’s a Dog Latin motto meaning ‘to the stars on the wings of a pig’ which Steinbeck used throughout his life because of a sense of being ‘a lumbering soul but trying to fly’.
In retrospect, reading Steinbeck in earnest seems like something I should have done years ago. Despite the (pig) Latin and the accolades — the Nobel Prize in Literature, a Pulitzer, a Medal of Freedom, plus the all-around ‘Giant of American Letters’ moniker— his books have a reputation for being surprisingly readable. There’s an approachable quality to his prose that feels entirely in keeping with his everyman protagonists and workaday subject matter.
Those same lunchpail concerns also seemed to animate his real life in many ways. In the five years he intermittently attended Stanford University (where he did not end up getting a degree) he worked a bunch of odd jobs usually involving physical labour. He served as a rancher, road worker, hod carrier, deck hand, and cotton picker and said he took great pleasure in these occupations for the kinship they afforded him with the kind of working people who would eventually become the subjects of his stories. Then, once he achieved success as a writer, he proved remarkably sedulous in his literary pursuits. In a burst of productivity following the publication of his first novel in 1929 when he was twenty-seven years old, he produced nearly all of his major works within just a quarter century, including eleven novels, two collections of short stories, several plays, two volumes of reportage, a documentary, and a journal of travel and scientific research.
Steinbeck’s wardrobe, appropriately, was entirely in keeping with his general blue-collar qualities. While there are certainly photos showing him wearing suits and formalwear, he always seemed somehow more at home in the workwear and outdoor clothing that were his everyday staples.
For better or worse, the enduring picture of an author in the early- to mid-twentieth century is inevitably one of a man wearing a sport coat and tie — alongside which there has always been the contrasting figure of John Steinbeck. The best-known photos of the author tend to show him wearing the kind of casual clothing that somehow feels anachronistic for his day, all while seeming all too familiar in the present: crewneck T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, unstructured jackets, cosy cardigans, and assorted pieces of workwear. Alongside the likes of Charles Lindbergh, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ernest Hemingway, Steinbeck was a customer of Abercrombie & Fitch back when it still proclaimed itself ‘The Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World’.
It wasn’t all merely a question of plain practicality, however. Alongside all those hard-wearing khakis and barn coats, you regularly find hints of decorative flair: The moustache he wore in his youth and the Van Dyke it grew into in middle age, the elaborately engraved cigarette lighter that dangled from a string around his neck, or the dive watch (it looks to be a Rolex Submariner) that habitually dangled face-down on his wrist alongside a captain’s hat for which he seemed to have a particular fondness. The hat and the watch are doubtless the results of the maritime pursuits that characterised the latter half of his life, and indeed everything that he wore, whether plain or seemingly ornamental, tended to have its basis in some use or other. For Steinbeck, form always seemed to follow function, and for those seeking advice on how to dress well, this seems as good and lasting an approach as anyone could hope for.
And, as we’re on the subject of soundness and longevity, Alexander Cowie once observed while thinking of Steinbeck that: ‘Perhaps this is the final responsibility of the novelist: he must be true to his time and yet save himself for Time’. While he had the author’s work in mind, it seems to me just as apropos when considering the enduring quality of that uniquely hard-working wardrobe of his.
Ad Astra Per Alia Porci.
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