John Steinbeck’s Wisconsin
I’ve felt close to John Steinbeck ever since my 11th grade English class. We all had to choose an author for a term paper, and I picked Steinbeck more or less at random. I knew he’d won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and that seemed like a reasonable enough endorsement. But what started as a classroom exercise ended up as a love affair. I fell hard for The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, and other novels that create a powerful sense of place.
I always associated Steinbeck with Salinas, California, where many of his tales are set. But I recently came across his late-career travelogue Travels with Charley about a cross-country car trip Steinbeck took in 1960 with his poodle, Charley. He wanted to rediscover the United States so I wondered if Wisconsin makes an appearance..
Sure enough, John and Charley drove through Wisconsin on the way to Minnesota. The passage is only a couple pages long, but I couldn’t wait to see how one of my favorite authors felt about my home state.
To be honest, my first impression was disappointment. Steinbeck focuses on that lamest of clichés, Wisconsin as dairyland. “Cheese was everywhere,” he writes, “cheese centers, cheese cooperatives, cheese stores and stands, perhaps even cheese ice cream.” Then he stretches the truth, insisting he saw 20 signs advertising “Swiss Cheese Candy.” Since Travels with Charley was published in 1962, diligent researchers have uncovered no evidence that Swiss Cheese Candy ever existed in Wisconsin.
But Steinbeck redeems himself with wondrous descriptions of the Wisconsin landscape. He says the October air was “rich with butter-colored sunlight, not fuzzy but crisp and clear so that every frost-gray tree was set off, the rising hills were not compounded, but alone and separate. There was a penetration of the light into solid substance so that I seemed to see into things, deep in, and I’ve seen that kind of light elsewhere only in Greece.”
Just getting warmed up, Steinbeck calls the area around the Wisconsin Dells “weird country sculpted by the Ice Age, a strange, gleaming country of water and carved rock, black and green. To awaken here might make one believe it a dream of some other planet, for it has a non-earthly quality, or else the engraved record of a time when the world was much younger and much different.”
Such poetic insights can make even a native see Wisconsin with new eyes.
We should be grateful that a brilliant writer like John Steinbeck took a spin on our roads and set down his impressions. In my opinion, the state should brag about it a bit, the way we brag about other giants who walked among us, like Hank Aaron or Frank Lloyd Wright.
Is it time for Wisconsin to market an official line of John Steinbeck Swiss Cheese Candy?