Louis Owens and John Steinbeck’s Ghosts


Six years ago this summer, the Native American novelist Louis Owens drove his pickup truck to Albuquerque’s airport and parked.

It had been some years since I’d spent much time with him. We’d stopped sending letters and e-mails. I don’t know how long he’d been depressed or why. Recognition for his novels was growing—he won the American Book Award in 1997—but he never seemed entirely satisfied with them. He was also somewhat restless about the universities where he taught, and had moved away from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where I’d met him, after amassing a following of fanatically admiring students. In 2002, he was splitting time between his job at UC Davis and a home in New Mexico, where he had once taught and where his wife and daughters lived. Was that it? Was it loneliness? Or the sense of failure that seemed to dog him, even as his fame was growing? One of his oldest friends has written that Louis was suffering from the effects of antidepressants at the same time that he was taking painkillers for a knee injury that had seriously curtailed his ability to enjoy the outdoors, which had been central to his life. A drug cocktail exacerbating a growing depression over advancing age and inevitable decrepitude? Perhaps that was it.

I really don’t know what was in his mind as Louis pulled out a pistol there in his pickup truck, aimed it at his chest, and pulled the trigger.

He died at a hospital the next day. He had just turned 54.

I was shocked and angry when I heard about it from another former student. In the years since, I’ve thought about Louis often, wishing that I’d stayed in closer touch, as if that might have helped him—or at least helped me understand his decision. But I also assumed that mine was a typical reaction, and that hundreds of other former students around the country whose lives were changed by the man must have felt the same way.

Today, respect for his novels seems to remain strong in academia, though he’s rarely mentioned outside of it. But the first was published when we were already close. I’d known him for a very different reason: as one of the country’s foremost authorities on Central California’s own John Steinbeck. There was no better place to study the author than in “Steinbeck Country,” and with Louis Owens.

At that time and place—UC Santa Cruz in the early 1990s, at the height of the campus culture wars—it felt somewhat reactionary to take an interest in the local dead white guy whose novels had actually been Book of the Month Club selections. But when you were around Louis, it was easy to develop a fascination for the Salinas Valley’s favorite son.

It was with Louis that I first visited Steinbeck’s boyhood home in Salinas and peeked at the Pacific Grove bungalow where he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, pondered the Monterey intersection where Doc Ricketts (immortalized in Cannery Row) was killed in a collision with a train, drove out to the Spreckels sugarcane factory where Steinbeck had worked during his summers away from Stanford, and stared humbly at the author’s Salinas grave.

And it was Louis, encouraging me to do serious scholarship on Steinbeck, who set me on an adventure that had a result neither of us could have predicted.

Louis had challenged me to investigate a question that he’d wondered about for a long time. Why, he asked, had Steinbeck turned the mostly Mexican workers of the Great Cotton Strike of 1933 into a bunch of white Okies in his strike novel, In Dubious Battle?

Four of Steinbeck’s first five books (two of which weren’t actually published until later) had each prominently featured Mexican or Mexican-American characters. Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck’s first actual success, soon had tourists coming to Monterey hoping to see the paisanos drinking and carrying on. Steinbeck had grown up around the Mexican workers of Salinas Valley and admired them; his affinity for Mexico would later lead him to make films there.

After Tortilla Flat‘s surprising success, his publishers would have been thrilled with further tales of Monterey layabouts. Instead, Steinbeck gave them the grimmest book imaginable.

In Dubious Battle—the title is drawn from Milton’s Paradise Lost, with the forces of God and Satan ranged “In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven”—follows two Communist organizers as they attempt to rouse the peach pickers of a fictional valley in Central California. One of the organizers is young and idealistic, and he is repeatedly shocked by the cynical and manipulative ways of his older colleague. Told in a naturalistic style, In Dubious Battle feels remarkably real—which isn’t surprising, because Steinbeck based much of it on an actual labor struggle.

In October 1933, thousands of cotton pickers in the southern half of the San Joaquin Valley walked off their jobs with the encouragement of a few Communist organizers. Marred by violence and even a couple of murders, the strike became national news and eventually involved federal officials, who helped end it after three weeks, with workers gaining wage increases totaling millions of dollars. It was the most successful agricultural strike in American history before César Chávez came along.

Once the strike was over, however, the organizers faced severe consequences. One of them ended up hiding out in an attic in Seaside, California, just a few miles from Monterey. Steinbeck heard about it and visited the man in his hiding place, asking him about the details of the strike. And that’s when he began taking notes for the book that would become In Dubious Battle.

In the actual strike, 75 percent of the thousands of pickers who had walked off their jobs had been Mexican nationals or Mexican-Americans. Many others were black. But in Steinbeck’s novel, published in 1936, all of the workers portrayed in any detail were white Okies. Why did the man who had used Mexican characters in nearly all of his previous books erase Mexicans from the first book he published as a well-known author?

Louis suggested that I learn the actual history of the 1933 strike in minute detail. He also suggested a great resource: the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

For months, I gathered what material I could at the UC Santa Cruz collections, but I also took the school’s jitney service over to Berkeley and spent hours in the Bancroft Library. I pored over its archives of even the smallest San Joaquin Valley newspapers—every little town had them—and mined them for day-by-day developments of the strike.

It was in the small farm town of Pixley, for example, about two weeks into the shutdown, that the most harrowing event of the strike occurred. The organizers, who included a man named Pat Chambers and a woman named Carolyn Decker, had called for a meeting at a hall in town. So many strikers showed up, however, that many were unable to get inside. As the crowd tried to get word of what was going on in the meeting, someone managed to snap a couple of stunning photographs: About a dozen farmers with rifles in their hands were sneaking up on the Mexican workers.

The farmers opened fire on the unarmed crowd. Miraculously, only two men were killed; several other people were injured, including a woman. The gunmen then jumped into their cars and sped away, but were almost immediately pulled over by California Highway Patrol officers who had actually witnessed the attack (the farmers’ weapons were literally still smoking). The officers took the rifles and then told the men to go on home.

It was “justice,” California style. But if the shooting went unpunished, it was still a pivotal event, because it shifted public opinion. Until that time, newspapers had sympathized with the farmers and blithely printed racist condemnations of the striking “trash.” But after the two people were killed in Pixley and another man was shot dead in Arvin, the public started to have second thoughts. Federal officials showed up and began leaning on both sides to settle (to the consternation of the Communist organizers, who could see they were winning and resented the interference). The final agreement, however, did guarantee substantial raises for workers.

If they weren’t entirely satisfied, Chambers and Decker still considered the event a major success; in real life, neither one was anything like the cynical, manipulative organizer in Steinbeck’s novel. But that wasn’t the only detail of the strike that Steinbeck changed in the book.

Louis complained that one of the things Steinbeck rarely got credit for was his experimentation (not an assessment, by the way, that you hear from the legions of litterateurs who roll their eyes at Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize). Louis and others had already written that Steinbeck’s experiment in In Dubious Battle was to examine what happens to a group of people when a mob mentality takes over. Steinbeck called it the idea of the “phalanx,” and the details of the strike were, Louis believed, of secondary importance to what he really wanted to portray: the mob as a living organism.

Looking carefully at the details of the strike that Steinbeck had used and those he’d thrown away, one can see that most fit a pattern of foregrounding the “phalanx” phenomenon. Making the workers all one ethnicity made sense in a couple of ways—not only was it easier to consider groupthink among a homogenous group, but by 1936, when the book was published, many more white Okies had poured into California as a result of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. You could argue that Steinbeck wasn’t only “whitewashing” the details of the strike in his novel to keep his theme pure, but also to reflect the times.

Other things, however, weren’t so easy to reconcile—in particular, some troubling remarks that the author had made in newspaper articles at about the same time. More than once, Steinbeck made the point that it was time for the larger public to pay more attention to the plight of farm workers for the very reason that so many of them were now white. As he put it, “their blood was strong”; democracy, he argued, came more “naturally” to the white farm worker, who wasn’t going to put up with the kind of treatment that earlier workers had.

Although Steinbeck didn’t use the bigoted language that was so common at the time, he was nevertheless implying that the “blood” of the Mexican workers wasn’t “strong,” that democracy didn’t come naturally to them, when the opposite was true: Organizers found the Mexicans more willing to stand up for their rights.

I wrote up a paper about the research and managed to get it accepted at a conference in Baltimore—an encouraging experience for a relatively green graduate student. Louis was pleased, and so was I. But he knew why I felt that the work was incomplete: More than anything, I told him, I wanted to speak to the Mexican workers who had taken part in the strike. Only then would the research feel comprehensive.

Sixty years after the event, of course, that was pure fantasy. There was almost no information about any of the thousands of people who had struck. Many weren’t American citizens, and all of them worked seasonally, with few having fixed addresses. Finding a 1933 migrant worker in 1993? It was never going to happen.

Still, I felt that I had something interesting to tell my own Mexican family as I traveled home to Southern California for the short winter break at the end of 1993. The research had made me curious about the stories I’d heard regarding my grandfather, Antonio Ortega, who’d been a nightclub musician in gangster-controlled San Bernardino in the 1940s. It was time, I thought, to shift my research to the subject of my own family. And there was a reason not to put it off: My grandfather was recovering from a heart attack, and the news was not encouraging.

The Ortegas, like many other Mexicans, came to the United States during the early days of the revolution in 1910. My great-grandparents had come from Chihuahua in the north and Guanajuato in central Mexico. Both of my father’s parents, Antonio Ortega and Virginia Mendoza, were born in California, even though their first language was Spanish and most of the people they knew were Mexican (no one used the term “Mexican-American” when they were growing up and, even into old age, my grandparents divided the world into us “Mexicans” and you “Americans,” even though they were born as U.S. citizens).

My grandparents had lived their entire lives in California’s Inland Empire, and when I came to visit them, they were living in a mobile home in Yucaipa. I was shocked by my grandfather’s appearance; he was shriveled now, such a little man, when my memories of him were so different. But when I announced my project—to interview them about the old days—they both seemed thrilled, and the ailments plaguing them both suddenly became more tolerable.

Tell me about the nightclubs, I asked, knowing that it was something my grandfather actually wanted to put behind him. (“I feel like I’ve wasted my life,” he once told me, and I begged him not to think that way.) For decades, Tony had performed in restaurants and clubs, playing American and Mexican music on a keyboard with a small band he called his “orchestra.” To me, it was magic to hear about his nights in the clubs, especially during the rough days of prewar San Bernardino, when the town was run by gangsters from the East.

The mobsters had divided the town in half, controlling gambling and prostitution. They operated lively joints where Tony’s orchestra found steady employment, giving him a front-row seat for the underworld action. He watched as mob bosses like Johnny Russo plied local politicians with booze and favors so they wouldn’t interfere with his operations. Russo in particular liked Tony’s band and his look; in those days, my grandfather was a beefy man with a tough appearance. Russo would take him to sit ringside at prizefights in Riverside, and he enjoyed it when people got the impression that Tony was his bodyguard. The gangster’s esteem for my grandfather became so great that, in 1939, Russo asked him to take over the management of a bar he owned in San Bernardino’s red-light district. It was a stunning offer—one that would have meant a considerable increase in income and a very different life for the Ortegas.

But my grandfather turned him down flat. “It wasn’t for me,” he said.

He explained that he might let a gangster take him to a prizefight, but he wasn’t a man to get involved with the rackets. It was a smart decision: By 1942, the town had been cleaned up and Russo had been deported.

Tony, meanwhile, had joined the Army and was stationed in New York and Texas during the war. After coming home, he helped found an American Legion hall in Redlands—Post 650—because the other one in town wouldn’t accept Mexican-American veterans.

And he went back to playing music. At the peak of his popularity, he even landed a regular gig in the early days of television. On Sunday mornings in 1948, a local station broadcast a musical show sponsored by a San Bernardino car dealership that featured my grandfather’s orchestra.

I soaked up his stories and those of my grandmother. She often sang for the band, and the two of them swore that Lucky Luciano himself had taken in one of their shows when San Bernardino was still mobbed up.

As I talked to them, it dawned on me that all of these stories occurred when Tony was in his twenties and older. He’d already been married and had kids. What I didn’t know about at all, I told him, were his earlier years. What, for example, did he do as a teenager?

“We were pickers,” he said, and Virginia nodded her head. Her father, she said, operated a camp for fruit pickers.

Tony’s family—his parents, brothers, and sisters—spent many years going where the crop was. His earliest memories, in fact, were of days spent riding in a wagon as it traveled around the state. They’d go down to Brawley, close to the Mexican border, to pick winter lettuce, and then make the long trip back up to the Riverside area, where they’d pick oranges. On one of those trips, when he was five years old, the wagon hit a curbstone while they were passing through Oceanside, pitching him and his mother out of the wagon. She landed on him roughly and broke his leg. The doctors recommended amputating the leg, but Tony’s father wouldn’t hear of it. They bundled him up in the wagon and kept going. For the rest of his life, Tony walked with a characteristic limp.

After the oranges, he continued, they’d go up to the Bakersfield area in the fall to pick cotton.

Wait a minute, I interrupted. My grandfather? And his brothers? Cotton pickers in the San Joaquin Valley?

For years and years, he said.

Stunned, I did the math: In 1933, he would have been 18.

And in 1933? I asked him. Were you picking cotton that year? The year of the . . .

Yeah, the strike, he said. The big one.

I vividly remember calling Louis as soon as I could get my hands on my grandparents’ phone.

Get a tape recorder, now, he said.

Soon, I was taping. And as I began quizzing my grandfather about the strikers and farmers and organizers, he asked if he could invite someone over who remembered this stuff a lot better.

His older brother, Román.

Now I felt ashamed. I have literally dozens and dozens of aunts and uncles and great-aunts and cousins and second cousins, and it’s been hell keeping them all straight because I go to Redlands—the center of the Ortega universe—less and less frequently. But I do try. So it was embarrassing that here was a great-uncle that I’d never even heard of.

Román was 87, nine years older than Tony, and he drove over as soon as he heard from us.

They were actually half-brothers, the sons of different fathers, and if Tony was having a harder and harder time walking, the older Román was the picture of health. Like my grandfather, Román grew up with Spanish as his first language, so his English was not only accented, but he spoke it in a wonderful, booming, slightly stilted voice, slipping into Spanish at least once per sentence. His memory was as sharp as I could have wanted.

Not wanting to feed them answers, I carefully asked the two brothers about the nature of the strike. One of the things I wanted to know about most, for example, was what the Mexicans in the fields understood about the organizers.

What, I asked Román, did he know about the people leading the strike?

“The organizer was from San Francisco,” he said.

You remember his name?

“Yeah, Pat Chambers.”

You knew him?

“Oh, yeah. He was about 28, 30 years of age,” he said. “He was a Communist.”

“Of course, we heard that from the ranchers,” Tony added.

“Those were hard times,” Román said. And he confirmed what I’d read: “There were more Mexicans than gabachos,” he said, using the Mexican word for white people.

Román reminded Tony that while they waited out the strike, they had stayed in a nameless camp under a stand of eucalyptus trees, about 10 or 12 people sharing meals.

“I remember being in a camp,” Tony said, nodding.

“Manuel, they took him to jail, you know,” Román reminded him, referring to another brother. “He was an agitator.”

The extended Ortega clan was just a small contingent in the thousands-strong strike force. While Tony and Román and the others camped under trees, thousands of other workers had made massive, organized camps in places like Corcoran. Despite being on the periphery of that, however, the Ortega brothers said they had gained some notoriety because they could all play music.

“The only reason we knew Pat Chambers was that we were entertainers,” Tony said. “We’d get a special meal because we played the hall,” he added. And at other times, they would go out on a flatbed truck to play for other workers.

“Remember on the flat truck, tocando [playing]?” Román asked his brother. “You with the violin, me with the clarinet, Gabriel with the guitar. Two guys from Earlimart—one playing a cornet, the other one, I think it was saxophone?”

“We were just entertainers. People there knew we could play,” Tony said.

They would go out on a caravan, playing music from the back of a flatbed truck to keep the workers’ spirits up. I had seen photos of such caravans—and I knew that music had been used to help convince people to leave the fields. It was because they could play, they said, that they’d been asked to entertain the workers as they gathered for a big meeting one day in a hall in Pixley.

It was another shock to realize what they were talking about. My own family members had not only taken part in the Great Cotton Strike of 1933 and gotten to know Pat Chambers personally, but they were present when the single most significant event had occurred. The Ortega brothers had been playing when those farmers opened fire in Pixley.

‘We were playing in the hall to settle people down, because they were waiting for the people from San Francisco,” Tony said.

I asked if they remembered what they were playing. “Mexican music—we were playing ‘Joaquin Murrieta.’ Someone said, ‘Don’t play that!’ ” my grandfather added, laughing to himself. (The song tells the tale of a notorious bandit—perhaps not the most appropriate material for a union gathering.)

All the people who wanted to attend the meeting couldn’t fit inside the hall, they remembered. And when the shots started, someone began yelling for people not to panic. “Don’t panic—they’re shooting blanks!” my grandfather remembers someone shouting.

But they didn’t wait around to find out if that was true. They bolted for a back door.

“I remember Gabriel running outside, and I had a heck of a time keeping up with him,” Tony said. “They were yelling at us, ‘They’re blanks! They’re blanks! Don’t panic!’ [But] I saw chips of the brick building where the bullets were hitting.”

“They were nothing but farmers and ranchers,” Román added. “We got scared, and we ran over to the church. The priest was saying, ‘Come in, come in! They won’t harm you here!’ . . . We stayed there a long time.” Then they laughed, and I understood why: The Ortegas were the rare Protestant family among Mexicans, and so they were generally never found in Catholic churches.

They eventually made it back to their eucalyptus camp. “They scared us with that shooting,” Román said. The clan soon decided to go back to Riverside to pick oranges. It seemed safer.

Some of the farmers, Román remembered, were actually sympathetic to the pickers—the smaller ones, anyway. “But you talk about discrimination!” he added. “After the strike, I remember me and Cruz and Manuel [two other brothers], we went to Pixley the next time,” but the farmer they had worked for earlier turned them away. “We don’t hire Mexicans,” Román says he was told, which was consistent with what I’d read: Farmers began to prefer white migrant workers because they were more pliable, not less.

“I’m sorry, I wish I could hire you,” the farmer told him, according to Román—even as he was in the process of hiring about 25 other workers.

“It was puros gabachos,” Román remembered.

After my great-uncle left, I continued to talk to my grandparents about their later years. Then I took my tapes and transcripts and wrote a new version of my research. Louis and I celebrated over beers. He helped me get the paper placed at another conference, where it got a big reaction (from an audience that was probably just grateful for something not choked with esoteric theory). Tillie Olsen, I remember, came up to me and thanked me, saying she was thrilled to see a young person paying such close attention to the 1930s.

What I told that audience—aside from my surprise at learning that my own family had taken part in the strike—was that I could see why Steinbeck had decided to turn Tony and Román and their fellow migrant workers into white Okies. He was experimenting, I said, with depicting the frightening nature of mob-think and mob manipulation at a time when these tactics were being wielded with such ominous success by authoritarian political movements in Europe. This doubtless colored his portrayal of the older Communist organizer and his tactics in the novel, so different from the recollections of my grandfather and great-uncle. And he probably also saw an opportunity to highlight the plight of the poor white farmers migrating to California en masse, to make an apathetic public care about a subject it had never shown much interest in before.

(More recently, thanks to Kevin Hearle, the same friend who first informed me of Louis’s death, I’ve also learned about a nearly unknown 1937 foreword to Tortilla Flat, in which Steinbeck admitted that he’d hated the reaction to the book and argued that he had far more respect for the Mexicans than many readers seemed to take away from the stories. So Steinbeck may not have wanted to repeat that experience.)

But I also told the conference that, after learning about the actual experiences of the workers who had struck against poor wages in 1933, I realized that Steinbeck had missed a huge opportunity. After all, what American novelist was better suited to write about people like Tony, Román, and their brothers, strumming guitars and blowing horns on the back of a flatbed truck as they stood up for what was right?

Louis agreed, and he tried to spread word among others in the field about what I’d found. But it was soon to become a period of transition for us both. Louis was already spending less time on Steinbeck, and more on his novels and other Native American writers. And within a year, I would move away and start a new career in newspapers. Louis was very encouraging about that, and he also sounded very optimistic about his own move to Davis. But as time went on, we began to write each other less.

In 2000, my grandfather succumbed to his various ailments at the age of 85. At his funeral, I read a eulogy about his entire history, scandalizing one of my uncles, though my many cousins seemed to appreciate it—most of them had never heard about the broken leg, the strike, the gangsters.

Román had passed away four years earlier, in 1996. My grandmother held on until 2005.

In 2002, Louis shot himself in the heart.

I’ll never know what was going through his mind in those last moments, but as I was finishing this article, I chanced upon an interview that he gave in 1998 to Western Washington University professor John Purdy for the journal Studies in American Indian Literatures. In it, Louis talked about his interest in returning to Steinbeck, possibly to write a book on his importance as an early ecologist, before noting that Steinbeck is one writer who has always been very popular with Native Americans.

“I think it’s because his worldview is very close to what you might find in those communities,” Louis said, “and what Steinbeck is arguing in his writing is that we have to be responsible for what he terms the whole thing, known and unknowable, in a very deep way: that if you step into a tide pool, you have to realize that that step has changed the entire universe . . . that every single act of humanity changes the world. Steinbeck was arguing that sixty years ago, before anybody in white America really was, so I’m thinking about going back and doing some more work on Steinbeck . . . and then as far as fiction is concerned, I may not write any more.”