Steinbeck, John (Vol. 21)
John Steinbeck 1902–1968
American novelist, short story writer, playwright, nonfiction writer, journalist, and screenwriter. See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 9, 13, 124.
Steinbeck's novels of the common people and the troubles that beset them have earned him the reputation as one of America's greatest writers. He has employed various forms, from short story to allegory to morality play, yet his approach is consistently realistic. Critics often feel that the realism is marred by his sentimentality, but Steinbeck's clear, forceful writing and his sensitive treatment of his characters are considered his strengths.
Steinbeck often used religious motifs to universalize his work. The Eden theme and the Cain and Abel story are predominant in East of Eden. The Grapes of Wrath relies on a combination of Old and New Testament symbols for its emotional impact. Steinbeck's work also reveals a preoccupation with biological relationships and patterns, an interest promoted by his friendship with the marine biologist Edward Ricketts. Steinbeck discerned parallels between animal and human life that he believed could produce a better understanding of human behavior. An accurate observation of the land and its inhabitants resulted from Steinbeck's interest in science.
Steinbeck was impressed with the Arthurian legends and contended that Tortilla Flat was written as a modern-day example of the Knights of the Round Table. However, some critics have difficulty finding the Arthurian theme in the book. Steinbeck later began translating Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur into more accessible, contemporary language. The incomplete work was published posthumously as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. It was received with great enthusiasm; critics praised Steinbeck's use of language in this book as the best of his career.
The social outcast is a prevalent character in Steinbeck's work. In Cannery Row Steinbeck infuses a group of these characters with a dignity and nobility that makes it possible for the reader to like them in spite of their irresponsible ways. The working class is also represented in Steinbeck's novels, especially in In Dubious Battle. Here Steinbeck attempts to present an objective view of illegal strikes and shows genuine concern for the workers not only as employees, but also as people.
The Grapes of Wrath, an accurate and moving account of the mass migration during the American Depression, is probably Steinbeck's best-known novel. Here again he attacks social injustice, but there are several other essential themes. Along with traditional religious beliefs, Steinbeck explores the implications of the transcendentalist belief that each person is a part of the over-soul and that individual actions cannot be interpreted as right or wrong. The family as a source of strength to its members and the community as a whole is another important theme of the book. The Joad family is a universal symbol for the need for group effort and support to accomplish the greater good for the greater number of people.
Steinbeck is remembered primarily as a writer who was unafraid to denounce the faults of individuals and society as he saw them. His sympathetic portrayal of the proletariat endears Steinbeck to readers of every generation, and the skill with which he wrote has earned him a place among America's most important writers. Steinbeck was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, 9, 13, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed., and Something About the Author, Vol. 9.)
The weeds and the willows and the tall waving grain of California's sweet valleys, rabbits and mice and a woman's soft hair, the hot slanting sun and the hungry desire of a pair of floaters to own a handful of dirt are the materials out of which this lovely new novel by John Steinbeck is evoked. Purling water is purling water here, without overtones; a gracious sky is as beautiful as in any lyric poetry. The men are lads sent down to the ranch from Murray and Ready's in San Francisco: Lennie, like Nature itself, whose powerful fingers killed little animals before he knew it, and George, struggling to become human. "Of Mice and Men" is another of John Steinbeck's parables of earth, and no writer I know shapes the soil into truer patterns for us to understand.
In "Pastures of Heaven" this dream had its first fruition. A tapestry whose threads were woven from the design the lives of the men and women of a fertile valley created in the author's imagination, these stories are unforgettable. A prose that seemed made of wind and weather and growing acres came alive in them. "To a God Unknown" continued Steinbeck's inner examination of earth, when a tree and a mossy rock and the silent fury of a drought murdered the fragile human figures. And then, because Nature is anything but monotonous, this versatile novelist went down into Monterey, bought himself a "balloon" of claret, made the acquaintance of Danny and his paisano pals, and decided to...
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"The Wayward Bus" may confidently be taken as a twentieth-century parable on the state of man. Although Steinbeck is not quite so insistent on his moral as Jonathan Swift, the underlying conception in what he has to say was succinctly summarized by the King of Brobdingnag in "Gulliver's Travels": "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." Steinbeck's moral is therefore hardly new, and it has been occasionally exploited in our own day by such artists as John O'Hara and such polemicists as Philip Wylie. But in recent years the subject has rarely received so searching a treatment as Steinbeck gives it. Both because of the richness of its texture and the solidity of its structure, this new novel, unlike many parables, makes good reading. And it might even be good for one's soul.
The wayward bus is an ancient, aluminum-colored conveyance which serves the public as connecting link between two great arterial highways in central California. But its chief importance is that it serves Steinbeck as a vehicle of thought and action. He assembles in it eight members of his cast, carefully graded as to age and sex, and sends them talking and fighting across the forty-nine miles of rain-sodden and flood-swept country which lies between Juan Chicoy's lunchroom-filling station at a crossroads named (perhaps significantly) Rebel...
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Probably the best of John Steinbeck's novels, "East of Eden," is long but not "big," and anyone who, deceived by its spread in space and time (c. 1860–1920), says that it is "epical in its sweep," is merely in the usual grip of cliché. Its dramatic center is a narrow story of social horror that rests quite disarmingly on the proposition that "there are monsters born in the world to human parents." But through the exercise of a really rather remarkable freedom of his rights as a novelist, Mr. Steinbeck weaves in, and more particularly around, this story of prostitution a fantasia of history and of myth that results in a strange and original work of art.
"East of Eden" is different from any of the earlier Steinbeck novels. It is, in a sense, more amorphous, less intent on singleness of theme and effect….
Mr. Steinbeck's tightly constructed short novels, in fact, and even such longer work as "The Grapes of Wrath," have given us no preparation for this amplitude of treatment that enables him now to develop, within this single work, not only a number of currents of story, but a number of different modes of tracing them….
[The] novelist reconstructs the history of his maternal grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, who came to the Salinas Valley in about 1870 with his wife, and there produced a brood of children. From the history of Samuel Hamilton, which, although it is a story of economic failure is also a...
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I propose an interpretation of The Grapes of Wrath in which [Jim] Casy represents a contemporary adaptation of the Christ image, and in which the meaning of the book is revealed through a sequence of Christian symbols.
Before and after The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck has used symbolism and allegory; throughout his work he has considered a wide range of Christian or neo-Christian ideas; in relation to the context of his fiction as a whole, Christian symbolism is common. His use of Biblical names, for instance, is an inviting topic yet to be investigated. The Pearl is an obvious allegory on the evil of worldly treasure. The Pirate in Tortilla Flat exemplifies a Steinbeck character type, pure in heart, simple in mind, rejected of men, clearly of the kingdom of heaven. More pertinent perhaps, the title of The Grapes of Wrath is itself a direct Christian allusion, suggesting the glory of the coming of the Lord, revealing that the story exists in Christian context, indicating that we should expect to find some Christian meaning….
Consider … the language of the novel. Major characters speak a language that has been associated with debased Piedmont culture. It is, I suggest, easy to find in vocabulary, rhythm, imagery, and tone pronounced similarities to the language of the King James Bible. These similarities, to be seen in qualities of simplicity, purity, strength, vigor, earnestness,...
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[This "fabrication," "The Short Reign of Pippin IV,"] is a froth of a book which must have been great fun to write. In addition, it is one of the purest expressions of true, simple, American affection for the French that has ever been written—compounded with our equally simple conviction that they are also, after all, a funny race.
Mr. Steinbeck's hero is Pippin Arnulf Héristal, a middle-aged amateur astronomer….
The unfolding of M. Héristal's story is directed not by anything he has done, but by something that he is: in his veins flows the blood of Charlemagne…. Thus, when sometime in the near future a French government expires into slightly more than normal anarchy, and every other party has talked itself hoarse, the patient monarchists are able to make themselves heard…. [An] ancient descendant of the Merovingian nobility is able to propose that the line of Charlemagne be revived, and that a certain M. Héristal, Numero 1, Avenue de Marigny, be crowned at Rheims. And, reluctantly he is.
Reluctantly, M. Héristal, now suddenly Pippin the Fourth, is quite as aware as Hamlet that the times are out of joint, but for fifty-four years he has had no inkling that he was born to set them right. Here the moral of Mr. Steinbeck's fabrication—and he is a highly moral writer—begins to show through the joke. For Pippin is both l'homme moyen sensuel, and the ordinary citizen, who is suddenly...
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More than a mere allegory, "Flight" reveals characteristics of myth and tragedy. A myth is a story that tries to explain some practice, belief, institution, or natural phenomenon, and is especially associated with religious rites and beliefs. The natural phenomenon, for Steinbeck, is not the facts of nature, with which historical myths deal; rather, it is … the development of innocent childhood into disillusioned manhood. The myth that Steinbeck wrought also contains another quality of myth, the rite. The plot of "Flight" narrates symbolically the ritual: the escape from the Mother, the divestiture of the Father, and the death and burial of Childhood. To discern these mythic symbols, it is necessary to review the narrative facts.
At the beginning of the story, Pepé, though 19 years of age, has all the innocence of the "toy-baby" his mother calls him….
When his rather domineering mother—who constantly taunts him with his inability to be "a man"—asks him to go to Monterey, "a revolution took place in the relaxed figure of Pepé."… He is asked, surprisingly, to go alone; he is permitted to wear his father's hat and his father's hatband and to ride in his father's saddle. (p. 225)
When Pepé returns, he has killed a man with his father's knife, left behind him at the scene of the crime. The look of innocence is gone; he has been shocked by a fact of life, an extreme independent act. His mother...
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Eric F. Goldman
Shortly after Labor Day, 1960, Steinbeck left his Long Island home for a swing around the United States.
Three months and 10,000 miles later the 58-year-old novelist was back, physically and emotionally exhausted. But it was all decidedly worth the effort. The resulting book ["Travels with Charley"] is pure delight, a pungent potpourri of places and people interspersed with bittersweet essays on everything from the emotional difficulties of growing old to the reasons why giant Sequoias arouse such awe….
He traveled accompanied only by his aged French poodle, Charley. The poodle is wonderful. Charley takes over a good deal of the book, the ambassadeur extraordinaire between mere human beings, always the companion and judge of the man who indulged himself in the whimsy that he was his master….
Once past Chicago, Steinbeck's prose takes on a new lift. This was his kind of country, and the Pacific, his Pacific, was nearing. By the time he reached Montana, he was engaged in an unabashed love affair with nature. The calm of the mountains and grasslands, he was sure, had seeped into the inhabitants. Out here even the casual conversation, in Steinbeck's glowing reportage, has an earthy sagacity….
On to Seattle and then down into northern California. Naturally the clash between old and new produced the sharpest twinges in the area of Steinbeck's boyhood and of his novels…....
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[Nothing] more clearly indicates the allegorical nature of [The Pearl] as it developed in Steinbeck's mind from the beginning [as the various titles attached to the work—The Pearl of the World and The Pearl of La Paz]. Although the city of La Paz may be named appropriately in the title since the setting for the action is in and around that place, the Spanish word provides a neat additional bit of symbolism, if in some aspects ironic. In its working title, the novel tells the story of The Pearl of Peace. When this title was changed to The Pearl of the World for magazine publication, although the irony was partially lost, the allegorical implications were still present. But Steinbeck had apparently no fears that the nature of the tale would be mistaken when he reduced the title to merely The Pearl…. (pp. 487-88)
Steinbeck knew that the modern fabulist could write neither a medieval Pearl nor a classical Aesopian Fox and Grapes story. It was essential to overlay his primary media of parable and folklore with a coat of realism, and this was one of his chief problems. Realism as a technique requires two basic elements: credible people and situations on the one hand and recognizable evocation of the world of nature and of things on the other. Steinbeck succeeds brilliantly in the second of these tasks but perhaps does not come off quite so well in the first. In supplying realistic detail, he is a...
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In the fall of 1937, while returning from New York and Pennsylvania, where he had worked on the stage version of Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck drove through Oklahoma, joined migrants who were going west, and worked with them in the fields after they reached California. The Grapes of Wrath is thus a product of his own experience and direct observation; its realism is genuine. (p. 68)
[The] story ends in medias res. Some readers have objected to the closing scene, in which the young mother who lost her child suckles a grown man. The episode not only has folkloristic and literary antecedents …, but for Steinbeck it is an oracular image, forecasting in a moment of defeat and despair the final triumph of the people—a contingent forecast, for only if the people nourish and sustain one another will they achieve their ends. More than that, the episode represents the novel's most comprehensive thesis, that all life is one and holy, and that every man, in Casy's words, "jus' got a little piece of a great big soul." The Joads' intense feelings of family loyalty have been transcended; they have expanded to embrace all men. Another image could have symbolized this universality, but, for Steinbeck, perhaps no other could have done it so effectively.
The novel has thirty chapters, fourteen of which carry the Joad story. The other sixteen chapters (called interchapters even though the first chapter is one of...
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Bruce K. Martin
Two very basic questions about ["The Leader of the People"] upon which its critics have been unable to agree are the identity of the main character and the nature of the change or development, if any, which he undergoes. (p. 423)
There is, of course, much to be said for Grandfather's importance in the story. His arrival at the ranch precipitates at least indirectly all of the important subsequent action. Also, the nature of each of the other characters is in large part determined by his response to Grandfather, since the old man is the common object of interest for Jody, his parents, and Billy. Nor can there be any question but that Grandfather's remarks to Jody after overhearing Carl's outburst—the old man's longest and most formal statement in the entire story—constitute a climax to what precedes them. Grandfather's revelation of what the frontier meant to him and of his loneliness in the frontierless present represents an emotionally compelling end to a chain of action that began with his arrival at the ranch. Clearly the story, as Steinbeck has fashioned it, does not permit the reader to ignore Grandfather.
However, to regard his presence or what he experiences as the central concern of the story is to raise some serious problems. Certainly his moving confession suggests a change of mood in the old man, yet when his speech is set against his earlier behavior, the basis of his despair seems something less than...
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Of Mice and Men is a short novel in six scenes presented in description-dialogue-action form that approximates stage drama in its effect…. The time scheme runs from Thursday evening through Sunday evening—exactly three days in sequence, a matter of some importance, as we shall see presently. The setting is the Salinas Valley in California, and most of the characters are unskilled migratory workers who drift about the villages and ranches of that area picking up odd jobs or doing short-term field work and then moving on to the next place of employment. Steinbeck focuses on two such laborers who dream of one day saving up enough money to buy a small farm of their own. (p. 124)
The title of the story has a two-fold application and significance. First it refers to naturalistic details within the texture of the novella: Lennie likes to catch mice and stroke their fur with his fingers. This is a particularly important point for two reasons: it establishes Lennie's fatal weakness for stroking soft things and, since he invariably kills the mice he is petting, it foreshadows his deadly encounter with Curley's wife. Secondly, the title is of course a fragment from the poem by Robert Burns ["The best laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley."], which gives emphasis to the idea of the futility of human endeavor or the vanity of human wishes…. This notion is obviously of major importance in the novella, and it may be said to be...
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In one of the little essays Steinbeck did for the Saturday Review in 1955, "Some thoughts on Juvenile Delinquency," he writes as follows concerning the relationship of the individual to the society in which he lives: "… I believe that man is a double thing—a group animal and at the same time an individual. And it occurs to me that he cannot successfully be the second until he has fulfilled the first." The nice organic relationship which Steinbeck here postulates near the end of his writing career is seldom to be met in his fiction. Much more frequently we are presented with characters who choose one of two extremes—either to reject society's demands and escape into individualism, or to reject individualism and commit themselves to goals and values which can be realized only in terms of society.
In Steinbeck's very first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), in the figure of Merlin, is found not only an extreme example of escapism, but one of its most eloquent philosophers. As a young man, a greatly talented bard, he had taken up a hermit's life in a stone tower on a lonely mountain top. There he has grown old with his harp and his books of history and mythology, a legendary figure in his own lifetime. It is suggested that the cause of this self-imposed isolation may have been his losing a bardic contest through political influence. The consequent disillusionment is reflected in his remarks to the young Henry Morgan, who has...
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Of the great religions, Manicheism generates the most suspense. In it, the contending principles of good and evil, God and Satan, light and darkness, soul and body are so evenly matched that for long periods darkness is actually triumphant over light. In Christianity, the rebellious angels rise up but are easily defeated in battle and contemptuously cast down into hell. One never gets the impression that Satan is a serious threat to God or that he has any real chance of prevailing. In Manicheism, he is not only a serious threat but for a time he actually does prevail. When God sends his agent, Primal Man, to put down darkness, Primal Man is defeated in battle and taken prisoner. Particles of light are captured by the nether forces and the realm of light itself driven back. (p. 11)
For self-evident reasons, Manicheism was branded as a heresy by other religions. But for a thousand years, from the third through the thirteenth centuries, it spread westward from Persia and exercised a pervasive and profound influence on Europe. Augustine himself was a Manichean for nine years before turning Christian. The emphasis of Manicheism on the power of fertility of darkness seemed closer to the facts of human experience than the more cheerful, perhaps even complacent mythology of other creeds. This may be one reason why it did not finally survive: its cosmology was too tragic and dangerous, its sexual demands too severe. But while not ultimately...
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A minor classic of proletarian conflict, Of Mice and Men was written in 1937, first as a novel, then as a play….
The sycamore grove by the Salinas River, so lovingly described in the opening lines, is more than scene-setting: it is an attempt to evoke the sense of freedom in nature which, for a moment only, the protagonists will enjoy. By a path worn hard by boys and hobos two migrant laborers appear. The first man is mouse-like…. He is the planner from the poem by Robert Burns: as with other mice and men, his best arrangements will often go astray. (p. 170)
The nearest town is Soledad, which means "lonely place" in Spanish; the town where they last worked, digging a cesspool, was Weed. Their friendship is thus quickly placed as a creative defense against rank loneliness; it will be reinforced, thematically, by the hostility and guardedness of bunkhouse life, and by the apparent advance of their dream toward realization. But the secluded grove, the site of natural freedom, provides the only substantiation their dream will ever receive; and when our mouse-like planner tells his friend to return there in case of trouble, we sense that the dream will end where it essentially begins, in this substantiating site.
The second man to appear is "opposite" to the first…. This bear-like man becomes equine when they reach the grove: flinging himself down, he drinks from the pool there, "snorting...
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When John Steinbeck was at work on his "The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights" in the middle and late 1950's, he hoped it would be "the best work of my life and the most satisfying." Even in its original form, the project was enormous—translation of the complete "Morte d'Arthur" of Sir Thomas Malory; and the project soon became still more difficult, not translation but a complete retelling—rethinking—of the myth. Steinbeck finished only some 293 uncorrected, unedited pages, perhaps one-tenth of the original. Even so, the book Steinbeck's friend and editor Chase Horton has put together is large and important. It is in fact two books, Steinbeck's mythic fiction on King Arthur's court, and a fat, rich collection of letters exchanged between Steinbeck, Horton and Elizabeth Otis, Steinbeck's agent. The first is an incomplete but impressive work of art; the second, the complete story of a literary tragedy—how Steinbeck found his way, step by step, from the idea of doing a "translation" for boys to the idea of writing fabulist fiction, in the mid-1950's, when realism was still king. (p. 31)
Steinbeck's Arthurian fiction is indeed, "strange and different," as he put it. The fact that he lacked the heart to finish the book, or even put what he did complete into one style and tone, is exactly the kind of petty modern tragedy he hated. The idea was magnificent—so is much of the writing—though we see both the idea and the...
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Robert Murray Davis
Steinbeck critics have either ignored "The Murder," refusing it even the attention of condemnation, or treated it very gingerly because on the surface it is an enormously disturbing story with a theme and action seemingly allied to the John Wayne mystique that only a dominated woman and a dominant man will be happy together.
Quite short, the story can be summarized still more briefly. After the death of his parents, Jim Moore marries and brings to his California valley ranch Jelka Sepic, repudiating her immigrant father's advice to beat her regularly in order to make her a proper wife…. One evening as he is going to town he meets a neighbor coming to inform him about the butchering of one of his calves. Jim investigates and returns home unobserved to find Jelka in bed with her male cousin. After a curious pair of meditations at the water trough, Jim shoots the cousin and departs without speaking to Jelka. He returns at dawn with the deputy sheriff and the coroner, who remove the body, exonerate Jim, and caution him not to be too severe with his wife. Jim beats her severely with "a nine-foot, loaded bullwhip," and she then fixes his breakfast. The implication, strongly reinforced by the closing paragraph which shows her smiling and him stroking her head and by an introductory view of the happy couple in the indeterminate future, is that both have learned their lessons and have reached a new understanding of each other.
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Like William Faulkner and Willa Cather, John Steinbeck wrote his best fiction about the region in which he grew up and the people he knew from boyhood….
Far more extensive than Faulkner's county or Cather's homeland, the Steinbeck territory covers thousands of square miles in central California, particularly in the Long Valley, which extends south of Salinas, Steinbeck's hometown, for over one hundred miles and lies between the Gabilan Mountains on the east and the Santa Lucia Mountains along the Pacific coast. (p. 23)
In the territory appear Mexicans, Spanish, and Chinese, as well as German, Irish, and English; not only ranchers and farmers but also migrant workers, community leaders, assorted whores and bums, as well as fishermen, bartenders, schoolteachers, and radicals. The characters include the wealthy, poor, and economically in-between; the able, bigoted, mature, puritanic, psychotic, and happy. The vast territory is a factor also in shaping dominant themes in the fiction, including man's relationships with the land, the attractions of the simple life, the conflicts of the haves and have-nots, the failures or dangers of middle-class existence. (p. 24)
[The Red Pony] examines the relationship of man and the land. (p. 30)
Unlike the luckless Pepé in "Flight," Jody grows up on good, fertile land, benefits from a secure family life, and survives his encounters with...
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Barbara B. Reitt
John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (1962), recounting his trip across the United States with his dog in a custom-made camper, was enormously popular. The book's many readers liked his anecdotal sentimentality. The dog with the crossed front teeth and bourgeois name made poodlehood forgivable, and the author avoided profound criticism of the country, lacing his account with vivid descriptions of the landscape and a variety of American characters. Travels is a collage that millions of Americans found to be pleasant, casual reading….
Though Travels is one of [Steinbeck's] potboilers, ignoring it is a critical mistake, for both the circumstances surrounding its composition and its content and structure reveal much about Steinbeck as a writer. Travels was written during a transitional period in Steinbeck's later life when he was attempting not only to face the specter of decline but to accept his limitations as a writer. (p. 186)
Travels with Charley opens on a note of braggadocio that is most awkward: Steinbeck recounts his rescue of his boat during the height of a hurricane, when he moved it from its moorings close to shore to a point several hundred yards out where it could ride the winds in safety. Since "no skiff could possibly weather it for a minute," he says, he leaps into the water fully clothed and lets the fierce winds blow him back to shore. He claims to have suffered no...
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