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In America: Travels with John Steinbeck

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In late 1960, in those uneasy weeks between John F Kennedy’s September speech to Protestant ministers in Houston – where he assured them, ‘I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic’ – and Boynton v Virginia, the US Supreme Court’s ruling that segregation on public transportation was illegal, the novelist John Steinbeck drove off to look for America. At fifty-eight, with Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and East of Eden (1952) long behind him, Steinbeck was not in a good way. His speech was sometimes slurred and his fingertips were often too numb to hold his cigarette; during what seems to have been a minor stroke he even passed out and started a small fire. His third wife, Elaine, decided he was too ill to handle his seventeen-foot Boston Whaler.

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