Jazz Age Rebel (Carol Henning 1)

 from "Carol and John Steinbeck" by Susan Shillinglaw 2013, photo circa mid 1930s

from "Carol and John Steinbeck" by Susan Shillinglaw 2013, photo circa mid 1930s

While researching a larger project I’ve come across a woman whose artistry I’d like to share. Carol Henning was John Steinbeck’s first wife. Capricious and captivating, she’s been described as “a Jazz Age rebel with a Great Depression heart.” Yet little was known of her life and artistic work until Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw published "Carol and John Steinbeck" in 2013.

Married in 1930, Carol was John’s muse, researcher, conceptualizer and first-pass editor. She came up with the titles for both Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath. She was John’s source of energy and the catalyst for his activism. She was also a witty poet, satirical artist and (sometimes eerily) insightful scrapbooker. Carol held being published as a personal goal, but refused to use her Steinbeck name to get her work seen. Instead she submitted poems to The Monterey Beacon under the pen name Amnesia Glasscock (!), and several were printed in that local arts magazine during January and February 1934.

At this same time, the height of Carol's creative energies, John’s mother took ill, and Carol dedicated herself to her care. Her mother-in-law’s death was quickly followed by her father-in-law’s illness and death, and Carol’s caregiving days were extended. She never realized her publishing dream, instead putting her work aside in order to relieve John from the mundane stressors in life so that he could focus his energies on his work. 

I’d like to share some of her work, beginning this time with a poem called Baubles. Carol credited Dorothy Parker as her poetry muse. (More on Carol to come.)

Baubles

There’s pity in me for the prosey folks,
Their stupid doings and pointless jokes.
In their goings and comings it’s hard to see
The touch of the fey that I find in me.

Would they, on seeing an acorn cup
Ever think to pick it up
And dream of a Brownie’s golden chalice
Stole from the feast in a fairy palace?

Likely as not their clumsy feet
Would crush it into the dirty street,
And so I cherish each tiny cup,
Doing my best to make it up.

A broken shell, a tiny nest
Where birdie babies used to rest -
If only the whole world could see
The beauty in things so dear to me!

If others found them precious too,
And all this lovely treasure knew,
Then would I other beauties find,
AND LEAVE THIS PILE OF JUNK BEHIND!
— excerpted from "Carol and John Steinbeck" by Susan Shillinglaw
Prj WrkShaler McClureComment