Steinbeck's Mystery Church

Tuesday, 05 October 2010 09:37 AM Written by 

EIGHTY FOUR, PA. -- My house

My dash through beautiful, almost timeless New England in pursuit of John Steinbeck's ghost has left me with a large unresolved religious mystery -- where is that white church John said he attended on Oct. 2, 1960?

In "Travels With Charley" Steinbeck describes going to a church service on his last day in Vermont. He describes it as a "John Knox church" and goes into detail about how much he enjoyed the fire-and-brimstone sermon.

The preacher's scolding made him feel bad and guilty inside, which made him feel like a first-rate sinner. (He really had been living in New York City too long.) He even shook the preacher's hand after the service at the church door.

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Not John Steinbeck's "blindingly white" church.

 Until I realized that "Travels With Charley" should not, like the Bible, be taken literally, I thought it would be fairly easy to find that exact "blindingly white" wood-sided church and perhaps even dig up the scary sermon Steinbeck heard.

Because I am a 100-percent-pure product of a Catholic education, elementary school through Villanova, I was taught little about Protestants except that they were non-Catholic and we shouldn't marry them or attend their church services.

For some reason I assumed "John Knox" was Steinbeck's indirect way of saying he went into a Presbyterian church.

So before I ever set tire in New England, and long before I realized  every other one of its 1.3 million lovely churches is white and made of wood, I called several Presbyterian presbyteries in Vermont and northern New York to see if they could help me find Steinbeck's mystery church.

 The good Presbyterians of New England tried to help irreligious me. But three months and 2,130 Steinbeck Miles later, Steinbeck's church remains a mystery.

I don't know whether it was Presbyterian or Methodist. I've been told by credible Protestants that both are "John Knox" churches. 

And I sure don't have any idea where the church was -- or even if it ever was. It could have been a sermon Steinbeck heard in a church anywhere anytime.

The Sunday Steinbeck would have attended his Vermont church service was Oct. 2, 1960. But on that date he wasn't hanging around waiting for the leaves to fall, he was already motoring west toward Niagara Falls.

The evidence from the Steinbeck's archives:

On a post-card to his agent dated Friday, Sept. 30, Steinbeck described his long lonely loop through Maine.

He also said he was on the Vermont-New Hampshire line -- probably at the "ghost" motel by the Connecticut River in Lancaster, N.H. -- and was "headed west tomorrow" -- i.e., Saturday. That post-card was mailed Saturday, Oct. 1, from Concord, Vt., about 20 miles west of Lancaster on US 2. 

Rouses Point, the first New York town you hit when you cross the bridge from Vermont's Lake Champlain Islands, is about four hours and 160 miles from the Vermont-New Hampshire line via US 2.

Did Steinbeck only drive 150 miles and sleep on the islands overnight Saturday, then go to church in upstate Vermont the next morning?

Did he stop later that Sunday somewhere along US 11 in Upstate New York?

Believe me, there are dozens of white churches he could have chosen on his route.

Except to an ex-journalist like me with a lot of spare time and a 50-year-old ghost to chase, does it really matter what Steinbeck did or what church it was?

Perhaps the mystery church is this one in the historic village of Deerfield, Mass., which he probably walked to the previous Sunday (Sept. 25, 1960) with his son and other Eaglebrook School students.

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The "White Church" in the village of Deerfield, Mass., which Steinbeck probably attended Sept. 25, 1960, with his son and other Eaglebrook students.

But the actual place doesn't matter.

Even if he made it up, it's a nice little scene Steinbeck spins in that church. It tells you something about his religious psyche.

Unless he dropped a generous personal check into the collection basket, we'll probably never know where his mystery church was or if it existed only in his creative mind.

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