One thing that I really like to do on this site is hunt down original recordings of Lost Generation authors reading their own work. It wasn’t until I started this blog that I realized I had never heard any of these authors in their own voice. And so today here’s a great recording of John Steinbeck reading his short story “Johnny Bear.” This recording, made in 1953, was part of a full length album that included his short story “The Snake” on the other side.
“Johnny Bear” was originally published as “The Ears of Johnny Bear” in the September 1, 1937 edition of Esquire. (If you happen to have a subscription to Esquire you can read the original here. That same issue included F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “The Long Way Out.” Not bad company.)
Set in the small California town of Loma, within the Salinas Valley, “Johnny Bear” deals with an idiot savant who was able to recall things that he hears perfectly, even if he doesn’t understand what they mean. He uses this trait in order to beg for his favorite thing at the local bar, whiskey. Through his recitations the town’s secrets become public knowledge, upending everything they believed about themselves.
It’s really great to hear Steinbeck read his own words, but I do have to say the reading is a bit stilted. It sounds like it might’ve been done in one take and not edited at all. Still, I think it’s well worth a listen – check it out below.