If John Steinbeck Revisited Positano

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In my last post I included a link to the article that novelist John Steinbeck wrote for Harper’s Bazar magazine in 1953,  about his visit to Positano. In case you missed it here is another link to the same article. http://www.jackthedriver.com/positano-by-john-steinbeck.asp.

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While the  writing is amazing and his physical description remains accurate 60 years later, I believe that Steinbeck has proved to be a better writer than prophet. Following are some of his predictions about this place.

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Nearly always when you find a place as beautiful as Positano, your impulse is to conceal it. You think, “If I tell, it will be crowded with tourists and they will ruin it, turn it into a honky-tonk and then the local people will get touristy and there’s your lovely place gone to hell”. There isn’t the slightest chance of this in Positano. In the first place there is no room. There are about two thousand inhabitants in Positano and there is room for about five hundred visitors, no more. The cliffs are all taken. Except for the half ruinous houses very high up, all space is utilized. And the Positanese invariably refuse to sell.

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Positano’s permanent population is now just under 4000 but I suspect that in the holiday season there would be double or triple that number of day visitors like us. They have to risk the same roads that the writer recalled “Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side. And on this road, the buses, the trucks, the motor scooters and the assorted livestock. We didn’t see much of the road. In the back seat my wife and I lay clutched in each other’s arms, weeping hysterically.” Like Steinbeck and us, they generally arrive safely.

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Steinbeck’s prediction was the inhabitants would never sell out. Economics  changed that. Most of the Villas are now owned by wealthy international absentees, who could afford the renovations and the workers commute  from elsewhere.

Steinbeck loved the “characters” he found in the village. This was his description of the mayor. “The mayor of Positano is an archaeologist, a philosopher and an administrator. The mayor wanders about the town upstairs and downstairs. He dresses in tired slacks, a sweat shirt and sandals. He holds court anywhere he is, sitting on a stonewall overlooking the sea, leaning against the edge of a bar, swimming in the sea or curled up on the beach. Very little business gets done in the City Hall.”

Not so today I fear. The shopkeepers, gelato sellers and beach artists are only “characters” if it helps make a sale.

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“Again, Positano is never likely to attract the organdie-and-white linen tourist. It would be impossible to dress as a languid tourist-lady-crisp, cool white dress, sandals as white and light as little clouds, picture hat of arrogant nonsense, and one red rose held in a listless white gloved pinky. I dare any dame to dress like this and climb the Positano stairs for a cocktail. She will arrive looking like a washcloth at a boys’ camp.”

My dear wife Julie, posing beside the lucky lion between the town and the beach might not be dresses as described by Steinbeck, but she had just replaced an a Japanese wedding party dressed  more formally than the writer could have imagined, and they, like everyone else had trekked down the narrow paths. In Italy, where the environment has been moulded by man for thousands of years it is still foolish to expect that nothing will change,

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One thought on “If John Steinbeck Revisited Positano

  1. I read The Pearl I think in year 8 under duress and after your last comments thought I might look into some but after reading your excerpts, sorry but I’ll pass, I lost interest half way through the paragraphs. Beautiful city though. I actually thought Positano was one of the cities featured on Bold and the Beautiful (I can see you rolling your eyes, is it any wonder I don’t like Steinbeck) but it was Puglia, also a beautiful looking city. But then all of Italy is beautiful.

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