Searching for Steinbeck

Steinbeck and GoodmanI’m driving along the Pacific coast in a rented red Ford. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts. I’m headed for Salinas, searching for Steinbeck. The windows are down, the breeze cool, and the scenery sensational: mountains and valleys of dusty brown and crisp green. Another country altogether compared to my home in the east. I’m listening to a John Steinbeck audiobook as I drive through Steinbeck Country. How appropriate is that?

John Steinbeck has long been my favorite author. Among my favorite books are East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men, and I’ve read each multiple times. They get better with each reading. I’ve both read and listened to the books, and both experiences are worthwhile.

I knew I’d be in a “road trip” frame of mind during today’s drive along the coast, so I opted to listen to The Grapes of Wrath, feeling almost as though I’m driving along with the Joad family, although in a more comfortable vehicle and on a fuller stomach. But what rattles in my head as I approach Salinas is the book I read prior to leaving the east coast in anticipation of this pilgrimage: East of Eden. Much of the book takes place in this paradise—the Salinas Valley and surrounding area. I knew I’d be coming here to visit, and I knew re-reading the classic would be great preparation.

When working on my most recent novel, I began each day by reading out of Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, and then wrote my own short journal entry about my own approach to the novel I was writing. Before each day of his work, Steinbeck wrote a letter to his editor and friend, Pascal Covici, on the opposite pages of the same notebooks he used to handwrite his novel in pencil. Reading these passages by the master at work was a great inspiration to me.

On a boulder outside the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas is etched this Steinbeck quote: “I think I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and the ranches in the wilder hills. I can see how I would like to do it so that it would be the valley of the world.” He did it with East of Eden.

It’s already afternoon and I’ve eaten a Mexican lunch in San Jose. My first stop in Salinas is to the Steinbeck House, where John Steinbeck was born, raised, and—in adulthood—returned to visit his parents. I’ve been here once before for lunch, a few years ago; the beautiful but simple Queen Anne-style Victorian house opens its doors to serve lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Today I have a piece of pie and coffee—just like the truckers do at Mae’s diner in The Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck home 2The Steinbeck House, constructed of redwood, was built in 1897. John Steinbeck’s paternal grandparents, Adolph and Almira Steinbeck, purchased the house in 1901, and his parents, Ernst and Olive Steinbeck, purchased it in 1908. John was born in the front downstairs room, now the reception room, in 1902. The bed on which he was born is on display in the cellar.

As I’m drinking my second cup of coffee and looking around, I’m delighted to recognize characters from East of Eden—Steinbeck’s own family—on the walls of the room.

“That’s Olive Steinbeck, John’s Mother, isn’t it?” I ask, pointing.

“I think so,” the waitress says, refilling my cup.

“And this couple here,” I thumb the twin portraits behind me. “That must be Sam Hamilton and his wife Liza. John’s grandparents?”

“I’m not certain,” the waitress says. “I’ll have to check for you.”

It wasn’t until my recent re-reading of Eden that I fully realized how close to home parts of the book are to Mr. Steinbeck. The “Cain and Abel” part of the story, with the Trask family, are imagined. But the Hamilton Family—including the lovable Sam Hamilton and his stern wife Liza Hamilton—were John Steinbeck’s own grandparents. All of their children—John’s mother and her siblings—were characters in the book as well. And here they are, pictured in family photographs on the walls of his boyhood home.

“Sure enough,” the waitress says, coming back with their training manual, a complete family tree inside the binder. I don’t know how I knew who they were, how I was able to match exactly which woman was his mother and which were his grandparents. Perhaps I’m close enough to the book that I feel like a member of the family myself. Perhaps John Steinbeck was so good at describing them that I immediately recognized the real-life versions of them in these old black and white portraits. Could it be that he referred to these same family photographs as he wrote about them?

Seeing the real photographs of John Steinbeck’s family after having just read about them in the book is an uncanny experience. I want to stay a spell, but the Steinbeck House will be closing soon. So I roam the home, looking at relics. And I contemplate that classics like Tortilla Flat and The Red Pony were written right here in this very house.

In the cellar of the Steinbeck House is the Best Cellar Gift Shop, which features items pertaining to the house, to Steinbeck, and the Salinas area. I purchase some note cards with the house illustrated on the front, some matted postage stamps commemorating Steinbeck in 1979 (when a letter could be mailed for 15 cents), and a beautiful, limited edition, watercolor print of the Steinbeck House, signed by the artist. (The framed work now hangs in the hallway outside the door of my own writing studio.)

Also on display in this gift shop are a number of books by and about Steinbeck. Among them are a good number of first editions and rare editions of his novels.

The workers at the Best Cellar Gift Shop seem more interested in chatting about Steinbeck and the area than they are in pushing products, which is nice. They want to share with me these rare first editions, to let me hold them and look through the pages. They tell me about other sights in the area. One of them is next on my list: The National Steinbeck Center.

I’m happy to say that the folks at the National Steinbeck Center are expecting me. In fact, they agreed to host me for a reading from my book, Tracks: A Novel in Stories. But the first available slot they have for me at the center is a month away, and I just can’t stick around that long. So instead of an event, I am donating a copy of my book to the Center, and we hope to schedule a reading sometime in the next couple years … giving me another excuse to come back to California.

I nearly always writeAfter donating my book to the Steinbeck Center, I enjoy the exhibit. I’ve been here before, but it’s fun revisiting the displays. Dedicated to the life and works of John Steinbeck, different areas of the exhibit explore different books and themes. In fact, there are six themed galleries full of artifacts, photographs, film clips, and interactive exhibits. Rocinate, Steinbeck’s camper from Travels with Charley, is one of the highlighted artifacts here. Great quotes from Steinbeck decorate the hall. For any lover of literature or fan of Steinbeck, this is a must-see museum.

One of my favorites: “I nearly always write—just as I nearly always breathe.”

After leaving the Steinbeck Center, my next stop is the John Steinbeck Public Library here in Salinas, only a few minutes away. Outside the library is a monument to John Steinbeck, and on another boulder, this Steinbeck quote: “Books are the best friends you can have: they inform you, and entertain you, and they don’t talk back.”

Unfortunately, I don’t find any special papers or documents pertaining to Steinbeck here. They do have a large selection of the author’s works and many reference books about the writer and his work. I speak with a couple of librarians and decide to donate a copy of Tracks to the library. I’m gratified that both the Steinbeck Center and Steinbeck Library now have copies of my debut novel-in-stories on their shelves.

It’s getting late in the afternoon and I still have to make it to Monterey. But first, I take a walk along Main Street to take in the familiar sights from East of Eden. Little John, as a boy, used to watch candy being made at Bells Candy Store—the same place where Kate stopped to buy chocolates in Eden. Porter & Irvine’s (currently Rollick’s Internet Café) was a place Kate regularly shopped in the novel. And Fenchel’s Tailor Shop is another site of interest to readers of Eden. In the book, Steinbeck writes with shame about the treatment of the German-American tailor, who was vilified and treated badly during the first world war. There are so many sights here in Salinas that, to the ordinary eye, may look like just another building, just another storefront—but these places hold history and meaning for people interested in Steinbeck’s childhood or in his work. These are the settings for many important fictional scenes. These are the settings of many real-life scenes.

I stop in a book shop and browse the titles. I pick up a copy of a cookbook as a gift for my Mom: Feast of Eden. My parents and I used to live in this area—in Monterey—too. She’ll appreciate it.

Just down Main Street is a restaurant with a sign outside that says “Steinbeck Used to Eat Here.” Unfortunately, they have closed for the day—they must cater to the lunch crowd. I get a cup of “Monterey County’s Best Coffee” across the street. The coffee is good. But the atmosphere where I drank my last cup—in the Steinbeck House—was better.

With Steinbeck on my mind, I make a call that I probably should have made hours earlier. I call Thomas and Gail Steinbeck. Thomas is the son of John Steinbeck and a successful writer in his own right. Gail is his wife and booking agent. I plan to meet them at an event in a couple days, in Montecito. Now, in Salinas—between the Steinbeck Center, House, and Library—seems like the right place and time to place my call and verify the details of our coming engagement.

After a short phone call, I stop in at a liquor store right between the Steinbeck House and Center to pick up a few bottles of wine for another upcoming event in Santa Barbara. The name of this shop is Cal’s Liquors. The young Chinese man behind the counter doesn’t seem like a Steinbeck reader. I wonder: is the establishment named for the surviving son in East of Eden, or is the name of this establishment a pleasant coincidence?

The sun is still hovering above the horizon as I leave Salinas for Monterey. Along the way I pass through Castroville: the Artichoke Capitol of the World. And I seem to remember this in one of Steinbeck’s books as well—perhaps Eden. I’m listening to The Grapes of Wrath as I pass along the highway, vast fields of artichoke and lettuce being watered with huge irrigation systems as far as the eye can see.

cannery rowAfter checking into my Monterey hotel, my first stop—given the theme of the day—is Cannery Row. The Row has been around since long before Steinbeck immortalized it in his book of the same title, but it has a different life now.

Here is how Steinbeck described the place in the opening lines of his novel: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

Today, Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a store, a restaurant, a flashing light, San Francisco’s Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf, Chicago’s Navy Pier, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It is commercialized and filled with bait for modern-day tourists. But am I suggesting to avoid a visit? Of course not. One good thing is that Cannery Row embraces Steinbeck. In the center of the Row stands a monument to the author (inscribed with the opening line from the novel sharing its name). The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best in the nation. Cannery Row Brewing Company features some pretty good micro brews, like Madame Flora’s Red Light Special and Tipsy Seagull IPA. And banners fly on streetlights throughout the area with images and quotes of Steinbeck, Ed Rickets, and other related characters.

You won’t find Mac and the boys in the area—they’d probably be kicked out as quickly as your car next to an expired meter will be ticketed. But you may find yourself thinking, as you stroll the streets, “I really must do something nice for Doc.”

Next to Cannery Row’s Steinbeck Monument, I hear live blues music flowing out of Sly McFly’s bar and restaurant. I listen for a while, the night’s cool breeze coming to me from the Monterey Bay. But before long, it’s time to get back to my car, Steinbeck’s fiction waiting for me on audiobook. I’ve come all this way in search of Steinbeck, yet the place I find him most prominently is in his writing.

I drive away from the stink, the poem, the grating noise, the quality of light, the tone, the habit, the nostalgia, the dream, and back into Steinbeck’s writing.

Read Eric’s short travel essay, “Meeting Steinbeck,” at Writer’s Weekly.

Photos by author

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