John Steinbeck called books: “One of the few authentic magics our species has created.” He wrote 32 of them. And in masterpieces such as East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, the Nobel Prize winning novelist harvested his birthplace, Salinas, California and its surrounding valleys and nearby Monterey Coast as thoroughly and intensely as any local farmer.
When I travelled to Salinas in search of Steinbeck country, I also revisited his books. They are still immensely readable. I almost didn’t write this article because I couldn’t break away from the story of “East of Eden’s” beautiful “monster”, Cathy Eames and the feuding brothers, Adam and Charles Trask. In The Grapes of Wrath he told the world one of the most serious tales of our time. With this story of a family’s desperate flight to an unwelcoming California from the Oklahoma dust bowl Steinbeck shattered the American dream. Then, in Cannery Row Steinbeck reminds us that life is sometimes good when with warmth and humour he celebrates the lives of the people and marine life along the Pacific Shore in Monterey just a few miles west. A reader of East of Eden will know the town of Salinas and the Salinas Valley even if they have never been to America.
In an era when creative writing teachers often discourage aspiring novelists from too much description, Steinbeck never shrank from describing his landscape. Read the first three pages of East of Eden and it’s all there -the geography, the geology and the history of what he would call the “Valley of the World” Salinas is a hundred miles south of San Francisco. In East of Eden, Steinbeck tells us that Adam Trask travelled here from Connecticut with his treacherous love Cathy, because the Southwestern Pacific Railroad , in its efforts to increase traffic, advertised the area heavily: “Adam had seen and studied a fine color broadside which set forth the valley as that region which heaven unsuccessfully imitated. A train still comes through Salinas stopping a couple of blocks north of the Steinbeck Centre where the great mans’s portrait gazes down Main Street. These days it is Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, the luxury sleeper train that runs along the coast from Seattle to Los Angeles and features observation cars with pivoting armchairs and a restaurant car with the best in Californian food and wine. On the four hour journey from San Francisco (yes four hours - they take their time so that you can savour the scenery), I claimed a seat in one of those armchairs and watched as the golden Salinas Valley approached through the June sunshine.
These days Main Street has that “lost in the thirties” feel of so many American Main Streets - the sense that life was once here but has long since gone elsewhere - probably to a nearby shopping mall. The Victorian house where Steinbeck grew up is just two blocks away from the Centre at 132 Central Avenue and is open to visitors. The decor and furnishings are as they were when a teenage Steinbeck was writing his first stories here and sending them off anonymously to local papers. On Mondays through Saturdays, buoyant American matrons in period costume serve lunch at the house. Lunch is also served at One Main Street, the café inside the Steinbeck Center. The man himself did not always have such a celebrity status in this small town. His portrayal of the hard lives of farm workers ruffled local establishment sensibilities. His books were even burned here. “But it was only a very small pile,” says a lady from the tourist office.
In the Steinbeck Center, Salinas has made up for that earlier, unhappy relationship. I don’t think I have ever come across a museum that so thoroughly celebrates the works of one author. After a brief and excellent introductory film, the visitor literally walks through the world of Steinbeck’s books. Clips from film and stage versions of East of Eden are shown next to a Model T truck that visitors can crank up following instructions from the novel. In The Grapes of Wrath exhibit, there is a row of migrant labourers’ cabins . Just around the corner in Cannery Row, gulls cry, the air smells of brine and the sardines that were the great industry of this coastline when Steinbeck was living there. Finally after a recording of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the last word is a quote from East of Eden - my favourite in a museum and life full of wonderful quotes: “If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.”
Next day in order to learn a little about “the salad bowl of the world” that Steinbeck loved so much, I decide to take a wine tasting and agricultural tour of the Salinas Valley. I never thought I could spend a day visiting vegetables but guide and owner ,Evan Oakes, is passionate about agriculture and on his tour he conveys that passion to his visitors. In his company I travel a good way along the path that food takes from the earth to the Great American stomach. And Oakes’ tour is also through Steinbeck’s world. In Spreckels, the old sugar beet company town where Steinbeck worked in 1921, Oakes points out the old Spreckels company building, a redbrick structure with a ballroom on the first floor, in a row of buildings unchanged since his time.
Less than half an hour away at Cannery Row in Monterey, my first impression is that everything has changed. Steinbeck loved the Pacific Ocean as much as the fertile farmland and when he wrote his story of the sardine fishermen, cannery workers, prostitutes and drifters, this strip of sardine canneries was smelly and noisy and full of working life. In the midst of it all was Doc, a character based on Steinbeck’s beloved marine biologist friend, Ed Ricketts, who worked lovingly at collecting and studying marine life in his wooden laboratory overlooking the ocean.
Today, the magnificent Monterey Aquarium has taken over where Doc left off. At first glance Cannery Row would seem to have been reduced to a collection of souvenir shops and seafood restaurants. But when I start to look for Steinbeck, I find traces of him and his tale everywhere. Kalisa’s café across from the aquarium was the La Ida bordello of the book. The Chinese newspapers that paper the ceiling are still stained yellow from Steinbeck’s and Rickett’s cigarettes. Next door, Lee Chong’s grocery is now a gift store but at the back are some of the original fittings from the Chinese shop. Across the road overlooking the water, Doc’s tiny wooden laboratory still stands. Further along the city of Monterey has preserved examples of immigrant shacks. John Steinbeck was a man of great heart and great wisdom. In writing about small Californian towns and small Californian lives, he keeps our eyes fixed on the big questions of all our lives wherever we are on the planet: love, faith, loss, and the great unfathomable questions of destiny. We should not, therefore be surprised when a quote from Steinbeck’s year researching the King Arthur legend near Glastonbury Somerset, takes us back to England “I felt more at home there than anywhere,” he would say. “There was something there that I understood and that understood me.