John Steinbeck and His Legacy on California’s Central Coast
The California author John Steinbeck won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Peace Prize during his illustrious career. Born in Salinas, California, he will always be associated with Salinas, Monterey, Carmel, the Central Coast, his celebration of the common man, and interest in social justice. This week L.A. Letters visits the National Steinbeck Center, examines his lengthy career, and also briefly spotlights Steinbeck’s influences and the local students carrying on his legacy.
Best known for his fictional works like “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Cannery Row,” and “Tortilla Flat,” Steinbeck published over 25 books, including 17 novels, four plays, several works of nonfiction, and a few books of letters. Two of my own favorites are his nonfiction works, “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” and “The Harvest Gypsies.” Before discussing these books, I would like to highlight more about his background from the exhibits presented at the National Steinbeck Center.
Opened in 1998, the National Steinbeck Center on Main Street in Old Town Salinas is a museum and research center dedicated to celebrating Steinbeck’s work. I visited the Steinbeck Center in early September, and learned more about the historical and social factors that created his oeuvre. Comprised of three wings, including a small movie theater, the primary exhibit includes several rooms that explicates his life chronologically as well as tells the backstory to his most famous works with quotes, maps, video clips, and photographs. One of the most poignant quotes describing the spirit of his work read, “I want to see it all and hear it all.” The day I was there a busload of high school students were there with their English teacher taking it all in.
Born in 1902, Steinbeck attended Stanford University after high school, but dropped out in 1925 without finishing his degree. Throughout his 20s he attempted to make it as a writer, and even briefly lived in New York City as a journalist after leaving Stanford. Steinbeck returned to the Central Coast after having a hard time in New York and briefly worked as a tour guide in Lake Tahoe where he met his first wife Carol. Shortly after they married in 1930, they moved into a beach cottage owned by his parents in Pacific Grove near Monterey.
While perusing the Steinbeck Center I spoke with California history scholar Jewel Gentry about Steinbeck’s legacy. Gentry is a librarian for the City of Salinas, works for the center in the John Steinbeck Archives, and is also a graduate student at Cal State Monterey Bay. In our conversation he informed me of many extra details about Steinbeck’s life that are not as well known. Steinbeck’s early years were heavily informed by being a part of a group of writers that included poet Robinson Jeffers, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, and future professor Joseph Campbell.
Gentry extolled the fertile literary landscape around Monterey and Carmel during the Jazz Age. Gentry says, “Robinson Jeffers, the great American poet, would provide the transcendent nourishment from which Steinbeck, Carol (his first wife), Edward Ricketts, Joseph Campbell, and other notable members of the circle huddled around. All of them reasonably broke, young, and hungry, and living on art, science, dreams, and myth. Basically, a perfect world from which to create.”
Steinbeck’s interest in social justice and his perspective was shaped by these comrades, his many struggles in his early career “and his time in Salinas and the Monterey area during the
early part of the Great Depression,” notes Gentry. Steinbeck was deeply disturbed by the era’s social conditions and he closely observed the protests and strikes of agricultural workers in Salinas during the Depression. These observations formed the bedrock philosophy for his books like the 1937 novel, “In Dubious Battle.” Gentry also said that Steinbeck’s “first wife Carol by many accounts was his anchor and grounding force from which he cultivated and willed his early classics.” She is credited for naming “The Grapes of Wrath,” when he could not think of a compelling title and was said to be an extremely talented artist in her own right. Though he is now recognized as the town’s greatest historic figure, Steinbeck’s books were ironically burned publically in Salinas twice during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression.
“The Grapes of Wrath” is considered by most to be his masterpiece and the book for which he won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Published in 1939, the story of a migrant family from Oklahoma and their tough times after arriving in California during the Depression, also became an award-winning film and a generational touchstone that has never gone out of print. What’s less known is that Steinbeck wrote seven newspaper articles in 1936 for the San Francisco News on migrant farm workers that provided the research and historical details he would draw from to create “The Grapes of Wrath.” In 1988, Heyday Books compiled these seven articles together and published them as a book called “The Harvest Gypsies.” The book is illustrated with photographs from Dorothea Lange, and paints a vivid and morbid picture of the conditions during the era.
The descriptions offered in “‘The Harvest Gypsies” clearly inspired the characterizations of the squatter camps in “The Grapes of Wrath.” In Steinbeck’s second article in the book he writes, “The next door neighbor family of man, wife, and three children of from three to nine years of age, have built a house by driving willow branches into the ground and wattling weeds, tin, old paper, and strips of carpet against them. A few branches are placed over the top to keep out the noonday sun. It would not turn water at all. There is no bed. Somewhere the family had found a big piece of old carpet. It is on the ground. To go to bed the members of family lie on the ground and fold the carpet up over them.”
In addition to giving greater insight on Steinbeck’s best known books, the National Steinbeck Center also gave the backstory on some of his lesser known but still very important works. One of these books is “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.” The book is a nonfiction account about sailing on a 4,000-mile voyage around Baja California with his close friend Ed “Doc” Ricketts into the Gulf of California, or as Steinbeck prefers to call it, the Sea of Cortez. The work is part travelogue and also combines science, philosophy, and profile of Steinbeck’s close friend Ricketts. Ricketts was a huge influence on Steinbeck and the inspiration for several characters in his other books. Gentry told me, “Ricketts was a self-made marine biologist and early ecologist that contemplated the interdependence of life in the tide pools of the craggy California Central Coast […] To Ricketts ones relationship and role in the environment was an important key to understand.”
“The Log from the Sea of Cortez” also offers a window into Steinbeck’ philosophy and world view. In the Introduction Steinbeck writes, “the impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools and force him to report what he finds there.” Steinbeck lionizes Ricketts and offers animated passages about what they saw and how it related to the world at large. , “Steinbeck’s work follows many patterns of Ricketts philosophies, including the idea of relationship to others and the power and dynamics of environment,” Gentry says. “I think it can easily be said that our whole region owes much to Ricketts and his tide pools.”
Ricketts died tragically in 1948 after his car was hit by a train. “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” was originally published as “The Sea of Cortez” in 1941, but after Ricketts died, Steinbeck added a new chapter, “About Ed Ricketts,” and republished the book with the new title in 1951. Steinbeck revealed that before Ricketts passed they had actually begun to make plans to take another similar mission to survey the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, but they never had the chance. Steinbeck had moved to New York during the 1940s and when he heard about the accident he came back to the Central Coast, but Ricketts passed shortly before he arrived. “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” beautifully describes their friendship and offers great insight into what made Steinbeck the writer he was.
Ricketts was also a big influence on Joseph Campbell and his future theories on archetypes and myth. “In some respects, Campbell’s attempts to unify the world’s myths can be seen as an extension of Ricketts view of the tide pools and the interplay and interconnectedness of life in the oceans,” Gentry says. “Where every starfish, barnacle and sea urchin has an important role to play on the stage and each is a hero to themselves driven from apparent archetypes replayed time and time again against the swell.”
Ricketts, Campbell, and Steinbeck were all in close quarters together for a time in the Great Depression. “During this time Campbell would offer Steinbeck reflection on the symbolism in his novella ‘To a God Unknown,’ and find himself enamored by Carol much to the disdain of John,” Gentry says. “Steinbeck loved the tales of King Arthur and even wrote a version of the tales […] If Ricketts was Steinbeck’s Merlin, then the great mythologist Joseph Campbell was his Lancelot.”
The National Steinbeck Center also holds the vehicle Steinbeck used to drive around the country in his 1960 book, “Travels with Charley.” In addition to speaking with Jewel Gentry, I spoke with a volunteer Lynne Lauritson who gave me a list of his published works and directions to both his birthplace and grave site. The Steinbeck Center is a deep reservoir of historical insight into not only Steinbeck but also the Great Depression and Midcentury America. Above all, the museum shows the deep compassion that guided Steinbeck’s work and how his spirit evolved from the era’s social conditions. Gentry says, “I think his biggest accomplishment is that he presented clearly the emotions and lives of the everyday people during their most vulnerable times.”
Steinbeck’s birthplace and boyhood home is a few block from the museum. The restored Victorian home now holds a restaurant and operates as a nonprofit space celebrating his legacy. And though Steinbeck lived the last two decades of his life in New York City, he is buried in Salinas a short distance from his home and the Steinbeck Center.
Before closing this account, I want to briefly highlight members of the younger generation carrying on Steinbeck’s work. My visit to the Steinbeck Center happened because I was up in the Salinas/Monterey area to perform a set of poetry at Cal State Monterey Bay at their Cross Cultural Center. While I was there I met over 100 students committed to social justice, and several of them also shared their own writing at the event. Three of my former students from View Park Charter High School were also present: Jay Carter, Asia Goodall, and Christopher Siders. They are each diligent writers and emerging scholars getting ready to graduate from Cal State Monterey Bay.
Steinbeck would have been pleased to see such an activated cohort of young thinkers. Almost a century after Steinbeck made his mark, a new generation of poets and writers are continuing his work of advocating social justice and clearly presenting the emotions and lives of everyday people. Salute to John Steinbeck, the National Steinbeck Center, and the scholars at Cal State Monterey Bay carrying on his work. These figures are titans in the landscape of California and L.A. Letters.
About the Author: Third-generation Angeleno Mike “The Poet” Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.