Twenty-five years ago, when she was in high school, my daughter Sara wrote an eloquent paper on John Steinbeck, terminating with the conclusion that he was America’s greatest writer. Knowing full well that that honor belonged to William Faulkner, I corrected her, initiating a heated disagreement.
Since then, every time I read something by Steinbeck, I am tempted to call Sara and acknowledge the logic of her argument. When I learned that we were going to vacation in the Monterrey area, I immediately announced that we had to include a visit to the Steinbeck museum in nearby Salinas. I have fond memories of an earlier visit there, about twenty years ago, with my wife. This trip confirmed my opinion that this is the best museum dedicated to one person that I have been privileged to visit.
The museum is operated by a non-profit foundation whose mission is to maintain Steinbeck’s legacy “to participate, to inspire, to educate, and to understand one another”, a mission that they achieve quite handsomely. Its proper name is the National Steinbeck Center.
The museum is laid out chronologically, beginning with his birth in 1902, describing his early years before he became famous, and terminating with his death in 1968. Steinbeck’s family lived in Salinas where his father served as Monterrey County Treasurer and his mother as a school teacher. She shared his early interest in literature and especially in writing. A prominent exhibit in the museum from this period is a perfectly preserved Model T Ford automobile.
During the summers, Steinbeck worked at nearby ranches and beet farms in the Salinas Valley where he had significant contact with the migrant workers who became important characters in many of his future novels. Following graduation from high school in 1919, he enrolled at Stanford with the intention of studying English literature. In 1925 he left there without a degree and spent the next five years travelling around the country, doing odd jobs while trying to succeed as a writer.
In 1930 he and his wife Carol moved into a cottage that his father owned in Pacific Grove, adjacent to Monterrey. There he met Ed “Doc” Ricketts, a prominent marine biologist and proprietor of the Pacific Biological Laboratories; they quickly became “best friends”. The Steinbecks survived on fish John caught in the ocean, on Carol’s part-time job with Ricketts, and on financial support from his father while John struggled with his writing
His first novel, “Cup of Gold” in 1929, failed to sell, as did three shorter works in the next five years, but “Tortilla Flat” in 1935 became a big hit and established him as a successful writer. It was followed by the three Dust Bowl novels – “In Dubious Battle”, “Of Mice and Men”, and “Grapes of Wrath” – that cemented his reputation as an outstanding writer.
It is impossible to describe all of the artifacts in the museum, but one example is particularly appropriate. In a previous column I reported that our family had read “Of Mice and Men” out loud during our vacation. The evening before we visited the museum, we read an episode describing the living quarters of Crooks, the crippled stable-boy. The exhibit showed, verbatim, the paragraph recording his meager belongings – gold-rimmed spectacles, a double-barreled shotgun, deck of playing cards, etc. – directly above a display containing each of the items.
One of Steinbeck’s strongest talents is his ability to describe characters and settings so vividly that the reader can visualize them in great detail. The same exhibit included a double-decker bunk, allegedly from the bunk-house. This didn’t “ring true” to me; I had visualized four single bunks on each side of the bunk-house. I must dig out my copy of “Of Mice and Men” and re-read that episode.
In 1940 Steinbeck and Ricketts chartered a sardine fishing boat, the “Western Flyer”, and spent six weeks in the Gulf of California, collecting marine specimens. This resulted in a magnificent book entitled “Sea of Cortez”, which our Book Club greatly enjoyed recently. It is part marine biology, part travelogue, and part philosophy.
In World War II Steinbeck served initially as a correspondent and then as a member of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). During this time, he accompanied Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s special forces unit on Commando raids, suffering shrapnel wounds. A photo of him and Fairbanks with a captured Swastika flag is a prominent part of the exhibit.
“Cannery Row” was an instant success in 1944; Ricketts was the inspiration for “Doc” in it. The museum has an excellent display dedicated to his laboratory, replete with marine specimens in formaldehyde and relevant reference books. In 1948 their friendship was abruptly ended when Ricketts was killed when a train hit his car, just a few blocks from his lab. When we were in Monterrey, we stopped to see his memorial bust; someone puts fresh flowers on it regularly.
During the filming of “The Pearl” (1947) in Mexico, Steinbeck became interested in the bandit Emiliano Zapata, and wrote the script for the memorable film “Viva Zapata”, which starred Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn.
In 1952 he completed his longest novel, “East of Eden”, which he considered his “magnum opus”. Our Book Club also read it recently; I suspect we would concur with that evaluation. The museum exhibit for it emphasized artifacts from Steinbeck’s youth growing up in Salinas, significantly echoed in the later parts of the novel. Once again, they confirmed things I had visualized when we read the book.
The next year he drove across the country and back in Rocinante, a camper truck
that is a prominent part of the exhibit. This adventure was recorded as “Travels With Charley”, in honor of his poodle, Charley, who shared it with him.
In 1962 Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor that was richly deserved. He died in 1968 of congestive heart failure, leaving a legacy that may never be surpassed.