Like millions of high school students, I successfully bypassed The Grapes of Wrath and other assigned literary works by relying on little black and yellow pamphlets known as CliffsNotes. As such, I sadly graduated with only an abridged education in literature.
Since then, I have expanded my interest by reading the full-length versions of Grapes and several other John Steinbeck novels. To learn more about this great 20th century California author, I drove about 25 miles east of Monterey to the prosperous farming community of Salinas. Known as “America’s Salad Bowl”, the Salinas Valley has generated an abundance of produce and one particularly famous writer.
Upon arriving in Salinas, I found the Steinbeck House, a beautifully restored Queen Anne Victorian, sitting comfortably on a large corner lot. Fittingly, the docent started the tour in the front room of the house, where baby John was delivered in the winter of 1902. As a shy introspective boy, John had a strong interest in writing, and was always a curious and engaged author. In this grand home, he wrote from his upstairs bedroom, until he left for Stanford University.
With new insight into Steinbeck’s well-to-do childhood, I walked three blocks to the end of Main Street and the National Steinbeck Center. As a modern tribute to Salinas’ native son, the spacious museum contains the largest collection of John Steinbeck archives in the United States. Inside, I immersed myself in the exhibits that chronologically followed Steinbeck through his life and books.
In his writing, Steinbeck drew heavily upon his life experiences in the Salinas Valley and nearby Monterey. Early on, as a struggling author, Steinbeck lived and wrote in the family’s cottage in Pacific Grove, not far from the stink of the bustling sardine canneries of Monterey. It was here that he was inspired to write his popular novel Cannery Row.
Based on the fame of Steinbeck’s novel, the city of Monterey renamed Ocean Avenue as Cannery Row. Here within Steinbeck Plaza overlooking the clear waters of McAbee Beach, the author is honored with a commemorative fountain statue. To me, it looks like the reserved and humble writer is self-consciously seated, alone atop this lofty memorial.
Just a few days before his death in 1968, Steinbeck said to his wife Elaine that “No man should be buried in alien soil”. Back in Salinas, John’s cremated ashes rest in peace in the unpretentious family gravesite, alongside his third wife Elaine Anderson, younger sister Mary, father John Ernst Steinbeck and mother Olive Hamilton.
After a prodigious writing career, including a Nobel Prize for Literature, Pulitzer Prize Fiction Award, and United States Medal of Freedom, John Steinbeck remained true to his roots, planted deep within the fertile soil of the Salinas Valley. After my slow start in high school English class, I am happy that I finally discovered Steinbeck and the complete versions of the award-winning books of this great California author.