Memories of growing up in California served John Steinbeck well as a writer. Born in Salinas, in 1902, California was the setting for twelve of his seventeen novels. His father owned a feed and grain store in town, and was the Monterey County treasurer. His mother was a schoolteacher before having children (two girls and then John). Steinbeck wrote about what he knew best. Many of us learned about the California field workers and migrants from his books. He left the Salinas Valley after high school graduation and enrolled at Stanford. After five years in Palo Alto, Steinbeck left without graduating. Writing and discussing literature were more important to him than completing a degree. When he left Stanford, he moved to New York; but didn't feel he belonged there and returned to California. He married and moved to Pacifica with his wife. His father helped him with expenses so John could devote his time to writing. Steinbeck's mother died in 1934 and his father passed away the following year, which was the first year John achieved commercial success with "Tortilla Flat." It was an instant hit, and is one of my favorites of all his books. His marriage, which functioned well when they were poor and struggling, began to disintegrate with financial success and his wife's desire to have a more conventional life. John seemed to feel suffocated by domestication.
The following year brought publication of "Of Mice and
Men" and "The Red Pony." His writing of labor problems and
violence in Salinas did not make him popular in town. In 1938
"The Grapes of Wrath" was published. That book brought
national attention to the living conditions and exploitation of farm
workers. Steinbeck wrote a friend that he was "vilified" by the large
landowners and bankers in his hometown. "I am frightened by the
rolling might of this damned thing. It is completely out of hand; I mean a kind of
hysteria bout the book is growing that is not healthy." Two years later the film version was made and Steinbeck received the
Pulitzer Prize for his novel.
Last winter I treated myself with a "Grapes of Wrath" weekend. I read the book and also watched the 1940 movie, starring Henry Fonda. The fact that the movie looks dated is part of its charm. The acting is heartfelt - the story is poignant - and the message still rings true. It chronicles events in the history of America that we should never forget. Even though Steinbeck was well educated and came from a middle class family, he identified with the manual worker and the common man. He realized that poverty could inflict humiliation and devastation upon human beings. He felt it was important to help the poor before they become desperate enough to take what they need by force. "The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line…….and the anger began to ferment." The title "The Grapes of Wrath" is significant due to the fact that many of the disenfranchised farmers, driven from their land in the dust bowls of Oklahoma, came to work the grape harvest in California. The actual phrase comes from the song, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," 'he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.' If you haven't read it for a while - dust it off one rainy day and read it again. It's a great story of one family and their attempt to stay alive and together.
Although his writing career was doing well at this time, his personal life was not. Steinbeck's first marriage did not last and in 1943 he married his second wife. The second union lasted five years and produced two sons. He was NO more comfortable with children than with his wives. After two divorces, Steinbeck said, "the difficulty, of course is that I like women - it is only wives I have trouble with." He finally overcame that hurdle. His third and last marriage in 1950, when he was 48, lasted until his death eighteen years later. Shortly before he died he wrote, "I love Elaine more than myself. Her well being, comfort, and happiness are more important than my own."
One of his books many of us remember is "Cannery Row" about the people that inhabited the stretch along Monterey's waterfront. I always found Doc Rickets to be an interesting character. Doc (Ed Rickets) was a real person and Steinbeck's closest friend. The two shared a love of the ocean and of philosophy and ruminating on life. The two friends took a trip to - and collaborated on a book about - "The Sea of Cortez" - where they collected sea specimens. You can see some of Doc's instruments and the location of his laboratory on display at Cannery Row.
Steinbeck's last book was "Travels with Charley." He wrote it in 1960 immortalizing his cross-country trip in a small mobile home truck with his black poodle, Charley. I found it delightful - especially how he used Charley to warm up people before he approached them himself. Although it was just the two "guys" he kept in close contact with his wife and home.
The Steinbeck Museum had its grand opening in June,1998. It is only a two-hour drive from Danville and San Ramon and makes a great day trip. Or make a weekend of it and go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row, the other day. Much of Steinbeck's fame and fortune came from working on thirteen films. Some were based on his books - some were original screenplays he had written.
Along with displays of personal artifacts and interactive exhibits for each of his novels, the museum has seven themed theaters that showcase movies Steinbeck was involved with. Some of these include, "East of Eden," "Cannery Row," "Of Mice and Men," and "The Grapes of Wrath." "Viva Zapata!" was one of his screenplays about Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. You can sit in the small, enclosed theaters and watch as much - or as little - of these films as you wish. It's worth it to see Zapata, just to see Spencer Tracy with darkened skin, trying to act and sound like a Mexican. (Not some of his best work).
If you can, try to include lunch at John Steinbeck's birthplace. The house is only a couple blocks from the museum and the food is wonderful. The Valley Guild owns and operates the restored Victorian where he was born and spent his youth. The gourmet lunches are created with local produce and are excellent, plus the homey atmosphere and the gracious hostesses from the guild are worth the trip. Reservations are probably a good idea. The Salinas Valley has found peace and pride with John Steinbeck. They honor him well.