Exploring the Life and Times of John Steinbeck

Somewhere between Jack Kerouac and Charles Kurault, my interest in travelers’ tales led me to a book by John Steinbeck called Travels with Charley. Charley was his French poodle, and the travels Steinbeck wrote of were a trip he took around the country in 1960 in a camper–pickup truck he named Rocinante (after the horse of Don Quixote, the hero of Spanish writer Cervantes’ famous 17th-century novel). Steinbeck set out on the journey to reacquaint himself with his native land, to learn about the character of America and Americans.

The country he traveled through was just emerging from the post-war world of the fifties but not yet shaken by the upheavals of the sixties; a place of auto courts, roadside diners, and segregation. Many years after my first of numerous readings, Travels with Charley remains one of my favorite books. It inspired me to read this Nobel Prize–winning novelist’s other works, such as Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, the story of a migrant farm family’s ordeals in California during the Great Depression.

Which is why I’ve come here: the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, about a hundred miles south of San Francisco, a new institution devoted to honoring the town’s most famous son and promoting the spirit of his works.

The Steinbeck Center opened in June 1998 in Salinas’s historic Oldtown district, about two blocks from the house where John Steinbeck was born in 1902. The Center is a museum, archives, and cultural center under one roof. It preserves a large collection of Steinbeck manuscripts and memorabilia, hosts changing exhibitions relating to Steinbeck and the Salinas Valley, where many of his stories are set, and offers various educational programs. But the main attraction for most visitors is the permanent exhibit hall, which brings to life the author, his works, and his times.

You need not be familiar with Steinbeck’s writings to appreciate this place. Almost anyone is likely to find something fascinating here, children included. A short film playing in a theater just outside the exhibit hall introduces you to the man and his writings and provides a nice overview of Steinbeck’s life, from his childhood in the early 1900s to his death in 1968. The exhibit area is divided into several sections, each focusing on a particular period, highlighting some of Steinbeck’s fictional characters and settings, and providing a vivid feel for the world about which he wrote.

You might think this would all be pretty dry stuff to anyone but a Steinbeck buff, but the people who developed these exhibits did a remarkable job. Each section is designed like a theatrical stage set, where you can handle period props, watch clips from film and theater productions, read passages from Steinbeck’s books, and examine memorabilia. Dramatically lit and creatively executed, the exhibits are designed to engage all your senses.

For example, the first section, “Growing Up East of Eden,” recounts Steinbeck’s youth in the Salinas of the early 1900s. A real Model T Ford stands at the center of a street scene. Not only are you encouraged to touch it—directions from East of Eden on how to crank-start a Model T are provided—but you can even climb into the vehicle. (Don’t try that at the Smithsonian.) On a video screen nearby, you can watch James Dean in a Hollywood production of East of Eden.

Many of Steinbeck’s novels dealt with the poor, the exploited, and the dispossessed, such as the migrant workers of the California farm country and the Okies fleeing the devastation of the Dustbowl in the 1930s. The exhibits recount these times and some of the books inspired by them. You can see what ranch bunkhouse life was like for migrant workers like George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, smell the leather saddles, try cleaning a horse’s hoof with a pick or scrubbing laundry on a washboard, and watch a video clip of Gary Sinese as the desperate Okie Tom Joad in a theater production of The Grapes of Wrath.

During much of the 1920s and ‘30s, Steinbeck lived on the California coast near Monterey, twenty-some miles from Salinas. Several of his books, including two of his funniest and most delightful, Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday, were inspired by the people he met or heard about in Monterey. These two books related the lives and misadventures of the bums, prostitutes, and shopkeepers who lived, drank, and got into trouble along Monterey’s long row of waterfront sardine canneries. The scenes were set in actual places on Cannery Row, and many of the characters were based to some extent on real people, in particular Doc, the central character in both books. Doc was based on a close friend of Steinbeck’s, Cannery Row resident and marine biologist Ed Ricketts.

Ricketts’ Pacific Marine Biological Laboratory (Doc’s lab in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday) still stands on Cannery Row, a small unidentified brown building tucked among the shops and restaurants that eventually replaced the canneries after the seemingly boundless sardine catch plummeted in the late 1940s. At the end of the street is the fabulous Monterey Bay Aquarium, a world-renowned institution that Steinbeck, given his interest in marine biology, would surely appreciate. A few blocks in the other direction, the street curves uphill and crosses the spot where, one night in 1948, Ed Ricketts drove into the path of an oncoming train that he didn’t see until it was too late. Cannery Row lost one of its most famous and beloved figures, and Steinbeck lost one of his dearest friends.

Exhibits at the Steinbeck Center recount that friendship, life among the down-and-out on Cannery Row, and the marine specimen collection trip Steinbeck and Ricketts took to Mexico. The trip resulted in the collaborative nonfiction book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which contains a touching tribute to Ricketts. As you walk through the exhibit areas, you can view marine specimens under microscopes, examine a World War II machine gun in the section about Steinbeck’s war correspondent days in Europe, and read pages from original manuscripts hand-written by Steinbeck.

But the best, from my point of view, is saved for last. I round a corner and there it is: a dark green General Motors pickup truck, its original camper cabin mounted on its bed, the name Rocinante hand-painted in Spanish script below the side window. The vehicle looks just as it must have when Steinbeck drove it away from his home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, in September of 1960 with his poodle Charley sitting beside him on the front seat.

I move around to the open rear door of the camper to look inside. It’s bigger that I expected from its exterior appearance. It has wood paneling, the original curtains sewn by Steinbeck’s wife Elaine, a small table in back where he shared coffee (often “with a little something on the side…to give it authority”) with people he met along the way. Gone is all the clutter he brought (“four times too much of everything”), the hefty load of books he never opened during the trip, the well-stocked liquor supply, the bucket he washed his laundry in, letting the jostling of the truck do all the work.

After his trip Steinbeck sold Rocinante to a man in Maryland, who used it for light work around his farm for many years and then donated it in 1990 to the Steinbeck Center for restoration and eventual display. Now on permanent exhibit, it is one of the Center’s prize possessions.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech—which you can listen to here—Steinbeck said, “The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love.” The National Steinbeck Center serves as a powerful and fitting tribute to John Steinbeck’s own greatness of heart and spirit, to a man who championed the common people, the poor, and the outcast.

If you’ve never read a Steinbeck book, you’re likely to want to do so after visiting here—you can pick up one in the gift shop before you leave. And if, as Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, “the virus of restlessness begins to take possession…and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet,” you just may find yourself longing for that road and for a canine companion to keep you company along the way.

David Romanowski, 1999

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