Steinbeck Country

The other day, I found myself shooting south from San Francisco, down California’s Highway 101. Once through the Bay Area, past San Jose, the look of the drive changes significantly.

No more high-tech corporate headquarters campuses. No overly cute billboards. No knots of traffic. Not a Prius in sight, only trucks. Nothing you’d see in the driveway of a suburban house. These are working trucks.

And so, I entered the Salinas Valley, the place Steinbeck brought to life in ‘East of Eden,’ ‘Of Mice and Men,’ and many other of his stories. The closer I got to my destination, the pretty little city of Gonzales, the more I came to recall the opening of ‘East of Eden.’

     The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

.     I remember my childhood names for the grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer – and what trees and seasons smelled like – how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.

My window was down on this chilly November morning, and I could smell those smells too. And I was transported to a time when a young John Steinbeck lived and played and grew, like the trees and the grasses, among the green fields of the Salinas Valley.

2 thoughts on “Steinbeck Country

  1. Yes, Brent, and I remember making my own pilgrimage to Salinas back in 1987, when I first went to live in California and found that Steinbeck (one of my literary heroes, along with Hemingway) was practically rejected by his home town. In 1987. I was appalled to find only a grudging element survived of Steinbeck ever having lived there in the form of the turreted Victorian owned by the nonprofit Valley Guild where ladies serve lunch upstairs and downstairs was a kinda off-hand museum. This was where Steinbeck lived as a boy and wrote The Red Pony and nursed his dying mother. Downtown at that time, a sort of embarrassed memorial to Steinbeck in passing existed. Nothing like what’s there now that cashes in on the Steinbeck memory. In fact, it was clear that the still surviving locals of the Steinbeck era boycotted his memory and ostracized him. The truth is that after the brilliant Grapes of Wrath was published, a gang of locals burned Steinbeck’s books in the streets, reminiscent of the actions of the Nazis in Germany. Steinbeck Country? Not! Similar sort of treatment of the local hero as today is reserved for the similarly searing Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, notwithstanding revisionists such as you and I, I’m happy to say.

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