December 20, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of one of America’s most beloved writers—and Monterey County’s most famous sons—John Steinbeck. His body of work is widely regarded as among the finest of his generation, and has been translated into more than 40 languages, ensuring that his novels, short stories and non-fiction reach readers in every part of the planet.
Even though Steinbeck, like many small-town people who hit the big time, moved on to brighter lights and bigger cities, the shadow he cast in and around Monterey County has loomed large in the decades since his passing.
John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr. was born February 27, 1902, in Salinas, which was at the time a city of around 5,000 souls. His family home still stands at 132 Central Avenue, preserved by The Valley Guild, a nonprofit dedicated to maintaining this important property and operating a popular restaurant on the site. The young Steinbeck was by many accounts somewhat of an odd duck, prone to wearing long winter coats during the summer and preferring to spend time with workers in the vast agricultural fields of the verdant Salinas Valley over hanging out with his peers at Salinas High School. His memories of and affection for the people and places of his home turf stayed with him into his professional life.
“I think I would like to write the story of this whole valley,” the author wrote to a friend in 1933. “Of all the little towns and all the farms and ranches in the wilder hills. I can see how I would like to do it so that it would be the valley of the world.”
Nearly 20 years later, he accomplished that goal, publishing “East of Eden,” his ambitious novel set in the Salinas Valley. The region was a setting in several other Steinbeck works, including “Of Mice and Men,” “Tortilla Flat” and “Pastures of Heaven.”
At the time of his birth, Steinbeck’s father, John Ernst Sr., was a Salinas flour mill manager. His mother Olive, a former school teacher, possessed a keen interest in literature and culture that she passed on to her son and his sisters Elizabeth, Esther and Mary. The family struggled for a time when the flour mill was shuttered, putting John Sr. out of work and causing the subsequent failure of the feed and grain store he purchased.
John Jr. showed an early passion for writing, staying up late in his Central Avenue attic scribbling away. “I used to sit in that little room upstairs and write little stories and little pieces and send them out to magazines under a false name and I never put a return address on them,” he wrote as an adult. “I wonder what I was thinking of? I was scared to death to get a rejection slip, but more, to get an acceptance.”
By his early teens, his ambition was set in stone: he wanted to be a writer. Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University, taking courses in creative writing and history. In 1923, he signed up for a biology course at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, sparking an interest that would help forge his deep friendship with Monterey resident and marine biologist Ed Ricketts.
Steinbeck was no stranger to Pacific Grove. As a youngster, he spent many happy days there, both with relatives and at the summer house his parents maintained in that community and in neighboring Monterey. The clanking, stinky sardine canneries that lined what was then known as Ocean View Boulevard would have been a powerful lure for exploration to a curious lad such as he.
Later, he would immortalize the street in “Cannery Row,” his hugely successful 1945 novel. That book inspired the City of Monterey to rename the street Cannery Row 13 years later. Along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, worldwide interest in Steinbeck’s portrait of life among the canneries was—and remains—instrumental in transforming what was once a rusty, tetanus-rich environment inhabited by a cadre of sketchy characters (or as he wrote in the book: “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches”) into a wholesome family tourist destination.
In 1930, Steinbeck returned to Pacific Grove with his first wife Carol Henning, taking up residence in his family’s summer cottage. It was during this period that Steinbeck cemented his friendship with Ricketts, the man who would be the inspiration for one of the author’s most loved characters: Doc in “Cannery Row.”
The “Doc” moniker was strictly a literary device: “Nowhere did Steinbeck string the two words ‘Doc’ and ‘Ricketts’ together,” says Cannery Row historian and author Michael Hemp. However, there are apocryphal stories about young neighborhood boys knocking on the door of Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Laboratory at 800 Ocean View Boulevard to be treated for minor scrapes.
Steinbeck overheard the boys call his personable, compassionate friend “Doc” and, like every good writer, filed away the encounter for future use. He borrowed liberally of his good friend’s personality to form the character of Doc (and others, including ex-preacher Jim Casy in “The Grapes of Wrath”). The two shared a cherished friendship that lasted until Ricketts’ 1948 death. His passing, resulting when his car was hit by a train at Drake and Wave Streets within a stone’s throw of his Laboratory, sent Steinbeck into a deep depression, exacerbated by a divorce he was also going through at the time. To state he missed his pal would be an understatement.
“He aches me like a missing arm,” Steinbeck said later of his fallen friend.
The two whiled away many happy hours at Ricketts’ laboratory, drinking Burgermeister beer and conversing on a wide range of mutual interests.
“Both men, a novelist and a scientist, shared a philosophy of community,” says Susan Shillinglaw, former executive director of the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, longtime Steinbeck scholar and author of “A Journey into Steinbeck’s California.”
“Ricketts was interested in the community of the creatures in the sea, and Steinbeck was fascinated by the human community,” Shillinglaw says. The two poured that common interest into their sea voyage to Mexico and their subsequent collaborative book “Sea of Cortez.” That tome was divided into two parts: a scientific section written by Ricketts and a narrative penned by his pal. The book was not successful, and Steinbeck repackaged it after Ricketts’ death, excising the scientific narrative and adding a moving eulogy to the man who meant so much to him.
It’s part of New England folklore that owners of old buildings claim that “George Washington slept here.” Around the Monterey Peninsula, there is no shortage of stories claiming that “John Steinbeck drank here.” As is the case with many who toil with ink and paper to chronicle the human condition through fiction, Steinbeck was known to enjoy the fruits of grape and grain from time to time, so it’s possible that some of the stories are true. It’s a dead certainty that he imbibed at Ricketts’ Laboratory.
There are tales of raucous nights at the Hawthorne Street carriage house of New Monterey’s Greene Mansion and at several places in Carmel. Whether these stories and others are true or not doesn’t really matter. Their very existence proves what a lasting legacy Steinbeck left on the area that nurtured him and lent him background and the ring of authenticity to the stories he so expertly crafted.
“From everything he wrote you get a sense of place,” Shillinglaw says. “Cannery Row” is an obvious example, but about “Of Mice and Men,” set in Soledad, she says “(It) mentions the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains. The whole book is about strength (and) the landscape sets up the theme for the book.”
“The Pastures of Heaven” and “East of Eden” paint a vivid picture of Steinbeck’s home town of Salinas and “The Grapes of Wrath,” rather than specific places, leans on the author’s encounters with the Dust Bowl refugees that arrived in the area in the 1930s.
John Steinbeck became a world-renowned author, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (“The Grapes of Wrath”), the Nobel Prize for Literature, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award (“Of Mice and Men”).
Film adaptations of his books and stories have garnered nearly
30 Academy Award nominations and four Oscars to date. But despite this success and through all his lifetime of travels, he never forgot
the region that provided the well from which he drank to gain inspiration for some of the finest, most enduring examples of 20th century American literature.
And he has certainly not been forgotten either. A bust of the author occupies a place of pride in a beautiful oceanside park on Cannery Row, the street he made famous, admired by the thousands of visitors that pass by each day.