Salinas and the National Steinbeck Center
In 1902, Salinas, California was a prosperous farming community, founded about fifty years earlier. Agriculture was the region’s pay dirt. Only fifteen miles from the Pacific, the 50-mile long Salinas Valley was cool and often foggy, temperatures moderate, and the soil rich beyond measure. Ranchers and farmers thrived. Growing wheat and barley in the 19th century, sugar beets in the late 1890s and vegetables and lettuce in the opening decades of the 20th century, growers and shippers’ fortunes would soar during John Steinbeck’s childhood and teens. By the time he went to college in 1919, the valley was about to ship lettuce across America in refrigerated railroad cars. Lettuce became the “green gold” of the Salinas Valley.
John Steinbeck was born in Salinas in 1902, in a stately home on Central Ave (now open as a popular luncheon spot). During his childhood, Salinas had a population of about 5000, was the county seat of Monterey County, and a trading and shipping center for the lower Salinas Valley. The geography and demographics of the valley, the “Salad Bowl of the Nation,” stamped the young boy’s sensibilities. A strong sense of place is evident in his fiction: “I think I would like to write the story of this whole valley,” he wrote to a friend in 1933, when he was 31 years old, “of all the little towns and all the farms and the 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.” In 1952 he published his epic novel about the Salinas Valley, East of Eden.
In fact, Steinbeck would grow up to tell stories that many area Salinas Valley ranchers and farmers would rather not be told—embedded in his novels was Salinas gossip; his characters were often lonely, misunderstood farmers and ranchers; and in his books, dreams of ordinary workers are dashed—his books tell of failed dreams of land ownership in California. The Grapes of Wrath, his signature novel, published in 1939, traces the journey of the Joad family from Oklahoma to California, where they find not the fabled land of their dreams but a place with few jobs, low wages, and inadequate worker housing. Steinbeck’s novel excoriated the greed of the Associated Farmers, business interests in California. That position did not make him a popular figure in his hometown of Salinas.
Today, Steinbeck’s status has risen in Salinas, and the writer who vowed to put his slice of central California on the map of the world—and did so—who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962; and who put the city of Salinas on the map of the world is a favored son.
The National Steinbeck Center, a museum and cultural center in downtown Salinas, pays tribute to his life and lasting impact on American letters and on American identity. The Steinbeck museum explores his ecological vision, his commitment to social engagement, and his many stories about the working class—all of which insure his work is deeply relevant today. Steinbeck’s books have been published in more than 45 languages, and he is, truly, a citizen of Salinas as well as a citizen of the world.
The Salinas Valley as well the ecologically diverse Monterey coast profoundly shaped this writer’s vision. His prose of place is chiseled, precise. The Gabilan Mountains are tawny hills dotted with “round, comfortable oaks.” Fog “sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot.” Meadowlarks sing “like water.” Monterey Bay is a “blue platter.” The Great Tide Pool on the tip of the Monterey Peninsula is “fantastic with hurrying, fighting, feeding, breeding animals.”