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John Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley
Susan Shillinglaw

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.”

Fully participate, Steinbeck asks his readers. Be attentive. Participate in the expansive vistas of California and note the swish of a blackbird’s wing.

A few years ago, I drove a Japanese visitor from San Jose to Salinas on 101: “Where does the valley begin?” he asked again and again, leaning forward in the car, as if to push us onward. “Where are the fields, the lettuce fields?” Visitors to the National Steinbeck Center and attendees at the annual Steinbeck Festival are on a pilgrimage, I think, to pay homage to the places Steinbeck makes poignant and tangible. So this is California. Visitors to the Salinas Valley are delighted that Steinbeck’s prose and the place itself are in sync.

Steinbeck’s fields have workers in them—as do Salinas Valley fields today. His characters buy ranches and plant sweet peas and cultivate gardens and buck barley—today lettuce and broccolini and strawberries flourish.

The world and humans’ place in it is, for Steinbeck, the essential story, “one inseparable unit man and his environment.” In large part, that “inseparable unit” is what the National Steinbeck Center honors—Steinbeck’s own life and his characters’ lives, those who work, own, cultivate and adapt to the land. It’s a story as relevant today as it was in the 1920s and 1930s.

Indeed, Steinbeck’s is a farmer’s sensibility—an observation biographer Jack Benson made some years ago in an article entitled “Hemingway the Hunter and Steinbeck the Farmer.” That title identifies the ways each writer connects to place. Throughout his fiction, Steinbeck the farmer is sensitive to weather patterns and rain, to flora and fauna, to drought and crop yield. In an early novel, To a God Unknown (1933), rancher Joseph Wayne is warned about “dry years” when he takes up land in the San Antonio Valley, near the mission: “Half the people who lived here then had to move away. Those who could, drove the cattle inland to the San Joaquin, where there was grass along the river.” In a short story written in 1934, “The Chrysanthemums,” he describes a character’s “planters’ hands,” and thus acknowledges his own family’s deep ties to the soil—“our bones came from limestone of our own mountains,” he writes in 1933, “and our blood is distilled from the juices of this earth,” the earth of the Salinas Valley. His characters are defined by the places they inhabit, live out their often lonely lives, find solace in natural rhythms of fog and sun, drought and rain.

John Steinbeck’s father yearned to be a farmer, the calling of his own father. Steinbeck’s grandfather Steinbeck cultivated orchards, first in the Holy Land, later in Hollister. Johann Adolf Grosssteinbeck (1832-1913) left Germany for Jerusalem in 1849, ostensibly to teach farming methods to Jews. It was a short-lived venture, as the tiny settlement at Jaffa was attacked by Bedouin tribesmen, one Steinbeck brother was killed, and the Grosssteinbeck family fled to the United States in 1858. After the Civil War the family—now Steinbecks–moved west to Hollister, where John Adolf grew fruit and his wife made jams well into her 90s.

Steinbeck’s maternal grandparents, the Hamiltons, moved to California about the same time as the Steinbeck clan, finding land a few miles east of King City in 1873. Steinbeck would call his Hamilton relatives’ 1680 acres “old starvation ranch.” Sam Hamilton features prominently in Steinbeck’s novel about his home country, East of Eden (1952), where Sam is a rancher, a blacksmith, a water surveyor and an inventor—in short, an intrepid, adaptable and vigorous pioneer. The real Sam migrated to California from Ireland, and his yearning for land must have been great. According to county records, the Hamiltons owned seven lots in Salinas by 1875; two were on Main Street and one on Castroville Street, all three with improvements on the land. In 1875, the value of Sam’s land and personal property (6 horses, wagons, furniture, improvements) was $7595, a not inconsiderable investment in the Salinas Valley.

Steinbeck admired this “westering” impulse of his Steinbeck and Hamilton grandparents, the restlessness and energy that drove pioneers to California, that made each invest in place. Although his sympathies were drawn to those who worked the land with their hands—Lennie and George, the Joads—he also wrote about visionary farmers like Joseph Wayne and Sam Hamilton, owners with a connection to place so visceral that each hungered for the words to express what the land meant to them.

Steinbeck never shook loose his own connection to the soil. Gardening was a lifelong passion, as were boats and the sea. Steinbeck was an outdoor man, with the landscapes of Monterey county, land and sea, imprinted in his soul. Winds blow through his life and his books. His characters find solace in secret places, dig into natural shelters.

In a 1948 journal, John Steinbeck wrote, “Strange how I keep the tone of Salinas in my head like a remembered symphony.” Probably not so strange. Steinbeck’s fiction reminds us again and again that the places we inhabit matter deeply, layer upon layer.

That’s why the National Steinbeck Center is, for me, a Salinas treasure, located so close to Steinbeck’s own home on Central Avenue and to those lots that Sam Hamilton purchased on Main Street. Steinbeck’s books acknowledge places of his heart—which have become places lodged in many hearts.