Born in a substantial Victorian house on the most respectable street in Salinas, California, John Steinbeck fought throughout his youth not to live up to his mother’s expectations. A shy boy, conscious that he wasn’t good-looking and prone to sudden fits of anger, he spent much of his time up in his room poring over books. His preferred the legend of King Arthur and his Round Table, and similar works of fantasy with high morals and high adventure.
The child grew up to be a man with a gift for telling tales, a keen sense of the world’s injustices and the willingness to take on great themes. Perhaps, if he had heeded his mother’s wishes, he could have become a great trial lawyer. But young Steinbeck got it into his head that he wanted to be a writer. And write he did—first pages and pages of forgettable stuff—until his hard work and conviction finally paid off. Over an almost 40-year career, Steinbeck made California the setting for the Cain and Abel saga (East of Eden), the Promised Land (The Grapes of Wrath), and a heaven beset by tragedy (Pastures of Heaven). His beloved Monterey became the home to a round table of errant knights (Tortilla Flat). He turned Monterey’s Cannery Row into a household name, though arguably for all the wrong reasons. He became one of the most successful authors of the 20th century.
The Early Struggles
The Steinbeck house still stands in Salinas. It has become a combination museum and restaurant. Ornamented with gables, gingerbread, and a turret, it is no stretch to imagine the young John Steinbeck upstairs, pretending he was in a castle. Steinbeck’s mother reigned over the house. Her husband, John Ernst Steinbeck, had a mild personality and was not the most able manager. In 1910, he ran a healthy flour milling company into the ground, then retreated to the sanctity of his upstairs bedroom. After a time, he decided to strike out on his own in business, but that venture—a feed store—also went under. John Ernst settled into deep despair over his public failure and loss of status. The townspeople of Salinas came together for the Steinbecks and helped them. A job was found for him at the Spreckels Sugar Company.
Though the Steinbecks remained in their home, their standing in the community restored, a son’s faith in his father was damaged. And seeing his father and mother’s reaction to their fall from grace may have given birth to John Steinbeck’s later skepticism about the bourgeois need to preserve status. He developed a sympathy for the working class at the age of 17 when his father got him a job at Spreckels, where he worked for several summers. Another summer, again through family connections, he labored building a slough from Castroville to Salinas, a job in which he learned how to use dynamite. His mother’s ambition, though, was that he attend college. And so, in 1919, Steinbeck went away to Stanford, where tuition was free at the time. At Stanford, the only topics that interested him were writing and marine biology. His relationship with Stanford lasted for five years but never resulted in a diploma. He dropped in and out of school, returning to physical labor whenever he took a leave.
In 1925, after his last unsuccessful stint at Stanford, Steinbeck assumed what he believed was the unapologetically squalid life of a writer: drinking, pounding away at an old typewriter in a tackroom behind a slatternly house in Palo Alto. The house belonged to a published writer named John Breck (though her real name was Elizabeth Anderson, and she hadn’t been published often) in her late 30’s. She provided an audience for his stories and a comfort and aid during his dark nights of the soul. Steinbeck was veering inexorably away from the middle class life that his mother had envisioned for him, and into an uncertain and rather unpromising future.
After bouncing out of college in June of 1925, Steinbeck landed a job as a caretaker of a lodge at Fallen Leaf Lake, near Lake Tahoe, where he put his dynamiting skills to good use building a dam. Laboring in virtual isolation much of the time, he poured his remaining energy into writing. After a summer of this grueling and lonely routine he determined that he must go to New York, the publishing capitol of the United States. With his savings from the caretaking job he took a freighter through the Panama Canal and up to New York.
Steinbeck wound up working on the construction of Madison Square Garden and part time as a reporter. The hard labor exhausted him and left him with no time to write what he wanted to write. The pay was just enough to sustain him. Every piece of creative writing he submitted was rejected. So back he went to California, working as an assistant steward on the freighter (thus joining the ranks of Herman Melville, Langston Hughes and Sinclair Lewis—all future writers with restless souls who worked inglorious jobs on the blue ocean). He returned to the lodge at Fallen Leaf Lake, where he worked another year. By the close of 1928, John Steinbeck was quite muscular as a result of much heavy labor, still quite shy about his looks (Sherwood Anderson, upon meeting Steinbeck in the 1930’s, said he “looked like a truck driver on his day off.”) and plagued by doubts about his abilities. But he was fortunate in love—with a new girlfriend named Carol Henning—and had a finished novel named Cup of Gold under his belt.
More Hard Times, Then a Measure of Success
In addition to the house in Salinas, the Steinbeck family also had a cottage in lovely Pacific Grove, next to Monterey, which they had managed to hold on to through their fiscal crisis. Steinbeck had visited here often as a child, and had, while at Stanford in 1923, taken a course taught at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, the first marine laboratory on the West Coast. In 1930, he and Carol got married and they moved to the Pacific Grove cottage, within walking distance of the Marine Station. They lived on an allowance of $25 per month provided by Steinbeck’s father, who had since been restored to status with an appointment to the post of Monterey County treasurer— a job he won re-election to many times until he finally retired.
As the Depression hit, the $25 per month was a godsend. And Steinbeck made it part of his lore, along with the fact that he and his wife had made ends meet by fishing. They fished from the rocks near China Point, home of the Hopkins Marine Station and scene of the ruins of what had been a fascinating ramshackle maze of Chinese squid fishermen’s shacks that had mysteriously burned to the water line in 1906. Steinbeck had visited that spot often since his youth. But what sustained the couple’s hopes through the early 1930’s were Steinbeck’s ideas. Carol was, for years, a willing and understanding helpmeet. She typed many of his early manuscripts, correcting his punctuation and spelling. (It was also she who later suggested the titles of Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.) She believed in his promise, even when times were so tight that, as legend has it, they had to sell their two ducks in order to buy writing paper for To a God Unknown.
The young couple would have to be patient, waiting for success that did not come with the first novel. Steinbeck’s first published book was Cup of Gold (1932), a fictional account of the life of the pirate Henry Morgan. The novel, written in an enthusiastic stream of prose, was marketed in a way that made it hard to take seriously, with a swashbuckling buccaneer manning the cover. Steinbeck, showing his usual self-recrimination, wished he had destroyed it. Pastures of Heaven was published in the same year, a series of connected short stories that take place in a lush California valley.
Steinbeck’s first critical and commercial success was Tortilla Flat (1936), about a young, poor man named Danny who suddenly becomes a landowner when he inherits two houses in the district above the town of Monterey. Thus begins a series of picaresque episodes as Danny’s drunken friends take advantage of his generosity. The tone is light-hearted—they are all happy paisanos—but the abasement of poverty is never far from sight, as much a part of the setting as lively Monterey herself.
Back in 1923, while taking the marine biology course at Stanford, Steinbeck had encountered a theory/philosophy that was to inform his writing for years to come. The teacher of the course was an enthusiastic proponent of the “organismal” theory of William Emerson Ritter, which held that individual man lived as part of a greater being—the “superorganism”— made up of many more humans unconsciously acting in concert. As Steinbeck learned, this pattern existed among certain marine organisms. It is also true of some members of the insect kingdom.
In 1930, when Steinbeck met Doctor Ed Ricketts, he was delighted to find another believer in the organismal theory, and one who was a good drinker, conversationalist and womanizer to boot. Ricketts was a marine biologist and entrepreneur. In 1923 he had established a business called Pacific Biological Laboratories, whose whimsical logo was a squid with its tentacles wrapped around a piece of driftwood bearing the company’s name. The firm collected biological specimens from the ocean and coastline and sold them to schools and other research-oriented organizations.
Ricketts was also a philosopher. He not only studied the behavior of marine life in groups but applied his observations to the actions of men in groups as well. And out of that he developed a philosophy he called “non-teleological thinking,” which held that it was not necessary to keep asking, “why?” Why try to establish why people or organisms behaved in the way they did? They just did, and that was all. To gain a real acceptance of this fact was to realize that every living thing was holy. Ricketts became the model for the character called “The Doc” in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, and appeared in a short story called “The Snake” in The Long Valley. His beliefs also took a strong hold in Steinbeck, and they contributed to Steinbeck’s brand of realism. Sometimes, in Steinbeck’s tales, one grim event comes after another. To Ricketts’ way of thinking, and Steinbeck’s, that’s life.
Ricketts’ lab was also a gathering spot for writers and thinkers, among them Henry Miller and Joseph Campbell (author of The Power of Myth), one of the scenes of the cross-pollination of writers and thinkers that took root in the American literary landscape. Steinbeck was lucky to have found such a good friend as Ed Ricketts. But he would have been well-advised to spend less time at the lab and more time at home, what with the likes of the handsome Campbell around—not to mention the notorious Miller.
Ricketts helped Steinbeck expand the reach of his California chronicles. He collaborated with Steinbeck on a project of cataloging the sea life in the Gulf of California, which was published as Sea of Cortez in 1941 and republished in 1951 as The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
The Grapes of Wrath
As the Depression wore on, its impact on California— particularly the fertile areas up around Salinas that Steinbeck knew so well—was extreme. From the prairies of panhandle Texas to Oklahoma, years of poor crop rotation had led to light, blowaway topsoil. And then, as the decade of the 1930’s began, like a plague from the heavens the rain stopped falling and fierce winds coursed across those flat regions, sucking up all of the topsoil with them. Known as “black blizzards,” the wind storms devastated a vast swath of formerly rich land. The farmers, who relied on loans from the banks to tide them over from planting season until harvest, faced a credit crunch. They were foreclosed on by the thousands. Too many of them piled into jalopies with all of their possessions and headed out to California where, rumor had it, there were still agricultural jobs to be had (and at good wages). In the mid-1930’s, Steinbeck wrote to a friend that within a few miles of where he and Carol lived (in relative ease, by then, after the success of his latest books), “there are about five thousand families starving to death…not just hungry but actually starving.”
When Steinbeck was approached by a newspaperman from San Francisco to write a series of stories about the plight of migrant farmers in California, he accepted. He bought an old bakery truck and installed a stove, a bed, and a few other conveniences. Then he pointed what he called his “pie wagon” towards Route 99, which runs through California’s Central Valley until it bumps up against the base of “the Grapevine” north of Los Angeles. All along the route, in Stockton, Fresno and Arvin, and spaces in between, migrant workers had established squatters’ camps. They looked, from a distance, “like a city dump.” And he was filled with indignation at the lot of these “harvest gypsies,” as he called them, who were forced to move around to follow the crops but were nowhere wanted. Steinbeck’s articles appeared in the San Francisco News. And inside him a bad book was growing. Named “L’Affaire Lettuceberg,” it was so poor in fact, that Carol reviewed it in two words. “Burn it,” she said.
Steinbeck followed Carol’s advice. Meanwhile, he had another book coming out: Of Mice and Men, published in 1936. It did extremely well. In order to evade the media attention, Steinbeck and Carol sailed to Europe. After they returned in 1937, he went to Washington D.C. and said he wanted to write a book about the displaced people of the Dust Bowl. He was referred to Tom Collins, who ran the Weedpatch camp in Arvin, California. Steinbeck bought a red convertible and he and Carol drove from Washington D.C. to California. He later claimed that, on that trip, the couple traced the route of the Joads but this part of his lore has been debunked. In any case, he was able to pick up many details along long stretches of Route 66 that they did travel. And those help make the book one of the greatest American stories of the road that has ever been written.
In The Grapes of Wrath the displacement of a people starts with handbills, distributed among the farmers of the Dust Bowl, offering picking jobs in California. Before long, cars “crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and then took the migrant way to the West. In the daylight they scuttled like bugs to the westward; and as the dark caught them they clustered like bugs near to shelter and to water.” Thus did the Joad family, from grandparents on down to children, set out from Oklahoma on an overloaded automobile, with a former preacher named Jim Casy.
Almost exactly half of the book depicts the journey westward. Steinbeck describes with knowing accuracy the side-of-thehighway establishments, the increasingly foreboding geography, and how to change a cam shaft without the proper tools because one has to. “It don’t take no nerve to do somepin when there ain’t nothing else you can do,” Tom Joad tells a service-station boy. And that pretty much sums up many portraits of the numbed migrants—not only Steinbeck’s—that appeared in the 1930’s.
Before they even reach California, the Joads find out that thousands of handbills had been distributed for 300 open jobs. But it is too late to turn back, and there is nothing to turn back to. Furthermore, even after all of the disappointments of the Joads’ journey across the country, and despite the fact that they are almost turned away at the border, the “promised land” of California still possesses abundant power to move them:
They drove through Tehachapi in the morning glow, and the sun came up behind them, and then—suddenly they saw the great valley below them. Al jammed on the brake and stopped in the middle of the road, and, “Jesus Christ! Look!” he said. The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees set in rows, and the farm houses…
Ruthie and Winfield scrambled down from the car, and then they stood, silent and awestruck, embarrassed before the great valley. The distance was thinned by haze, and the land grew softer and softer in the distance. A windmill flashed in the sun and its turning blades were like a little heliograph, far away. Ruthie and Winfield looked at it, and Ruthie whispered, “It’s California.”
Winfield moved his lips silently over the syllables. “There’s fruit,” he said aloud.
The exodus became, for Steinbeck, a living laboratory for the concept of the superorganism and its eventual triumph. The Joads have the good fortune of ending up at a camp like Weedpatch, where the residents govern themselves, and work together, and are able to hold up their heads. Tom Collins helped Steinbeck write about the camp. He himself seemed to have the mind of a writer, or perhaps a scientist, for he kept many notes about the customs, diction, and situations of the camp residents who were in his care.
Throughout The Grapes of Wrath, most of the people from the local towns are portrayed as hostile: evidence, Steinbeck seems to be suggesting, of the small-town bourgeoisie trying to maintain their status quo. This is a version of the facts that the California state historian Kevin Starr later questioned, citing the fact that the counties that most felt the bulge in migrants made substantial efforts to accommodate them, raising their taxes and increasing spending on social workers, teachers and nurses. Starr also added that not a single one of the handbills Steinbeck mentioned has ever surfaced, suggesting that it was a point where fiction trumped reality for the author.
Ironically, writing about so much poverty made Steinbeck a rich man—one of those strange dissonances of his success that he had a hard time overcoming. The book was initially banned from some libraries as “obscene,” but since it appeared it has taught countless thousands of high school students what life was like during the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath was made into a movie in 1940, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, and parts of the movie were actually filmed at Weedpatch (some of whose buildings survive in Arvin to this day).
The Native Son Leaves California
In 1941, Steinbeck left California, and Carol, accompanied by a young songstress named Gwen Conger whom he had wooed in Los Angeles. With her by his side he returned to New York City, certainly a different figure from the man child who had labored on Madison Square Garden. The new Mrs. Steinbeck gave birth to a son in 1943. A year later, Steinbeck and his family came back to California, with intentions to stay. He bought a property he had coveted since he was a child: the historic Lara Soto Adobe house in Monterey, a long, low building with a massive cypress tree out front.
Soon after they moved in, Steinbeck’s latest work, called Cannery Row, came out. “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light…a nostalgia, a dream,” it began. And from this opening line there unfolded the story of the charismatic but somewhat lonely scientist named “Doc”—unmistakably Ed Ricketts—and the down-ontheir- luck men and prostitutes with whom he consorts down near the man-made canyons between the huge sardine packing companies along the waterfront. The book was poorly received by critics and Monterey residents. All of a sudden, in the little city, people would cross the street when they saw the well-known coming. It was the stink, the grating noise, the prostitutes and homeless men that got to the residents. They seemingly failed to appreciate the poetry or the nostalgia.
Steinbeck attributed the reaction of his fellow citizens to resentment of his success. And in a despondent mood, he wrote to his editor that California “isn’t my country anymore. And it won’t be until I am dead. It makes me very sad.” He made good on his words and left the state forever. He lost his friend Ed Ricketts soon afterward, when the doctor/philosopher’s car was struck by a train, the Del Monte Express, in 1948. Following that tragic event, there was even less reason to return. Steinbeck never lived in California again.
In 1960, Steinbeck set out on the road again in a speciallyequipped van, leaving behind his third wife, Elaine, but bringing with him his poodle, Charley. “Once I traveled around in an old bakery wagon,” he reminisced, a “double-doored rattler with a mattress on its floor. I stopped where people stopped or gathered, I listened and looked and felt, and in the process had a picture of my country the accuracy of which was impaired only by my own shortcomings. So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land.”
Steinbeck traveled over 10,000 miles and revisited, as part of his grand itinerary, the California he had left behind. Travels with Charley was published in 1962 and it has become part of the canon of American road books. But though he had many pleasant encounters, and experienced the kindness of strangers, the 60-year-old Steinbeck did not rediscover the country in the same profound way that he had the first time as a young man. Neither was the country the same. “When we get these thruways across the whole country,” he observed presciently, “as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” By that time, the interstate system had already siphoned off much of the business from Route 66 which he, like no other, had put on the literary map. Today the sterility of interstate rest areas and service exits is exceeded only by their convenience. On a busy day they still exude the hum of Americans on the move. It is the roads that have changed, and the vehicles, more than the people.