John Steinbeck’s California

When I left Indiana for a week in Northern California, I had determined to spend some time in San Francisco visiting the hang-outs of the beat poets, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, among others. I’d walk along Russell Street, hoping the loose culture of the beatniks that still oozes out of North Beach in its bars and cafes and museums would inspire me.

After our first trip into San Francisco left my husband and me on a wild goose chase of narrow, hilly streets and U-Turns around Treasure Island, though, I wasn’t sure I could handle a repeat trip by myself back to the city from our hotel in Newark. The thought of driving alone through graffiti-clad Oakland was reason enough for pause. Not to mention, I’ve never even read the Beats. I’ve just never had the stomach.

But Northern California’s literary reputation doesn’t live and die with Kerouac. In fact, when I think of the Bay area, I also think of dark, fertile fields, wine-stained vineyards, and heavily muscled men pulling nets from the sea. In other words, when I think of Northern California, I think of John Steinbeck. And if there’s any area to haunt on a trip there, it’s the Salinas Valley and the Monterey Peninsula.

So, in Steinbeck-style, I let the “tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip,” and let The Trip take me south instead of north, into the fields instead of the city, toward a California I already knew though I had never been there.

I drove down Highway 101 through Gilroy, the Garlic Capital of the World, then up through the artichoke fields of Castroville and along the US Army Reserve of Marina on the way to Monterey Bay. I found the harbors and fields and mountains of Steinbeck’s California so familiar not simply because he described their contours and climate, but because he captured her people, in all their shades of skin and in every hue of good and bad and kind and miserable.

All through the Salinas Valley, I pictured James Dean’s train filled with ruined lettuce in the movie version of East of Eden. As I lunched at the Fish Hopper in Monterey, I imagined the rolled up shirt sleeves and the captain’s hats of the fishermen in Cannery Row. And I imagined the young Steinbeck writing Tortilla Flat in the “blue room” of his family home as I scraped bites of crème brulee from a ramekin while sitting in the parlor of historic landmark.

But I was breathing the words of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: in Search of America which I bought to accompany me on My Trip. By the time Steinbeck took his three-month adventure across the country which he recounts in this work, he had written about her for years, and had lived on both of her coasts. But he wasn’t sure he knew her anymore. Or maybe he feared that he no longer knew himself.

I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer that is criminal . . . . So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land.

But in the end, it wasn’t a place Steinbeck was trying to rediscover. It was a people. Because though the country covers a wide swath of distance and terrain, her inhabitants share much in common.

If I were to prepare one immaculately inspected generality it would be this: for all our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerners, Southerners, Westerns, or Easterners . . . California Chinese, Boston Irish, Wisconsin German, yes, and Alabama Negroes, have more in common than they have apart.

And that’s the California I fell in love with: hardworking people of the fertile valleys who seemed remarkably similar to the farmers in the plains of Indiana. Drivers who honked when I didn’t merge quickly enough onto I-880, who were no more insistent than Chicago drivers merging onto I-90. People with different shades of skin than mine, whose English sounded better than the soft Hoosier twang I just can’t lose completely. Groups of friends laughing over beers just like they do in Boston and Ann Arbor and Bozeman.

Steinbeck’s California is filled with people I already know, though I have never met them.

Photo by America Y’All, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig.


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  1. says

    Lovely post, Charity.

    I don’t know if students still read Steinbeck; I hope they do. The California he described could be so visceral, such a “lived in” place, and therefore unforgettable.

    • says

      Maureen – My first Steinbeck book was The Winter of our Discontent. I couldn’t believe how real the characters were, how palpable the emotion and the betrayal and the seduction. You can practically smell the sweat in a Steinbeck book.

  2. L. L. Barkat says

    Makes me want to be a writer who writes inch by inch, as I travel by land to places and people, instead of just finding them by wire on the Internet. :)

    • says

      Laura – I know exactly what you mean. I wrote a few pieces last summer about women I came across – strangers – as I went about my business. It took time to be mindful of people and the way they talked and the way the filled up a place. But writing those pieces felt important, like capturing a reality that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. But I think there’s something to be said for capturing that same essence when you remove “place” as a feature. The work is a little harder when your senses are limited by wires.

  3. says

    My mother-in-law spent many of her childhood years in Steinbeck’s California, but I have never been able to visit…thanks to this, however, I feel like I’ve driven through and peeked through the car windows.

    My eldest daughter will be reading Grapes of Wrath in her Senior Literature class. So Maureen, some students still do read Steinbeck (we’re homeschoolers, and the teacher sent the parents a note about how she intends to lead the discussions and get the kids thinking about worldviews, history, etc; I’m sending her this link).

    • says

      Ann – Mr. Steinbeck would have written this piece much better than me. And really, you should see it for yourself. It’s a beautiful part of the country, and I really wish I could have captured the essence of the people there. It was quite remarkable. But seeing what Steinbeck could do with the Salinas Valley made me want to come home and do a better job of looking and listening and tasting and smelling. I have the misconception that Steinbeck’s work was so amazing because the places and people were so amazing. It’s quite the opposite. The work was amazing because he captured the ordinariness of it all so well.

  4. says

    There is something about these places that creates the connection between the words on the page and the very real imaginations of the author. Loved that you took this trip and took it the way you did.

  5. says

    Steinbeck’s right, we need to hear the speech of America. That’s something I love about having teens right now–I can’t speak their language or enter into all of their stuff, but I know it. It enlarges my world.

    Glad to hear about your trip, Charity!

    • says

      Megan – Steinbeck said something very interesting about speech in Travels with Charley. “It seemed to me that regional speech is in the process of disappearing, not gone but going. Forty years of radio and twenty years of television [at the time of writing] must have this impact. Communications must destroy localness, by a slow, inevitable process. I can remember a time when I could almost pinpoint a man’s place of origin by his speech. That is growing more difficult now and will in some foreseeable future become impossible.” He says so much more, too.

      Three things come to mind – 1. Henry Higgins, in My Fair Lady. Perhaps the 6 o’clock news man is our new linguist, teaching us how to talk American. 2. Shows like NPRs A Way with Words help us keep track of and analyze our regionalisms that give our regions so much character. 3. When I went to college, I systematically “rid” myself of my Hoosier accent, and though it’s not gone completely, I sound pretty much like I come from nowhere, now. I did it on purpose, but there’s a part of me that really regrets it now.

      Thanks for your comments, Megan!

  6. says

    If anyone writes to leave a reader with a sense of place, it’s Steinbeck. His novel I most recently read was East of Eden. Simultaneously, I read Journal of a Novel/East of Eden letters, which was absolutely fascinating.

    • says

      Monica – What a great idea to read those two works together. While I was driving around the Salinas Valley and eating creme brulee in his childhood home, I wanted to hear from Steinbeck directly, in a memoir or other nonfiction, which is why I chose Travels with Charley. I considered the East of Eden letters, though, and had I had more time, would have gotten to those next.

    • says

      I didn’t smell it. I got out of the car once, but maybe it was the wrong time of year. There were lots of interesting smells down Monterey way, though drastically better than they would have been had Cannery Row still been actually canning fish.

  7. says

    So glad you found your way to this beautiful part of our state, Charity. I love that area and have been there often. I was hoping you would write about this trip – and here it is!! Thank you.

      • says

        And I would have been thrilled to host you, believe me. And that is one of my very favorite drives in the whole world, down the 101 from Monterey to Santa Barbara. Someday, you’ll have to take it.

  8. says

    We have visited this area twice and really loved it. It has an atmosphere all its own. We have stayed in Monterey for the jazz festival (and beyond) and explored quite a bit. We loved the place… It is lovely to go through on the train, actually, and then the bus from Salinas.

  9. says

    My uncle grew grapes and cherries in Lodi (in the great central valley of our state). This just about brought me to tears, Charity.

    Thank you for a chance to see my home state through fresh eyes.


  1. […] I had read most of the books in those bags. I had learned and grown from them. Several of them had been loaned and returned; some of them had been gifts. Some of them I might have read again had they remained in my collection. But most of them had been read once and then sat on a shelf. For years. With no chance of being read again. Unless they were sold. […]

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