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Museum preserves legacy of John Steinbeck
The National Steinbeck Center. - photo by Photo Contributed

SALINAS— They were the stuff of another America: Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath.” George and Lenny in “Of Mice and Men.” Lee Chong, Doc and the delightfully larcenous Mack and the bums in “Cannery Row.” Danny and Pilon in “Tortilla Flat.” Adam and Cal Trask in “East of Eden.”

Whether you met these classic characters while reading the novels of John Steinbeck or you’re encountering them for the first time, they come to life at the National Steinbeck Center, a sprawling and modernistic museum and study center in Old Town Salinas. It is the largest museum dedicated to a single American writer.

The Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who grew up in Salinas, wrote about many things: migrant workers, labor “agitators,” World War II, the Mexican Revolution, New England, Russia, even Vietnam. But his most endearing and enduring works centered on the people and places he knew best, from the coast and farmland of the Salinas Valley between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The center opened in 1998 as a library and research facility and place to store and display Steinbeck memorabilia. While Steinbeck scholars can meet here to discuss his work and life, its 30,000 annual visitors also include ordinary fans and other visitors curious about his work and life. The area around Salinas is scenic and popular among tourists, with Monterey County wineries, the Pacific Coast and other attractions nearby. Big Sur, which has connections to literary figures like Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and poet Robinson Jeffers among others, is 50 miles away.

Even those who don’t know much about Steinbeck’s work will come away from a visit to the center with a sense of his life and times. Curators have blended the work of artists, photographers and historians to bring back the atmosphere of the places he described, set mostly between the World Wars.

Here are the migrant labor camps; the louse-ridden bunkhouses of the migrant “bindle-stiffs” (as hobos were called); Lee Chong’s grocery; and the entrance to the Bear Flag Restaurant, which was the name of “Cannery Row’’’s “stern and stately whorehouse,” which Steinbeck described as a clean, one-price joint presided over by its formidable yet soft-touch madam, Dora Flood.

Here is Ed Ricketts, “Doc’” in “Cannery Row,” the eccentric operator of a marine biological lab, who was a character in the book but also a real person and close friend of Steinbeck’s.

Some incidents in his writings were also based on real events, such as the failed 1916 attempt to refrigerate lettuce in rail cars to bring the produce to Eastern markets, depicted in “East of Eden.”

And Steinbeck’s mastery of the vernacular, an ability to write the way people then talked, in a beautifully unrefined manner, can be traced not just to his observations of speech but to input from a mentor, Tom Collins, an anthropologist who researched speech patterns and customs, according to museum archivist Herb Behrens.

Steinbeck’s family had been ranchers in the Salinas-King City area, said Behrens, and many of the characters in works such as “The Red Pony” and “The Long Valley” almost certainly reflected people the writer knew as a child.

This sometimes got in him in the doghouse locally, since the not-always-favorable depictions often could be identified by townspeople.

But it wasn’t just locals who were riled by his work. At times some of his books were burned as un-American and subversive. Steinbeck was derided by angry growers and others as a “traitor to his class.” But he was not the ideologue he was accused of being. Of his novel “In Dubious Battle,” for example, a hard look at leftist organizers in the orchards, Steinbeck wrote that the Communists would hate it and the other side would too.

Behrens said the migrant worker novels sired a bevy of “damage control” books by others, such as “Plums of Plenty’” and the “Grapes of Gladness,” that tried to show migrant life was just fine, that there were good jobs for all who wanted to work.

This, of course, was hooey and Steinbeck, himself at times a laborer and straw boss who had spent time with migrant workers and leftist organizers, knew it. The labor camps and the migrants with their problems were in place before he began writing about them, and he was overwhelmed by the conditions he found.

Those researching his work for the many later screenplays of his books concluded that if anything, conditions were even worse than he portrayed them.

Steinbeck and photographer Horace Bristol visited migrant areas for Life magazine for a piece on the impact of floods in 1937 and ‘38, but Life rejected the pictures as too graphic, Behrens said. After the1940 film “The Grapes of Wrath” won two Oscars and was nominated for five more, Life published the pictures.

Loops from some of the many movies made from his books play in the museum’s pocket theaters.

Many of the buildings in old photos in the museum remain standing in the adjacent Old Town, and are easily recognized. Steinbeck’s boyhood home, a wedding cake of a Queen Anne structure three blocks from the center at 132 Central Ave., suggests stability and comfort. It is a restaurant now, called The Steinbeck House.

Steinbeck said he initially wrote “East of Eden” for his sons because “I wanted them to know how it was, I wanted to tell them directly.” His work and the Steinbeck Center have kept that world alive for others as well.


Special to the 209