SALINAS, Calif. -- 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.