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 or 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.