Time Travel in Steinbeck Country

I’m fascinated thinking about Albert Einstein’s famous quote, “The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

This quote hit me full force while visiting the Monterey Peninsula on the central California coast. I was caught by surprise.

The area includes the cities of Monterey, Carmel and Pacific Grove.  I could share a great many early California historical sites or emphasize the incredible beauty of the area, but I feel lacking, not possessing the talent necessary to truly relate the essence of all that I find magical.

But after visiting many times in the past, somehow this particular visit was charged with a different energy.

My imagination was first stirred by our visit to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

I’ve written about Steinbeck Country before.  The famed author was born in Salinas, an agricultural community less than 25 miles from Monterey. Before I knew of his writing, even as a young girl, I loved driving up through the Salinas Valley and looking out the car window at the richness of  the land.

I found the Steinbeck Center a reader’s delight. The museum offers an abundance of background information, artifacts and documents highlighting the author’s childhood and family home, as well as documenting his career as a war correspondent and his 1962 Nobel Prize.

Steinbeck’s career as a Hollywood screenwriter adds another dimension to understanding what a powerful artist he was during his lifetime. I was captivated, but wondered what today’s young person would find interesting.

Are Steinbeck’s books still a part of American high school curriculum as they were when I was in school?

I am curious. The language is dated and the cultural references must seem very remote to young people.

But for me, Steinbeck’s world doesn’t feel so distant.

As I was walking around Monterey’s Cannery Row I was filled with the rich sense of a past and bygone era. Although the “era” was before my time, it was still imaginable. And I could feel the past intersecting the present.

If you’re familiar with the short novel, Cannery Row, you might identify Pacific Biological Laboratory as  Doc’s (Ed Ricketts)  lab and home. If I stand here long enough I am sure I feel a presence. Metaphorical ghosts of recognition are wonderful companions.

I suppose that those unfamiliar with Steinbeck’s writing hardly take notice of the little sign, almost entirely obscured by the traditional tourist shops, “Wing Chong Building.”

This address shows up in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row as Lee Chong’s Market. I’d love to know how many people even notice!

There were once sixteen of these crossovers on Cannery row, used to carry canned fish from the factory to the warehouse.

This one is the only remaining original.

After World War II the sardines disappeared from Monterey Bay and brought economic disaster to Cannery Row and the area fell into ruin. Fortunately, in the late 1960’s and early ’70s the founding of the Cannery Row Company began a revival of the area and transformed it to become what it is today, a lively and colorful tourist destination.

And of course there is the wonderful Monterey Bay Aquarium. I will share about that next time.

Although Steinbeck is regarded as one of America’s greatest 20th century authors, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men have found themselves on lists of the most challenged and banned books.

Banned Books Week 2018 is September 23-29 and brings together the entire book community, including librarians, booksellers, publishers, teachers–and reading enthusiasts.

To celebrate, I’m going to dust off and “read again” some Steinbeck novels! Care to join me?













44 thoughts on “Time Travel in Steinbeck Country

  1. I loved visiting Monterey Bay and Carmel by the Sea on our last trip to CA. And, as you note, words don’t really do justice to its magic and majesty.

    One of my favorite quotes is from The Grapes of Wrath. Even though I already shared it on SLTW, it seemed perfect for your Steinbach Country post:

    It was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials.
    ~ John Steinbach, The Grapes of Wrath

    • I am really pleased to know that you’ve visited this area, Nancy! There was a time we visited more often than we are able to currently, but as often as possible, yes! 🙂 That’s a wonderful quote from The Grapes of Wrath! I have been reading some of Steinbeck’s novels that escaped me in the past. I learned of some titles while we were at the Steinbeck Center and that’s given me some new reading goals. 🙂

    • It really is a lovely part of California, rivergirl! I took a lot of photos at the aquarium and hope to share them soon. I think that currently the Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the biggest tourist draws up that way. Not everyone gets excited over the Steinbeck connection. Thank you for the compliment on the photographs. I think it helps to have something beautiful to shoot. 🙂

    • I have always loved Salinas, Frank, and I’m continually surprised at how many people overlook it almost entirely. I do think I have a little farmer in me! That may be why. 🙂 I am so glad I have a blog where I can share some of the historical connections that interest me so much. I think my family may get a little tired of hearing me drone on. I do get quite wrapped up in the connections. Not sure everyone appreciates that. LOL!

    • I’m so glad to read your comment, Andrew. You get it! By the way you share about other observations I’m not really surprised, and it does please me. I have felt so connected to this area for so much of my life that I can’t help but wonder if Steinbeck’s writings planted that love while I was still quite young. We tend to head north to Oakland and the Bay Area more now because we visit our kids there, but I’m trying to figure out how we can get just a few more “stops along the way” in Monterey. I plot and plan in my head…doesn’t always come to fruition. 🙂

  2. We visited Monterey and Carmel some years ago. Thank you so much for the tour, Debra.
    I read the East of Eden. Though I finished reading the book, I remember it was difficult to read through…

    • I’m so glad you’ve visited this area, Amy. I love all the historical connections, of course, but regardless of anyone’s knowledge or interest in that aspect, I think everyone finds it very beautiful. 🙂 East of Eden is a challenge to read for many reasons. I understand that! I’ve been reading other Steinbeck novels again, and it’s funny to me how different they read in 2018 from when I first read them in maybe the late ’60’s. Many of the terms and references are uncomfortable today! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, my friend.

  3. Yeah…I will join you in rereading Steinbeck. I’m rereading Brian Doyle’s “Reading in Bed” and in one of the essays he cajoles the reader to go back and read books you read when younger. Brian’s fave was Robert Louis Stevenson and he wanted people to go back and reread “Treasure Island. Haven’t done that, yet, but I will. So…I’ll report back when I start a Steinbeck book.

    • That’s great, Jim. Now you have me wanting to read Doyle’s “Reading in Bed.” Those of us who love literature only struggle with time! My appetite is huge, but sometimes, it’s “slow going!” After visiting the National Steinbeck Center I realized how much more prolific Steinbeck was as an author than I even knew! That alone has encouraged me to dive in. One of the reasons I’ve wondered about Steinbeck’s current popularity or relevance was the difficulty in obtaining some of these books from the library. We have a huge library system, and the number of copies, if at all, didn’t impress me. Do let me know if you get into one of the novels, and I’ll be interested in which one! 🙂 (I’m going to search out Doyle!)

  4. That’s a great idea! I very much enjoyed this post, Debbie, and I found myself thinking I should revisit his books too. I find that I don’t know enough about the man so I may seek out a biography. I’d love to visit in person, but thanks for taking me there. 🙂 🙂 Have a great weekend!

    • Thank you so much for your added enthusiasm, Jo. I must admit that I didn’t know that much about Steinbeck other than what I thought connected to the area through his novels. But the time at the National Steinbeck Center whetted my appetite as well! There were so many aspects of his life I would never have known. I’m glad I could share and that you were interested. You have a great weekend as well, my friend.

  5. Sounds like a wonderful visit. You may be interested to know that my daughter studied “Of Mice and Men” for one of her school leaving exams here in the UK, not so long ago. We had many conversations about the content and its universal themes.
    Can I echo Einstein with this quote from TS Eliot: “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future”

    • Thank you so much for sharing about your daughter’s exposure to Steinbeck in her exams, Philip. I’m honestly surprised! But, as you note the universal themes, “Of Mice and Men” and other Steinbeck novels in the hands of a good teacher have relevance! I just wish I could have been in on the conversation you shared with your daughter. :-)I love the TS Eliot quote, too. I’m going to remember that one. I love it!

  6. As always, thank you for the mini-history lesson and great photos. It’s an area I haven’t been to in CA and an author I’ve never read. I happily accept you challenge!

    • Oh good, Gail! You haven’t been in that area? I’d love to have you join me sometime. We’ll have to think about that. 🙂 I’ll be interested to see what you decide to read. There are a great many to choose from.

  7. Oh, my friend on the other side of the Route (66), how I enjoyed this post, your words, your photos. I have been to Carmel, but with the girls when the oldest was just finishing up middle school. It is so beautiful, indeed – and I have some pictures to prove it – but, I would have loved your tour.

    Steinbeck had a presence in my life from my earliest years when I discovered my mother’s hope chest held all of my father’s books! She opened it one day for something on top and I noticed all the books it held. I asked Daddy about them, and he said I could read them if I was careful to wash and dry my hands first and to take good care of each I read. He also told me I could read any of them, but not “The Grapes of Wrath”! Of course, I read it. 🙂 Fast forward to about fifteen years ago, I suggested it for my book discussion group. I was surprised that no one had read it and even more surprised that a few had never heard of it. There was a different reaction to “Travels with Charley”.

    Thank you for this “travel”, Debra. Let us know what you are reading.

    • Oh Penny! I’m so excited to read your response and to hear about your father’s books! Do you still have them by any chance? I have a couple of early printings that belonged to Jay’s mother. I think we mentioned them one other time when I posted about the trips up north. I thought I was quite familiar with Steinbeck’s novels as a whole, but when I visited the National Steinbeck Center I realized I only knew of a fraction! I have made it a goal to read them all at some point. I’m pretty loose on a deadline for that goal, lol, but I’d love to say I did! I wish I could take this trip with you, Penny. I really feel a close affinity to this area and I’m not exaggerating my sense of intuiting the past, and it would be a joy to share with a fellow reader who understands why that is exciting. 🙂 I do hope you have a wonderful weekend, my friend. Thank you so much for stopping by!

  8. Dear Debra, once again I’m thanking you for inspiring me. The reason this time? A place to visit.

    A Minnesota friend and I have taken to vacationing together in September or October. We started four years ago–that was five years after I moved down here and we both realized that we could travel well together.

    In September 2017, we went to Washington, D.C. In September 2016, we traveled to Abilene, KS to see Eisenhower’s museum and the Kansas countryside.

    This year–in October–we are flying into Newark, renting a car, and driving up through New York by the Hudson. We’ll see Hyde Park, West Point, the Vanderbilt mansion, and the home of Washington Irving. (6 days–2 of which are travel days. During the other 4, we will visit those four places.)

    Now here’s why I’m grateful, your posting introduced me to a place that I’d love to visit next year. I’m reading books about FDR and Eleanor and some Washington Irving to get ready for this year’s trip.

    Next year, I could revisit Steinbeck’s books and discover–as you have–how his writing and his concerns appeal to me after all these years.

    So thank you! Peace.

    • Dee, Steinbeck country would be a wonderful area for you and your friend to visit. Let’s be sure to connect before you set a specific itinerary as I’d love to give you a few added hints! Your trip this year sounds wonderful as well. I have never been to the area you’re going to visit, and I’d love to do so. Hyde Park would be a real thrill. I’m like you in that I enjoy reading and preparing before I go somewhere. The immersion into the history of people and place enhances my experience. I hope you’ll share about your wonderful October travels. 🙂

  9. Fascinating to see your images of Cannery Row Debra. The raised walkway between the factory and warehouse reminds me of Smithfield in London where a roof sits above the street to shelter market porters carrying meat from the Red House cold store to the market building across the road.

    I remember Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ was on the booklist when I was at school but, a bit like ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ it never really grabbed me and I gave up on it. Being somewhat older now perhaps I should give it another go 🙂

    One American author whose works used to be written off as populist fiction but are now seen as works of art is Raymond Chandler. I have read and thoroughly enjoyed his most well known novels. I’ve also read Hammett’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’ which is an interesting story – I’ve got ‘Red Harvest’ sitting in the to read’ queue on my Kindle. I do love a good detective story or a spy novel 🙂

  10. Hi Debra. Your photos beautifully capture Steinbeck country — and I would love to have you as my tour guide. I’m also thrilled you mentioned Banned Books Week. I will join you in choosing something to read. 🙂

  11. Yeah was not my cup of tea as a kid but maybe now I would like it ! Now you got me thinking to look into them! Love and Miss you Deb

  12. I have been meaning to reread a Steinbeck novel for ages…. must look for it and put it on top of the pile waiting for autumn evening reading! 🙂 (Can’t remember which one I bought now, as the first time I read any Steinbeck they were either school or library books) 🙂

  13. That valley is incredibly atmospheric.
    Thanks for these insights into Steinbeck country!
    With my current ‘to do’ list, I fear I’ll not be reading or re-reading any of his novels soon!

  14. How wonderful to be so connected Debra with the present, past and future in your recent travels. You have given me something to think about when I’m off on my next adventure. Happy transcending time.

  15. Debra, you’re a wonderful story teller. It’s been years since I visited Cannery Row, but your words brought a lot of it back. Many years ago SRT did a production of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” with a friend of mine playing one of the key roles. It’s a powerful play. My sister bought me a t-shirt one year that had a list of banned books. At the time I had hoped to read all of them, though that shirt is long gone. I know I’ve read several, both in high school and college and beyond. It’s a wonderful goal to revisit.

  16. I did read several John Steinbeck books while growing up. I liked “The Red Pony,” and did read it and “The Yearling” by Marjorie K. Rawlings to my first 6th grade class of teaching after college graduation. This was 1979-80. They really seemed to enjoy the passages of the animals and the boy in the yearling book. I think history comes “alive” when students/kids hear the life and times told through stories in books.
    I wanted to tell you my one 14 yr old grandson loved “Rascal” book (author Sterling North). I have turned him on to the tundra and tales of Jack London, too. 😀

    • I have not read ‘Travels with Charley’ but it’s one I would like to read at some point. The Steinbeck Center had several small exhibits dedicated to the writing of that book, and that title was one of several that I realized I either read so long ago I no longer remember the story or never read in the first place. ‘Of Mice and Men’ is so powerful, I don’t think you ever forget it. Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing, serialjetsetter. I’ll make a stop over to your site and see where you “jet set.” 🙂

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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