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?