A Sense Of Place
Steinbeck's gift to us may be a strong sense of where we live.
Thursday, June 25, 1998
Even people who don''t consider themselves readers read Steinbeck, a man who wove poetry from the lives of ordinary men and women, and art from the green hills of Salinas and the gray/blue waters of Monterey Bay. On this, the eve of the opening of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas that is intended to commemorate Steinbeck''s works and spirit, we are dedicating our cover story to John Steinbeck''s literary legacy and the significance of his work to our home and our lives.
"On what point can I stand to see the world--or more important, to make the world see itself."
Whenever John Steinbeck left his own country, he felt adrift. In the fall of 1927, he wrote his parents that he had "been thinking constantly of Pacific Grove."
After moving to Los Gatos in 1936, he noted in his journal: "I am trying to break with it but the attacks of nostalgia for my own country are very sharp."
In January, 1942, separated from his wife, Carol, John Steinbeck was living in a stone house on the Hudson: "If it weren''t for Monterey," he wrote friends, "this would be one of the very best places there is. But that is just home and there''s no doubt about it."
The Monterey Peninsula--where sea and land so dramatically meet--was a kind of psychic center for John Steinbeck, just as his birthplace of Salinas was a familial center. Even in the 1940s, as he was severing physical ties with California, setting up various residences in New York City, this land remained home. "I am very much emotionally tied up with the whole place," he wrote. "It has a soul which is lacking in the East."
A soul. What does it mean for a writer to feel so insistently the tug of place? How did that bond shape Steinbeck''s work? And how are the Monterey Peninsula and the Salinas Valley, in turn, defined by this novelist''s compelling descriptions of place?
John Steinbeck''s finest novels are about this swath of Northern California, and his literary significance is firmly grounded in his ability to evoke and to convey the meaning of place. California''s only Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Steinbeck put Monterey County on the map of the world. By writing so convincingly about places that mattered to him--Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, the Salinas Valley--he showed why home, landscape and environment are abiding concerns for many. Vital to Steinbeck''s work is the delicate and intimate engagement between humans and the places they inhabit. His fictional terrain is, in fact, quintessentially American--the quest for identity in the context of human and natural communities.
Pacific Grove, founded as a Methodist retreat in the 1870s, was also John Steinbeck''s personal retreat. By 1930, when he moved with his new wife to the Steinbeck family''s summer cottage on 11th Street, he had published only one book, largely neglected by the reading public. He was 28 years old and very poor; very determined to be a good writer; and very much in love with a wife who was editor, mentor and staunch advocate. Their tiny cottage, where Steinbeck wrote stories first in the kitchen, then in a cramped writing room he constructed for himself, was the haven he craved--quiet, safe, familiar. With Carol Steinbeck to serve as a buffer to the outside world, he found in Pacific Grove a secluded place to hone his craft.
That unassuming cottage on 11th Street is also curiously representative of something essential to Steinbeck, to Steinbeck''s view of himself, of something at the core of his fictional vision, something that holds true. Steinbeck''s novels praise simplicity, living close to the bone, discovering a space of one''s own. In his personal life, Steinbeck wanted to live like plain folks and, for the most part, he did. He shunned publicity throughout the 1930s: "Must have anonymity...Unless I can stand in a crowd without self-consciousness and watch things from an uneditorialized point of view, I''m going to have a hell of a hard time." Even when fame came to him in the 1940s and ''50s, he never purchased houses that flaunted wealth. One of his last books, Travels With Charley, is a narrative about a traveling house--his own--a compact and simple trailer truck that protected his anonymity amidst the Americans he met.
The abiding strength of Steinbeck''s writing is his uncanny ability to write about ordinary people who crave personal space. His books are full of people wanting houses. Characters are defined by the houses they envision, finagle to occupy or unwittingly inherit. George and Lennie. Ma Joad. Lisa from In Dubious Battle. Suzy in Sweet Thursday. Mack and the boys. Danny and the paisanos.
"This is the story of Danny and of Danny''s friends and of Danny''s house. It is the story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny''s house you do not mean the structure of wood flaked with old whitewash...you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men..."
Dwellings always mean something in Steinbeck''s novels. Maybe that''s part of the reason why tourists today want to pinpoint Tortilla Flat, find the Palace Flop House, climb the steps of Doc''s lab. They relish the home-cooked meals at the Steinbeck house in Salinas. They understand that place matters. It matters intensely in Steinbeck''s fiction. In life and in art he tapped into the quintessential American dream, establishing roots, owning land. This is, in fact, America''s and Steinbeck''s most compelling story.
"I don''t like Yosemite at all," Steinbeck wrote his godmother in June, 1935. "Came out of there with a rush. I don''t know what it was but I was miserable there. Much happier sailing on the bay."
On their first trip to New York in 1937, John and Carol "went up and down the escalator at a major department store," reported his literary agent Elizabeth Otis, "and every time he got to the sporting goods section he''d go over and touch a boat."
Steinbeck loved water, boats, fishing and the sea. Like Herman Melville''s Ishmael, Steinbeck was a water-gazer.
After he finished his day''s writing, usually around 4pm, John Steinbeck would walk down the hill to Cannery Row and Ed Ricketts'' lab. What Steinbeck found in Monterey was a friend who led him to the sea, both literally and figuratively. Ed Ricketts was both a respected marine biologist and a man with a deep and refined philosophical bent. He helped Steinbeck observe tide pools and appreciate metaphysics. He helped make a water-gazer out of Steinbeck. In the Sea of Cortez, the book he wrote with Ed Ricketts in 1941, Steinbeck notes: "For the ocean, deep and black in depths, is like the low dark levels of our minds in which the dream symbols incubate and sometimes rise up to sight like the old man of the sea."
What all this means is that John Steinbeck was never a mere realist, even when he was composing what many think of as the gritty social documentaries of the late 1930s--In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath. He was a symbolic realist, always seeking "symbols for the worldliness," as he once noted. A reader need only recall the justly famous turtle chapter at the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath to know that Steinbeck is not writing the history of migrants. Clearly symbolic, the turtle teaches readers how to approach the book--not as history, but as fiction. Indeed, Steinbeck wrote his agent that Grapes can be read on many "levels;" the Joads are latter-day pilgrims, exiled from drought-stricken Oklahoma and seeking refuge in the rain-drenched promised land. Exodus rewritten.
The famous first sentence of Cannery Row suggests this dual vision of the real and the symbolic: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." Steinbeck''s Cannery Row is both tangible and profoundly felt. It''s a place that exists in fact and in art. This charming and elusive book--my favorite of Steinbeck''s--repeatedly reminds us that deeper meanings are, inevitably, water bound.
I wish to wear the mantle of English professor lightly here, but I''m convinced that readers respond to this symbolic texture of Steinbeck''s work--what I am calling the "water-gazer" in Steinbeck. Tourists don''t come to Cannery Row to learn the history of the sardine industry, although they may express curiosity. They don''t come to fish in the bay. They certainly don''t come to buy T-shirts. Pilgrimages are made to Cannery Row in order to see "the quality of light," to savor the "dream," to gaze at the sea. Readers of Steinbeck want to absorb the texture of the place. It is, indeed, Steinbeck''s Cannery Row.
The Salinas Valley
It took Steinbeck nearly 20 years to ready himself for his Salinas Valley epic, East of Eden. In the early ''30s, he declared himself unprepared for the task, needing more distance on the place that aroused in him such uneasy emotions. Over the years, Salinas came in for its fair share of Steinbeck''s wrath: "My charming fellow townsmen have taken a crack or two at me but this is perfectly normal and not to be wondered at. Whereas most people wonder whether I am any good, Salinas knew I''m no damned good."
Maybe. But I think that Salinas represented for the young writer some unhealed part of the self; the slights received by a shy youth; the social network that he so scornfully dismissed; the self image that needed to define itself against the enemy without. "Salinas thinking" is what Steinbeck labeled any grower or power broker in the 1930s who wouldn''t pay a fair wage.
But however assiduously Steinbeck dismissed his hometown, the Salinas Valley nonetheless nurtured his imagination. This place was his most intensely personal landscape. His best writing of the early 1930s sensitively renders the lives of its lonely inhabitants--he, too, had known isolation. The Red Pony, written in Salinas as his mother was dying, captures a child''s vision, probably Steinbeck''s own, of the days when he rode a pony, Jill, through the long grasses. "It is an attempt to make the reader create the boy''s mind for himself."
Much of the fiction set in the Salinas Valley is, I believe, Steinbeck''s most personal, stories delicately woven to contain and suppress raw emotion. When he could finally write about his valley with full orchestral fervor, he discovered a way to harness the conflicting feelings his hometown had long evoked. East of Eden is Steinbeck''s journey home, to a familial center.
"In a sense it will be two books," he wrote in his journal on January 29, 1951, "the story of my country and the story of me. And I shall keep these two separate." But he couldn''t do that. The two became one, as he wrote about his real family''s and his fictional family''s connection to place. With East of Eden, Steinbeck forgave Salinas--at least in part--because he forgave himself. "For this is the book I have always wanted and have worked and prayed to be able to write. We shall see whether I am capable. Surely I feel humble in the face of this work."
This leisurely "old-fashioned novel," as he called it, gave the writer the "point to stand on" to survey place. His sweep in East of Eden is vast: individual conscience, human error, family dynamics, the community''s gaze, the "long Salinas Valley." With this epic, he concluded, for the most part, his serious engagement with California, with "the one inseparable unit--man plus his environment." The appreciation of this inseparable unit is Steinbeck''s profound contribution to American literature. Nearly alone of the novelists in the 20th century, Steinbeck envisioned humans coexisting with their environments. We understand Steinbeck''s people in terms of place: Ma Joad on the road, "Doc" at his party, Adam Trask on his blighted Edenic acres.
With the opening of the National Steinbeck Center, tourists will come to Salinas both to eat in Steinbeck''s home and to visit the town''s heart. Steinbeck has reshaped his home turf, even more profoundly than he might have ever have imagined; Main Street ends at the new Center, which might best be considered another "point to stand on," for tourists and the community to survey a career, a man, his books. Like the "large" novel that Steinbeck wrote about his hometown, the National Steinbeck Center might also serve to heal ancient animosities, open fresh perspectives and "make the world see itself" through his words. cw
Susan Shillinglaw is the director of San Jose State University''s Center for Steinbeck Studies. She holds a PhD and teaches American literature and edits the award-winning SteinbeckNewsletter.