California’s Salinas Valley is Steinbeck country. In East of Eden, The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, and many other works, Steinbeck wrote about the land and people of the "Long John Steinbeck Valley" that stretches from near San Luis Obispo north past Monterey.
His sometimes unflattering accounts of local conditions, his sympathetic portrayals of what now might be called the disadvantaged—including migrant workers and happily feckless characters—brought him, in his home territory, the harsh criticism often earned by accurate observers. Soon after Steinbeck died, in 1968, Salinas started changing its mind. Bygones had become bygones by the mid ’70s, and today the town’s most famous son is something of an industry.
The newly opened National Steinbeck Center dominates one end of Main Street, the very heart of Steinbeck country. To enjoy the Center, it isn’t necessary to know much about the man or his works. Even if your contact with Steinbeck hasn’t advanced so far as seeing the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath, let alone reading the book, you’ll learn and enjoy at the Center. Or, if you’ve read all of Steinbeck, you’ll find new viewpoints and new information on the man and his writing.
Head toward the enlargement of Steinbeck’s passport photo for a brief biographical film. Then begin touring the Center’s main section, a series of galleries that re-create scenes from Steinbeck’s life and from many of his books.
Fairly long excerpts from films and stage dramatizations help set the scenes in each gallery. You’ll go by the The Red Pony stall, see a film amidst iced lettuce in an East of Eden boxcar, walk through a Cannery Row cannery with fish on the conveyor belt and fish smell in the air, stand in a Sea of Cortez Mexican plaza, Steinbeck’s boyhood room, a theater showing scenes from The Grapes of Wrath.
Murals of old Salinas and a map showing Kate’s East of Eden walk along Main Street help integrate the Center with its immediate neighborhood and you with Steinbeck’s work.
Other galleries explore Steinbeck’s childhood, agriculture strikes of the 1930s, Lee Chong’s market, Doc Ricketts’ lab, Steinbeck’s World War II nonfiction works, and the art of writing.
Late in life, Steinbeck traveled through 40 states with his dog, Charley, in a pickup with a custom camper. The result was Travels with Charley in Search of America. The original truck and camper are on display.
Dramatizations and films based on Steinbeck’s works get their due, with generous excerpts from many of them playing continuously. Also in the center are a café with indoor and outdoor seating, a good store with the expected books, and a computerized learning area with CD- ROM and Internet access.
The National Steinbeck Center, One Main Street, Salinas, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $7 (adults), $6 (over age 62), $4 (ages 11-17), free (ages 10 and under). Phone: (831) 796-3833.
Oldtown. The Center looks directly down a section of Main Street called Oldtown. Lined with trees and turn-of-the-century commercial buildings, neither touristy nor yuppified, Oldtown is a good place for leisurely strolling.
Points of Steinbeck interest are pretty thick in Oldtown—the street figures prominently in his writing, especially in East of Eden. And it was on Main that incensed Babbitts publicly burned The Grapes of Wrath.
Oldtown offers several nice places for lunch, some galleries, and a goodly array of antique shops. Occasionally, you’ll see a business that looks as though it had been in a time warp, a place it’s easy to imagine the relatively young Steinbeck or some of his characters visiting—the M and F Department Store most notably.
Steinbeck House. "...it was an immaculate and friendly house, grand enough, but not pretentious." Steinbeck’s description of his birthplace still holds. Today, the jewel-box Victorian at 132 Central Avenue is a restaurant open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Some of the family furniture is still in place, and you can leaf through the family photo albums before dining near the spot Steinbeck wrote The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat. There’s a nice bookstore in the cellar. Phone: (831) 424-2735.
Illustration by Jerome Kasavan Associates & Thompson Vaivoda Associates/National Steinbeck Center
This article was first published in September 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.