Thursday, July 31, 2008

Salinas: John Steinbeck's home and the National Steinbeck Center

While traveling down the California coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles, we made a stop in Salinas California, home of John Steinbeck. As Steinbeck said, "Not everyone has the good fortune to be born in Salinas." Many of Steinbeck's books draw upon his experiences in California. George and Lennie dream on the Salinas River, as a matter of fact in Of Mice and Men. In the National Steinbeck Center, your trip begins with a video about the famous American author. Though he dealt with rejection after rejection, eventually he made it big with Tortilla Flats. Of course, after he got the fame, he felt nauseous when he was recognized in public.

The Center has interactive exhibits for each of Steinbeck's novels and novellas. There are clips of video footage from the film versions of his stories, and there is lots of biographical information about the author's life. I got a Visitor's Copy about the museum that I could use in class. I was actually thinking that creating a museum exhibit for an author or a novel would be a great project to do with class. A lot of research is involved, as is a thorough knowledge of the book. Maybe that's something I could integrate in next year.

East of Eden, one of Steinbeck's great works that was turned into a movie (which Steinbeck liked. He said it was probably good because he had nothing to do with it) also has a good deal of action take place in the Salinas Valley. I loved the exhibit on this novel and also on the Hebrew phrase "Timshel," that inspired Steinbeck while penning the novel. The phrase "Timshel" means Thou Mayest. Steinbeck was inspired by this idea that humans are given a choice about what they want to do and this guided his adaptation of the Cain and Abel story in Genesis. At the museum there was a wooden box with the Hebrew phrase carved into it. Apparently, every day before Steinbeck started writing East of Eden, he would write his publisher a letter. After the letter was complete he would start his novel writing for the day. When ...Eden was done, he had a box made with the word "Timshel" engraved on it to give to his publisher and, ostensibly, to house his many letters. I liked that. That might be a good idea to make for the Memory Box my mother suggested I make to commemorate my literary adventure. It could be a little much though since I don't know anyone who does woodworking... I'll keep it in mind =).

It was also cool to learn that Steinbeck was first excited by words when he read Sir Thomas Mallory's translations of the Arthur tales. He loved them so much that he planned a trip across England, visiting all the places that Arthur might have possibly been, according to the legends. He also went to all the places where Mallory lived and wrote, as well. He did this trip with his second wife and she said that traveling with John was "just as much fun as you could imagine."

I seem to be sensing a theme with all these authors... they really know how to live. They pick beautiful parts of the country in which to live (Jack London, Hemingway) and have adventurous spirits that take them around the world (London, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Kerouac), meeting people and experiencing. They also like to drink.

I was inspired to buy a copy of his nonfiction book Travels with Charley, in which he and his second wife's poodle take off in a car cross country (for less time than Paul and I will be in the car) so Steinbeck can record his observations. I mean, that's right up my alley with the dog, the cross country, I just need to start writing my own book. I guess the problem is I'm not John Steinbeck. If I didn't get so car sick while reading or writing, I would actually read Travels with Charley while we were driving. Luckily, I did buy an audio copy of Kerouac's On the Road at City Lights Book Store in San Francisco, so that should help get us through the South and South West.

After my visit to the Steinbeck Center, we drove down two and half blocks to Steinbeck's actual home in Salinas. It has been converted into a restaurant (which is open for limited hours each day) and gift shop. I thought it was very beautiful though, as you can see in the photos.


Sarge said...

I love Travels with Charlie - especially when he talks about the interstates. And doesn't he talk about Paris in the '20s there - I found that surprising when I read about it - but maybe he wrote about that somewhere else.

I was jealous when I heard you were there - I always meant to see the things there but always just passed through.

Very jealous - reading your blog - I did do a trip to England/Ireland/Scotland once where I saw a lot of literary things (Dickens stuff, Samuel Johnson stuff, Joyce stuff, Shakespeare stuff, accidentally George Moore stuff, Wordsworth stuff, Boswell stuff, Irvine Welsh (ch?) stuff - which was scary, and Yeats stuff - among them) but yours is much more focused and pretty - I wish I had thought to fit in some in some Arthurian stuff - it's funny Steinbeck liked Arthurian legend so much since his stories seem so steeped in responses to the everyday and hardscrabble - but then his taste for allegory could certainly be partially a product of Arthurian romance...

Sarge said...

Oh - and I think you should go to Harford, CT - our greatest poet lived there and worked for an insurance company there - old Wallace:

I care for neither fugues nor feathers.
What interests me most is the people
Who have always interested me most,
To see them without their passions
And to understand them.

From "Lytton Strachey, Also, Enters Heaven" - Strachey was part of the Bloomsbury group...

I've always loved Stevens more than any other poet, I have to admit - and I'd never read this poem until I was in Pensacola and I was checking out and there was this row of books including Stevens' "A Palm at the End of the World" and I opened it up randomly and was struck with awe again at his beauty and casual brilliance of the highest order.