Thursday, April 13, 2017

John Steinbeck and the National Steinbeck Center

               I was excited to visit Salinas, CA, home of one of my most favorite authors, John Steinbeck.  I’ve read a lot of his books, many of them several times.  So, I jumped at the opportunity to visit the National Steinbeck Center and learn more about Steinbeck and his life.  You’ve probably heard of and read books like his Nobel Prize winning The Grapes of Wrath, The Red Pony, and others, but the book that speaks loudest to me is Travels with Charlie - in Search of America.  This lesser known book is the true story about Steinbeck making a trip around the country in a pickup truck with a camper and his poodle, Charlie (sound familiar?).  I’ve read it several times, and in fact, I bought another copy at the Center to read on this trip.  I highly recommend it, and I think there's a lot to think about in any of Steinbeck's books.  So, instead of me writing more, please allow me to share the words of the master himself….

On youth:

               I remember how grey and doleful Monday morning was.  I could lie and look at it from my bed, through the rusting screen of the upstairs window…What was to come next I knew, the dark corridors of the school…and the teachers, the weekend over, facing us with more horror than that with which we faced them.

From Travels with Charlie:

               When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch.  When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age.  In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job.  Nothing has worked.  Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on the back of my neck and set my feet to tapping.  The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage.  In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum.  I fear the disease is incurable.  I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself. 

               When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going.  This to the practical bum is not difficult.  He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from.  Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination.  And last he must implement the journey.  How to go, what to take, how long to stay, this part of the process is invariable and immortal.  I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teen-agers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.

               Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over.  A trip, a safari, and exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys.  It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness.   A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.  And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless.  We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.  Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip.  Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it.  Only then do the frustrations fall away.  In this a journey is like a marriage.  The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.  I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it.

Though Travels with Charlie was written in 1962, the messages are fresh and relevant to me today:

I knew that ten or twelve thousand miles driving a truck, alone, would be hard work, but to me it represented the antidote for the poison of the professional sick man.

I am trying to say clearly that if I don’t stoke my fires soon, they will go out from leaving the damper closed and the air cut off…what I am proposing is not a little trip or reporting, but a frantic last attempt to save my life and the integrity of my creative pulse

The big towns are getting bigger and the villages smaller

When we get these thruways across the whole country…it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing

American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash….

…in eating places along the roads the food has been clean, tasteless, colorless, and of a complete sameness.

No one was for anything and nearly everyone was against many things

The hamlet store, whether grocery, general, hardware, clothing, cannot compete with the supermarket and the chain organization.

We drove down to Monterrey Bay, the setting for many of Steinbecks' books, such as Cannery Row.  We had a chance to poke around in some of the same tide pools Steinbeck wrote about where he and Ed Ricketts collected marine samples for sale to colleges and universities.  We also drove by Cannery Row, and while there were a couple of Canneries, it was largely sanitized and given over to tourism - VERY crowded.  All in all, Monterrey seemed like any other heavily developed coastal town.

I think the thing that Steinbeck excelled at was creating convincing characters.  Not necessarily people the way they are, but characters that have the essence of how we perceive people to be.  I don't believe that any other author conveys as well the grittiness of a human's soul, and the multi-dimensional aspect of human personality.  

So, Karin and I were walking on Fisherman's Pier in Monterrey, and this character sidles up to us.  His clothes were a little disheveled, and he smelled strongly of beer, though it was just two in the afternoon.  He said, "Hey...want to see something?"  I have to admit that most of me wanted to say, "Yeah, you walking away," but my southern politeness training came out and I said "Sure, what?" (Karin gave me one of those wife looks that indicate that she did not agree with this decision :-)

"Come...I'll show you...its right up here...(starts walking down the dock with us at his side - I expected him to give us a clunk in the head) don't worry about those businesses (points at boats unloading seafood), its a public dock.  You're free to walk up there...(gestures along the dock)"  His cell phone rung, he stopped and fumbled around in his pocket for it, but he dropped the call.  

The beery breath wafted over..."I used to work for one of them places.  They're right up there.  In the water.  See them?  It's a pod of sea lions.  There's also a 1,000 pounder right under the dock.  (starts walking again) Come, I'll show you..."  Phone rings again.  He gets the call and stops walking.  I quietly thanked him, and Karin and I stepped along briskly to the end of the dock, where we saw the magic...

realize that these are 600-800 pound sea lions...

Q.  Where does an 800 pound sea lion sit?  A.  Where ever it wants to!

And his cousin sits where ever he wants to, too.

So, talking to a character can be a great thing...or not.  Today, we were flagged down by another character who had ran out of gas in the middle of the woods, but that's a different story for a different day.

So, I tip my tea mug to Steinbeck - the master.


  1. Dear WE (wandering environmentalist): Tipping the t-mug here in New York to you, too for transporting me back to Monterrey Bay. Happy Good Friday!