East of Eden: A Pilgrimage in Pictures to John Steinbeck’s Salinas, California

Image of John Steinbeck marker in Salinas, California

East of Eden, the autobiographical novel John Steinbeck described as his “marathon book,” portrayed Salinas, California at the turn of the 20th century as a small place with big problems. Steinbeck characterized the culture of the town where he was born in 1902 even more critically in “Always Something to Do in Salinas,” an essay he wrote for Holiday Magazine three years after completing East of Eden. His description of Salinas sins and shortcomings in “L’Affaire Lettuceburg” was so negative that he recalled the manuscript and prevented its publication. Eventually Salinas forgave the injury, naming the town library in Steinbeck’s honor and building a center devoted to his life and work on Main Street. But main street Salinas, California fell on hard times after John Steinbeck left, the victim of suburban sprawl and competition from Monterey, Carmel, Pebble Beach, and Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck preferred to live and write. With this in mind, I made a pilgrimage with my camera to record changes in Salinas since East of Eden and to discover how Steinbeck is remembered today, almost 50 years after his death.

Image of John Steinbeck mural in Salinas, California

John Steinbeck’s Salinas, California Starts on Main Street

I started at the National Steinbeck Center, built 18 years ago at One Main Street to house the John Steinbeck archive, attract visitors, and educate residents about the town’s most famous son. Inside, I relived scenes from East of Eden and other works through video clips, stage sets, and documents about Steinbeck’s boyhood in Salinas. Guided by Steinbeck’s words—and by murals, plaques, and signs memorializing his life—I set out to explore the links to the past provided by buildings that survive from Steinbeck’s era.

Guided by Steinbeck’s words—and by murals, plaques, and signs memorializing his life—I set out to explore the links to the past provided by buildings that survive from Steinbeck’s era.

Seen from the center’s front steps, Steinbeck’s craggy visage dominates the mural on the building across Central Avenue where the grocer and butcher patronized by his mother did business 100 years ago. Looking down Main Street, I saw Mount Toro, the backdrop for The Pastures of Heaven, the stories about trouble in paradise written by Steinbeck 20 years before East of Eden. Mentally uprooting trees and planters and replacing sleek SUVs with boxy black Fords, I tried to imagine Main Street as it appeared to Steinbeck when he was writing his stories. The effort was complicated by a pair of modern structures built to bring people back to town: the Maya Cinema multiplex and the world headquarters of Taylor Farms, edifices that face one another, literally and symbolically, across the Main Street divide.

Image of John Steinbeck house in Salinas, California

Life Along John Steinbeck’s Central Avenue Then and Now

From One Main Street I retraced the steps of Adam Trask, who in East of Eden “turned off Main Street and walked up Central Avenue to number 130, the high white house of Ernest Steinbeck.” Today the Central Avenue home where John Steinbeck was born is number 132, and the white exterior of Steinbeck’s era has been replaced by cream, blue, and tan tones highlighting the Queen Anne-style frills and furbelows. Inside, high ceilings, dark polished wood, and Victorian decor greet lunch patrons at the Steinbeck House restaurant, operated by the nonprofit organization that purchased the home after it passed through stages of ownership and decay following the death of Steinbeck’s father in 1935.

Today the Central Avenue home where John Steinbeck was born is number 132, and the white exterior of Steinbeck’s era has been replaced by cream, blue, and tan tones highlighting the Queen Anne-style frills and furbelows.

A Steinbeck House volunteer greeted me in the room where the writer was born; the maternal bed, a finely crafted period piece, can be seen in the gift shop downstairs. I dined next to the fireplace where Olive Steinbeck, a schoolteacher, nourished John and his three sisters on a diet of classical music and great books that fed the imagination of the budding author, who observed life on Central Avenue from the gable window of his bedroom. “I used to sit in that little room upstairs,” he recalled, “and write little stories.” Parts of The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat were written while Steinbeck tended his mother at home before her death in 1934. “The house in Salinas is pretty haunted now,” he confided to a friend. “I see things walking at night that it is not good to see.”

Olive Steinbeck, a schoolteacher, nourished John and his three sisters on a diet of classical music and great books that fed the imagination of the budding author, who observed life on Central Avenue from the gable window of his bedroom.

A block away, Steinbeck spent happy hours playing with the Wagner brothers, whose mother Edith, an aspiring writer in whom Steinbeck confided his own ambition, provided material for  Steinbeck’s story “How Edith McGillicuddy Met R. L. S.” One brother was involved in the throwing of a roast beef through the glass door of city hall, an act attributed to Steinbeck, who recalled that “[Max] worked so hard and I got all the credit.” Steinbeck and the Wagner boys eventually made their way to Hollywood, where Jack helped with script writing for the film adaptation of Steinbeck’s short novel The Pearl. Max, an actor, played bit parts in movie versions of The Grapes of Wrath and The Red Pony. Jack recruited Steinbeck to help with screenwriting for the 1945 motion picture A Medal for Benny. Max also participated.

Image of Roosevelt School in Salinas, California

In Trouble as a Boy and as a Man in Salinas, California

At 120 Capitol Street, not far from Central Avenue, Roosevelt Elementary School replaced the grammar school that John Steinbeck and the Wagner brothers attended. The school is depicted somberly in East of Eden (“the windows were baleful; and the doors did not smile”) and in the journal Steinbeck kept while writing the novel (“I remember how grey and doleful Monday morning was. . . . What was to come next I knew, the dark corridors of the school”). Steinbeck’s ambivalent feelings about schooldays in Salinas failed to improve with time. Once he was famous, he objected to the idea of naming a school in his honor: “If the city of my birth should wish to perpetuate my name clearly but harmlessly, let it name a bowling alley after me or a dog track or even a medium price, low-church brothel – but a school – !”

Steinbeck’s ambivalent feelings about schooldays in Salinas failed to improve with time.

Courthouse bas-relief in Salinas, CaliforniaUnlike his pals up the street, John Steinbeck’s parents respected the social and political order of Salinas, the seat of Monterey County. Steinbeck’s father served as county treasurer, and law-abiding pioneer faces stare down from the walls of the town’s Art Moderne courthouse today. Like bas-relief marble panels and bronze door embellishments that celebrate the agricultural workers immortalized in Steinbeck’s fiction, they are the work of Joe Mora, a WPA artist. Steinbeck gathered material for East of Eden at the Art Moderne newspaper building across the street; he played basketball and attended his senior prom at the nearby Troop C Armory building, “where men over fifty . . . snapped orders at one another and wrangled eternally about who should be officers.”

Steinbeck’s father served as county treasurer, and law-abiding pioneer faces stare down from the walls of the town’s Art Deco-style courthouse today.

Image of John Steinbeck Library in Salinas, CaliforniaLike Main Street viewed from the National Steinbeck Center, Lincoln Avenue in downtown Salinas is dominated by an imposing image of John Steinbeck, this in the form of the life-size statue installed outside the public library that now bears Steinbeck’s name. Inside the modest brick building I browsed the wealth of Steinbeck books, articles, and clippings accumulated over decades by scholars, friends, and fans. Steinbeck wasn’t always popular with librarians or readers, however. According to Dennis Murphy, the son of a Steinbeck friend and neighbor, angry locals burned copies of The Grapes of Wrath at the corner of San Luis and Main Street. The venue for their act of rage was the Carnegie Library, since torn down, where according to Steinbeck, an unsympathetic librarian “remarked that it was lucky my parents were dead so that they did not have to suffer this shame.”

Image of Art-Moderne newspaper building in Salinas, California

Edifices in East of Eden and The Winter of Our Discontent

Some Main Street storefronts are now covered by stucco facades. The surface of one, a six-story bank at the corner of East Alisal and Main Street, is faced with Art Deco terracotta tiles; others hold memories that were painful to John Steinbeck and his family. Ernest Steinbeck’s fledgling feed store at 332 Main Street failed when cars replaced horses. “Poor Dad couldn’t run a store,” Steinbeck wrote in his journal—“he didn’t know how.” Steinbeck fictionalized the failure of his father’s store in The Winter of our Discontent, the semi-autobiographical novel he set in Sag Harbor, New York, a small town that feels like early 20th century Salinas when you read the book now.

Steinbeck fictionalized the failure of his father’s store in the semi-autobiographical novel he set in Sag Harbor, New York, a small town that feels like early 20th century Salinas when you read the book now.

At the Cherry Bean Coffee Shop, a thriving concern occupying part of the site where Ernst Steinbeck opened his store, I dallied over a “Steinbeck brew” and listened to regulars discuss issues of the day, just as Steinbeck did at the main street Sag Harbor coffee shop when he was writing The Winter of Our Discontent. As noted in “L’Affaire Lettuceburg,” Salinas was less democratic in Steinbeck’s time, with “cattle people” at the top of the social stratification he satirized in “Always Something to Do in Salinas.” “Sugar people joined Cattle People in looking down their noses” at lettuce-growers, he recalled in 1955. “These Lettuce People had Carrot People to look down on and these in turn felt odd about associating with Cauliflower People.” Today, complaints heard at the Coffee Bean Shop on Main Street in Salinas revolve around “Silicon People,” commuters with high-paying tech jobs who are inflating home prices.

Salinas was less democratic in Steinbeck’s time, with “cattle people” at the top of the social stratification he satirized in “Always Something to Do in Salinas.”

Image of Muller's Funeral Chapel sign in Salinas, CaliforniaMuller’s Funeral Chapel, another East of Eden landmark, is commemorated with a plaque dedicated to H.V. Muller at 315 Main Street, where John Steinbeck’s mother was prepared for burial in 1934. Today a beauty parlor occupies the space at 242 Main Street where Bell’s Candy Store stood back in 1917, when Steinbeck was a teenager and  “the rage was celery tonic.” According to the proprietor at the time, “John was a good boy, but you had to keep your eye on him around the candy!” Across Main Street from Bell’s, Of Mice and Men played at the Exotic Fox Californian Theater when the movie—the first ever made from a book by Steinbeck—opened in 1939.

Today a beauty parlor occupies the space at 242 Main Street where Bell’s Candy Store stood back in 1917, when Steinbeck was a teenager and  “the rage was celery tonic.”

Image of Monterey Bank Building in Salinas, CaliforniaGenerations of agricultural wealth in Salinas, California built banks at the four corners of Gavilan and Main streets and held strong views about John Steinbeck. Reporting on local reaction to The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote: “The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad.” Today the four banks are gone and food and antiques are sold in temples where money was once dispensed in an attitude of quiet reverence captured by Steinbeck in East of Eden. Cal withdraws 15 crisp new thousand-dollar bills, and Kate deposits her whorehouse earnings, in the Monterey County Bank building at 201 Main Street. The vaulting structure, recently restored, may also have been the inspiration for the cathedral-like bank that Ethan Hawley decides to rob in The Winter of Our Discontent. Forty years after Steinbeck’s last novel, it served as the location for Bandits, a movie starring Bruce Willis.

Image of Hamilton family gravesite in Salinas, California

Main Street South to John Steinbeck’s Final Destination

Returning to my car, I left Main Street and turned onto Market (formerly Castroville) Street, the setting for several scenes in East of Eden. “Two blocks down the Southern Pacific tracks cut diagonally,”  Steinbeck recalls in the novel: “Over across the tracks down by Chinatown there’s a row of whorehouses.” Driving to the Garden of Memories Memorial Park west of town, I found the simple bronze plaque marking Steinbeck’s final resting place, the end point of my pilgrimage to Salinas, California. Nearby, major players in Steinbeck’s life and fiction—including his wife Elaine, his grandfather Sam Hamilton, and the aunts and uncles celebrated in East of Eden—cohabit peacefully in “that dear little town” where the imagination and conscience of John Steinbeck were kindled a century ago.

This is an updated version of an article published in the Fall 2001 issue of Steinbeck Studies. Our thanks to Carol Robles for correcting several factual errors introduced in the editing process. The Garden of Memories, located southeast of downtown Salinas, contains more than one Hamilton family plot. The headstone shown here is not the one marking the site of John Steinbeck’s ashes. The burning of The Grapes of Wrath in Salinas is attested in various sources, including an interview with the writer Dennis Murphy, the grandson of the Salinas physician who treated Steinbeck as a boy. The Murphy interview is one of a number available to Steinbeck scholars and students in the National Steinbeck Center archive.—Ed.

David Laws About David Laws

David Laws is a photographer and writer living in California. A former Silicon Valley technology executive, he recently developed a digital guide to the people and places that informed the life and work of John Steinbeck.

Comments

  1. Steve Hauk says:

    Intriguing piece, beautifully observed and written. It’s almost as if the ghost of Steinbeck had returned. Probably the saddest line to me – since I think librarians are among the best of people – is the Salinas librarians’ remarking to Steinbeck that it was lucky “his parents were dead so that they did not have to suffer this shame.”

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