John Steinbeck Loved This Family Home in Watsonville, California, and So Will You

Image of Rodgers family home, Watsonville, California

For John Steinbeck, moving on in life meant leaving family homes—and friends—behind in California, starting with Salinas, where the Steinbeck family home on Central Avenue has become a living museum made possible in part by gifts of memorabilia from John Steinbeck’s oldest sister, Esther. The 11th Street cottage in Pacific Grove where Steinbeck often stayed when he was poor, single, or hurting remains in the extended family, but the pair of houses in Los Gatos where he lived with his wife Carol and wrote the books that made him famous both belong to strangers now. The bungalow he bought on Eardley Avenue in Pacific Grove when the marriage faltered and he needed writing space belongs to a bed and breakfast today, but it can be rented and is readily seen from the street. So is the historic adobe in Old Monterey that Steinbeck purchased with his second wife before abandoning California for New York, where he chose to live with Elaine, his third wife, until he died.

Image of Rodgers House interior today

Visit Rodgers House at Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds

Through it all, the family home John Steinbeck kept coming back to was his sister Esther’s house in Watsonville, California, the Pajaro Valley farming community nestled between the mountains and the sea northwest of Salinas, along the Monterey-Santa Cruz county line. Esther moved there to teach before marrying Carrol Rodgers, a prosperous rancher-farmer, and raising three daughters who called John Steinbeck uncle. The Rodgers family home on East Lake Avenue, built in the 1870s by Esther’s husband’s forebears, was bigger than any of the houses owned by Steinbecks in Salinas, Los Gatos, or Pacific Grove, but it was warm and inviting and popular with extended family members, including John. Though John Steinbeck became controversial and Carrol Rodgers remained distant, Esther loved her brother and welcomed him when he came to Watsonville. Evidence that Steinbeck enjoyed visiting the Rodgers household, wherever he happened to be living at the time, can found in letters and photographs from the 1930s to the 1960s on view at the home. After Esther died, friends and family members stepped in to preserve the house and move it to the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, where it’s open to the public by appointment. Call 831-724-5671.

Interior photo of Rodgers House today courtesy Dale Bartoletti.

 

American Literature Conference Considers Steinbeck in War and Peace

Cover image of John Steinbeck's World War II dispatches

A pair of panels at the annual conference of the American Literature Association, held May 25-28, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts, examined aspects of John Steinbeck’s writing in times of war and peace. Thomas Barden, professor emeritus at the University of Toledo, discussed race and racism in Lifeboat, Steinbeck’s World War II novella-screenplay, while Douglas Dowland of Ohio Northern University focused on the dispatches and letters Steinbeck wrote from Vietnam 20 years later. Steinbeck’s novels were also the subject of attention by speakers: To a God Unknown (Ryan Schlesinger, University of Tulsa); Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday (Christian Gallichio, University of Massachusetts-Boston), and Of Mice and Men (Lori Whitaker and Mimi Gladstein, University of Texas-El Paso). The focus of four single-author websites devoted to his life, work, and influence, John Steinbeck was featured at annual conferences of the American Literature Association in San Francisco in 2012 and again in 2016.

Bill Lane Center at Stanford University Examines John Steinbeck, Environmentalism

Image of Bill Lane

John Steinbeck and the environment was the subject of a May 10 symposium held at Stanford University and attended by students, teachers, and others. Guest speakers for the campus event, sponsored by the Bill Lane Center for the American West, included Susan Shillinglaw, William Souder, and members of the Stanford University faculty. The late Bill Lane—the legendary publisher and philanthropist for whom the Center for the American West is named—was born in Iowa in 1919, the year Steinbeck entered Stanford as a freshman. Lane also attended Stanford before building a lucrative publishing empire around Sunset Magazine, a Lane family enterprise headquartered in Menlo Park, California. A Teddy Roosevelt Republican (like Steinbeck’s parents), Lane was a leader in the movement to protect pristine California wilderness from commercial development by acquiring it privately and putting it into public trust. Follow this video link learn more about John Steinbeck as an environmentalist.

The House Where Steinbeck Lived and Wrote Needs Help

Image of John Steinbeck's home in Salinas, California

John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902 in the front bedroom of the Victorian house at 132 Central Avenue in Salinas, California. In 1905 he was christened in the parlor of the Queen Anne-style structure—the same room where he later practiced the piano. In the living room he announced that he intended to become a writer. In the basement he regaled neighborhood friends with ghost stories and other tales. In an upstairs bedroom he wrote short stories that he sent to magazines, unsigned, as a teenager. He left for Stanford in 1919; years later he and his wife Carol returned to help care for his dying mother, a former school teacher who insisted that all four of her children go to church, learn piano, and attend college. In the same upstairs bedroom he occupied as a boy he continued to work on The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat, the book that brought him fame when it was published in 1935, the year his father died.

In the upstairs bedroom Steinbeck occupied as a boy he continued to work on The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat, the book that brought him fame when it was published in 1935, the year his father died.

The home was sold following Olive’s death, near the bottom of the Great Depression, in 1934. For the next four decades—years of war, recovery, and modernization—ownership of the aging Victorian house passed through various hands until its purchase by the newly created Valley Guild in 1973. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization created to save the house where Steinbeck was born, the Valley Guild made repairs, conducted research, and produced results that are evident today. The bed in which Steinbeck was born was returned. So were Olive’s desk and table. Steinbeck’s sisters stayed in California, and they and their children and grandchildren made generous gifts of period furnishings and family heirlooms. Thanks to the hard work of Valley Guild volunteers, the Steinbeck House was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a prestigious designation with some practical benefits.

For the next four decades—years of war, recovery, and modernization—ownership of the aging Victorian house passed through various hands until its purchase by the newly created Valley Guild in 1973.

Recognizing the need for an income stream to support ongoing maintenance and preservation, the founders put their heads together and came up with a plan that serves educational and economic goals equally. For five days each week throughout the year the House is open to the public as a lunch restaurant, gift shop, and bookstore operated by a team of 98 dedicated volunteers. The restaurant employs a professional chef and offers a changing menu. Table service is provided by Valley Guild members in period dress—docents in motion who educate diners about Steinbeck while taking orders and serving food. The annual Steinbeck festival and the National Steinbeck Center on Main Street, three blocks from the Steinbeck House, are partners in the enterprise of keeping Salinas, California at the forefront of global interest in Steinbeck’s life and work.

Image of Steinbeck House interior in Salinas, California

Time Catches Up With Every Victorian—Even Steinbeck’s

Age has its advantages, but keeping a 119-year-old Victorian house in working order is expensive. Not long ago it was discovered that the center of the Steinbeck House, supported by eight posts on brick footings, was slowly sinking. The posts run the length of the basement gift shop and bookstore and serve as the building’s legs. As they go, so goes the body. To prevent collapse, soil engineers and construction experts determined that the deteriorating posts and bases had to be replaced using concrete. Although the restaurant has remained open during the process, the project required closing the gift shop and book store, raising the central beams, and installing temporary supports while making excavations and constructing permanent posts and footings—all necessary to insure the future of John Steinbeck’s birthplace as a public resource.

Image of construction on Steinbeck House foundation

Using the GoFundMe Page Makes Giving Safe and Easy

The project is well along and, once all expenses are paid, is expected to cost $35,000. The bill, along with the revenue hole caused by the gift store closing, has created an urgent need for funds to keep the Steinbeck House open and operating in the black. The people of Salinas, California are community-minded and do their part. But the Steinbeck House is a national treasure, and help is also needed from friends and fans who live elsewhere. Fortunately this group is growing: visitors from 68 countries and 50 states have enjoyed lunch and a lesson in Steinbeck history while eating at the restaurant. Please do your part to keep the Steinbeck House on its feet. Visit the new GoFundMe page and make your tax-deductible gift to the project. The Victorian house where Steinbeck first wrote fiction is getting on, but just as beautiful as the day Steinbeck was born in the front room of his family home 115 years ago.

 

Birds Do It, Bees Do It, and John Steinbeck Did It, Too

Poster image of Migrations, theme of 2017 John Steinbeck festival

Movement was a major feature of John Steinbeck’s life and writing, and migration—human, animal, vegetable—is the focus of this year’s John Steinbeck festival in Salinas, California, scheduled May 5-7 to coincide with Cinco de Mayo, a favorite fiesta of the country Steinbeck visited often in the 1930s and 40s. Like the author himself, the 2017 John Steinbeck festival is peripatetic, moving between Salinas, Monterey, and Cannery Row, as Steinbeck did when he was writing the California books that made him famous. A three-day pass costs $180 and covers most Friday, Saturday, and Sunday events. A special concert in honor of the late Carol Robles—a frequent flyer and legendary tour planner—is free and features Dixieland music, an appropriate choice for a festival dedicated to John Steinbeck, a traveling man who loved jazz.

Image of 2017 John Steinbeck festival scheduleImage of 2017 John Steinbeck festival scheduleImage of 2017 John Steinbeck festival schedule

Yale University Brings the Great Depression Home

Composite image of John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother"

Yale University has launched Photogrammar, a handy interactive website that pairs images of the Great Depression from the Library of Congress photo archive with the photographers who took them and the places where they were taken. Like The Grapes of Wrath, the photographs of Dorothea Lange and others were intended to educate, engage, and convince average Americans that the poor were human, too. Commissioned by the U.S. Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information and assembled between 1935 and 1945, the 170,000-piece photo archive—like the California migrant camp celebrated by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath—provides eloquent testimony of government’s power to do good, despite naysayers from the right, when disasters occur. The ambitious Yale University project was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a 40-year old federal agency that will disappear if Donald Trump’s proposal to defund the arts and humanities—along with safety-net social programs like Meals on Wheels—is approved by Congress.

 

Praise for the Salinas Valley From The New York Times

david-laws-east-of-eden-15

A travel feature in the February 9 New York Times focused on food and wine in Carmel-by-the-Sea and Salinas, California also paid respects to East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s fictional account of bygone days in the Salinas Valley, where agriculture is still king. If you enjoy eating, drinking, and Steinbeck in that order, What to Find in Salinas Valley: Lush Fields, Good Wine and, Yes, Steinbeck is worth your time, whether your summer travel plans include grazing your way through Steinbeck Country or packing East of Eden with the lemonade and sandwiches for an afternoon getaway closer to home.

Photograph of the Salinas Valley by David Laws.

Surf Shop Repurposes a Piece of Steinbeck History

Image of Martijn Stiphout finishing surf board in Aptos, California

According to a February 1, 2017 Santa Cruz Sentinel article entitled “Surfboards with a literary connection” Martijn Stiphout, a John Steinbeck fan who builds surfboards at an “eco-friendly surf shop” in Aptos, California, is making a surfboard using Douglas fir salvaged from The Western Flyer, the sardine boat Steinbeck rented 77 years ago to explore marine and human culture along the coast of the Sea of Cortez. The boat’s new owner is Peter Gregg, a 32-year-old businessman and surfing enthusiast who is renovating the vessel in dry dock at Port Townsend, Washington for use as a floating ecology classroom. According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel feature, Gregg met David Dennis, co-owner of the Aptos, California surf shop, at the 2016 Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, where Dennis gave a talk about recycling wood from the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove for a novel purpose that would probably please Steinbeck, who enjoyed tinkering and respected age.

Photo of Martijn Stiphout by Vern Fisher, Monterey Herald, courtesy Santa Cruz Sentinel.

 

ABC News Veteran Bob Woodruff to Receive 2017 John Steinbeck Award

Image of ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff in Iraq

Bob Woodruff, the ABC News correspondent who was badly wounded in 2006 by an explosive device while embedded with troops in Iraq, will receive the 2017 John Steinbeck “In the Souls of the People” award at a 7:30 p.m., February 21 event in the San Jose State University Student Union. The award is given annually by the school’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies to an artist, writer, or activist whose life and work emulate the values embodied by Steinbeck, a two-time war correspondent who was embedded with Allied troops in Italy and North Africa and, 20 years later, with his son’s army unit in Southeast Asia. Past awardees include Garrison Keillor, Michael Moore, and Rachel Maddow, and proceeds from award events benefit programs associated with recipients, who contribute their time when they appear. Notes Lisa Vollendorf, dean of the College of Humanities and the Arts at San Jose State University, “Bob Woodruff’s work reflects Steinbeck’s values to the core: he has pointed to Steinbeck’s writings about the ravages of war and conflict as an inspiration for his own journalistic choices and advocacy for veterans.” General admission to the February 21 event, which will benefit San Jose State University’s Veterans Resource Center, is $25.

No Room in Donald Trump’s Inn for Arts and Humanities

Image of Donald Trump and daughter at Washington, D.C. hotel groundbreaking

In 1965 John Steinbeck was a member of President Johnson’s council on the arts when Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency charged with “bringing the arts to all Americans” and “providing leadership in arts education.” Steinbeck died before efforts in Congress to kill the infant agency got underway, in earnest, in 1981. Today, 35 years after arts-friendly Reaganites foiled that attempt, the ascendancy of Donald Trump appears to have handed anti-arts Republicans in Washington, D.C. the ammunition they need to finish the job. According to the website The Hill, “the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely” if the radical plan prevails.

In 1965 John Steinbeck was a member of President Johnson’s council on the arts when Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency charged with ‘bringing the arts to all Americans’ and ‘providing leadership in arts education.’

It’s easy to imagine how John Steinbeck would react to the latest threat against the arts and humanities. He supported FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, applied “arts for all” as a principle in his writing, and—brought up on books, music, and art—demonstrated the value of arts and humanities education in almost every aspect of his life. Nearly 50 years after his death, his name and his novels continue to be cited when creativity is under attack by politicians, fanatics, and latter-day Mrs. Grundys. In an op-ed entitled “What Art Under Trump?” the novelist Margaret Atwood gives The Grapes of Wrath as an example of enduring art that outlasts the evils it was created to expose. Colson Whitehead, the 47-year-old author of The Underground Railroad, credited the research he did for his first high school term paper—on John Steinbeck—when he accepted the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction at yesterday’s meeting of the American Library Association.

Image of Donald Trump hotel at Old Post Office in Washington, D.C.

Rationalizing hatred of the arts and humanities of the kind on view in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C. is harder than guessing where Steinbeck would stand. I know—I’ve tried—because at one time my job actually depended on it. Like John Steinbeck, I have an education in the arts and humanities to thank for whatever may be of value in my 35-year career as as a nonprofit executive and fundraiser for organizations in Florida and California. Unlike Steinbeck, I’m a middleman, not a creator. But the Washington, D.C. experience  I had while running the Palm Beach County Cultural Council gave me a preview of the arts under Donald Trump that I’m confident Steinbeck—who honored memory, history, and preservation—would appreciate.

Rationalizing hatred of the arts and humanities of the kind on view in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C. is harder than guessing where Steinbeck would stand.

Image of the Old Post Office Pavilion in 1920When I visited Washington, D.C. during the 1980s and 90s, I usually stopped by the Old Post Office, famous for its soaring atrium, to listen, learn, and lobby. In the 1970s Nancy Hanks, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts under Nixon, saved the century-old building from demolition, and for 30 years—until Donald Trump signed the lease to turn it into a hotel—the Old Post Office served as a symbolically appropriate home for her agency. Some of my appointments were with successors to Nancy Hanks appointed by Republican presidents after Nixon. Frank Hodsoll, chair of the NEA under Reagan, was key to the regional initiative that advanced art creation, education, and marketing in my bailiwick, South Florida. Later on, in Miami, I interviewed John Frohnmayer, George H.W. Bush’s NEA chair, for a weekly public radio program I hosted in West Palm Beach. The subject of our talk was Leaving Town Alive, the book that Frohmayer (a Stanford-educated lawyer) wrote about his fight for survival in D.C.

In the 1970s Nancy Hanks, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts under Nixon, saved the Old Post Office from demolition, and for 30 years—until Donald Trump signed the lease to turn it into a hotel—the historic building served as a symbolically appropriate home for her agency.

Forced out of the home they helped save when it was closed to make way for Trump’s hotel, the NEA and NEH moved to Constitution Center, a modernist monstrosity in Washington, D.C. designed by the architect of the equally hideous Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Today Trump International Hotel occupies the historic building at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, Donald Trump occupies the historic house at 1600, and the agencies evicted from the Old Post Office in 2014 are experiencing the threat of their lives. The dreadful death cycle dramatized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath—eviction and attack followed by extinction—faces the arts and humanities in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C., where a great public building is now operated for private profit and the public agency responsible for preserving it is about to leave town permanently.