Rare photos of John Steinbeck from the collection of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University—including this 1945 image of Steinbeck with wife Gwyn and son Thom—complement an array of academic research articles by Robert DeMott and others in the Winter 2016 issue of Steinbeck Review. The journal is a publication of Penn State Press and appears twice a year. Barbara A. Heavilin is the editor-in-chief, and Nick Taylor is the executive editor. Photo courtesy Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. To subscribe to the journal, visit the Penn State Press site’s Steinbeck Review page.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Unlike 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.
Like 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.”
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.”
Muller’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.”
Generations 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.
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.
“The Valley of the World”: John Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley in Color Photography Inspired by East of Eden
More than 60 years after it became a national bestseller, John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden remains one of the writer’s most widely read works of fiction. Set in California’s Salinas Valley, where the author grew up and is buried, East of Eden recreates a turbulent era in American life, the period from the Civil War to World War I, through two generations of a pair of Salinas Valley families whose individual lives intersect dramatically during an era characterized by change and conflict in the Salinas Valley and on the world stage. In describing the novel’s setting as “the valley of the world,” John Steinbeck clearly meant East of Eden to be read as allegory, like the Old Testament story mirrored in its title, and as autobiography—intended, he said, for his two young sons, growing up far from the Salinas Valley after World War II. In 2010, the Steinbeck scholar Michael J. Meyer asked David A. Laws, a gifted photographer known for his bright images of John Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley, to take a series of photos to illustrate a book of literary essays on East of Eden. Meyer died in 2011, but the process of collecting and editing essays by various scholars of John Steinbeck was picked up and completed by Henry Veggian, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The result was East of Eden: New and Recent Essays, published by Editions Rodopi (now Brill) in 2013 and reviewed here.—Ed.
Images of the Salinas Valley Inspired by East of Eden
My contribution to East of Eden: New and Recent Essays appeared as a black-and-white photo essay—“Literary Landmarks of East of Eden”—comprised of 15 images that I look of locations around the Salinas Valley inspired by passages from John Steinbeck’s epic novel. The text I wrote remains the copyright of Rodopi, but I retained ownership of the following images, published here for the first time from my original color files. Although much has changed since John Steinbeck returned to his hometown in the early 1950s to recall the “sights and sounds, smells and colors” of the Salinas Valley that fill East of Eden, and even more since Adam Trask arrived in search of his own Eden, these images are recent examples of the scenes and settings that informed the author and that continue to convey the essence of those times. Page references quoting the novel are from the edition of East of Eden published by Penguin Books in 2002, John Steinbeck’s centennial.—David A. Laws
“I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and ranches in the wilder hills.”—Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, ed. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (Penguin Books, 1976), p. 73
“The river mouth at Moss Landing was centuries ago the entrance to this long inland water.”—East of Eden, p. 4
“Then the hard, dry Spaniards came exploring through, greedy and realistic. . . . Of course they were religious people, and the men who could read and write, who kept the records and drew the maps, were the tough untiring priests who traveled with the soldiers.”—East of Eden, p. 6
“There were no springs, and the crust of topsoil was so thin that the flinty bones stuck through. Even the sagebrush struggled to exist, and the oaks were dwarfed from lack of moisture.”—East of Eden, p. 9
“One morning she complained of feeling ill and stayed in her room in the King City hotel while Adam drove into the country. He returned about five in the afternoon to find her nearly dead from loss of blood.”—East of Eden, p. 133
“Later Samuel and Adam walked down the oak-shadowed road to the entrance to the draw where they could look out at the Salinas Valley.”—East of Eden, p. 293
“They left the valley road and drove into the worn and rutted hills over a set of wheel tracks gullied by the winter rains. The horses strained into their collars and the buckboard rocked and swayed. The year had not been kind to the hills, and already in June they were dry.”—East of Eden, p. 137
“’This will be a valley of great richness one day. It could feed the world, and maybe it will.’”—East of Eden, p. 145
“In the country the repository of art and science was the school, and the schoolteacher shielded and carried the torch of learning and of beauty. The schoolhouse was the meeting place for music, for debate. The polls were set in the schoolhouse for elections. Social life, whether it was the crowning of a May queen, the eulogy to a dead president, or an all-night dance, could be held nowhere else.”—East of Eden, p. 146
“’I don’t know whether you noticed, but a little farther up the valley they’re planting windbreaks of gum trees. Eucalyptus—comes from Australia. They say the gums grow ten feet a year.’”—East of Eden, p. 164
“At eight-thirty on a Wednesday morning Kate walked up Main Street, climbed the stairs of the Monterey County Bank Building, and walked along the corridor until she found the door which said, ‘Dr. Wilde—Office Hours 11-2.’”—East of Eden, pp. 240-241
“The traditional dark cypresses wept around the edge of the cemetery, and white violets ran wild in the pathways. . . . The cold wind blew over the tombstones and cried in the cypresses.”—East of Eden, p. 309
“The ‘dobe house had entered its second decay. The great sala all along the front was half plastered, the line of white halfway around and then stopping, just as the workmen had left it ten years before. . . . A smell of mildew and of wet paper was in the air.”—East of Eden, pp. 342-343
“When Adam left Kate’s place he had over two hours to wait for the train back to King City. On an impulse he turned off Main Street and walked up Central Avenue to number 130, the high white house of Ernest Steinbeck. It was an immaculate and friendly house, grand enough but not pretentious, and it sat inside its white fence, surrounded by its clipped lawn, and roses and catoneasters lapped against its white walls.”—East of Eden, p. 382
“It’s a pleasant little stream that gurgles through the Alisal against the Gabilan Mountains on the east of the Salinas Valley. The water bumbles over round stones and washes the polished roots of the trees that hold it in.”—East of Eden, p. 589
Like his teacher Ansel Adams, Charles Cramer is a master of the piano and photography whose timeless images capture the music of nature in visual form. View Big Sur, Point Lobos, and Cannery Row as the music-lover John Steinbeck saw them in this sample of digital photography of the Central California coast by Charles Cramer.—Ed.
Historic photos are sometimes worth a million words, especially when the subject is Steinbeck’s storied life in Pacific Grove and Salinas, California. Unsurprisingly, San Jose State University’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies has a Steinbeck historic-photo trove unrivalled in size and variety, and “John Steinbeck: A View from the Vault”—a sample from the San Jose State University collection—will be on display at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library through October 3. Curated by Peter Van Coutren, the Center’s archivist, the exhibit can be viewed on the fifth floor of the downtown library, a joint venture of San Jose State University and the City of San Jose, weekdays from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (5:00 p.m. on Fridays) and 1:00-6:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Family pictures like this one of adolescent John and his baby sister Mary, taken near the family home in Salinas, California 100 years ago, can be cute; but the show has a serious side, too, and includes rare historic photos of Steinbeck’s adventures in New Orleans, Mexico, and the Soviet Union. See for yourself when you visit.
Grapes of Wrath Views from the University of Oklahoma: Two Photographers, Two Novels, and Two Migrations
The day after John Steinbeck’s recent birthday, I spoke to an audience at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where I teach, about three forgotten stories behind the writing, impact, and unintended consequences of The Grapes of Wrath. The occasion was an exhibition of works by the Great Depression photojournalist Horace Bristol, one of Steinbeck’s collaborators in the run-up to The Grapes of Wrath.
The venue was the Fred Jones Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, which figures significantly in the narrative behind John Steinbeck’s novel. Steinbeck may not have visited the state before he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, but Oklahoma cared deeply about his work—and not just in the negative way portrayed by the press. Closer consideration of John Steinbeck, his collaborators, and his fictionalized migrants seemed appropriate in preparing my talk as I contemplated the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath. What I uncovered wasn’t new but hidden. Here is a summary of my remarks to my University of Oklahoma audience.
Unequal Collaborators: John Steinbeck and Horace Bristol
Traveling on weekends on assignment for Life magazine from the end of 1937 to March 1938, Horace Bristol accompanied John Steinbeck to migrant camps in California’s Central Valley. The Steinbeck-Bristol partnership proved less than equal. Bristol needed the collaboration with Steinbeck more than the writer needed the photographer.
In Dubious Battle, the 1936 novel in which Steinbeck charted the anatomy of a Central Valley fruit pickers’ strike, hit sore nerves at both ends of America’s political spectrum and attracted noisy criticism from communists and conservatives alike. In August he moved on to the San Joaquin Valley to examine the living conditions of California migrant workers and their families for the left-leaning San Francisco News. His hard-hitting account of the struggle for survival of Great Depression migrants from the country’s ravaged heartland was serialized in the paper under the title “The Harvest Gypsies.” It was reprinted (with an additional chapter) in pamphlet form by the Simon J. Lubin Society in 1938 under the title Their Blood is Strong, with revenues going to migrant relief.
The Steinbeck-Bristol partnership proved less than equal. Bristol needed the collaboration with Steinbeck more than the writer needed the photographer.
Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men—the searing story of the daily labors, fragile hopes, and ultimate tragedy that befall the itinerant ranch hands George and Lennie—became a national sensation; the New York stage version played to critical acclaim and ran for more than 200 performances. Clearly, Horace Bristol saw the professional benefits of collaborating with John Steinbeck, despite differences. Like the writer, however, the photographer was drawn on a deeply personal level to the suffering migrants they observed living in tents, makeshift shacks, and broken down vehicles, hidden along California’s byways and back roads.
The Horace Bristol-John Steinbeck collaboration for Life resulted in unforgettable examples of Great Depression photojournalism. But Bristol’s goal for the project—a book of his photographs accompanied by Steinbeck’s text—never materialized. By late May, Steinbeck had begun the hectic hundred days of writing that produced The Grapes of Wrath: Steinbeck’s sprawling manuscript, completed in November, was published in April 1939 to acclaim and attack. Clearly, one reason the Bristol-Steinbeck partnership never achieved full fruition is that Steinbeck was too busy writing his novel and dealing with the celebrity and controversy that ensued.
But there is another reason: John Steinbeck could be an undependable collaborator. A proposed partnership with the photojournalist Dorothea Lange, whose pictures of Great Depression migrants deeply moved the author, also failed to materialize. And there was a third reason, too: Life refused to publish the text written by Steinbeck to accompany Bristol’s photographs. Although some of Bristol’s pictures appeared, the author’s language was too liberal for the magazine’s conservative tastes. John Steinbeck’s relationship with the Time-Life publishing empire never recovered; almost without exception, his books were panned by Time’s reviewers, despite the Pulitzer Prize he received for The Grapes of Wrath and the Nobel Prize for Literature he was awarded in 1962.
John Steinbeck could be an undependable collaborator. A proposed partnership with the photojournalist Dorothea Lange, whose pictures of Great Depression migrants deeply moved the author, also failed to materialize.
It is also worth noting that, while Steinbeck appreciated the visual arts and understood the power of words wedded to images, as a writer he may have doubted that documentary photography was the most desirable medium to illustrate his powerful prose. Indeed, as pointed out by James Swensen—whose manuscript “Picturing Migrants” is scheduled for publication by the University of Oklahoma Press—the 1939 dust jacket of The Grapes of Wrath featured, not a real-life image by Bristol, Lange, or any of the other Farm Security Administration photographers documenting the Great Depression in disturbing detail, but a made-to-order painting by the commercial illustrator Elmer Hader. To the chagrin of Ron Stryker, head of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration, the deluxe two-volume version of The Grapes of Wrath published in 1940 by Viking Press featured a series of paintings by the Midwestern artist Thomas Hart Benton, not the photographs of Bristol, Lee, or Lange.
As a writer he may have doubted that documentary photography was the most desirable medium to illustrate his powerful prose.
The pictures Bristol took on his travels with Steinbeck became famous anyway, thanks to their publication—along with images by Lange—in the April 1939 issue of Fortune and the June issue of Life, popular magazines with wide readership. As a result, Bristol’s photographs were used by the director John Ford in casting and costuming Ford’s award-winning movie adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, released in January 1940. A second Life magazine article followed a month later. It featured Bristol’s “Joads” (shown above and at the top of the page) and the movie’s characters (shown below), displayed side by side with the telling tag, “Speaking of Pictures. . . these by Life prove facts in ‘Grapes of Wrath.’” However reluctantly the editors recognized the truth of Steinbeck’s book, they never approved of its author.
Russell Lee, The Grapes of Wrath, and a Great Depression Photography Exhibition at the University of Oklahoma
Now to an unfamiliar twist in this oft-told tale, one that is explored by James Swensen in his forthcoming study for the University of Oklahoma Press. To capitalize on the success of John Steinbeck’s novel and John Ford’s film, Ron Stryker’s Historical Section began mounting Grapes of Wrath exhibitions of work by the agency’s various photographers—with text taken from the novel—showing the conditions in Oklahoma and other parts of America’s Southern Plains that precipitated the exodus of native farm families, the problems they faced on the road, and their plight once they reached California. In March 1940, an FSA exhibition of 48 works by Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Ben Shahn (although none by Horace Bristol) appeared in the University of Oklahoma’s Memorial Student Lounge, sponsored by the departments of Sociology and Anthropology.
Willard Z. Park, an Anthropology Department faculty member, was the person most responsible for bringing the exhibition to campus. Park—whose brief tenure at the University of Oklahoma lasted from 1938 to 1942—was also part of a faculty group that purchased four copies of The Grapes of Wrath for the university library to help meet demand for the book—more than 100 University of Oklahoma students were on the waiting list to check out John Steinbeck’s novel. Swensen notes that in the wake of the campus exhibit “several [University of Oklahoma] students made trips to a local migrant colony in Norman, called ‘Tower Town,’ to see the plight of the migrants themselves.” Tower Town was located near 804 East Symmes Street, just east of Porter Avenue.
As poor as living conditions were for some Norman residents, Swensen explains that the FSA photographers who documented the plight of displaced Oklahomans during the latter years of the Great Depression traveled instead to the banks of the Canadian River in Oklahoma City, where more than 3,000 homeless Oklahomans had camped out. The University of Oklahoma Grapes of Wrath exhibition featured photographs of the Oklahoma City camps made by Russell Lee in 1939. Four examples of Lee’s harrowing images are shown above. They bear visual witness to Henry Hill Collins’ description of Oklahoma poverty in his 1941 book America’s Own Refugees: Our 400,000 Homeless Migrants (Princeton University Press):
Many of the inhabitants of this camp, a rent-free shack-town fashioned over and out of a former dump, were drought and tractor refugees from farms elsewhere in the State. . . . The ‘Housing’ . . . was almost entirely pieced together out of junk-yard materials by the unfortunates . . . . Neither camp provided sanitary facilities; children, looking like savages, played in the dumps, wandered along the neighboring, muddy banks of the half-stagnant Canadian River. . . . [S]o foul were these human habitations and so vast their extent that some authorities reluctantly expressed the belief that Oklahoma City contained the largest and worst congregation of migrant hovels between the Mississippi River and the Sierras.
Whose Names are Unknown: Oklahoma’s Forgotten Novel
Our next story concerns a Great Depression novel written at the time of The Grapes of Wrath that remained unpublished until 2004. Its author was the remarkable Oklahoma native Sanora Babb. Born in the Territory’s Otoe Indian community in April 1907, seven months before Oklahoma became a state, Babb was living in California in 1938 and working for the Farm Security Administration. A contemporary of John Steinbeck, she actually met the author twice. She also kept detailed notes on what she observed in the California camps, copies of which were loaned by her boss Tom Collins—the man to whom Steinbeck dedicated The Grapes of Wrath—along with the meticulous reports Collins wrote about Oklahoma migrant culture and dialect.
John Steinbeck used Collins’ anecdotes and statistics to research The Grapes of Wrath. Sanora Babb used the stories she gathered to write her own novel, Whose Names are Unknown. Its title and subject attracted the attention of Bennett Cerf, the editor at Random House, who wanted to publish her book. Cerf abandoned his plans when The Grapes of Wrath became an overnight bestseller, another collateral casualty of John Steinbeck’s phenomenal success. When Babb approached Pascal Covici, Steinbeck’s loyal editor at Viking, he also declined.
As a result, Whose Names are Unknown was unread for 65 years years before being published by the University of Oklahoma Press. But Babb’s book stands on its own feet as a classic of Great Depression fiction with significant differences from Steinbeck. While The Grapes of Wrath deals with migrants from far east-central Oklahoma—Sallisaw, in Sequoyah County, which was affected by drought and decline but wasn’t a Dust Bowl environmental disaster—Babb’s novel is set in Cimarron, the state’s westernmost county, roughly 450 miles from Sallisaw and squarely within the area of America’s Dust Bowl devastation. Unlike the author of The Grapes of Wrath, Babb was an Oklahoma native who experienced extreme poverty as a child and knew her people and their land firsthand.
Whose Names are Unknown was unread for 65 years before being published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Babb had moved to California in 1929 to take a job at the Los Angeles Times. When she arrived the stock market had crashed, the Great Depression had begun, and the promised job dried up. A migrant without a home, she slept in a city park before leaving for Oklahoma in the mid-1930s, where she witnessed the terrible poverty gripping her native state. Eventually she returned to California to work for the FSA, serving migrant families stranded without a home or a job, just as she had been years earlier. In contrast, John Steinbeck gained much of his understanding of Great Depression conditions in Oklahoma second hand, through reading reports by federal aid workers like Babb and Collins and from his experience delivering food and aid to California migrants from the Southern Plains.
Still, the John Steinbeck-Sanora Babb story sounds like a classic smash-and-grab: celebrated California author steals the material of unknown Oklahoma writer, resulting in his financial success and her failure to get her work published. Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary The Dust Bowl touches on the subject, devoting space to Babb’s life and book in The Grapes of Wrath’s giant shadow. But Steinbeck absorbed field information from many sources, primarily Tom Collins and Eric H. Thomsen, regional director of the federal migrant camp program in California, who accompanied Steinbeck on missions of mercy.
As noted, John Steinbeck acknowledged Collins’ importance in his research for The Grapes of Wrath, although his promise to write an introduction and help Collins’ get his reports published failed—not unlike John Steinbeck’s book project with Horace Bristol. If Steinbeck read Babb’s extensive notes as carefully as he did the reports of Collins, he would certainly have found them useful. His interaction with Collins and Thomsen—and their influence on the writing of The Grapes of Wrath—is documented because Steinbeck acknowledged both. Sanora Babb went unmentioned.
Whose Names are Unknown was published by the University of Oklahoma Press shortly before Babb (shown above hanging wash with Tom Collins, standing beside an identified labor organizer and girl, and sitting with a group of migrants) passed away at 98. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Babb’s novel is must-reading for serious students of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression in Oklahoma. Its primary characters are Julia and Milt Dunne, an Oklahoma couple with two daughters—Lonnie and Myra—who are caught outside with their pregnant mother when a sudden storm blows up and Julia takes a fall. As a result, Julia’s third child is still-born, like Rose of Sharon’s infant in The Grapes of Wrath, and Milt buries the baby in the yard. Rose of Sharon’s abandonment by her husband in Steinbeck’s story is physical. Julia’s growing distance from Milt Babb’s narrative is psychological:
Sometimes Julia thought of the little boy who was so nearly born, saying in her mind it was better that he was dead, but in spite of this reasonable comfort, she felt the monotonous ache of grief and of Milt’s frustration. That peculiar ripening joy she had felt—with the child filling her and moving strongly with his secret life—had left her. The emptiness of her womb crept into her emotions, and she went through the days and nights feeling numb and alone. Milt was morose and easily angered, and although he spoke of the boy only once or twice, she felt coming from him some undetermined blame toward her.
Parallel Migrations: The Southern and the Northern Plains
Unlike our focus on two novels and two photographers in exploring the background of The Grapes of Wrath, our view of their Great Depression context requires a wide-angle perspective on the contrasting demographics of migration patterns from the Great Plains to the promised lands of the American West in the 1930s. I say promised lands because migration to California from Oklahoma and other Southern Plains states wasn’t the only instance of mass westward movement during the decade recorded in John Steinbeck and Sanora Babb’s writing and the photographs made by Horace Bristol and Russell Lee.
James Gregory, the preeminent historian of the migration of Southwesterners to California during the Great Depression, places the total figure for out-migration to the Golden State in the 1930s from the Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas at 315,000-400,000. (California received about a million American migrants during the decade, and they came from all over America, not just the Southern Plains.) Notably, fewer than 16,000 of these Great Depression refugees—less than six percent of the total number of migrants from the four states mentioned who ended up in California—came from the area of the Dust Bowl. Gregory notes that journalists of the period are primarily to blame for “confusing drought with dust” and oversimplifying the facts: “the press created the dramatic but misleading association between the Dust Bowl and the Southwestern migration.” The subtitle of Gregory’s excellent book—American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (Oxford University Press, 1991)—makes this critical point.
Migration to California from Oklahoma and other Southern Plains states wasn’t the only instance of mass westward movement during the decade recorded in John Steinbeck and Sanora Babb’s writing and the photographs made by Horace Bristol and Russell Lee.
So it isn’t surprising that the role played by Oklahoma and its residents looms so large in the public memory of the Southern Plains migration to California during the Great Depression. The Federal Writers Project’s publication Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State (1941) reported that half of the state’s population was on relief by the late 1930s. In his remarkable 1942 study, Ill Fares the Land: Migrants and Migratory Labor in the United States, California’s progressive journalist Carey McWilliams stated that by 1935, “61.2 per cent of farms in Oklahoma were operated by tenants” and between 1935 and 1940 Oklahoma lost a total of 32,000 farms or more at a rate of 18 per day. Moreover, McWilliams noted, from July 1, 1935 to June 30, 1939, almost 71,000 Oklahomans crossed the Arizona border into California. Interestingly, the bulk of this exodus came from Oklahoma’s populous central counties; the four counties with the highest number of outbound migrants were Oklahoma, Caddo, Muskogee, and Tulsa.
As Oklahomans, Californians, and readers of The Grapes of Wrath quickly learned, the term “Okie” became a derisive identifier for all migrants to California, not only from Oklahoma but from other Southwestern states as well. “Little Oklahoma” was the local name for the Alisal, the area east of John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas where white migrants from the Plains states were clustered, out of sight and out of mind of respectable Salinians—as Steinbeck noted in his letters and in L’Affaire Lettuceberg, the angry satire he wrote (and destroyed) before beginning The Grapes of Wrath.
‘Okie’ became a derisive identifier for all migrants to California, not only from Oklahoma but from other Southwestern states as well.
Even today, it is hard to avoid perpetuating the “Okie” and “Dust Bowl” stereotypes and the oversimplifications that they represent. These became so pervasive that historians of the Great Depression have paid little attention to a parallel migration of similar size—approximately 300,000 individuals—from the Northern Plains states of Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota to the Pacific Northwest states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. One historian, Rolland Dewing, has helped correct the record, explaining that Northern Plains migrants left their home states because of drought conditions and economic collapse, much like their counterparts to the south. In Regions in Transition: The Northern Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest in the Great Depression (University Press of America, 2006), Dewing notes that approximately two-fifths came from North Dakota, two-fifths from South Dakota, and one-fifth from Nebraska.
Steinbeck’s Oklahomans and America’s “Other Migrants”
But as massive in scale as the migration from the Northern Plains to the Pacific Northwest became during the Great Depression, the particulars of this phenomenon have for a variety of reasons remained largely forgotten. As Rolland Dewing explains in his book, there was no agribusiness equivalent to California’s Central and Imperial valleys in the Pacific Northwest—no foundation for the systematic economic exploitation and mistreatment of the newcomers.
The Northwest timber industry was doing quite well as the Northern Plains economy collapsed, and this stability—along with other positive economic factors in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho—helped ease the transition of Northern Plains migrants, which peaked in 1936, when the economy of the host region was picking up. Because the population of the Pacific Northwest was aging at the time of the Great Depression, younger migrants were welcomed by many as a demographic addition, unlike those arriving in California from Oklahoma and other Southern Plains states, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.
Because the population of the Pacific Northwest was aging at the time of the Great Depression, younger migrants were welcomed by many as a demographic addition, unlike those arriving in California from Oklahoma and other Southern Plains states, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.
Then, too, the socioeconomic and educational levels of Northern Plains migrants were closer to those of the Pacific Northwest states, so newcomers and hosts shared more in common than Southern Plains migrants did with less friendly Anglo-Californians. Indeed, many residents of the Pacific Northwest had been born or maintained family roots in the upper-Midwest: Northern Plains migrants seemed more alike than different in background and behavior to their hosts.
Like Steinbeck’s migrants in The Grapes of Wrath, Northern Plains residents suffered terribly during the Great Depression. South Dakota, for example, experienced a seven percent population decline in the 1930s. The population loss for Oklahoma was much less: the state’s population was 2,396,040 in 1930 and 2,336,434 in 1940 (a 2.5 percent decline). But migrants from the Northern Plains to the Pacific Northwest never experienced suffering on the scale of their southern counterparts who migrated to California. No one wrote a Grapes of Wrath about them. As a consequence their stories have been largely forgotten.
Rescuing Sanora Babb from John Steinbeck’s Shadow
Horace Bristol and Russell Lee were among the most important documentary photographers of Great Depression America. Like the pictures of migrant mother and children made by Dorothea Lange, their images helped sear the truth behind The Grapes of Wrath into America’s collective consciousness. The photographs Bristol took on assignment with Steinbeck for Life proved essential to the casting and costuming of the Joads in the movie version of the novel. But if The Grapes of Wrath hadn’t been so successful, Sanora Babb’s novel of Oklahoma would probably have been published as promised and might have become a Great Depression classic being celebrated, like The Grapes of Wrath, on its 75th anniversary.
Finally, if Steinbeck’s timeless prose—along with photographs by Bristol, Lee, and Lange and John Ford’s movie—hadn’t evoked the Southern Plains exodus to California so powerfully for Americans living through the Great Depression, our memory of migration in the 1930s might include the parallel movement of Northern Plains refugees to the Pacific Northwest. But the migration of these displaced Americans wasn’t chronicled by a John Steinbeck or a Sanora Babb: their suffering was on a smaller scale and they encountered less hostility. Thus art copies history but also reflects it. New light on Great Depression migration and the forgotten background of The Grapes of Wrath from the University of Oklahoma further illuminates Steinbeck’s masterpiece. It also helps rescue a forgotten work, written by a native Oklahoman, from the shadow of a greater writer.
SteinbeckNow.com is proud to publish David Wrobel’s feature as the 80th post produced by our website in its first eight months. A scholar of United States history, David is also an avid reader and deep thinker on the writing of John Steinbeck. He contributed a chapter about Steinbeck’s social-protest fiction to Regionalists on the Left, an anthology of essays edited by Michael C. Steiner, and he gave a lecture, John Steinbeck’s America: A Cultural History of the Great Depression and World War II, to a large audience at the University of Oklahoma’s 2013 Teach-In on the Great Depression and World War II. He is currently working on “John Steinbeck’s America: A Cultural History, 1930-1968.”
My journey from East of Eden to Silicon Valley and Steinbeck Country began in the early 1960s. One summer I worked in a west London warehouse that stored spare parts for a Royal Air Force aircraft maintenance unit, helping the aged custodian move engine parts and other heavy objects during a business slowdown. Not many RAF planes seemed to be in distress, so I had plenty of time to read on the job. One day my boss picked up a worn paperback novel and tossed it to me: “Here, catch this. It’s got some dirty bits in it. You might like it.”
It Started in England with East of Eden
A semi-clothed maiden on the well-thumbed cover promised the pleasures of a “bodice ripper”—not my usual choice of reading material. But having swept the aisles for the day and with nothing else to do, I dug into my first Steinbeck novel. Yes, there were a few racy bits to be found in To a God Unknown, but the bold writing style and the imagination behind the storytelling captivated me far more. By the end of the summer I’d read every book by John Steinbeck I could find, including East of Eden. I still have the yellowing paperback copy with James Dean and Julie Harris on the cover that set me back three shillings and sixpence from my warehouse wages.
Images of “light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness” and hot, dry afternoons near Jolon in Steinbeck’s Valley of Nuestra Señora proved particularly appealing during that typically cold, damp English summer. I vowed that one day I would travel to California and see Steinbeck Country for myself. It was a promise I would keep in my five-decade odyssey from England to Silicon Valley and Steinbeck Country. I even got an unanticipated boost along the way from the Oprah book club—but that lay far in the future.
Stop #1: Silicon Valley
After graduating from college with a degree in physics, I found employment in England in the booming new business of semiconductor electronics. Within a few years I was working for a European affiliate of Fairchild Semiconductor, the Mountain View company that spawned Intel and other Silicon Valley “Fairchildren” startups. Sensing that the real action in the buoyant computer chip industry was in California, after several years working in England I negotiated a transfer and arrived in San Francisco in 1968. It was the first stop in my Silicon Valley-Steinbeck Country-Oprah book club journey.
Although I only planned to stay in California for a couple of years, I continued to live and work in Silicon Valley until I retired 15 years ago. During that time the Santa Clara “Valley of Heart’s Delight” morphed into Silicon Valley, and the microchip business evolved from maverick entrepreneurial startups run by cowboys with clipboards to strategic assets managed by nation states.The number of transistors on a silicon chip swelled from a dozen or so to more than one billion, and Silicon Valley became an international brand.
I visited Steinbeck Country—the agricultural Salinas Valley, the fishing town of Monterey, and peaceful Pacific Grove—several times during the early years of my Silicon Valley career. I walked the hallowed length of Monterey’s Cannery Row, peered into Steinbeck houses in Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Salinas, and hiked some of the lower trails into the Big Sur country, the setting for Steinbeck’s story “Flight.” I also took classes from the well-known photographer Steve Crouch, inspired by his classic 1973 coffee-table volume, Steinbeck Country.
Back in the days before the National Steinbeck Center, Salinas was a sleepy stop on the road south from Silicon Valley. Cannery Row was showing early signs of recovery as a tourist destination from the collapse of the sardine industry predicted by Steinbeck and his best friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. But I remained a captive of the Silicon Valley siren call until retiring in 1998. By then much had changed in Steinbeck Country, home turf for the author of East of Eden, since my early trips down Highway 101 from Silicon Valley.
Stop #2: Steinbeck Country
When I retired I began to submit day-trip features to the travel sections of the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News, including an article on Salinas, where the National Steinbeck Center had recently opened. That event was international news, but travel-section advertisers failed to find the destination compatible with selling big-ticket vacation cruises, and neither paper took my piece on Steinbeck’s hometown. I was beginning to understand how Steinbeck felt before his first book was accepted.
Eventually I sent my effort to Susan Shillinglaw, a professor of English at San Jose State University and at that time the director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies. She published my article—“Something to Do in Salinas”—in the fall 2001 issue of Steinbeck Studies, and she invited me to show slides of places in Steinbeck Country related to Steinbeck’s fiction at the Steinbeck Centenary Conference, held on Long Island at Hofstra University in 2002. Steinbeck wrote much of East of Eden in his Manhattan apartment; eventually he also bought a house in Sag Harbor, the Monterey-like fishing village on Long Island that provided the setting for The Winter of Our Discontent.
Following my presentation at Hofstra several attendees asked for copies of the images I’d shown. I used an early-generation digital camera with a state-of-the art two-megapixel sensor to take my pictures, and copies could only be printed at postcard size. Naturally I was eager to find a way to satisfy Steinbeck lovers who wanted permanent images of Steinbeck locations, and eventually I settled on a format that allowed several small photos to be printed per page in the book I produced.
Published in 2003 as a low-cost souvenir and travel guide, Steinbeck Country: Exploring the Settings for the Stories sold steadily at the National Steinbeck Center, online, and through other outlets. After Susan included a page about the book on the website she edited for the Oprah book club selection of East of Eden later that year, sales spiked.
Stop #3: The Oprah Book Club
Exposure on the Oprah book club website generated invitations from community book clubs and libraries for presentations about Steinbeck Country. It ultimately led to new Steinbeck Country travel-writing and photography opportunities as well, along with requests to provide images for academic publications such as East of Eden: New and Recent Essays, a recent collection of scholarly articles edited by Henry Veggian and the late Michael J. Meyer.
But the market for printed travel titles has changed dramatically since I published my guide book 10 years ago. Today digital versions are preferred over print because of their portability, flexibility, and ease of updating. To serve the growing market for mobile-device apps, I partnered with the National Steinbeck Center to transfer the book’s content to digital format.
Introduced at the Steinbeck Festival in May of 2013, the Steinbeck Country & Beyond app contains over 200 pages and almost 1,000 images, compared with only 32 pages and 100 or so photos in the printed book. An easy-to-use mobile reference and travel guide to Steinbeck’s works and the people and places that inspired them, the app is available from Apple’s iTunes App Store and on Google’s play for Android platforms. There is also a website version for readers who do not have access to a smartphone or a tablet.
Only a writer as creative as Steinbeck could have predicted 50 years ago where my path would lead. From reading East of Eden in England to a career in Silicon Valley and retirement in Steinbeck Country—with an unanticipated boost from the Oprah book club along the way—my story continues to surprise even me.