Visiting Monterey, CA, is cause to read John Steinbeck’s work and visit his settings. The John Steinbeck Center celebrates Steinbeck’s work and life. The lettuce and artichoke fields, Cannery Row, the fogs on the Monterey Peninsula in Pacific Grove, the John Steinbeck Center in Salinas, the Pacific Ocean, cherries and garlic, and literature meldtogether in Steinbeck’s California.
Visiting Monterey is a good opportunity to read Steinbeck in the setting in which it was experienced and imagined. The people and places that lived through Steinbeck’s experiences and imagination come to life in the Monterey/Salinas area of California. The Short Novels of John Steinbeck (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2009) contains six of Steinbeck’s short novels.
The first story in the anthology is Tortilla Flat (1935), the story of Hispanic paisanos. One of the fellows inherits a piece of property which changes all of their lives for a time. The property owner ends up supporting his other fellows, giving shelter, and accepting their tribute in the form of wine and food.
Cannery Row (1945) is the second story chronologically in the anthology concerning Monterey. Downtown Monterey along Cannery Row maintains the Steinbeck flavor from the past. The story is dedicated to Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts. A statue of Ed Ricketts is placed across the street from the preserved “Doc’s Western Biologicals.” Lee Chong’s grocery now carries souvenirs and other trinkets for tourists. The Abbeville storehouse on the vacant lot is also preserved with historical placards abounding. The cannery time period began in 1902; tins of sardines were preserved until the fishing gave out in 1945.
Of Mice and Men (1937) is the quintessential Steinbeck novel. The lettuce fields stretch for miles today too. It’s not difficult to imagine Lennie, George, and the migrant workers of yesteryear as one drives the I-1 toward Salinas. Near 100% of US artichokes are grown in California and about 80% of those are grown in Monterey County, and artichokes are its official vegetable. Castroville is the worldwide capital for artichokes. Seventy-two percent of US iceberg lettuce and eighty-one percent of US leaf lettuce is grown in California. A later novel, Grapes of Wrath, created enormous controversy concerning the conditions of migrant workers.
Pacific Grove is a pretty little Victorian town preserved through time. Lighthouse Avenue leads to Pacific Grove, the site of Holman’s Department Store in Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s sister is buried in the cemetery on the point. The town holds memories of Steinbeck and the cottages he used to own. The Monterey fog preserves the mystery of a previous time when fishing and agriculture were the economics of the Monterey Peninsula and the surrounding area that Steinbeck preserved in his short novels.
Finally, a visit to Steinbeck’s California should include a trip into Salinas to the John Steinbeck Center. Even if the visitor has not read Steinbeck’s works, the Center has intriguing exhibits using text, films of his work, and mementos from the area, the family, and history. Familiarity with the stories makes the exhibit even more poignant.
Monterey is a beautiful place to visit, to go back in time, and to explore literary connections to a place that Steinbeck knew well. A visitor should take novels by Steinbeck, a road map and rental car, and a jacket as well as layers, even in summer.
Read more: A Stroll Along Cannery Row