National Steinbeck Center

While you might not think any museum dedicated to the work of one writer is worth the detour, the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas just might change your mind.

Back in high school, I loved Steinbeck. This may or may not be attributed to a crush on James Dean and his role as Cal in East of Eden, but I do remember insisting that we visit Cannery Row on a family trip to California (before the Monterey Bay Aquarium took over the area). Watch for future posts on Marfa, TX (where my oldest friend in the world happens to live and where Giant was filmed) and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles (where key scenes in Rebel Without a Cause take place and where I’ve actually never been, even though I seem to be in its backyard multiple times a year).

Maybe it’s a good thing Dean only made three films.

Completely coincidentally, I re-enacted his fatal drive to Salinas on my latest trip back from Pasadena when I refueled in Lost Hills and crossed over to Paso Robles on Route 46. Unfortunately, I was not in a Porsche. Fortunately, no one ran into me head on either.

But I digress.

What was great about the National Steinbeck Center was that you could really see how the evolution of Steinbeck’s life influenced his writing, from growing up in the agricultural world of the Salinas Valley, which heavily influenced both The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and East of Eden (1952), to his time living in a cottage in Pacific Grove, where he met Ed Ricketts, the model for “Doc” in Cannery Row (1945) and with whom he traveled to the Sea of Cortez, where he heard the story he eventually transformed into The Pearl, to his time as a war correspondent in Europe, which made its way into his script for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Lifeboat.

One gets a real sense of place from the displays, which include a railway boxcar (a key element in East of Eden) and the homemade truck/camper (named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse) in which Steinbeck toured the U.S., a trip described in Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1960). A number of displays were interactive and help to understand books one hasn’t read. There are also cute little touches like the bag of “frogs” from Cannery Row, designed to move and sound as if there are live frogs in it. My only complaint would be with the audio—the numerous film clips were great for making the books come alive, but you could hear too many different things at the same time.

In short, if you find yourself driving down the 101 through Salinas, or touring the Monterey peninsula, check it out.

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