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    A visit to Steinbeck country

    By MARGO HAMMOND, Times Books Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 18, 2002

    SALINAS, Ca. -- In the fields of Salinas Valley along Highway 68 just on the outskirts of this city, 18-foot-tall painted silhouettes of migrant workers tower over impossibly green rows of lettuce. They look all the world like giant versions of the Joad family straight out of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

    These gargantuan sculptures are not based on fiction, however, or even on the Okies who inspired Steinbeck to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in the '30s. Created by Salinas mural artist John Cerney, they are modeled from actual people -- mostly Hispanics -- who have recently been toiling in these fields. But the striking resemblance between Steinbeck's sun-baked Okies and present-day farm workers is a touching reminder of just how well Steinbeck, who died in 1968, captured the spirit of this unique corner of the world.

    It speaks to the power of his words, in fact, that Steinbeck's body of work -- for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 -- still evokes so much intense reaction, both positive and negative. More movies (over 30) have been made from Steinbeck novels and short stories than any other author, for example, but his books also have been among the most censored in American literature. Last year, Of Mice and Men ranked as the second most challenged book in the nation's high schools (R.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series topped the list). The book about Lennie and George, two migrant drifters, was the sixth most challenged book of the past decade (The Grapes of Wrath came in at No. 34).

    Even Steinbeck's hometown can't agree on what it thinks of its most famous son.

    Born 100 years ago in the Queen Anne-style two-story turreted home that still sits on Central Avenue, Steinbeck set 23 of his novels and short stories in Salinas and the surrounding Monterey County, including Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row, The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men and Sweet Thursday. Yet there are still residents here who wish he never put pen to paper.

    For years, some objected to his politics -- or what they thought were his politics. Because he initially wrote about social injustice and ordinary folk, Steinbeck was mistakenly labeled a communist, an ideology to which he never subscribed. During the '60s, some objected to his support of the Vietnam War (two of his sons were soldiers then and he traveled to the battlefield). Others simply thought John had listened too intently when his mother and her socialite friends gossiped during their bridge club meetings: Far too many of the town's shameful secrets had made their way into his work for their taste.

    When a Steinbeck postage stamp was issued in 1979 and the city the launched its first Steinbeck Festival in 1980, Steinbeck suddenly became more popular in Salinas. He was, after all, a tourist draw. As of late, however, some new detractors have emerged. While no one in town is likely to advocate burning The Grapes of Wrath (a group of upstanding citizens did just that in 1939, in front of the main library on the corner of Main and San Luis no less), there are those, especially younger residents, who complain that the town is now too focused on Steinbeck.

    "I bank at the Steinbeck Credit Union, for Pete's sakes," complains Jay Michael Rivera, who was born and raised in Salinas. "What's a bank got to do with a writer?" Rivera, a reporter for The Californian newspaper in Salinas, found Steinbeck's books "boring" when he had to read them in school. But when Rivera was away in the military and picked up the novels again, he admits he found Steinbeck's evocation of home hit, well, home.

    The exploitation of the town's most famous son can at times be excessive. Nearly 30 businesses in town carry a name with a Steinbeck connection. On Main Street you can get your hair fixed at the Sweet Thursday hair salon. You can book a trip with Steinbeck Travel. You can eat lunch and dinner at the Steinbeck home on Central, run by a non-profit group that serves Steinbeck salad with lunch. Even the Salinas main library, which was relocated long after that book-burning incident, has been renamed the Steinbeck Library. A peculiar bronze statue of Steinbeck sits on the front lawn (some locals argue that it was deliberately made as ugly as possible). The figure used to be smoking a cigarette, but the cigarette recently was sawed off by anti-smoking vandals.

    The greatest resentment in the area toward Steinbeck, though, still lingers in the local "ag" community over his books' harsh portrayal of that industry, according to Jim Gattis, the son of an Okie migrant worker who has been involved in raising funds for the John Steinbeck Center in downtown Salinas. An agricultural wing planned for the center was, in part, offered as an enticement to those growers who were reluctant to contribute to a center honoring a man who painted such an unflattering portrait of their ancestors. The wing is scheduled to open soon.

    The glass-enclosed John Steinbeck Center at One Main Street, dominated by a hologram of John and Olive Steinbeck's son, is the most obvious sign, however, that those who honor Steinbeck are far and away in the majority in these parts. The museum, with an impressive interactive maze of rooms devoted to Steinbeck's life and the life contained in his works, is the only one in America dedicated exclusively to an author and his works. Locals hope it will help provide a needed boost to Salinas' struggling downtown.

    The center was opened in 1998 and offers clips from movies and plays based on Steinbeck books, a life-size replica of the pony from The Red Pony and the bunkhouse from Of Mice and Men. Also on exhibit is Rocinante, the customized camper named after Don Quixote's horse that Steinbeck used in 1961 to travel around the United States with his poodle, Charley. His account of the trip was published as Travels With Charley.

    This year, the center marks the centennial of Steinbeck's birth on Feb. 27, 1902, and the celebration has included more than 400 events in 40 counties, from California to New York. One of the biggest was the Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, held earlier this month. Among the activities were various panel discussions (a comparison of Steinbeck with two other American Nobel Prize winners, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, was especially enlightening), bus tours to Steinbeck sites in Monterey and a tour of the old city, culminating at the Steinbeck House. Among the participants were Danica Cerce, who received her Ph.D. in Steinbeck studies in Slovenia, and Kiyoshi Nakayoma, founder of the 25-year-old Steinbeck Society in Japan. "The Japanese love Steinbeck for his humor and for his sympathy with ordinary people," explained Nakayamo, who has authored three books about Steinbeck.

    Not all scholars, or reviewers, have had such enthusiasm for Steinbeck's work. Several critics openly scoffed when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, which reportedly so stung the author that he never wrote fiction again. He did write a number of non-fiction books, however, including, appropriately enough, an essay about critics "from a writer's perspective." In the essay, anthologized in America and the Americans, he writes, tongue firmly planted in his cheek: "I don't think critics should change, only our attitude toward them. Poor things, nobody reviews them."

    At the time of his death in 1968, Steinbeck had long since left Salinas and was dividing his time between Sag Harbor on Long Island and New York City with his third wife, Elaine, who still manages his estate. Meanwhile, much had changed in the area Steinbeck made so famous -- a lot of it for the good. The mostly Hispanic farm workers in Salinas Valley are paid a living wage, for one thing. And while Salinas is still a rather lackluster and insular city, its denizens are far more prosperous than in Steinbeck's day, thanks in part to the booming agricultural industry of the surrounding countryside.

    This year the Western Stage, a Salinas community theater, presented a masterful interpretation of Of Mice and Men played to packed houses. But the most popular offering in that theater over the years has been East of Eden. The sprawling adaptation opens with a chorus of local denizens, played by local as well as national actors, describing their valley.

    Steinbeck called it the Valley of the World. The Chamber of Commerce calls it Steinbeck Country. But it's most common nomenclature is the World's Salad Bowl. A flat stretch of land cradled between the Gabilan and the Santa Lucia mountain ranges, with the river Salinas running through it, the valley is not only shaped like a salad bowl but also contains the fixin's for a $3-billion tossed salad. The long straight rows of plantings stretch for miles, looking from a distance like ribs of green corduroy, and they represent 80 percent of the nation's lettuces and ample quantities of artichokes, strawberries, grapes, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, celery, peppers and other vegetables. This is the land that nurtured John Steinbeck and the people who haunt his novels.

    Why do so many of Steinbeck's novels find an audience today? I asked that question to Matthew Bakey, who came to the Steinbeck Festival for the first time this year. A 34-year-old lawyer turned high school teacher, he teaches Steinbeck to mostly Hispanic kids at Littlerock High School in Palmdale, 60 miles north of Los Angeles.

    "Throughout all of English literature, we always were confronted with good people doing bad things," Bakey says. "With Steinbeck I can show kids a literature where bad people -- prostitutes, rum runners and unsavory types -- do good deeds."

    Half of Bakey's students are the sons and daughters of Hispanic students. Not surprisingly, the Steinbeck novel that touches them most is Of Mice and Men, the story of two migrant workers. This year he read the novel, about the demise of the dim-witted Lennie, aloud to the class. By the time he finished, he could hear the sniffles of those 15-year-old tough kids. "Teaching something emotional like that was greater than any paycheck I could have gotten," Bakey said.

    Surely, that is why Steinbeck endures. Steinbeck wrote about real people living in a real place -- a place we can touch, physically, but above all, emotionally.

    Celebrating Steinbeck

    Here are some unique celebrations around the country, still on tap for this Steinbeck centennial year:

    * * *

    C-SPAN program on John Steinbeck from that network's popular American Writers series will re-air Thursday, Aug. 29 at 8 p.m.

    * * *

    The California Council for the Humanities has chosen The Grapes of Wrath for its One Book, One State project, urging Californians to read the book over the summer. In October, libraries and schools across the state will sponsor discussion groups and other events related to the book.

    * * *

    Penguin has issued commemorative paperback editions of five Steinbeck classic novels -- East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row and The Pearl -- and his memoir Travels with Charley in Search of America. They can can be bought separately ($11-$16) or in a boxed set. Steinbeck's nonfiction pieces have been gathered by Viking into America and Americans and Selected Journalism, edited by Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson ($27.95, 400 pp).

    * * *

    Steinbeck and Hollywood from Story to Screen continues at the Monterey Peninsula Airport terminal though Nov. 30. The exhibit traces the journey from written composition to screen adaptation of such Steinbeck works as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Torilla Flat, The Moon is Down, Lifeboat, A Medal for Benny, The Pearl, The Red Pony, Viva Zapata!, East of Eden, The Wayward Bus and Cannery Row.

    * * *

    Word for Word, a literature-based theatre company will present the first four chapters of Steinbeck's Cannery Row at Magic Theater at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco from Oct. 30 through Nov. 17 and at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts in Berkeley Nov. 21 through Dec. 1. The performance is a fully staged, performed production of the text just as written.

    * * *

    An 8-day/7-night cruise Thursday, Dec. 26 to the Sea of Cortez offered by Lindblad Expedition to cap off the centennial. A portion of the $1,470 per person cost benefits the National Steinbeck Center. All meals and activities, such as whale watching, sea kayaking, snorkeling in this pristine area explored by Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts and immortalized in The Log of the Sea of Cortez, are included. A staff of four naturalists and historian will accompany the group on this intimate 70 person voyage through Lindblad Expeditions. A portion of the proceeds benefits the National Steinbeck Center.

    * * *

    For information about centennial events, check out www.steinbeck100.org.

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