Up The Road: Steinbeck Country

Nov 8, 2017

We head up the road this week to Steinbeck Country.

Mention “John Steinbeck” and people think of Cannery Row in Monterey. Or nearby Salinas, his home town, setting for The Red Pony. Or maybe Baja, for anyone who’s read the impressive nonfiction Log from the Sea of Cortez. But Steinbeck also visited squalid farm labor camps—and towns in the north state, including Gridley, Marysville, and Yuba City. Valley towns can lay serious claim to the Steinbeck legacy, in fact, though most still wouldn’t want to. The Grapes of Wrath won Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize and eventually the Nobel Prize for Literature, but at the time—and for decades to follow—the book and its author had few friends in California agriculture. But the destitute families he wrote about, the “Okies,” “Arkies,” and “Texies” who migrated to California farm fields during the 1930s, had few friends but Steinbeck.

Cheap auto camp housing for citrus workers, Tulare County
Credit Dorothea Lange, used courtesy the U.S. National Archives and Library of Congress

Chalk it up to local politics. Tom Collins, Steinbeck’s character Jim Rawley, worked as a federal labor camp manager. He helped Steinbeck research a sympathetic week-long series for The San Francisco News titled The Harvest Gypsies. Steinbeck’s wasn’t the usual Depression-era coverage of California’s farm labor crisis. Fairly typical in the valley, from the The Yuba City Herald: “The Federal migrant camp in Marysville is becoming a Red hotbed, a breeding place for the fomenting of strikes to destroy the peach crops of Sutter, Yuba, and Butte counties. The U.S. government is sheltering those Reds at night, providing them with roofs, beds and living accommodations, together with a willing audience . . . The Marysville City Government can either keep that migrant camp cleared of Reds or the ranchers will level it to the ground.”

And what created this farm labor crisis?  Dust Bowl refugees of the 1930s, Midwestern sharecroppers or tenant farmers who lost it all to a 10-year drought, or were “tractored out” by farm mechanization. About a third were professionals—teachers, lawyers, small business owners—ruined by the Great Depression and dying regional economies. They all arrived in California by the tens of thousands, desperate for work, ripe for abuse and exploitation.

Children living in camp, between Weedpatch and Lamont in Kern County
Credit Dorothea Lange, used courtesy the U.S. National Archives and Library of Congress

Before, migrant farmworkers in California had been male, and foreign—from India, Japan, China, the Philippines. But in the Dirty Thirties they were white, American, and traveling as families. They couldn’t be deported because they were citizens. They might even vote. And there were so many. Communities were overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. They resisted national concern and federal government help—cue the scatchy Woody Guthrie recordings—perhaps fearing that if conditions were decent, these desperately poor, often literally starving migrants would stay. And many did, ancestors of more than 15 percent of today’s Californians. But most didn’t leave poverty behind until the rise of Hitler and the new 1940s U.S. focus on munitions and war materials, which provided good California jobs in aircraft and ship building.

Vilified as a left-winger and Salinas Valley traitor during his lifetime, Steinbeck never came home. The only way the town would ever take him back, he once said, was in a six-foot wooden box. And that's basically how it happened. Look for his grave in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Salinas.

Migrants on the way to L.A.
Credit Dorothea Lange, used courtesy the U.S. National Archives and Library of Congress

Otherwise the place to start a Salinas Steinbeck tour is the National Steinbeck Center, a “multimedia experience of literature, history, and art.” Come the first weekend in May for the annual Steinbeck Festival, three days of films, lectures, tours, and social events. Support preservation of the writer’s birthplace and family home—the jewel-box Victorian Steinbeck House, located just two blocks away—with lace-tablecloth lunch. There’s not much Steinbeck left on Cannery Row in Monterey, but the Pacific Biological Laboratories of Ed Ricketts—marine biologist, early ecologist, and Steinbeck’s good friend, the character “Doc”—is well worth a tour on the rare occasions the city offers them. Ricketts inspired not just Steinbeck but also prolific author and world mythologist Joseph Campbell, best known for his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the popular 1980s Bill Moyers series on PBS, The Power of Myth. Campbell once lived next door to Ricketts and worked as Doc’s assistant. Small world, isn’t it?

Daniel Nealand, director of the Pacific-San Francisco office of the U.S. National Archives, offers a meticulously researched discussion of Steinbeck’s valley research for The Grapes of Wrath—including how much the writer relied on Tom Collins’ field reports to create realism and authenticity in The Grapes of Wrath.