On this day in 1902, John Steinbeck, the grandson of German immigrants who settled in central California, was born to failed businessman Ernst and schoolteacher Olive. “He will either be a genius or amount to nothing,” Olive once surmised about her son.
At the John Steinbeck National Center in Salinas earlier this month, I met a group of visitors from Germany who were big fans of the author. They believe, and I wonder if it’s true, that Steinbeck is more venerated outside of California and the U.S. because of his unflinching eye towards his fellow Americans.
In Steinbeck’s birthplace, he was not always praised; after The Grapes of Wrath was published, local businessmen and farmers in his hometown were so incensed, they burned his books. But that has changed. Today Salinas is John Steinbeck’s town. A mural of the author with his dog Charley is featured prominently on Main Street as is the Steinbeck Center. A short distance away is John Steinbeck House, the Victorian era residence where he was born. Where Steinbeck used to practise playing the piano in the front room is now a restaurant serving lunch, tea and dinner.
Steinbeck was a prickly man throughout his life but I admire his beliefs that the working man deserved a break and deserved to have their stories told. If you want to see the California of Steinbeck, the best books are Tortilla Flat, Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden
I wrote a story about my visit to Steinbeck Country for the Toronto Star. It will be published later this week and I’ll post it up along with a video as soon as it’s online.