Upon a wall in the National Steinbeck Center is a map of the Salinas valley, over which are inscribed the following words of the author: “… the valley I have known and never loved.” When presented thus with this map, the first thing that strikes you is the simple fact that Steinbeck did, in fact, write about the Salinas valley a tremendous amount, more than you would have thought. Of course the autobiographical East of Eden is about Salinas, where Steinbeck’s family lived and where he grew up; but Of Mice and Men is set in Soledad, the next town over; Tortilla Flat is set one town over from Soledad; The Red Pony takes place in the valley; Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday are set in Monterey, at the mouth of the valley, where The Log from the Sea of Cortez begins. Travels with Charlie significantly passes through. The Grapes of Wrath is more broadly Californian, but really its farms are the valley’s farms. It is truly a literary monument: Steinbeck wrote, as he intended, a kind of history of the Salinas River valley up to his day. And his monument is all the more convincing for being about a real place (here we see one of Faulkner’s vices).
But after the remarkable geographic centeredness of Steinbeck’s work (and more specifically the more important part of his work), the second revelation of that quotation is the amazing statement that he knew the valley but did not love it. Most readers sense that there is something unusual about Steinbeck. He is still very widely known, and almost all his books are in print and in paperback. He is considered literary yet his writing is simple enough to be popular. His books are widely favored in schools. Part of their attraction for educators is their crisp simplicity of diction and plot – oftentimes reaching fable-like simplicity. Yet he is not really a children’s favorite – you are not likely to find a twelve-year-old nerdy child absorbed in a Steinbeck book over summer break. Nor is he really a favorite among sophisticates – it is rare to hear him mentioned among the great titans of literature. Steinbeck wrote many American novels, and yet most people believe that “the great American novel” is still unwritten. I believe this is because of Steinbeck’s unusual coldness in his purpose, his dutiful, loveless prose.
If you look closely at pictures of Steinbeck, you can see what he himself confessed. There he is at a cocktail party with some beautiful woman – and not loving it. There he is as a war correspondent in Italy – and not loving it. There he is accepting his Nobel Prize for Literature – and not loving it. When he wrote Travels with Charlie, he was living out an American’s dream, the cross-country trip, and he did it in style, in a very nice camper, and with theoretically unlimited time on his hands. But the first thing you notice about the book is how little he enjoys it. When I first read it, I ascribed it to his age – he was too old to tackle a continent. But it is in fact a permanent element in his writing.
This is probably the reason why his characters almost seem like barnyard animals, with their own battles and passions and personalities, but with little depth. Steinbeck did not seem to love any of them. Does he love Lenny? Or George? Or Curly? Or Carlson? Or the Joads? He may want them to be taken care of – the way one might pass animal-protection legislation – and he may boast of their humanity, but all his characters have a tendency to flatness. They are not individuals, they are parts of an ecosystem, like animals, and they play a predictable role based on their ecological niche. There are not too many surprises in Steinbeck novels: strong, silent men are strong and silent; vain men are vain; hardworking men work hard; flirty women flirt. He doesn’t love any of them, and so to him they are like interchangeable parts in a statistically constant society. A ranch is twenty percent hardworking men, ten percent vain men, thirty percent vagabonds, etc.
Steinbeck seems to have worked from a sense of duty – perhaps under the guidance of his first wife, Carol. It was apparently she who directed him to write about California, which seems to have been good advice. And so he dutifully recorded it, as a record for his children and for posterity. And we are grateful for it. He probably did as much as a man can do without great love – but I wish, in my heart, that he had found the thing he loved, and wrote from there, even at the cost of his greatness. For in the end he will probably be replaced by those writers who have not only a knowledge of but a love for California.
A stroll from the Steinbeck center over to the house where he grew up perhaps explains some of Steinbeck’s coldness to his native place. He was fated to be born in California at the beginning of the twentieth century. A hundred years later, the short walk from Main Street to his house and you may not hear Steinbeck’s language in the streets – downtown Salinas has become heavily Hispanic. There is a cut-price liquor store a few doors down from his birthplace, and a convenience grocery with beer pictures of half-naked women and nudy magazines. The buildings do not look the same as the pictures in the museum – most of the buildings have been torn down, and replaced by concrete boxes or by parking lots. Main Street is making a comeback (in part due to the Steinbeck Center, in part due to a giant “Maya Cinemas” multiplex which was disgorging its mostly Latino crowd when I walked past). The culture Steinbeck grew up with most certainly does not exist now, and it had changed radically within his lifetime. He knew a California before the automobile – a California of city centers and Masonic lodges, of Temperance Unions and women starting public libraries. All of the buildings which anyone today would be tempted to call beautiful, indeed all the buildings which make an attempt to be beautiful, were built during Steinbeck’s boyhood or before. Most of those have been lost, and the replacements are universally ugly. The parking lots, which have blotted out much of the old city, are of course hopelessly ugly. If Steinbeck started out with any sentimentality, the continual destruction of his native place must have been very difficult for him.
Part of the problem may have been his lack of religion. There is no doubt that Steinbeck understood the basic mystical position, that all things are one. In his words:
One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it. Then one can come back to the microscope and the tide pool and the aquarium. But the little animals are found to be changed, no longer set apart and alone. And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things. [from The Log of the Sea of Cortez]
In religious terms this unity is presupposed by the term “creation,” which is the sum of all things, from rocks to trees to humans. But Steinbeck writes about this with his own personal detachment, as if he himself were not one with it – it is but “one of the desired reactions of our species,” “a strange thing,” and so forth. Steinbeck sees the content of the mystic’s knowledge, but he has a lab-specimen version of it, in formaldehyde. The mystic’s understanding of the word “creation” is that it represents the work of a lover, the kiss of a lover for his beloved. The only time Steinbeck seems to feel this is when he describes alcohol, and while Steinbeck proclaims the goodness of this gift of Bacchus, it is obvious enough that alcohol was in his life (as it is in most lives) a sad and a desperate joy. Drunkenness is not usually in a society or in a man a sign of joyousness.
Something of the sadness of this irreligious life is reflected in the man’s tomb. Often a tomb is merely the reflection of the buried’s surviving relatives, but Steinbeck lived until he was sixty-six and he had been famous for thirty years. His tomb is a statement. He was cremated, and his ashes are buried in his mother’s family plot in Salinas, with his parents, grandparents, and sister. He has a plaque, which says, “John Steinbeck. 1902-1968,” and that is all. The cemetery is non-denominational, and is called “The Garden of Memories,” an implicit acknowledgement that to the people who named it the whole idea of a cemetery is not essentially religious, and maybe even sentimental and outdated. That is certainly the feeling one gets when one looks at Steinbeck’s tomb; the man seems sullen and resentful that he even has to go through the bother of being buried and marked. He did it, of course; but he did not love it.