Salinas’ Steinbeck Center: A lover of words on display

A brooding, moody James Dean, cowboy hat tilted skyward and boot heels crossed on a table, beams down at you in vivid 1950s Technicolor. Move down a corridor, and a brooding young Henry Fonda snarls at a farm boss in grainy black-and-white. Not far away on a TV screen, a wizened, brooding older Henry Fonda sternly upbraids a boy about a pony. Around another corner, an unusually tanned Spencer Tracy doffs a sombrero and delivers lines in a culturally cringing Mexican accent. Close by, a rakish Nick Nolte flirts shamelessly with Debra Winger, the world’s most wholesome hooker.

For a museum dedicated to a man who revered the written word, who rendered on paper the intricacies of human existence that film or TV arguably can only hint at, there certainly is a lot of visual representation in the galleries at the National Steinbeck Center.

Strange, because when the Swedish Academy awarded Salinas-native John Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962, it never referenced Dean’s breakout performance as Cal in “East of Eden,” or Fonda’s portrayal of Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath,” certainly not Tracy’s embarrassing star turn as a Mexican peasant in “Tortilla Flat.” The movie versions of Steinbeck’s novels and short stories are byproducts of his renown, not the reasons for it.

Still, the use of clips from the many adaptations of Steinbeck’s works here in this digital age provides easy entry into the career of a writer and social activist whom many read only in high school – and then, only when assigned. Steinbeck’s writing and personal ethos, remember, were all about inclusion, bringing entertainment and enlightenment to the masses. And, besides, even the most ardent bookworm who revels in poring over original manuscripts – say, what’s that crossed-out word after “hard lymphatic mound” in “The Pearl?” – can appreciate seeing Steinbeck’s memorable characters come alive on screen.

Museums these days, especially those few dedicated to something so pop-culturally passé as literature, seemingly must embrace the interactive multimedia world to retain relevance. So, by that measure, the Steinbeck Center is an unbridled success, from the bridles and lassos you can handle at “The Red Pony” exhibit to the union-busting “In Dubious Battle” dialogue you can listen to through old-fashioned hand-cranked phones.

“This museum is a bit of a surprise for me,” said tourist Laur-Ann Camus, of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. “It’s better than I thought. I wasn’t sure what to expect at a museum for a writer. But you can come here and stay all day.”

A middle-school teacher, Camus was impressed by the lack of staid, writerly bombast in the displays, though Steinbeck’s works are treated with all due respect and scholarly rigor.

“The way this museum is designed should be appealing to children,” she said. “They can come in and listen, which is great for auditory learners. They can watch the books being played out, great for visual learners. There are things to touch, great for tactile learners. I’ve learned a lot. I knew his works, but not so much his life. I like that they included the controversy, how people didn’t always like what he wrote. It gives a good perspective.”

Feeling the ‘Wrath’

The museum’s centerpiece, as well as the centerpiece of controversy in Steinbeck’s career, is “The Grapes of Wrath,” his magnum opus about migrant farmworkers forced by the Dust Bowl to come to California seeking a better life but finding little but alienation and hardship. Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the novel’s publication and a group of writers, artists and musicians commissioned by the museum is now retracing the steps of the Joad family along Route 66 and will create multimedia works that will culminate in May’s Steinbeck Festival.

The “Grapes” wing, justifiably the largest in the center, begins not with the novel but rather a look at the Dust Bowl and the conditions that led to the migration that Steinbeck chronicled, first in nonfiction and then in the novel. The black-and-white photos from the era set the somber mood, and Steinbeck’s letters to a friend while touring the migrant camps are telling: “I don’t know if you know what a bomb California is right now or not. I can only assure you that it is highly explosive. I want to see it all and hear it all.”

Diaries from Dust Bowl survivors are displayed. Some are heartbreaking accounts of near starvation, written in scrawls, but most are grimly stoic, such as this entry from a woman on April 23, 1936, in neat cursive: “The boss gave us a cabin to live in, so we moved our stuff in. Lo worked all day and me only half day. We got $2.00 for our trouble.”

As polarizing as it was popular, “Grapes” became a best-seller and earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize. It inspired Woody Guthrie to write and record some of his most famous folk songs and prompted progressive legislators to probe the working conditions in the fields. But the center doesn’t shy away from the negative reaction – how some Oklahomans thought Steinbeck exaggerated the Dust Bowl, how conservatives were appalled by the “obscene nature” of certain scenes, and how a few extremists branded the author a communist for his anti-capitalistic tone.

It is interesting, with time, both how quaint some of the charges against Steinbeck come off today and how current other criticism seems. Display cases show the pro-business “propaganda” meant to squash Steinbeck’s “propaganda,” most notably a quickly slapped-together novel called “The Grapes of Gladness,” by M.V. Hartranft, which carries the subtitle, “California’s refreshing and inspiring answer to John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath.’”

Red-baiting headlines in national newspapers all but called Steinbeck a “pinko,” but more hurtful to the author was the mixed reaction mostly East Coast reviewers had to the book as a work of literature. Framed is a pan by the New York Sun’s Randolph Bartlett, saying “John Steinbeck has sold his art down the river and bought himself a soap box.” Bartlett’s review shows no sympathy for Steinbeck’s characters, calling the Joads’ complaints “bitter” and groundless. (Charles Poore in The New York Times was much kinder is his review.)

So rabble-rousing was the novel that even first lady Eleanor Roosevelt offered an opinion: “I have never thought ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ was exaggerated.”

Museumgoer and Steinbeck fan Jean Pinkard, of Henderson, Nev., mulled the “Grapes” exhibition and said that critics of the day mistook Steinbeck’s life for his art.

“I do a little writing myself and I appreciate the eye he uses to see all of humanity,” Pinkard said. “I don’t think it’s judgmental at all, the way he presents his writing. From the background he came from, he was remarkably free of it. He looks at things with clarity. I have a feeling reading him that I’m inside (a person’s psyche) looking out. He had that ability to do that.”

Early influences

Steinbeck’s early life, at least as depicted in the museum, showed occasional signs of empathy for the human condition. Just past the entrance, his childhood bed with a patchwork quilt is on display. In a dresser drawer are some of the books Steinbeck, apparently a reading prodigy, devoured as a child, including Virgil’s “The Aeneid,” with penciled-in annotations. An audio recording directly over the bed reads excerpts from other childhood favorites of Steinbeck. He read Twain and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”; influences of both permeate his later writing.

The audio biography of Steinbeck calls him a bookish, “innately shy child.” That was half right, according to Salinas native Edward Silacci, whose father went to school with Steinbeck.

“A friend of my dad’s was in the same class with him and (Steinbeck) was a little devil in grammar school,” Silacci said. “He was the kind of kid to put the ponytail in the inkwell.”

Interjected Silacci’s wife, Barbara: “I remember your dad saying he would always see Steinbeck around the teachers, always writing something. Everyone in town expected great things from him.”

In fact, printed on a wall, amid other quotations about Steinbeck, was this declaration from his mother, Olive: “He’ll either be a genius or amount to nothing.”

The second half of the tour provides the answer. It chronicles Steinbeck’s time as a war correspondent during World War II, his forays into other types of writing (plays, screenplays) and photos and audio from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Literature fans will delight in the anecdote passed along by Steinbeck’s third wife, Elaine. Steinbeck, apparently nervous about giving the customary Nobel laureate speech in Stockholm, called William Faulkner, who had won the honor in 1949, just before Faulkner’s death.

According to Elaine, Steinbeck asked, “Tell me about your speech.” Faulkner said, “I don’t know, I was so scared I drank so much I don’t remember it.”

She added, “So John said to me, ‘Elaine when we go over there will you do something with me? Will you go through the five days and not drink a drop of any liquor with me?’”

Steinbeck remembered his speech, and it was memorable to others as well. The East Coast literary establishment, especially New York Times critics, scoffed that Steinbeck, whose style many found prosaic, would be chosen. Steinbeck’s response in the speech: “In my heart, there may be some doubt that I deserved a Nobel award over other men of letters whom I hold in respect and reverence. But there is no question in my pleasure and pride in having it for myself.”

The voice-over notes, with a tinge of basso profundo sadness, that after the Nobel controversy, Steinbeck never wrote another word of fiction. Yet, just around the corner from the Nobel wing sits Steinbeck’s famous green camper, “Rocinate,” the one he drove across the country, trusty poodle beside him, in “Travels With Charley,” his final book and perhaps his most popular. The camper itself was a fancy setup for the early 1960s with a kitchen, a refrigerator and a table with a manual typewriter on top.

“I’ve read every book Steinbeck wrote,” Pinkard said, “but I’ve got to say ‘Travels With Charley’ was my favorite. It’s just so insightful about America. I’m happy he didn’t give up writing before that last book.”

The final quote before the museum exit, stark white lettering on black, comes from the man himself: “I nearly always write – just as I nearly always breathe.”