California Writers: John Steinbeck and Monterey

This is an excerpt from my recently-published memoir “America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad”.

John Steinbeck was my first literary love, the first writer I became so enthralled with that I wanted to read everything he wrote.  It began, as I recall, with his novella “The Pearl”, which I was required to read in school.  A simple, elegant fable, it impressed me with its plain yet poetic style and the vividness of its imagery.  Afterwards I devoured “The Grapes of Wrath”, “East of Eden”, “Of Mice and Men”, and other works.  I avoided “Cup of Gold”, figuring it wasn’t representative; and “Tortilla Flat” didn’t leave much of an impression.  But the books that were my favorites were “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday”.  Both were set in the Monterey area and both dealt with the same characters:  the marine biologist Doc, an assortment of indigents hanging out around the fish warehouses, and the inhabitants of the local whorehouse.  These characters were so finely drawn you could not only picture them but become totally immersed in their world, the beautiful brilliant world of the California coast.  It made me fall in love with the area before I had ever been there.  “Sweet Thursday” especially, schmaltzy love story and all, was one of my favorite books for years.  I read it over and over, and the part at the end where Doc and Suzy the hooker get together and head off to the tide pools to hunt for octopuses always brought tears to my eyes.

Because I was so young when I became enthralled with Steinbeck, some of his books had less appeal to me.  I tried to read “The Winter of Our Discontent” but I don’t think I ever finished it.  To me Steinbeck represented California, and especially the California coast around Monterey, and I felt that when he wrote about other places he was out of his element.

Later in life Steinbeck made a journey around the United States in a camper with a French poodle named Charlie and called it, appropriately enough, “Travels With Charlie”.  I know I read it but I have to admit I remember none of it except for one distinct scene which is somehow burned in my memory.  I recall this from the first and only time I read the book, which was over forty years ago, so I may not have all the details right.  He’s sitting in a bar in, I’m not sure, Monterey perhaps, anyway somewhere on the coast there, and an old acquaintance is asking him why he left California, and likening it to some sort of betrayal.  Steinbeck tries to explain that it was time to move on and so he moved on, but the local is having none of it.  He is hurt, offended by the fact that Steinbeck left his old haunts and old friends and moved East, as if East were Mars or Saturn and Steinbeck is somehow no longer as human as he used to be.  This struck me, even back then when I was naive and knew very little about the ways of the world, eminently unfair.  Such regionalism seemed to me then and still seems to me petty, short-sighted, unworthy and unfair.  So what if he had moved on?  Life, if one continues to grow, is a series of such moves.  Stagnation breeds decay.  I have no idea what prompted Steinbeck to make that move; my interest drifted to other writers before I became so absorbed that I read biographies and delved into the details of his personal life.  But I am sure he had his reasons.

This brings me back to my own odyssey.  In a physical sense I have probably moved from one part of the world to another more than most:  from Seattle to California to Mexico and Guatemala and back to Seattle and California again to Europe to India and Sri Lanka and Nepal back overland to Europe and back to the States and back to Europe and India and…  You get the point.  That’s just the beginning, before I got married.  I could go on and on.  That’s not the goal of it all, though.  One can drift from one place to another and never get anywhere that really matters.  Thoreau said, “If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all travelers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the Sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and explore thyself.  Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve.”  It’s not how far you go physically that counts; it’s how far you step outside your comfort zone, sail forth into new waters, brave new metaphysical territory, explore uncharted thoughts and concepts, cleanse yourself of old ruts and habits, leap into the void trusting that you have wings.  Timidity never aided the discovery of new lands.  Courage involves risk.  Courage involves venturing into the unknown.

And so we carry on our imaginary journey northward up into the Bay Area.  We will pass quickly by Santa Clara University, where I stayed for one year and spent some of the darkest of the dark nights of my soul.  By then I no longer read Steinbeck.  Instead I was absorbed in “The Lord of the Rings”, and the hallucinatory meanderings of Carlos Castaneda, and the beginnings of my fascination with science fiction.  I cannot, however, entirely discount my time in Santa Clara, as it is there, as I was taking a course in science fiction literature, that I realized my calling as a writer.  It is one of my life’s most profound experiences, and makes all the rest of my stay there tolerable.  If I had to descend into that deep, dark, terrifying hell only for that realization it was worth it all.  I probably would have come around to it anyway in time, but in the midst of my soul’s degradation and despair is how it transpired, and I don’t believe that anything so significant happens by accident.

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