There were no Steinbeck assignments in my high school or college lit classes. Instead, Chaucer, Plath, O’Connor, Milton, Wilder, and a forgotten list of dozens more ending in Shakespeare. Always Shakespeare.
But no Steinbeck.
A shame. Which Rachel and I remedied in anticipation of our visit to Monterey, the locale for Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat. And in anticipation of our time in California’s expansive agrarian valley around Salinas, where Steinbeck’s East of Eden is set and where his metaphorical heart and actual National Steinbeck Center (COVID closed) reside.
We’ve been living among these places for months now, a Central California closed to visitors but open to observation. We’ve seen the giant redwoods and sequoias and vistas of vineyards and hillsides of poppy.
But when Steinbeck saw them he put them into words that will outlast the memories of what we saw with our own eyes. Where we saw beautiful yellow-orange flowers, He saw this:
These too are of a burning color – not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies.John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Unforgettable imagery. More’s the shame to have discovered him only now.
But Cannery Row
We strolled the overtouristed waterfronts where Steinbeck’s layabouts came to fictional life, always half a day from destitution and one scheme closer to jail (the characters, not us!).
The water remains, with shoals where bobs of seals play and otters teach their pups to swim.
We observed the archaeology of fishing history on Cannery Row (renamed officially because of the novel) — sluices and water traps and oceanside workspaces, decades unused, kept only for tribute and our lenses. Fishing replaced by tourism, as it would have to be, a few blocks of Americana now devoted to one writing icon. If you look past the Bubba Gump you can still see it if you squint into the sunlight.
Of course we visit. And of course we move on.
The Cannery Row we prefer is the one that never changes. With words that are indelible.