John Steinbeck is, at heart, a novelist of the California experience. Born in Salinas in 1902, he grew up in the fertile Salinas Valley, the "Salad Bowl of the Nation," as it was later called. That sharply beautiful and expansive landscape, where Steinbeck spent hours as a boy roaming the hills, shaped Steinbeck's creative vision. But the small town of Salinas, populated by energetic and enterprising Westerners, circumscribed the restless and rebellious young man, who had decided at age 14 that he wished to be a writer. To please his parents, he enrolled at Stanford University in 1919; to please himself he signed on only for those courses that interested him-- literature, creative writing, and a smattering of science. Without taking a degree, he left in 1925, tried his fortunes in New York City, and then returned to his native state in order to find leisure to perfect his craft. He found both the time to write and, at length, a wife during a two-year period as a caretaker for a Lake Tahoe estate. He and his new wife Carol, a San Jose native, settled in the Steinbeck family's summer home in Pacific Grove, she to search for jobs to support them, he to continue writing. The year was 1930.
Many claim that the decade of the 1930s saw Steinbeck's greatest works, from the early stories collected in The Long Valley (1938), to his recognized masterpieces: Tortilla Flat (1935), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Each book is defined by Steinbeck's goal to see events free of interpretation and by his sensitivity to misfits, striking workers, a lonely ranch wife, paisanos, migrants who sought prosperity in the golden land. Early in the 1930s he wrote: "the trees and the muscled mountains are the world--but not the world apart from man--the world and man--the one inseparable unit man and his environment. Why they should ever have been understood as being separate I do not know." Steinbeck's California fiction, from apprenticeship novel, To a God Unknown (1932) through his epic treatment of the Salinas Valley, East of Eden (1952)--written after his move to New York City--envisions the dreams and defeats of people as shaped by the land they inhabit.
Steinbeck gradually lost his compelling need to write about California's land and people when he moved east, first in 1942 after separating from Carol, his first wife; and finally in 1950, when he married Elaine Scott, his third wife. In the latter decades of his life, Steinbeck travelled extensively around the world, always writing. Though he wrote about California only incidentally after East of Eden was released, place continued to play an important role in his work, such as in Travels with Charley and America and Americans.
This map depicts major places mentioned by Steinbeck in his California fiction.
Below are brief descriptions of places located in "Steinbeck Country." Date of first publication follows work.
"Flight" (1938) is set along the Big Sur coast below Monterey. In the early 1920s Steinbeck worked for the first surveying crew in the Big Sur area before the U.S. Highway 1 was constructed. Steinbeck's mother had also taught school in the Big Sur area before marrying his father.
In Cannery Row (1945) Mack and the boys drove Lee Chong's old truck to the Carmel Valley on their famous frog-hunting expedition. The valley is now a residential and recreational area noted for its galleries and gift shops.
Corral de Tierra
Steinbeck set his second book The Pastures of Heaven (1932), in this valley 25km (~15 miles) from Monterey. This valley is also described in Steinbeck's short story "The Murder"(1934).
The highest point in the Gabilan Mountains is Fremont's Peak (966m (3,169 feet) elevation), located 18km (~11 miles) southeast of San Juan Bautista. It can be reached by a scenic winding road that provides an excellent view of the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck described it in Travels with Charley (1962) and in East of Eden (1952).
The Great Tide Pool
The Great Tide Pool is an area on the tip of the Monterey Peninsula near the whistling buoy off Ocean View Boulevard. Ed Ricketts frequently collected marine specimens here, as mentioned in Cannery Row (1945) and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951).
Hollister is located in San Benito County between San Jose and Salinas. In 1874 John Adolph Steinbeck, John Steinbeck's great grandfather, arrived here and opened a flour mill.
Jolon is the primary setting for Steinbeck's early mythical novel To a God Unknown (1933).
John Steinbeck had strong ties with King City. In 1890 his father settled here, met his wife, Olive Hamilton, and developed his skills in bookkeeping and in the flour mill business. Steinbeck records the romance of his parents in Travels with Charley (1962) and other family history in East of Eden (1952). King City is also the setting for parts of Of Mice and Men (1937) and To a God Unknown (1933).
Monte Sereno (Los Gatos)
When Steinbeck was working on Of Mice and Men (1937) in the spring of 1936, he and his wife Carol built their first home 3km (~1.9 miles) west of Los Gatos. Here he wrote The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Because the area became increasingly populated and noisy (he complained of the noise in the journal he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath), Steinbeck sold the house and built another on the old Biddle Ranch property some 11km (~7 miles) south of Los Gatos in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
In 1944 Steinbeck moved back to California from New York and purchased the Lara Soto adobe, a house he had admired since boyhood. John Steinbeck and Gwyn, his second wife, lived there only a short time, however, and sold the house a year later. Monterey is the setting for some of Steinbeck's best writing Tortilla Flat (1935), Cannery Row (1945), Sweet Thursday (1954). Mentioned in Travels with Charley (1962) and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951).
In 1903, Steinbeck's father built a three room summer cottage on 11th Street in Pacific Grove. Steinbeck lived in this cottage with Carol from 1933-1936, and returned here intermittently in the 1940s. Pacific Grove sites are frequently mentioned in Steinbeck's fiction, including Cannery Row (1945), Tortilla Flat (1935) The Red Pony (1937), and Sweet Thursday (1954).
Located between Monterey Bay and Big Sur on the Pacific Coast, Point Lobos is a National Landmark. Point Lobos served as setting for scenes in Cannery Row (1945), Sweet Thursday (1954), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). Ed Ricketts collected specimens in caves at Point Lobos. It is a beautiful point that John Steinbeck and his sister Mary especially enjoyed frequenting when they were children.
In 1902, Steinbeck was born in Salinas. He lived here until 1919, when he left to attend Stanford University. Salinas is a central location in many works, particularly East of Eden (1952), as well as "The Day the Wolves Ate the Vice-Principal," "How Edith McGillcuddy Met R. L. S," (1938) and The Red Pony (1937).
San Jose is the northern gateway in Steinbeck Country. Both Steinbeck's mother, Olive Hamilton, and his first wife, Carol Henning, were born in San Jose, and the town is frequently mentioned in Steinbeck's fiction.
Of Mice and Men (1937) takes place near Soledad. In the 1920s Steinbeck worked briefly at a Spreckels ranch near Soledad.
10km (~6 miles) west of Salinas, Spreckels is a company town. In the 1920s and 1930s the Spreckels Company was the largest sugar beet factory in the world. Steinbeck's father worked as a plant manager at Spreckels for a number of years and was instrumental in getting summer jobs for his son as a handyman and later as a bench chemist. Working at Spreckels, Steinbeck heard stories he included in Tortilla Flat (1935). Parts of the film version of East of Eden and the television presentation of his short story "The Harness" (1938) were filmed at Spreckels.
Located between Santa Cruz and Monterey near the Santa Cruz Mountains, may be the setting of Steinbeck's strike novel, In Dubious Battle (1936).
For Further Information
Steve Crouch's photographic essay with text, Steinbeck Country: Photographs and Words (Palo Alto, CA: American West, 1973). This work has also been reprinted by several other publishers.
Dr. Martha Heasley Cox, the former director of the Steinbeck Research Center at San Jose State University, traces the places that Steinbeck used in his writing in her essay "In Search of John Steinbeck: The People and His Land," San Jose Studies, 1.3 (1975): 40-60.
Oral historian Pauline Pearson has published an excellent guide that includes maps in her Guide To Steinbeck Country (Salinas, CA: John Steinbeck Library, 1984).
Steinbeck scholar Dr. Susan Shillinglaw's A Journey into Steinbeck's California (Berkeley, CA: Roaring Forties, 2006), richly photographed by Nancy Burnett, gives a detailed tour of Steinbeck's Central Coast.