Below is a letter I have penned to the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author, John Steinbeck. During my recent vacation, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the National Steinbeck Center and his childhood home in Salinas, California. The reason I decided to write him, even though he sadly passed away far too soon in 1968, is I wanted to relay to him my recent personal observations about both his hometown and about the Central Valley of California.
Dear Mr. Steinbeck,
First, please let me commend you for your successful and award-winning writing career. I highly respect and enjoy reading your written works. To me, The Grapes of Wrath is a masterpiece (in print and on film) and it is the most truthful and important American novel ever written.
I am currently enjoying your charming travel essay entitled Travels with Charley. As an urban planner, I have found your comments about American cities to be as spot-on and insightful today as they were when written more than 50 years ago. As a proud dog parent, I thoroughly love your descriptions of Charley and see his personality often reflected in my own dog.
Today, some 44 years after your all too early passing, I want to write to you about my recent trip to your hometown, Salinas, California and of the agricultural lifestyle observed amid the Central Valley of California.
I have visited Salinas twice in my life. First in 1970 as a pre-teen on a cross-country family vacation and secondly just last week. I do not recall much about the Salinas of 1970, but the Salinas of 2012 left me with some lasting impressions that I wanted to share with you.
First, the city is obviously very proud of your legacy. A handsome, impressive, and worthwhile museum (National Steinbeck Center) has been constructed in the heart of the city, near your home. All three of us found the museum to be one of the best we had ever visited. The City of Salinas did you proud.
Secondly, after visiting the museum, we wandered over to your home which has been exquisitely maintained and serves today as a combination of museum and restaurant. The food was fabulous, the service superb, and friendliness plentiful. We greatly enjoyed ourselves. The other Victorian-era homes in the vicinity have been immaculately cared for and look great.
Is everything in Salinas perfect in 2012? No, of course not. It has grown steadily since your passing and now is home to some 150,000 residents. As a result, it suffers the same urban plights found in cities nationwide. These include gangs and gang-related graffiti, homelessness, uneven income distribution, and empty family owned storefronts. As we exited from Highway 101 to our hotel, there was an impoverished woman begging for money, food, or a job at the end of the off-ramp. At the time, all I could think was how sad this stark image was to see in the city that bore a true and vocal champion of the poor and the downtrodden.
It was particularly sad to see a half-dozen or so homeless persons living in a city park located very close to the museum. Given your knack of revealing the suffering of the underprivileged, I am sure it would make you unhappy to see their plight too. Unfortunately, it is an all too common sight across this great land where corporate profits are routinely placed well ahead of human beings.
Salinas has its positive signs as well – the transit center is impressive and their does appear to be steady growth along the U.S. 101 corridor, albeit overwhelming the highway infrastructure. Unfortunately, far too much of the retail growth matches the bland big box chain store sameness that you so eloquently derided in Travels with Charley. Overall, however, I think Salinas has a positive future, but like any growing place it has some obstacles to overcome.
Regarding the current “culture of agriculture” in the Central Valley of California, I was less enchanted. Perhaps it was the fact that the days we were visiting the valley, the high temperatures were between 108 and 109 degrees, but I found much of it rather stark and depressing – and this is coming from someone who grew up in the heart of the Midwest. I could not even begin to imagine how hot, tiring, draining, and exhausting the labor in those verdant fields must be, given how taxing the heat made our simple sight-seeing.
The sheer variety and abundance of fruits, vegetables, and crops being grown in the Central Valley is quite impressive, as is the vast irrigation infrastructure. Thankfully, some farms had signs along the roadway indicating what had been planted or idetifying the species of fruit tree. All were laid out in neatly lined rows – comparable to a city grid pattern of streets.
Even on these oppressively hot days, there were farm workers in some of the fields. Their stamina and perseverance must be something else. Meanwhile, what appeared to be Field Bosses were racing about on the elevated edges of the cultivated rows in all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) in a manner that came across to me as if they were English overlords surveying their domain on horseback. At times, I felt like quoting Tom Joad, by saying, “Hey, what’s going on around here?” This is not to say that I observed anyone being mistreated, but such working conditions must be frightful no matter the pay or so-called “benefits.”
Most concerning to me was a short film that was shown in the museum about the agricultural legacy of the region, which shares the same structure as your museum. Frankly, it came across like a Soviet-era propaganda film instead of unbiased history. While new mechanized methods where being shown, the farm workers still had to deal with oppressive heat, back-breaking labor, and difficult conditions. Here’s a weblink to an important 2009 Time magazine story about the plight of today’s farm workers.
While I am confident that some improvements have been made to working conditions since the Depression-era, this film did little instill confidence in me. Instead, it made me feel like the truth was being sugar-coated and sanitized for public consumption. Perhaps I am being cynical, but based on our continuous national debates over social and economic justice, I feel I need to adopt a Missourian’s approach to such topics – ”Show Me.”
I appreciate you taking the time to consider my thoughts and comments. Thank you again for so many fantastic gifts of your marvelous writing.
Sincerely, Rick Brown