Photo: Sonya Noskowiak,
A shy man. A class act. A visionary. An experimental writer. A socially engaged citizen. A "shameless magpie," as he described his habit of picking up on the sounds of people's speech, fragments of their stories. Although opinions vary on how to describe the man, John Steinbeck is one of America's most beloved and honored writers. Described as "the bard of the people" in a Centennial celebration of his birth that lasted a full year, he gave a voice to the downtrodden and dispossessed in America. His compassionate portraits of the human condition sell more than 700,000 copies every year, and many of his works are cherished by every generation that discovers them. As popular today as he was during his lifetime, nearly all of his works are still in print.
An Affair in the Salinas Valley
During summers as a boy, Steinbeck worked as a hired hand on local ranches. Born February 27, 1902 in Salinas California, he took in the sights, sounds and smells of the valley he called home and they made their mark on him. His first stories were written as a teenager in the house where he was born. Thus began John Steinbeck's love affair with the valley of his birth: an affair that would take him from a struggling writer to a Pulitzer Prize-winning author celebrated around the world. Steinbeck spent his youth soaking up the rich agricultural valley that would become the setting of many of his novels and stories.
But Steinbeck's relationship with the town of Salinas was a turbulent one. The farming community provides the background for several of his stories, including East of Eden, but Steinbeck's writing also alienated the writer from the very people he portrayed so honestly. Following the publication of The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, the people of Salinas valley railed against Steinbeck for what they considered to be a scathing image of their way of life. In writing East of Eden more than a decade later, Steinbeck set out to pay tribute to Salinas. His goal was to leave a record of the beauty of his homeland, and the truth of his heritage, for his sons—John IV and Thomas—and generations to come.