I’ve always filed John Steinbeck under American Writer in my mental index. Only recently, doing some research, did I realize that American Writer And Traveler would be a more descriptive tag.Born in Salinas, Steinbeck lived up and down the coast and sailed the Gulf of California. He traveled most of America, including the 40 state jaunt he took with his dog in Travels with Charley. As a war correspondent he filed stories from the Mediterranean and North Africa, and later became one of the first Americans to travel extensively in the Soviet Union and Israel. Steinbeck’s gift lay in getting to know a place quickly and intimately, and write about it as if he’d lived there all his life. There are many places that could claim him as one of their own, but when I think of Steinbeck Country, I think of the misty little wharf-lands stretching south from San Francisco – the scrappy, ramshackle places that were California before California was a big deal. Only here, in books like Tortilla Flats and Cannery Row does the lighter side of the novelist emerge, creating picaresque and always charming bums, a kind of Rat Pack by the sea. These are places and people that vanished long before I was born, but Steinbeck brings them to life, fresh and salty as sea air.
March 7, 2011