I thought I had come to California looking for horses. That's what drew me out here; the wide open land given to these majestic creatures; throwbacks to a wilder and forgotten west. I swooned for their photos, I fell into them. The wildness that was still in these creatures, the neighing and bucking and kicking and running into the horizon, manes in the wind. Unbridled. Free. Charging mares, leading herds, tending foals. And perhaps I will still find them when that time is right.
But upon landing out here, I was taken by the water, foremost.
The Atlantic shores are beautiful, but for some reason, these waters...the Pacific...are different. The shores she touches. The stories she swallows, the secrets she holds. Oh, these waters hold so much. They have seen and felt so much. And in that, as a whole, as a body of water, a being in its own right... she is that much more calming. It's a powerful, cleansing presence. A deep healing. Not to mention the sheer majestic and aesthetic beauty of the area; it's no wonder writers and artists flock here over the decades. The vistas are unmatchable.
But Steinbeck. I was first hit as I toured Cannery Row, which is now a giant consumer-wonderland. Which is fine. I bought a souvenir or two, some t-shirts for my son. A refrigerator magnet. I'm a sucker for that stuff, within reason. My first day there, as I was walking up and down the streets, weary from a few hours in the car after leaving San Francisco, I snuck around back, behind a closed shop, to the boardwalk. Or pier, whichever. All the chairs were turned upside-down on the tables; this particular deck was empty.
I considered Steinbeck's writing, his growing up in Salinas, and his visits to this very bay and other points along the coast. And the man, the good friend Ed Ricketts, who inspired Doc. His trouble with marriage and relationships, in general. And the water! Oh, it's impressive. Overwhelming.
I had read a little bit about Steinbeck the night before, because someone in San Francisco mentioned that the area was great for writers, being that it's "Steinbeck-land." Now, of course, I knew who he was, I read Of Mice and Men in school. Grapes of Wrath. I did the assigned reading, but never delved fully into the man that he was: his motivations, his sorrows, his dreams.
As I toured the area and the Steinbeck exhibit in Salinas, and as I read more about the man... I felt such heartbreak. Disillusionment. Internal battle. Here was a man who saw great injustices and great stories and he had to get them out. He had to. And they were good stories with great themes. What I found heartbreaking, nearly tragic, was how his novel The Winter of Our Discontent was received and critiqued, as it won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But it was more than that.
John Steinbeck was a highly sensitive man, it would seem. A deep, mysterious, brooding, Piscean artist, who felt that the world was spinning off its rails, losing its morality. He saw the coming of the fifties and sixties and to him it was a breakdown in society and decent values. He felt things deeply. He felt his world crumbling and wanted to write about it. Fight it, perhaps. But at a minimum, provide a chronicle. He went out on the road with his dog, Charley, and wanted to revisit and recapture the America that he once knew, after spending time away, in New York and Long Island. he wanted to see real people, small towns, local bars, not the affluence and facade that he'd been living in.
"I nearly always write - just as I nearly always breathe..." - John Steinbeck
And later, when his novel was shunned so hard, despite praise from others, he put his pen down and never wrote another novel. And to feel that kind of pain and humiliation inside, is just heartbreaking to me. And I could feel how soothing those waters were, and must've been, to him. And to so many.
In reading Travels With Charley, just now, being that I was so taken with the man and his story and his need to see the country... I can't help but reach back and pull some lessons out...or some parallels, at a minimum. It's what I do.
Steinbeck came from a family of Republicans, and changed a bit when he saw more of the world and got out his his hometown. His perspectives on Life changed. When he'd returned home, arguments would ensue:
"Let's just be friendly and loving. No politics tonight." And ten minutes later we would be screaming at each other.
And so it was, and so it still is. Steinbeck knew he was nearing his last days. He felt his world deteriorating. I can't imagine the ache inside. Well, actually, I can. I think so many of us can, which is why he and so many writers like him are so resonant. Particularly now, in this climate, when the world feels divided and torn up, much like it did then. Those of us who truly do feel deeply want to find things to mend; to help that ache. And it's a humanity-sized ache, a global ache. There is a real and dire need to heal someone, something, anything, everything. Or a touch of madness grows in the absence of that longed-for resolution. And in that madness, oh, does distraction blossom. Numb, numb, numb the ache. With a drug, a habit, a spoon, a television, a drink, an over-zealous need to disappear into something other than what is, rather than live a healthy balanced life. And it's not easy, we've all got our things. Hopefully our addictions don't harm and make us ill.
And how did moderation become such a rogue idea?
We seem to be commanded by a world that favors extremes. Extremes in diet, in entertainment, in lifestyles, in just about everything. Nice, easy, simple living has become a lifestyle choice, something that has to be taught and remembered, rather than...just how things are. We have to be told and reminded with blips and beeps and timers and gadgets to relax and breathe and sleep and eat. I get it, John Steinbeck, I get it. The players have changed, the scenery is different, but it's the same game. And now, we have the internet. And do you know how often you're meme'd John? A lot.
I walked the coast again, and thought, in imaginary conversation with this writer I'd become enmeshed and obsessed with...
Despite the flack you got about that one book, John Steinbeck, I mean... wow, man. You did it. Didn't you? Your books are required reading in schools and libraries. Iconic. Champion of writing the proletariat. Great sense of place and giving voice to the everyman. You are part of the canon, good sir. I wish you could've seen it happen, in the flesh.