Dear Jasper and Kestrel,
As you may know, Salinas is the town where John Steinbeck, the famous author, was born and raised. His family home still stands on Central Avenue, open for luncheons, along with its gift shop, The Best Cellar.
I was thinking the other day that if you could be a school kid in Salinas at different periods of time (and not get any older as the time passed), you would have been taught very different things about John Steinbeck.
In the decade of the 1910s, you wouldn’t have been taught about John, you would have been in school with him. He attended the West End School (where Roosevelt Elementary now stands) and Salinas High, when it was still on West Alisal Street. John was a fine football player and wrote for the school paper.
In the 1920s you might have heard gossip that John wasn’t attending classes regularly at Stanford, after his parents were so happy that he got in. After 6 years of irregular attendance interrupted by travel and odd jobs (like being an apprentice scientist at the Spreckels Sugar Factory near town), he left without graduating and moved to New York.
In the 1930s John’s name became a hated thing in Salinas. You would have been taught he was a Socialist and un-American for his views about labor and unions. His book In Dubious Battle told of the striking farm workers and the horrible living conditions and injustices they faced. The growers, who were (and are) the power and money in town, resented his point of view and many copies of his books were burned. This happened again when The Grapes of Wrath was published. Though wildly popular, the book was criticized for vulgar language and showing the growers as greedy men.
In the 1940s you would have heard about John’s travels with the Army in World War II and his part in directing documentaries about the war. And maybe questioned his being labeled a Socialist.
In the 1950s you would have been warned not to read East of Eden because of its scandalous story, but amazed by the street by street accuracy with which John described Salinas.
By the 1960s, John’s local reputation was mended somewhat by his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Sweden and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson. In 1968 you would have been taught about the death of John Steinbeck, great writer and local hero, who had written so many American classics and put our little town on the map.
And, if you were paying attention, you would have noticed how a city’s opinion of a person is closely tied with that city’s own self-interests. And often, still is.