John Steinbeck is one of the greatest writers in American history and certainly a favorite of mine. This is the second installment in a series describing my visit to John Steinbeck country. In part one we looked at John Steinbeck’s boyhood home in Salinas. This post discusses the other significant Steinbeck attraction in Salinas, the National Steinbeck Center, a museum focusing on the life, times and writings of its most famous citizen.
The Steinbeck Center Foundation was established in 1983 and fifteen years later (June 27, 1998) the center itself was finished and opened to the public. The center is the most significant archives of Steinbeck’s work anywhere, and presents Steinbeck’s life, its formative processes and significant events, and of course his writing.
After paying a modest admission charge, you enter a beautifully designed and spacious foyer. A logical first stop is a small theater to the right which loops two films, a 24 minute biography about John Steinbeck and another on the agricultural history in the Salinas valley. The main exhibits in the Center are to the left as you enter the building, and offer a sequential presentation of Steinbeck’s life in a multimedia format including discussions on Steinbeck’s home life as a child, his family, life in Salinas in the early 20th century, a series of exhibits based on his books and significant life moments and achievements, like his friendship with Doc Ricketts (of Cannery Row fame), winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, and so on.
Of the many exhibits in the Center, my personal favorite was Rocinante, the actual mobile home Steinbeck custom built on his pickup truck for his journey around America with his best pal, Charlie (his poodle), a story highlighted in the great travel book, “Travels with Charlie“. You can even look inside Rocinante and see everything still in there the way John described in his book.
There’s a small side exhibit in the Center on agriculture in the Salinas Valley in Steinbeck’s time and a large wing for rotating exhibits; when we were there, several photographers’ work was being displayed. A small gift shop sits adjacent to the entrance.
We spent the better part of an afternoon exploring the Center and, given that my pals Neil and Wayne were also Steinbeck fans, we enjoyed everything we saw. The museum is very thoughtfully laid out and a wonderful and educational tribute to the life and times of Mr. Steinbeck. I can’t recommend this museum highly enough for those interested in this author.
We ended our stay in Salinas by paying our respects at John Steinbeck’s grave in Salinas’ Garden of Memories Cemetery. It keeping with John’s self-view, that he was just an ordinary man, you won’t find any Napoleon-style grave or sarcophagus. Just a very small, non-descript plaque in the Steinbeck (Hamilton) family plot with John’s name and the years of his birth and death. Our visit to Salinas coincided with Mother’s Day and we were pleased to see thousands of floral bouquets on the graves in the cemeteries, a heart warming sight (to know all those moms are still remembered)!
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