Author Museum Interviews: National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California

A Mecca for All Mice and Men: A Conversation with Colleen Finegan Bailey & Marcos Cabrera of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA

In East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote, “All great and precious things are lonely.” Though on the whole, I tend to agree, that isn’t exactly true for Steinbeck points of interest. These great and precious places huddle together near the beautiful shores of the northern section of California’s Central Coast. You can find sites mentioned in Steinbeck’s fiction sprinkled throughout the area—in Monterey, in Big Sur, in Soledad—but the real mecca for all mice and men who appreciate the author of Of Mice and Men is his hometown of Salinas.

“If the city of my birth should wish to perpetuate my name clearly but harmlessly, let it name a bowling alley after me or a dog track or even a medium price, low-church brothel,” Steinbeck once suggested. Though, to the best of my knowledge, there are no bowling alleys, dog tracks, or brothels named after Steinbeck in Salinas, the writer is everywhere in the dust-covered streets and sun-baked landscapes of this rustic town. Every view seems plucked from the pages of his novels. And if the scenery itself can’t elicit Steinbeck’s scenes for you, there are many historical markers around the town pointing out various sites related to the writer and his writings.

Of course, one site which can’t be missed is the Steinbeck House, the writer’s birthplace and boyhood home, which was long ago transformed into a restaurant. You can enjoy a sandwich and then tour the historic residence.

But the crown jewel of Steinbeckdom in Salinas is unquestionably the National Steinbeck Center, a first-rate writer’s museum that tells the story of the author and houses a rather remarkable collection of artifacts related to the man: from his Travels with Charley camper to his New York City furniture.

I sat down with both the museum’s executive director Colleen Finegan Bailey and its curator of marketing and community engagement Marcos Cabrera. We spoke about Steinbeck, Salinas, and so much more in part two of my ongoing series of spotlights on authors’ houses and museums that began with last month’s look at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House in Piggott, Arkansas.

—Tyler Malone





Why do you think it was important to create a National Steinbeck Center?


Well, there were a couple reasons. There was a very practical reason for the city of Salinas. This is an interesting story really because Salinas had never fully embraced John Steinbeck during his lifetime. He was a very controversial figure here. But when he was at the end of his life, and just after he passed away, people started to come from all over the world to Salinas just to be here and touch the soil and see the places that John Steinbeck wrote about, and where he had lived and what had inspired him. So the community started to say, “Gosh, this guy really did have an impact on the world.” So there was a small Steinbeck foundation that was started. There had been one man who had collected his work for years and years, a man who worked at the library. The small foundation decided to set up an exhibit of his collection. Then more people came, his family came, and people found this to be the gathering place for all things Steinbeck, even though there was no official space to do that in. Many years after that, there was a horrible earthquake, and so the downtown area was blighted. So they asked themselves, “What do we have? What is the story of Salinas that we can sort of cling to and use as an economic development opportunity?” Steinbeck became an integral piece of that. So that’s why for the Salinas community it made sense.

Beyond that though, I think that Steinbeck speaks to the Western American experience like no other author, and therefore warrants his own museum. He captures the landscape of the West, and the way people think about the landscape. And looking more globally, I think that his themes connect internationally with people. It isn’t just attractive to the population of the Western United States, but I think people, for instance, from the Eastern Bloc connect to his work as do people from all over various parts of the world. He discusses heroic figures that emerge out of the most surprising circumstances, who are flawed in so many ways, and yet do these extraordinary things to change people’s lives. He speaks to the cycle of poverty that continues on a global scale. He would use that as an opportunity to talk about the power of individuals who have nothing to do something to help one another. So those themes remain really relevant to today.


Thinking about how the themes are relevant today, I know you just retraced the journey that the Joad family took from Salisaw, Oklahoma, to Bakersfield, California, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath. Tell me a little about “The Grapes of Wrath Journey.”


Both Marcos and I were on that trip, and it was amazing to see how the stories of the Joads are very much alive today. We recorded about 75 oral histories along the way. Of course, some of the people along the way hadn’t read John Steinbeck. Many were embarrassed to say, “I haven’t read John Steinbeck, I’ve heard about him, and know who is.” So we were handing out copies of The Grapes of Wrath all along the journey. “You need to read this because this is your story.” We met Toms. We met Caseys. We met Rose of Sharons. These people are very much a part of our world today, the novel is not just fixed in time, although it touches on the 1930s like probably nothing else did, capturing the reality of that world.



How did you each personally become involved with the National Steinbeck Center?


My father was part of the group of people who founded the Steinbeck Foundation and my mother helped with the restoration of the Steinbeck House. I used to come over to the Steinbeck House when I was in elementary school and do my homework on the front steps. When I was in high school and college, our local theatre company called the Western Stage began adapting Steinbeck’s work for the stage. I was an actress and had the wonderful opportunity of playing young Cathy in an early adaptation of East of Eden. So you could say that Steinbeck is almost in my blood. I left the area when I was 17 but came back after I had my daughter so that I could be closer to family. When I saw the job posting for the Director of Community Engagement and Learning, I couldn’t resist applying. I held that position for almost a year before I became the Executive Director in 2009.


I first got involved with the Steinbeck Center in 2007, when I was asked to perform at a spoken word poetry event. I had also done some reporting on the Center during my stint as a features writer with the Monterey County Herald.


What is your favorite of Steinbeck’s works? And who are some of your favorite writers besides Steinbeck?


My favorite work of Steinbeck’s is definitely East of Eden. You can see parts of a great many of his earlier works in that book. I think it is beautifully crafted. I can read it over and over, and I can always find something new in it. Of course, as someone who grew up in Monterey County, I also feel that he captures the unique landscape of this area in a way no one else ever has. In addition to Steinbeck’s work, I am a huge fan of the work of William Faulkner, Richard Wright, and playwrights Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Amiri Baraka. I love a good story!


My favorite Steinbeck work is East of Eden as well. I related to the sibling struggle (although, honestly, I get along with my sister way better than Cal & Aron ever did), and the book just stuck with me all these years later. I don’t necessarily have a list of favorite writers, just books. The Revolt of the Cockroach People by Oscar Zeta Acosta is a personal favorite. Drink Cultura and Spilling The Beans by José Antonio Burciaga, Chicana Falsa by Michele Serros, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini are also personal favorites. I went through a Kerouac On The Road phase in college. Perla by Carolina de Robertis was the last good book I read. I guess I lean towards Chicano/Latino lit, but a good book is a good book to me. And Steinbeck wrote a lot of good books.


Many author museums are actually housed in a former house of the author, but the Steinbeck Center is a museum housed in its own building, therefore there was the luxury of choice in location. We’ve touched a little upon why Salinas was the ideal location, but was there any reason for this specific spot on 1 Main St.?



The key was that they wanted this to be the international Steinbeck hub. They wanted to attract people to Salinas to visit for a weekend, and they wanted to bring them to the downtown area. As far as author museums in houses, we are actually only two blocks from the house where Steinbeck was born. Steinbeck’s house is fully restored and run by another non-profit group. They open it up every day for lunch, and they have teas once a month. It’s a lovely place to go to really feel what it felt like to grow up in the house that Steinbeck grew up in. All the people who work there are just as dedicated to his legacy as we are here. It’s a great compliment to what we do here.

But here we don’t just talk about Steinbeck back in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. We are really doing programs today that highlight writers, actors, musicians, artists of all kinds who are telling the stories themed around the things John Steinbeck cared about, but in today’s world. So we continue to honor his legacy through the work of other people. That makes sense in a downtown area.



That idea of honoring his legacy through the work of other people is integral to many author museums. What are some of the things the museum does for the community and to promote writing and reading in general?


We have some major programs. One is called the Steinbeck Young Authors Program, which is for middle school students. It’s a curriculum. It fulfills all the state standards, but it tries to ignite curiosity among young readers to get them writing and reading creatively. We want to get people excited about telling stories and capturing what is happening in their world. Then we have a day of writing where we invite all the students from all the schools who participate in this to come to the National Steinbeck Center and work with community members, and in some cases famous authors. We have Pulitzer Prize winning authors who come for this event every year. We want to encourage the kids, and to teach them the value of writing as a communication tool. We have an awards ceremony, and every student who participates in the day of writing gets published in the Gavilan Journal. We’re working on an expansion of that program for high school students. This will be a partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and it will be more focused on the technical writing piece. Students will get to write about science and marine biology, learning the craft of writing while becoming exposed to Steinbeck’s literature in the Cannery Row.

We also have the Steinbeck Festival which happens every year. This year it will be held the first week in May. We bring Steinbeck scholars, activists, and writers from around the world. There are programs all around this area.


We also always have changing exhibitions so there are always new things for visitors to see here. In the vein of community outreach, we just had two great exhibitions. The first was “Respect through Sacrifice” by a local artist from Salinas named Liam Da Leo. It was an exhibition of graffiti art on plywood. Peppered throughout the exhibit were quotes from Steinbeck. What the artist was trying to achieve was to show the connection that local artists of this generation have to Steinbeck. Steinbeck was the ultimate Salinas artist. That exhibition received a huge response from the community because it showed that we’re out there promoting our own, which is something we think Steinbeck would want.

The other exhibition that really hit the mark with the community was for the 300th anniversary of Junípero Serra’s birth. Junípero Serra was the founder of nine of the original 22 California missions. The response was phenomenal not only from the local religious community, but also from local Native American communities. There was some controversy surrounding it, as there is some dispute over Junípero Serra’s treatment of these communities, but we here want to get that dialogue going. It positions us as a place where we can be neutral. We wanted to present the beauty of the missions and of Junípero Serra’s legacy, but also acknowledge the contribution of the Native populations, acknowledging unsung heroes, as Steinbeck himself would do.


What are some of the items that you have here at the museum that you find the most interesting?


Well, probably our most famous artifact is Rocinante, which is the camper that Steinbeck used to travel the country. He wrote Travels with Charley from that camper. So we have the original camper in the exhibit hall. It is completely restored. The curtains in there were handmade by Elaine Steinbeck, who was John Steinbeck’s wife at the time, his third wife. We have all of Steinbeck’s furniture from his home in New York City, where he lived when he passed away. We have his globe where he hand-marked all the places he had traveled to. We have his chair that he wrote in, his pencil, his eyeglasses, all his personal effects. This is a place where the average person, who may not be a Steinbeck scholar per se, but who just wants to get to know Steinbeck as a human being can really get a sense of the man.

rocinante (2)


For the festival, we will also be doing a tour of our archives. I will be hosting it this year. We have a lot of first editions in our archives, a lot of special editions. We have some of the original bills from the movies based on his work. We have some of his manuscripts. It’s interesting stuff for people more interested in the research side.


Another thing that makes our archives special is that we have many recordings of people who knew John Steinbeck. So we have some of the people who worked in the brothel, for example, people who lived in the community and knew him through all sorts of different capacities. We have the largest oral history of people who knew John Steinbeck. It’s so fun to listen to the voices, many of whom became the characters that appear in his books.

We also have a great relationship with San Jose State, and they have the Center for Steinbeck Studies. We compliment what they have in their archives. So this is a great place to come if you are a Steinbeck scholar and want to do research. You can start here at the National Steinbeck Center, then go to San Jose State, and then go to Stanford. Between the three institutions you will get a lot of what you’re looking for, I think.


Besides those places to do research, and the house-restaurant which we mentioned earlier, what are some other sites that are relevant to Steinbeck that exist in Salinas and the surrounding areas for avid fans or scholars to go check out?


We have a walking tour that you can get when you actually come to the National Steinbeck Center and you can see a lot of the old buildings from that time period and points of reference in the community. A number of years ago, we worked with the city library and marked some of those places and their connections to Steinbeck. There’s Castle Rock which is a beautiful stone native feature. That’s where John Steinbeck used to ride out and pretend he was King Arthur. We have pictures of that in the museum. Ed Ricketts’ lab is still untouched and is down on Cannery Row in Monterey. We open that during the Steinbeck Festival and give tours through it. It’s wonderful, it’s like the ghosts of Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck are still there. There are the homes that John Steinbeck lived in in Pacific Grove and Monterey, in addition to the one here in Salinas. The ranch that inspired The Red Pony is still a working ranch down in King City. The Spreckles Sugar Cane Factory is still there. You can’t walk through it, it’s closed now, but you can get up right next to it. The fields are the fields, and they look pretty much the same. Carmel Valley Road looks pretty much the same as it did when Steinbeck experienced it. If you read The Pastures of Heaven and you see at the very end the bus tour coming up over and looking down into the pastures of heaven, that is very much the same experience today. You can imagine Carmel Valley Road where Mack and the boys would have been traveling down the night of the frogs.

Screen shot 2013-02-24 at 6.26.08 AM


Lastly, for visitors thinking of coming to visit, what other points of interest (not necessarily related to Steinbeck) would you recommend in and around Salinas?


Well, we always recommend the Monterey Bay Aquarium, of course. It’s the best in the world at what it does. It’s really a wonderful half-day experience. There’s a little place just down the street from us called The Farm, perfect for people who live in city centers but want to get back to nature and see what farming techniques are like. It’s a small organic farm. They do programs, and take people out to actually work the land. The people who own that are fourth generation locals. They tell wonderful stories of the Salinas Valley.


Pinnacles National Monument out past Soledad has became a National Park last year. If you’re into nature hiking, I think that’s an unsung place for the locals.


For more on the National Steinbeck Center, please visit: 

Tyler Malone is a writer and teacher. He has contributed articles, reviews, and interviews to various literary magazines including The MillionsFull StopThe Tottenville Review, and Literary Traveler. He was once known as “the Reading Markson Reading guy.”


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