Media Circus

As a high-tech new Steinbeck museum is constructed in Salinas, Calif., the author -- who loathed his hometown -- is probably spinning in his grave.

Published October 22, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Two days after they had broken ground on the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., workers found themselves in the middle of an Indian burial ground. Construction on the site was halted until the next of kin of the 2,000-year-old bodies could be located. Construction was halted again several weeks later when equipment struck an undocumented water main, turning the freshly dug basement area into a muddy swamp.

It was as if John Steinbeck had shaken off his death sleep in an attempt to foil the center that would bear his name. At least, I hoped he had.

The National Steinbeck Center, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 1998, will be a 37,000-square-foot structure, housing approximately 8,200 square feet of permanent exhibits, a wing for temporary exhibits, a museum store and a research room. A special collections area of over 30,000 artifacts, manuscripts, historical documents and film archives will be reserved for scholars. This center is being built at the end of South Main Street, the historical center of Salinas, Steinbeck's birthplace.

Like Steinbeck, I grew up in Salinas. We attended the same high school. I spent many hours sitting beneath the writer's statue in front of the John Steinbeck Library, waiting for my mother to pick me up after school. It's a small bronze work depicting Steinbeck slouching slightly forward, cigarette in hand, clothes unkempt, beard grizzled on a small, skinny face. My mother told me that he hated Salinas, that the town turned him into a drunk and that, had he been given the choice, the statue would be of him pissing on the agricultural valley that inspired such works as "Cannery Row" and "East of Eden." I felt the same way about the place and admired his literary contempt.

So I didn't exactly jump for joy when I learned of the city's plans to build a multimillion-dollar center in the Nobel laureate's honor. The statue was a humble recognition of the man who'd immortalized the Salinas Valley. But this new monument -- built just a few blocks from the spot where, not so very long ago, Steinbeck's books were burned by city fathers outraged by his depiction of their city -- was to be flashy, big and, well, fragrant.

"It's a very heavily audio-visual interactive experience where the visitor will go through a progression of stories starting with John Steinbeck here in Salinas, his birthplace, launching into 'East of Eden,' 'Of Mice and Men' and going to an area that will be 'The Grapes of Wrath,'" explains the center's executive director, Patricia Leach. "Visitors will enter into Cannery Row and see the characters and story come alive -- down to even the olfactory senses. Smell the sardines!"

Leach and her fellow townsmen may be enthusiastically anticipating the yummy smell of virtual sardines, but it's the whiff of the fresh tourist cash the museum is sure to attract that's sweetest -- and not just to Salinas.

"From a tourism and hospitality point of view, all of the hotel rooms are on the Monterey Peninsula, and I think that is why the Aquarium and others have been so supportive of this project -- because they're looking at this as maybe the third night stay," explains Leach. (The Steinbeck Center's initial funding came from the Packard Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in Los Altos that funded the internationally famous Monterey Aquarium.)

Steinbeck wouldn't have given a shit about his hometown's tourist industry. To be fair, however, it seems likely that he would have approved of the exhibitions the museum plans to run on the struggles of the United Farm Workers and migrant groups. Leach says that the center will use Steinbeck's words and the world he vividly conjured to focus attention on poverty, labor relations and other matters close to the writer's heart. Toward that end, Dorothea Lange photos of the Depression and Woody Guthrie tunes will adorn exhibitions in "Hooverville," dedicated to the tent cities of impoverished migrants so powerfully described in "The Grapes of Wrath."

It would be mean-spirited to hold Salinas' past difficulties with its not-so-favorite son against it. And no doubt the Steinbeck Center will bring the author new readers. Still, I'm not sure that flashy multimedia complexes are the best way to honor dead authors. I mean, if novelists wanted to be in galleries, they would have been painters. Books are an author's lasting monument -- books one reads, not tomes consigned to dimly lit wax museum displays for the three-second perusal of chattering, sunburned tourists in sweats and butt packs.

But interactive extravaganzas are undoubtedly the wave of the future, literary-monument-wise. If the Steinbeck Center succeeds, we can look forward to such dubious pleasures as Burroughs World in Lawrence, Kan. ("Feel Bull Lee's withdrawal!"), KerouacLand in Lowell, Mass. ("Smell Dean Moriarty's armpits!"), and Hemingway NewMediaVille in Ketchum, Idaho ("Papa's got a REALLY brand new bag -- chat online with American lit's Mr. Macho!").

I, for one, can wait.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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