The Steinbeck Connection

Me at the Steinbeck Center

I didn’t want to write about Steinbeck. I had already chosen the four writers I planned to research for my masters’ thesis project, and Steinbeck didn’t make the cut. However, after being rejected by one of my chosen four, I reluctantly made a date with the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA, grabbed a copy of Cannery Row and dove in.

I found myself intrigued by the depth of his characters and the honesty of his words. But it wasn’t until Travels with Charley that I completely fell in love. It had been a long time since a book made me laugh out loud and gave me a strong desire to someday own a large, black standard poodle. And the scene in the hotel room where he pieces together the life of a man – whom he dubbed “Lonesome Harry” – by the remnants left in the room – dry cleaning receipts, a lipstick-stained wine glass, a crumpled-up letter in the waste basket. When I first read this passage: “personality seeps into walls and is slowly released,” I literally leaped up and read the whole chapter out loud to the first person I could find. Luckily he humored me.

I made the drive down to the Steinbeck Center on a rainy January morning. The people I met with could not have been nicer. Volunteer archivist Herb Behrens, a ridiculously knowledgeable man on all things Steinbeck, chatted with me for an hour, answering every question I could think of. He proceeded to bring me into the Steinbeck vault, where we donned white gloves and leafed through Steinbeck manuscripts and first editions. I had to pull myself away to continue with the day, which included a visit to Steinbeck’s childhood home and a walk down Cannery Row itself.

Steinbeck’s childhood home in Salinas, CA, now a cafe and gift shop

As I continued with my research, I became intrigued by letters Steinbeck wrote in 1959 writing from a small home called Discove Cottage in the English countryside. Upon further investigation, I found that this small cottage just happened to be located in the tiniest of English countryside towns called Bruton. The town (population 3,000) is the hometown of Caroline, one of my very best friends and a place I’ve visited numerous times over the years. It’s my home away from home. Apparently it held the same esteem for Steinbeck as he wrote in a letter that it felt more like home than anywhere he had ever lived. It still blows me away that he just happened to stay there (a fact that Caroline claims she mentioned on one of my earlier visits, but I must have been too distracted by my British literary ghosts to pay attention).

While in Bruton, Steinbeck researched the Arthurian legends for a book he planned to write. The area is steeped in legend and nearby Glastonbury Tor – visible from Discove Cottage – has been associated with Avalon. It’s an eerily inspiring place with a depth of history that is difficult to fully grasp. Steinbeck wrote about the stones of the cottage floor as being hallowed by sixty generations of feet. In my very favorite quote (and that which would form the title of my thesis project), he wrote to director Elia Kazan:

Under my feet are a great stack of men and women and I am sitting on the top of it, a tiny living organism on a high skeletal base, like the fringe of living coral on the mountain of dead coral rising from the sea bottom. Thus I have the integrity of sixty generations under me and the firm and fragrant sense that I shall join that pediment and support another living fringe and we will all be one. I’ve never known this sweet emulsion of mortality and continuum before.

Caroline walking along the tiny winding roads of Bruton

Anyway, back to the story . . . once I discovered the Steinbeck connection to Bruton, I knew I needed to plan a pilgrimage to the site. I sent a request to Caroline’s parents to attempt to find out what it would take for me to get into Discove Cottage. Turns out it’s not the easiest of feats as it is privately owned and the caretakers are not so keen to open it up to just anyone. Amazingly enough, Caroline’s mom worked her magic and made friends with the caretakers, who offered a private tour on the Saturday morning of my stay. What happens next will form my next entry. The connections continue in a way I still can hardly believe.

Looking out at the ancient Bruton church from the window of the town museum

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