Stevenson and Steinbeck in Monterey

Monterey / Big Sur coastline

As I was researching my masters thesis, which focused on both Robert Louis Stevenson and John Steinbeck, I was always (a little too) excited when I found connections between the writers. I was aware of Stevenson’s Napa connections, having spent time in the valley. However, it wasn’t until reading Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, that I realized Stevenson also spent time on California’s central coast.

In the book, Steinbeck writes: “Monterey is a city with a long and brilliant literary tradition. It remembers with pleasure and some glory that Robert Louis Stevenson lived there.” In fact, both men resided in the Monterey area, Stevenson for a brief sojourn in 1880, and Steinbeck for the majority of his childhood in the early 1900s. Stevenson, a native Scotsman, came to California to court Fanny Osbourne, a woman he met in France and fallen deeply in love with. Fanny was from Oakland and had returned to attempt a divorce from her husband. She had summoned Stevenson from his family home in Edinburgh and he readily obeyed her request. He wrote a memoir of his journey from New York through the heart of America, to the West coast in The Amateur Emigrant. Although brief, Stevenson’s time in Northern California deeply affected his work, inspiring his classic tales of adventure.

Stevenson House, Monterey

I was lucky enough to visit Monterey while the amazing array of homes and gardens operated by the California State Parks system were still open. Sadly, in late 2009, most of them, including the Stevenson House, were closed due to budget cuts. I loved the Stevenson House, a spacious two-story adobe located on a quiet street in the historic district filled with interesting mementos, books and photos from the writer’s life. The house, built in the 1830s, surely has some stories to tell and I was glad to take in a few.

In the 1880s, when Stevenson visited California, it was still a rugged outback and a relatively new territory of the United States. It had served as the capital of the Pacific for nearly 75 years and was an integral port city and customs checkpoint. Stevenson first arrived in Monterey after a long train voyage across the country in the fall of 1879, and took up residence at The French Hotel while awaiting Fanny’s divorce. She lived with her sisters in a nearby home.

Interior of Stevenson House

While living at The French Hotel, Stevenson wrote articles for the local Monterey newspaper including “The Old Pacific Capital,” which chronicled his walking journeys through the forests and beaches of the Monterey Peninsula. In this article, he noted that Monterey was “a place of two or three streets, economically paved with seasand.” One hundred and thirty years later, the city retains its charm, but much of the seaside area has been converted to commercial shops, restaurants and hotels catering to tourists.

Although he was in America on a quest for love, it was the ocean, trees, rocks, storms, fog, fire, and flood that ultimately captured Stevenson’s heart and imagination. He was especially enamored with the ocean, writing: “The one common note of all this country is the haunting presence of the ocean . . . go where you will, you have but to pause and listen to the voice of the Pacific.” In fact, it is the Point Lobos shoreline near Monterey that many speculate most contributed to his haunting descriptions of fog-shrouded coves in Treasure Island. Many speculate also that his characters of Long John Silver and fellow pirates were derived from real-life residents of historic Monterey.

Perched on a rock at Point Lobos, August 2009

Exactly a year ago, I returned to Monterey and visited Point Lobos. I was blown away by how hauntingly familiar the place felt. I’ve stood at the threshold of many literary shrines, and the spirit of Stevenson undoubtedly resides there on that shoreline. The combination of persistent fog, craggy rocks, tree-lined cliffs and mountains tells its own story of dark adventure. Stevenson just put it on paper.

One of my favorite portraits of Stevenson, found hanging at the Monterey house.

It was not just the landscape that fascinated Stevenson, but also the characters encountered during his travels. Characters like Treasure Island’s Long John Silver, Kidnapped’s David Balfour and the notorious Dr. Jekyll exude the sense of a life lived to its fullest. These are reflections of the real people we read about in his memoirs and biographies. Walking through the streets surrounding the Stevenson House in Monterey, you can almost hear the bustling about of sea-faring boatmen and the townsfolk who lived and worked among them.

The Monterey that Steinbeck knew forty years later was still a rugged Western outpost, a center of the fishing and canning industry. Like Stevenson, the sense of place is prominent in most of Steinbeck’s novels, but in Cannery Row, the place serves as a character itself. Capturing the essence of what he called: “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream,” the novel illustrates the lives of characters inspired by those he encountered himself while living in Monterey.  Cannery Row was written in 1945 after Steinbeck had returned from reporting as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune.  Perhaps he was looking to reconnect with a place that tied him to a happier time in his life.  Perhaps he wanted to pay respects to his youth.  The characters were –for the most part – undereducated, working-class men trying to find their place in society.  However, these characters possessed a depth of spirit that overcame all pretenses.

Bronze statue of “Doc” Ricketts at the site of his tragic train accident near Cannery Row in Monterey

The character of “Doc,” a characterized image of his late best friend Ed Ricketts, was at the center of it all, and was the real inspiration for the novel.  Ricketts and Steinbeck met in 1930 and the two established a deep and respectful friendship. Ricketts was a biologist with a laboratory on Cannery Row and led many exploratory expeditions to the sea investigating marine life. (I have heard that Ricketts’ lab still stands, but after three attempts to find it, I have my doubts). Sadly, while Steinbeck was residing in New York in 1948, Ricketts was killed in a tragic train accident. The event changed the course of Steinbeck’s life and affected his work in a profound way. In modern Monterey, a bronze bust stands at the place of the fatal train crossing and banners posted on street posts throughout the city tell the story of the friendship of Steinbeck and Ricketts.

In later books like (my favorite) Travels with Charley, Steinbeck writes of returning to Monterey and finding it much changed. He did not approve of the “progress” of commercialism, and I imagine Stevenson would have shared that sentiment. Luckily we have the work of both of these men to help us remember an earlier, more rugged and colorful time in this area’s past. While the area has changed, the fundamental aspects of this stretch of the California coast that inspired their writing – the lush and wild landscape, passionate working-class characters and sense of freedom – remain to inspire future generations of writers, artists and adventurers.

11 thoughts on “Stevenson and Steinbeck in Monterey

  1. doc ricketts original lab is to the right of the aquarium door and is a small wooden building very small and tucked in between other buildings..the nightclub doc ricketts lab is across town i think

  2. 800 Cannery Row is the present address of the Ricketts lab. It is owned by the City of Monterey, with usage rights to the men’s group who bought the lab from Harlan Watkins after Ed’s death. it is usually open near February 27, John’s birthday; in May, near Ed’s birthday & August, during the Steinbeck Festival. Michael Hemp’s book, John Steinbeck’s Cannery/Row [for sale at bookstores and aquarium has pictures of ed, john and the lab as well as a good history of the canning industry. Photos by Pat Hathaway add to the pleasure. The nightclub once named “Doc Ricketts” is on Franklin about 2 miles from Cannery Row and now named “docs”.

    Herb Behrens

  3. Hi,

    I heard a rumour about a short story by Steinbeck in which a young, californian girl boards a funeral train to gatecrash a grand funeral in Monterey and where she actually meets Stevenson.
    Would you happen to know which story this is en where it might have been published?


    1. Steinbeck’s story “How Edith McGillcuddy Met R. L. Stevenson” was published in Harper’s, August 1941. It is reprinted in “Uncollected Stories of John Steinbeck”, edited by Kiyoshi Nakayama. The book is sold at the bookstore at the National Steinbeck Center, Salinas, Ca. Edith McGillcuddy was Edith Wagner. Herb Behrens

  4. Michael Hemp does private tours of Ed Rickett’s Lab. In fact, I went one time as a docent to help Michael do his tours for the whole day.
    My mother worked in every one of the canneries on Cannery Row from 1926 to when the last one closed in the 1960’s. She was introduced to Steinbeck in a theatre in the 1930’s. by my uncle who knew him.
    Also, my cousin Peter Ferrante was a close friend of Steinbeck’s because they had gone to Stanford University at the same time. My cousin became a lawyer. Ronald Lomanto

  5. Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon everyday.

    It will always be exciting to read articles
    from other writers and practice something from other
    web sites.

  6. Where did you stay in Monterey? I’m planning a literary escapade of Monterey and the surrounding towns (Salinas, Big Sur, etc.) and I am looking for a hotel to tie it all together! Do you have any suggestions, based on your two visits? Great post! Thanks,


    1. Thanks for the post Katie. I didn’t stay anywhere too special while I was down there. There are a ton of budget-conscious places to stay. Last time I was down that way, I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Monterey, which was nice enough: There aren’t any hotels specifically literary related that I know of. Have a fantastic trip – I hope you’ll have a blog post about it! Be sure to also check out Big Sur for the Henry Miller Library, Nepenthe and other great little literary spots.

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