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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.