I’m going to move to the Pastures of Heaven, near Salinas, Calif., and buy a farm. I won’t have WiFi or cell service. I’ll sit outside and read books and send written letters to whomever I choose. I’ll interact with my neighbors when I want, enjoy my solitude when I don’t. It’ll be the perfect life.
Or, at least, that was what I wanted last weekend, when I went on a trip with my English teacher and 19 other juniors and seniors up to the Central Coast in order to visit, research, and track the places John Steinbeck wrote about in his books.
Called the Steinbeck Youth Institute (SYI), my Santa Monica High School English teacher (for AP 11th grade English last year and Latin American literature this year) Pete Barraza organized this trip as a way for his students to learn about the works of his favorite author. It is the first program of its kind at my school, and possibly in the entire state, and was established as separate but inspired by the National Endowment for the Humanities Steinbeck Institute, a Steinbeck program for educators whose members include Mr. Barraza.
I hadn’t read any Steinbeck before I was tasked with reading a couple of his books before the trip in August. At most, I knew Steinbeck as the author of “Grapes of Wrath,” a novel which had been taking off the required 11th grade summer reading list the year before I entered that grade. And, even then, you probably could have told me that the book that had won Steinbeck a Nobel Prize was about angry fruit, and I would’ve believed you.
But, after dipping a toe into Steinbeck’s world, reading about and seeing the sources of his narratives, learning about his friendships and scandals, his homes and habits, and his fixation on writing about the outliers of society, I know that Steinbeck’s stories are universal, and have touched me in a way that only a native Californian could really understand. I believe that Steinbeck should not only be taught more in California schools, but that a program like SYI should be an opportunity for every student in our great state.
The only Steinbeck books I’ve read thus far are “Cannery Row,” written in 1945 about the street of canneries that used to exist (now it is filled with Starbucks and Bubba Gump Shrimp) in Monterey, Calif., and “The Pastures of Heaven,” a collection of short stories about a group of farms and their inhabitants (my future home and neighbors, despite the fact that I’ve wanted to move to New York and become a fashion designer since I was 7). But, from just those two books, I feel like I’ve already been able to experience why Steinbeck has become one of the most revered and enjoyed authors of modern times. (And, I should forewarn you, although Steinbeck’s books aren’t terribly plot-heavy, there will be spoilers from this point onwards).
“Cannery Row,” especially, affected me. The short novel explores the culture of those who live on the fray of society. It talks about Mac and the boys, a group of bums who all live in an abandoned building and hardly ever do any real work, Dora and her girls, a madame and group of prostitutes who run a widely accepted, and somewhat revered business, Henri, an eccentric painter who has been building one boat for the past seven years, and Doc, a marine biologist based on Steinbeck’s real-life best friend Ed Ricketts, who was the definition of an outsider in his field as he ran a marine lab without a proper graduate degree.
I have never known any prostitutes (that I’m aware of), my best friend plays viola and would never touch a sea anemone, and a lot of the people I grew up with live in four-bedroom houses in a fancy LA suburb, not a run-down, abandoned fish-meal shack. But, the feeling of being an outsider certainly resonated with me, as it does with many high schoolers. I have always struggled with feeling like I belong within the community my high school creates. Even having acne and red hair and glasses gave me a feeling like I didn’t totally fit in an exact circle of friends. And, after reading “Cannery Row,” I saw those feelings reflected in a way an author hadn’t captured for me before. Steinbeck starts the book by saying that a man who viewed Cannery Row as a collection of “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches” could’ve also called the inhabitants “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men” and meant the same thing (as in everybody).
Steinbeck presents an image that perspective is the key deciding factor in a person’s appearance, both physical and characteristically. I used to tell my friends who were feeling anxious or depressed that “someone’s always going to think you’re hot s***, even if a lot of people think you aren’t,” an idea that Steinbeck put much more eloquently, and one that most high schoolers need to hear.
And just being on the trip up the coast made everything even clearer and more resonant. Growing up in LA sometimes feels like living in a bubble, even if it’s one of the most racially and culturally diverse areas of the world. It’s hard to imagine what farmland is like or how having one main street within a 20-mile radius feels. And, although Los Angeles contains probably every socioeconomic level possible, the pocketed neighborhoods make it difficult to see the dichotomies.
Salinas and Monterey provided an image of all these things, all the things Steinbeck wrote about. The imagery of “The Pastures of Heaven” was made many times more beautiful just because I was in the presence of it. I could feel the ideas of taking advantage of the land and the dangers of building developments in the natural world that were discussed in the novella’s last chapter by just seeing golf courses amongst the farmland and walking past Bubba Gump Shrimp and Starbucks on Cannery Row. And, although I have yet to read “The Grapes of Wrath,” I became far more interested in the book that many high schoolers have deemed long and boring purely by driving amongst the fields that many an immigrant — from other states and from other countries — have and still work.
Furthermore, Steinbeck presents a view of California that is as prevalent in the fields of the central valley as it is on the streets of Hollywood: the place that seems perfect is not always what it appears to be. After all, “The Pastures of Heaven” completely centers on the ideas that those pastures aren’t really heaven after all. And, even if you don’t live where Steinbeck did, there’s something innately Californian about this concept, even if it manifests for LA residents as aspiring actors settling for waiting tables.
Steinbeck didn’t get high and travel the country hitchhiking like Jack Kerouac. He didn’t drink himself silly and live all across Europe like Ernest Hemingway. And he died of congestive heart failure, a pretty common way to die if you compare it to the way Tennessee Williams died — choking on the cap of a nasal spray bottle. But, he was and is one of the most important authors of all time. And, with his themes and stories that are so universally prevalent, all high schoolers should be able to enjoy him, especially those who are just a Ford-van-with-your-English-teacher-who-only-plays-experimental-jazz ride away from his old stomping grounds.