Steinbeck now grudgingly gets his due at home

March 02, 1994|By Tracie Cone | Tracie Cone,Knight-Ridder News Service

Bruce Ariss unlocks a dank wooden box of a building, releasing the musty scent of fish and stale beer as California sunlight washes in off Monterey Bay.

The rays illuminate the scuffed plank floors, splintery walls and beamed ceilings that form "Doc" Ricketts' lab, a rustic hideaway essentially unchanged since being immortalized in "Cannery Row."

For Mr. Ariss, 83, crossing the threshold is a journey back to the sardine-canning days when friend John Steinbeck visited Doc's lab to absorb for his novels the lives of locals, whom he then called "whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches."

Steinbeck could have added "grudge-holders." Half a century of Steinbeck-snubbing later, Monterey residents are at last forgiving the author for his disparaging descriptions of them.

On Sunday, in tourism-inspired atonement, Monterey celebrated the 92nd anniversary of Steinbeck's birth in Salinas. It was its first public embrace of a man who unintentionally offended locals by portraying them as bumbling drunks in "Tortilla Flat" and heartless landowners in "Grapes of Wrath."

"Attitudes are definitely changing," says Steinbeck scholar Neal Hotelling, "especially in the last year or so. That's good, because he really loved this area."

The Cannery Row Foundation threw a birthday party for the Nobel Prize-winning author, who made Salinas Valley a literary Eden and the "weedy lots and junk heaps" of Cannery Row a tourist attraction. Until now, Feb. 27 has been remembered by only a few friends and scholars who met for spaghetti in Monterey.

"People around here hated him for the longest time," said Mr. Ariss, leaning close to impart an ill-kept secret. " 'Grapes of Wrath' especially irritated the local community. The people who ran the orchards and lettuce fields were very unhappy with their portrayal. He made them out to be taking advantage of the poor. He used to say he hated to go home and visit his folks in Salinas because he was afraid he'd be shot at. There are still some old-timers who don't think much of him. But as a whole, he's coming to be thought of as the local

boy who made good."

Not too many years ago Monterey County lacked even a small statue to honor the literary master, but now his name is seen as a way to draw more tourist dollars to the area. This is John Steinbeck Month.

John Steinbeck, born in 1902, spent many years on the Monterey Peninsula and considered it home.

The more prolific his writing, however, the less popular he became there. Despite owning a Pulitzer for "Grapes of Wrath," Steinbeck couldn't even rent office space in Monterey's only professional building on Franklin Street to work on "The Pearl."

In 1944, after a stint as a war correspondent, he bought the Soto adobe on Pierce Street in downtown Monterey. Six months later, when citizens shunned him because of their portrayal as wanton drunks in "Cannery Row," he left for Mexico.

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