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Steinbeck Name Pops Up All Over : Salinas Growing to Like Author It Once Spurned

December 06, 1987|MILES CORWIN | Times Staff Writer

SALINAS — There is a John Steinbeck library here and a Steinbeck post office. There is a Steinbeck condominium project, a Steinbeck mortgage company and a Steinbeck travel agency. There is a John Steinbeck Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center.

And now the city is hoping that Steinbeck's allure will ensure success for its proposed $30-million downtown redevelopment project--John Steinbeck Plaza. A key tourist attraction for the project is a proposed center--named, of course, the John Steinbeck Center--where manuscripts and artifacts will celebrate the author's career. A fund-raising campaign for the center will begin in January.

While Steinbeck's friends are gratified that his hometown is paying homage to his memory, many say that the tributes are leavened with hypocrisy and self-interest. They find it ironic that a town that reviled and rejected the author during much of his life is capitalizing on his name.

"He was hated by the Salinas Establishment," said Bruce Ariss, 76, a painter who was a friend of Steinbeck during the 1930s when the author lived near Monterey. "The antagonism was so thick he was very leery of going home.

"Now, he's the local hero, and they're naming everything that moves after him."

Steinbeck created enmity among the wealthy growers and shippers in Salinas because of his sympathetic portrayal of migrant workers in "The Grapes of Wrath" and "In Dubious Battle." Twice, his books were burned in Salinas, and a library commissioner tried to block the renaming of the city library for Steinbeck shortly after the author died.

Steinbeck once wrote in a letter to a friend that the people of Salinas "want no part of me except in a pine box."

Considered a Traitor

The agricultural community considered Steinbeck a "traitor to his class," said John Gross, the Salinas city librarian. Steinbeck's parents were part of the Salinas Establishment; his father was Monterey County treasurer and his mother a leader of the local women's club. Many of their friends were wealthy growers who were outraged when Steinbeck described how they exploited farm workers.

"He wrote about some ugly things, and it created a national indignation," Gross said. "Some local people recognized themselves and were very angry."

John Steinbeck continues to be a controversial subject in Salinas, and some prominent members of the community still bristle when his name is mentioned, said Jackson Benson, who wrote an acclaimed Steinbeck biography, "The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer."

Animosity Among Old-Timers

"It's an ultraconservative community, and some of the political animosity is still there," said Benson, an English professor at San Diego State University. "There are enough old-timers in the area who'd much rather their town be known for garlic, like Gilroy. They're not happy about having Steinbeck as the main attraction."

Harry Noland, who has practiced law in Salinas for 60 years, said he has "no respect" for Steinbeck and "won't give a penny" when the fund-raising drive for the center begins. Noland, 83, still works as a lawyer, and his firm represents many growers.

'Exaggerated or Inaccurate'

"I've never cared for his writing," Noland said. "I think a lot of what he wrote was exaggerated or inaccurate. I don't agree with it. . . .

"I knew Steinbeck, and I knew his parents. But most of these people who are all for Steinbeck now are newcomers. They didn't know him. But those who did and who are familiar with his inaccuracies don't have much use for him now."

As a result of such sentiment, there has been some difficulty raising funds for the John Steinbeck Center, according to Gordon Joblon, a founding member of the John Steinbeck Center Foundation. The center was proposed four years ago as an adjunct to the library, but a lack of interest delayed the project, Joblon said.

Joblon, a former Wall Street executive who moved to Salinas seven years ago, discovered the city's ambivalent attitude toward Steinbeck when he was named president of Friends of the Library. He attempted to raise funds for the center and was surprised at the lack of interest.

'Quiet Detestation'

"Where there wasn't apathy toward Steinbeck, there was quiet detestation. I was a newcomer, and I had assumed people would be proud of Steinbeck. I couldn't believe the attitudes I encountered. I had thought it would be easy to raise the money." Joblon shrugged and slumped in his chair. "But we just couldn't get it done."

Business leaders showed little interest, he said, and the former head of the Chamber of Commerce at the time refused to write about the center in the chamber's monthly newsletter.

During the last year, however, city officials have shown renewed enthusiasm for the project. The City Council has donated two downtown structures scheduled to be renovated for the center and has committed $97,000 for fund-raising consultants. About $3 million is needed. And, said Mayor Russell Jeffries, the Steinbeck Plaza and Center was his "No. 1 priority" when he took office in July.

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