John Steinbeck on San Francisco

Thomas Wolf took that one for Wikipedia.

Can you remember anywhere in John Steinbeck’s fiction where he discusses San Francisco?  Whole books about Monterey, but does he even mention the place?  I couldn’t remember.  A friend’s been working on Steinbeck’s letters, he couldn’t think of any mention either.  

Turns out Steinbeck does talk about San Francisco in Travels with Charley in Search of America.  The chapter begins:

I find it difficult to write about my native place, northern California.  It should be easiest, because I knew that strip angled against the Pacific better than any place in the world.  But I find it not one thing but many – one printed over another until the whole thing blurs. 

He mentions growth:

I remember Salinas, the town of my birth, when it proudly announced four thousand citizens.  Now it is eighty thousand and leaping pell mell on in mathematical progression – a hundred thousand in three years and perhaps two hundred thousand in ten, with no end in sight.

(The population of Salinas is, in 2022, 156,77.)

Then he writes some about mobile home parks, and property taxes, concluding:

We have in the past been forced into reluctant change by weather, calamity, and plague.  Now the pressure comes from our biologic success as a species.  

Then he gets going on San Francisco:

Once I knew the City very well, spent my attic days there, while others were being a lost generation in Paris.  I fledged in San Francisco, climbed its hills, splet in its parks, worked on its docks, marched and shouted in its revolts.  In a way I felt I owned the City as much as it owned me.  

A city on hills has it over flat-land places.  New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed.  

Steinbeck can’t stay though. He has to hurry on to Monterey to cast his absentee ballot (it’s 1960; he’s voting for John F. Kennedy). 



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