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Associated Press

SALINAS, Calif. (AP) – Mist shrouds the hills that hem in Monterey Bay, and cattle still graze the valley where farm workers pluck romaine and red leaf from the soil. But little else remains the same in this fertile spread where John Steinbeck set many of his stories.

Neighbors in his hometown once called him “no-good Johnny Steinbeck.” Now, they’re leading the country in a yearlong celebration of the author’s 100th birthday that includes art shows, film festivals and a gala tribute March 19 at New York’s Lincoln Center.

“He stung at the time,” says Jim Gattis, who came to Salinas from Arkansas with his parents during the Dust Bowl years. “But you get a few generations away and you see that he was writing the truth.”

In the 1930s, when Steinbeck called Salinas home, it was a dusty town of about 5,000 people. Wealthy landowners knew their place. So did their workers, until the dark-skinned migrants were joined by “Okies” – white Midwestern farm families who fled drought and came West in search of a better life. They hoped to find it in the lettuce fields of Salinas Valley – Steinbeck’s “green gold.”

Today, agriculture in Monterey County is a $2 billion industry that produces more vegetables than any other U.S. county. Large corporations govern the fields, which are still worked mostly by Spanish-speaking migrants. The sardine business at Monterey’s Cannery Row, which Steinbeck described as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise,” is a tourist-clogged collection of eateries and boutiques.

Steinbeck not only captured the region’s beauty in such novels as “East of Eden,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Cannery Row,” he uncovered its seamy side as well. He wrote about the exploitation of farm workers, prostitution and social injustice – issues that resonate today.“This is no fly-by-night cheap clip joint but a sturdy virtuous club, built, maintained, and disciplined by Dora who, madam and girl for fifty years, has … made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned and the kind. And by the same token she is hated by the twisted and lascivious sisterhood of married spinsters whose husbands respect the home but don’t like it very much.”– from “Cannery Row.”

Every time the economy tanks, “Steinbeck sales climb through the roof,” says his son, writer Thom Steinbeck. The more a “heartless corporation” abuses people, “and the moment people feel they’ve lost their free will, Steinbeck goes off the bookshelves.”

He died Dec. 20, 1968, but Steinbeck’s books still sell more than 700,000 copies worldwide each year. At least two of his works – “The Grapes of Wrath,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and “Of Mice and Men” – are considered classics of American literature and have been published in more than 30 countries.

But Steinbeck’s writing, admired for its crisp attention to detail, emotional honesty and lively characters, wasn’t always popular, especially in his hometown.

He was born Feb. 27, 1902, and grew up in a large, two-story Victorian house near Main Street. His mother, Olive, was a teacher and the daughter of wealthy ranch owners; his father, John, was county treasurer.

Even as a child, Steinbeck was painfully shy but naturally drawn to storytelling. He often carried a pencil and wrote story ideas on tiny slips of paper he kept in a dresser drawer. “I nearly always write – just as I nearly always breathe,” he once said.

“He was the modern-day hippie. … Salinas was full of hard workers and he was sitting around creating in his head,” recalls Pat Chapman. Her grandmother was close friends with Steinbeck’s mother and the two often met over morning coffee at the Steinbeck house. “He would come down with a five-day growth of beard and his own pot of coffee and sit down right on the floor.”

“He really didn’t want to be respectable,” says Susan Shillinglaw, director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. “He saw the town as respectable. He wanted to be a writer. He wanted to be independent, not so much to rebel, but to set a course for himself.”

Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat,” published in 1935 and set near Monterey, was an instant hit. But it was “The Grapes of Wrath” that drew attention to the exploitation of farm workers and made Steinbeck an international name.“Now farming became industry and the owners followed Rome although they did not know it. They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos. They live on rice and beans, the businessmen said. They don’t need much. They wouldn’t know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat.” – from “The Grapes of Wrath.”

With “The Grapes of Wrath,” Steinbeck did more than just break one town’s code of silence. Coming on the heels of the Russian revolution and the Depression, he fed a collective fear that his writings would radicalize the nation.

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The response was swift, the hatred palpable.

“The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad,” Steinbeck wrote at the time. “I’m frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing.”

No one would rent him office space. When he walked down the street, people crossed to the other side. The local wartime rations board harassed him when he tried to get fuel and wood.

The sheriff warned him that his life was in danger, Thom Steinbeck said. “He said, ‘John, don’t go into a hotel room without a friend, sit with your back to the wall in the restaurants and always carry a gun.’”

When the book fell off the best-seller list after a year and a half, Steinbeck threw a party.

“The people who had the power thought my father had betrayed his class,” Thom Steinbeck said. “Now he’s perceived as a hero. The times have changed. The people have changed.”

In fact, some of the same families who encouraged burning Steinbeck’s books at the Salinas Public Library ended up contributing to the $13.5 million National Steinbeck Center, which opened in 1998 and now welcomes 100,000 visitors a year, said Kim Greer, the center’s chief executive officer.

“It really took some time for the sons and grandsons that Steinbeck wrote about to come to grips with him,” Greer said. “They really did burn books two blocks from here.”

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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