Geographical Context



John Steinbeck and His Places


John Steinbeck and California geography are inseparable. His fiction was overwhelmingly set in the Salinas Valley, later dubbed “Steinbeck Country” due to his vibrant and complex depiction of his home. Steinbeck wrote about people and places, and the (sometimes tumultuous and traumatic) relationships they share. According to the National Geographic Resource Library, geography is “the study of places and the relationships between people and their environments...Geography seeks to understand where things are found, why they are there, and how they develop and change over time.” Geography is the study of land, its forms and spaces, and the people that settle there. From The Grapes of Wrath to East of Eden, Steinbeck builds up a remarkable world of simultaneous beauty, cruelty, and history. East of Eden offers an unparalleled cultural and historical perspective to the geography of the Salinas valley, Steinbeck’s birthplace. Cannery Row constantly captures the bonds between people and place, and how an ugly place can still be home:

Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has rise, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The  street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter. No automobiles are running then. The street is silent of progress and business. And the rush and drag of the waves can be heard as they splash in among the piles of the canneries. It is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest.  (CR 85)

Steinbeck explores the liminal space between humans and the land, and concludes that they are symbiotic, no matter what. There are generally three major types of geography:

 1. Human Geography: the study of the human race, their origins, movement, and cultures. Sub-branches includes, population, economic, medical, religious, etc manonstreet

2. Physical Geography: the study of the physical features of the Earth, both above the surface and below. Sub-branches include climate, soil, geomorphology, water resources, and biogeology (the study of animal and plant distribution on the Earth)




3. Environmental Geography: the study of the interactions between humans and their varying environments and the results of this dynamic.





John Steinbeck explores each of these geographic schools in most of his bibliography via rich and earthy sentence constructions that truly capture the complexities of his space. This resource will be full of maps, images, and corresponding quotes.



The National Map


The United States Geologic Survey National Map is an excellent tool that was used extensively in the development of these pages. The National Map is a "collaborative effort among the USGS and other Federal, State, and local partners to improve and delver topographic information for the nation. It has many uses ranging from recreation to scientific analysis to emergency response." 

The USGS offers free web training dedicated to teaching users how to use the Map effectively and efficiently for the jobs they need to complete. 

This is an example of a map made using the National Map Advanced Viewer. Using the "range ring" feature, the entirety of Steinbeck country is geographically highlighted in context. Click the map to be taken to the the National Map Advanced Viewer

salinas epicenter

Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection

Another valued resource is the Perry-Castañeda Map Collection from the University of Texas at Austin. It houses volumes of scanned historical maps from all over the world. It focuses on United States geography and its evolution from the Revolutionary War to now. This unparalleled collection of maps offers a window into history through cartography, giving yet another layer to Steinbeck Scholarship. 

Below is a map of Salinas in 1910. John Steinbeck would have been 8 years old at the time of it's creation. For a more detailed look, click the map to be taken to the Perry-Castañeda Map Collection.


Salinas 1910

Additional Resources

Here is a USGS resource on reading topographic maps!
For further help reading maps click here!
For a dictionary of Geographical terms, click here!



Map of Steinbeck Country

Take a virtual tour of Steinbeck Country

Follow Steinbeck's Travels With Charley! 


Big Sur 

"Flight" (1938) is set along the Big Sur coast below Monterey. In the early 1920s Steinbeck worked for the first surveying crew in the Big Sur area before the U.S. Highway 1 was constructed. Steinbeck's mother had also taught school in the Big Sur area before marrying his father.


Cannery Row and Pacific Grove 

In 1944 Steinbeck moved back to California from New York and purchased the Lara Soto adobe, a house he had admired since boyhood. John Steinbeck and Gwyn, his second wife, lived there only a short time, however, and sold the house a year later. Monterey is the setting for some of Steinbeck's best writing --Tortilla Flat (1935), Cannery Row(1945), Sweet Thursday (1954). Mentioned in Travels with Charley (1962) and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). 

In 1903, Steinbeck's father built a three room summer cottage on 11th Street in Pacific Grove. Steinbeck lived in this cottage with Carol from 1933-1936, and returned here intermittently in the 1940s. Pacific Grove sites are frequently mentioned in Steinbeck's fiction, including Cannery Row (1945), Tortilla Flat (1935), The Red Pony (1937), and Sweet Thursday (1954).


Carmel Valley

In Cannery Row (1945) Mack and the boys drove Lee Chong's old truck to the Carmel Valley on their famous frog-hunting expedition. The valley is now a residential and recreational area noted for its galleries and gift shops.


Corral de Tierra

Steinbeck set his second book The Pastures of Heaven (1932), in this valley 25km (~15 miles) from Monterey. This valley is also described in Steinbeck's short story "The Murder"(1934).


Fremont's Peak

The highest point in the Gabilan Mountains is Fremont's Peak (966m (3,169 feet) elevation), located 18km (~11 miles) southeast of San Juan Bautista. It can be reached by a scenic winding road that provides an excellent view of the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck described it in Travels with Charley (1962) and in East of Eden (1952).


The Great American Tide Pool

The Great Tide Pool is an area on the tip of the Monterey Peninsula near the whistling buoy off Ocean View Boulevard. Ed Ricketts frequently collected marine specimens here, as mentioned in Cannery Row (1945) and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951).


Point Lobos

Located between Monterey Bay and Big Sur on the Pacific Coast, Point Lobos is a National Landmark. Point Lobos served as setting for scenes in Cannery Row (1945), Sweet Thursday (1954), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). Ed Ricketts collected specimens in caves at Point Lobos. It is a beautiful point that John Steinbeck and his sister Mary especially enjoyed frequenting when they were children.



In 1902, Steinbeck was born in Salinas. He lived here until 1919, when he left to attend Stanford University. Salinas is a central location in many works, particularly East of Eden (1952), as well as "The Day the Wolves Ate the Vice-Principal," "How Edith McGillcuddy Met R. L. S," (1938) and The Red Pony (1937).

10km (~6 miles) west of Salinas, Spreckels is a company town. In the 1920s and 1930s the Spreckels Company was the largest sugar beet factory in the world. Steinbeck's father worked as a plant manager at Spreckels for a number of years and was instrumental in getting summer jobs for his son as a handyman and later as a bench chemist. Working at Spreckels, Steinbeck heard stories he included in Tortilla Flat (1935). Parts of the film version of East of Eden and the television presentation of his short story "The Harness" (1938) were filmed at Spreckels.


San Jose and Los Gatos

San Jose is the northern gateway in Steinbeck Country. Both Steinbeck's mother, Olive Hamilton, and his first wife, Carol Henning, were born in San Jose, and the town is frequently mentioned in Steinbeck's fiction. When Steinbeck was working on Of Mice and Men (1937) in the spring of 1936, he and Carol built their first home 3km (~1.9 miles) west of Los Gatos. Here he wrote The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Because the area became increasingly populated (he complained of the noise in Working Days: The Journals of Grapes of Wrath), Steinbeck sold the house and built another on the old Biddle Ranch property some 11km (~7 miles) south of Los Gatos in the Santa Cruz Mountains.


Additional Locations in Steinbeck Country 



King City

Steinbeck records the romance of his parents in Travels with Charley (1962) and other family history in East of Eden (1952). King City is also the setting for parts of Of Mice and Men (1937) and To a God Unknown (1933). 


Jolon is the primary setting for Steinbeck's early novel To a God Unknown (1933).


10km (~6 miles) west of Salinas, Spreckels is a company town. In the 1920s and 1930s the Spreckels Company was the largest sugar beet factory in the world. Steinbeck's father worked as a plant manager at Spreckels for a number of years and was instrumental in getting summer jobs for his son as a handyman and later as a bench chemist. Working at Spreckels, Steinbeck heard stories he included in Tortilla Flat (1935). Parts of the film version of East of Eden and the television presentation of his short story "The Harness" (1938) were filmed at Spreckels.


Of Mice and Men (1937) takes place near Soledad. In the 1920s Steinbeck worked briefly at a Spreckels ranch near Soledad. John Steinbeck had strong ties with King City. In 1890 his father settled here, met his wife, Olive Hamilton, and developed his skills in bookkeeping and in the flour mill business.


Located between Santa Cruz and Monterey near the Santa Cruz Mountains, may be the setting of Steinbeck's strike novel, In Dubious Battle (1936).


For Further Information

Steve Crouch's photographic essay with text, Steinbeck Country: Photographs and Words (Palo Alto, CA: American West, 1973). This work has also been reprinted by several other publishers.

Dr. Martha Heasley Cox, the former director of the Steinbeck Research Center at CSU, San Jose, traces the places that Steinbeck used in his writing in her essay "In Search of John Steinbeck: The People and His Land," San Jose Studies, 1.3 (1975): 40-60.

Oral historian Pauline Pearson has published an excellent guide that includes maps in her Guide To Steinbeck Country(Salinas, CA: John Steinbeck Library, 1984).

Steinbeck scholar Dr. Susan Shillinglaw's A Journey into Steinbeck's California (Berkeley, CA: Roaring Forties, 2006), richly photographed by Nancy Burnett, gives a detailed tour of Steinbeck's Central Coast. The book was updated with substantial new content in 2011.

Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas Libraries (PCL Collection)

United States Geologic Survey National Map (National Map Viewer)