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 human 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 dedicatied 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 scaqnned 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!