John Steinbeck’s Letters from Montrose
In previous columns I’ve covered John Steinbeck’s brief residence in Montrose, approximately seven months in the fall/winter of 1932 into the early part of 1933, before he had any success as a writer. Carol Steinbeck, John’s wife, had just been laid off from her job in Monterey working for marine biologist Ed Ricketts, later fictionalized as “Doc” in the book “Cannery Row.” Poverty stricken, John and Carol moved here from Salinas to be close to a friend in Eagle Rock. They found cheap rent in Montrose in a little board-and-batten shack on Hermosa, between Rosemont and Sunset. Steinbeck’s novel “The Pastures of Heaven” had been released just after their move, but the publishing company went bankrupt and little money was made. Steinbeck was hard at work on “To a God Unknown,” which he completed in Montrose, and submitted to his agent.
John Steinbeck was a prolific letter-writer, the words always scrawled in pencil on yellow legal pads. Many of his letters survived and have been published in a book “Steinbeck: A Life In Letters.” In the book are three letters from his Montrose address, one to his literary agent Mavis McIntosh, and two to his new publisher Robert Ballou.
The first letter (to Ballou) gives Steinbeck’s exact address and is dated Jan. 3, 1933. On the business side he relates that his new book will be finished in February, but he expresses doubts that Ballou will like it. Steinbeck writes to Ballou that the title “To a God Unknown” is taken from Vedic hymns, ancient Hindu traditions. He also relates that he misses his dog Tillie who had recently died. (Is she buried in the yard of the Montrose house?)
The next letter, dated January 1933 to his literary agent Mavis McIntosh, lets her know that he has moved to “the hills back of Los Angeles now, and there are few people around.” One of his neighbors had loaned him three hundred detective magazines, which he pans as “utterly lousy,” and he proposes to Mavis that maybe he could make a few bucks with these kinds of short stories. (Note that Steinbeck did write a few short stories about life and the people he met in Montrose, but tragically none survive.) He then writes a long paragraph proposing short stories about the many fascinating people he met while working at the Spreckles sugar factory in Salinas, many of them Mexicans and Indians released from jails in Mexico.
Next he laments his reviewers, who “complain that I deal in the subnormal and the psychopathic (referring to Steinbeck’s characters). If said critics would inspect their neighbors within one block, they would find I deal with the ordinary and normal.”
The last letter is dated Feb. 11, 1933, addressed to Robert Ballou. He starts: “I am lying in the sun, drinking coffee.” Steinbeck has just posted his manuscript of “To a God Unknown” to his literary agent, who will forward it to Ballou, the publisher. (He would have posted the package of typewritten pages at either the Montrose Post Office on Honolulu Avenue, about where Big Mama’s Pizza is, or at the Verdugo City Post Office on La Crescenta Avenue, a half block up from Honolulu). Steinbeck then expresses his encouragement to Ballou to keep his new publishing house afloat in the midst of the Depression. He tells Ballou that he and Carol are out of money, the rent is due, and the power will soon be turned off. He signs off with hopes that Ballou will like the new book, and that he “wanted to make a beautiful and true book.”
It’s just as well that John was at an end financially, for in March he was called back to Salinas to attend to his very ill mother. A couple years later, Steinbeck’s career began to take off.
Steinbeck’s time in Montrose is not well known, and the short stories he wrote about our valley are lost forever. But three letters have survived, as has the little shack he rented, now hidden behind apartments. Only a handful of historians knew it was there, but now you do too.