Our area lacks writer's shrines. In Tacoma, there's a Murray Morgan Bridge, and in Seattle there's a short right of way named August Wilson Way — not a real street, but an honorary sign for the famous Seattle Center playwright. Poet Denise Levertov has a unique headstone up at Lake View Cemetery, but the real pilgrimage places are Bruce and Brandon Lee's graves and Kurt Cobain's Viretta Park bench.
There's Hugo House, but its brilliant namesake poet didn't live there. Where's the Theodore Roethke Historic Park? We readily name streets for sports figures (Edgar Martinez, Dave Niehaus, Royal Brougham), but Seattle is a far cry from San Francisco, where streets and alleys are named for the likes of Jack Kerouac and Dashiell Hammett. I'd love to see signs for streets and ways named for Emmett Watson, Octavia Butler, Mary McCarthy, Frank Herbert, Walt Crowley, Nard Jones, Betty MacDonald, Morgan, and Roethke.
On recent trips to California, I found myself in a pleasure garden of writer's shrines, and had not the time to visit them all. I had to pass on the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur, and missed Robinson Jeffers' Tor House near Carmel, to name a couple. But I did get to wander the old farm landscape at Jack London's Beauty Ranch in the Valley of the Moon. I saw John Steinbeck's famous camper lovingly cared for in a museum in Salinas. I toured the gloriously kitschy John Steinbeck Wax Museum in Monterey which, I have to say, was more entertaining than the real Steinbeck Museum. Where else would you meet face to face an audio animatronic Steinbeck, who was just a little more lively than Sylvester the Mummy?
Perhaps this is stretching it a bit, but one of the most amazing shrines to the written word is the Hearst Castle in San Simeon — the real-life Xanadu of Citizen Kane, known in real life as William Randolph Hearst. Granted, Hearst was a powerful, sometimes monstrous press baron, but it's hard not to be impressed by the megalomania that was fattened by the written word, and the empire those words built. His castle sits on a mountaintop facing the sea. The main house is a replica of a church surrounded by palm trees, pools, genuine Roman ruins and Egyptian artifacts, the sale of any of which could probably solve California's budget woes. Hearst was a millionaire hoarder who accumulated stuff with an auction catalog and a bottomless check book.
When one considers that Bill Gates could arguably be the closest Seattle has to a digital-age Hearst, it's hard not to compare the two moguls. Gates' new foundation headquarters are austere, compact, and serious; his home in Medina mostly hidden and underground. Hearst's fantasy, spread on the gorgeous California coast, is a power-mad paradise and a popular tourist destination and protects miles of precious coastline. The Mediterranean sensibility combined with Mad Ludwig syndrome gives more pleasure years hence than Gates' earnest Scandinavian-style sincerity. It also belongs to the public as a California State Park, to be preserved for evermore through the pocketbooks of tourists, many of whom come in hope of spotting the offspring of one of Hearst's wandering zebras.
Timothy Egan, an author, good friend, and a man who should one day get his own named boulevard in Seattle, wrote recently about the possible shuttering of the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen due to California budget cuts. That would be tragic, not only because it's an incredible place that illuminates London's career as no other, but it's also a magnificent piece of land.
London, who during his short, extraordinary life was incredibly prolific, tried to create the perfect farm. He employed sustainable techniques that are now in vogue, but in the early 20th century were almost unheard of. He terraced the hillsides, preserved land, adopted ancient and innovative agricultural methods. As you wander the trails of Beauty Ranch, you see vineyards, London's homes, various farm structures, and the tools London and his ranch hands used to bring the farm to life. In this era of eating local and caring for the land, it's revealed to have been amazingly ahead of its time. London might have written the Call of the Wild, but he could also easily have written Call of the Organic Gardener.
Two of London's homes are there. The more interesting of the two, not far from where London's and his wife's ashes are buried beneath a small mossy boulder, is his own castle, Wolf House. It is a ruin, fenced off, surrounded by large and encroaching trees. It was a gorgeous writer's palace of rock and huge timbers that burned to the ground in 1913, just before London was about to move into it. It was a kind of Hearst-like fantasy house with a banquet hall that would have seated 50 people, an outdoor pool stocked with fish, and a game room for the men.
Heartbreaking as its destruction must have been, I'm happy that London never lived there. Raised in sweatshop conditions, the self-described "work beast" would not have been content and would have lost too much of his socialist-hippie soul. The ruin is a gift to Beauty Ranch. As its stones are reclaimed by the trees it reminds us of the transience of life, the shortness of London's (he died in 1916 at the age of only 40), and gives the ranch the haunting quality of might-have-beens that contrasts nicely with the rather frightening but alluring excesses of Hearst.
I also stopped at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas to see what it was about. There's a museum devoted to the life of John Steinbeck, which also tells the history of the Salinas Valley where he grew up. The exhibit is modern and multi-media, with displays on his major books that include monitors playing scenes from the many movies made from his stories: Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, Lifeboat, etc. Steinbeck won the big honors (a Pulitzer, the Nobel) and his work made compelling the lives of farmers, whores, fishermen, tramps, migrants, and Dust Bowl refugees.
Better than Jack London, Steinbeck translated politics into literature (London was at his worst when he preached). Steinbeck was most eloquent in showing his readers the lives of the common man and the personal and political plights they faced. But to be fair, the film clips remind visitors that Steinbeck's most enduring images are conveyed not by books but the movies made from them. Henry Fonda, James Dean, Tallulah Bankhead, John Malkovich, Nick Nolte: These are how many of us really remember Steinbeck's work.
The museum is made with kids in mind: You can see a replica of the Red Pony in a corral. A lot of money went into the Steinbeck Center's exhibits, but I was there on a summer Saturday and saw very few visitors. The gift shop was empty, the shelves a little too full of new paperbacks of the Steinbeck canon. The center struck me like a modern Presbyterian church: Serious, but with few worshippers.
Steinbeck's work today often reads heavy, ponderous, a bit joyless. In the late 1950s, when Steinbeck felt he needed rejuvenation in his later years, he hit the road with his camper truck named Rocinante (after Don Quixote's horse) and recorded his impressions of America in Travels with Charley. In the front seat of the glassed-in Rocinante sits a dummy dog to represent Charley. Steinbeck's journey was archetypical — a man finding himself and America with the help of his trusty truck, best animal friend, WPA guidebooks, and a well-stocked liquor cabinet.
Rocinante is a kind of icon, but a dated one. Yesterday's gas guzzling camper with its lonely old man looking to get his groove back would today be replaced with a peppy hybrid whose Tweeting driver, navigating with GPS, has likely been influenced more by the speed, violence, and fuck-it-all of Thelma and Louise than the comfort of a shaggy dog.
Strangely, Charley isn't the only one replicated and displayed. Down at Cannery Row on the coast, there's a tourist-tacky must-see called the John Steinbeck Wax Museum. The Row is an example of making lemonade, or rather as it's called nowadays, "cultural tourism," out of the lemon of ecological disaster. As documented by Steinbeck in books like Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, the earthy, gritty fishing town of Monterey was once Skid Road on the docks, but also thrived on the sardine fishery. The fish rush played out, however. The saga made for great characters, and the place has become a tourist attraction. Today, it's like the Seattle waterfront, but more upscale with hotel villas and fancy shops, a cool aquarium, and kitschy attractions.
The wax museum features crude wax figures telling the history of Monterey. It has all the wax museum essentials: torture of Indians, rape of women, hanging, robot figures of Steinbeck and characters from his books — prostitutes and drunks — telling you their story. It's a bit like Pioneer Square's Underground Tour if guided by store dummies in dusty costumes.
But you do learn some history, and it's a hoot, refreshing in its inability to be completely serious. There's a tableau of a Spanish missionary who seems about to molest a pretty little Indian boy that has to be intentionally suggestive. And the skeleton of a dead prospector is far goofier than anything you've seen on Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean. But even here, California shows its love of writers. Woven into the story line, we also meet wax figures of Robert Louis Stevenson and Bret Harte.
Will Seattle ever honor its writers enough to put them on display in serious museums or better, wax museums?
Being pickled at the Blue Moon doesn't count.