• A Steinbeck House is for Sale

    As we work on the 2016 Year in Review, we have uncovered a couple of pieces which have been lost for a number of years due to the vagaries of the computer medium and the lack of organization on the part of the editor. This piece was written in February, 2009 and published then. Since it was written, the house was sold and has been undergoing a long — and no doubt expensive — renovation.

    A stained glass image of King Arthur stands sentry at the front door. Brambles and twisted limbs ensnare the front gates and cobwebs cling to shadows in every corner of the tiny home. The Hamilton House at 222 Central Avenue, once owned by John Steinbeck’s grandmother Elizabeth Hamilton, seems more like something from a Nathaniel Hawthorne story than a chapter from the life of Monterey’s native son and legendary author.

    The peculiar two-bedroom, one-bath house built in 1903 was in fact lived in by Steinbeck in 1936 during which time he wrote In Dubious Battle chronicling the plight of apple farmers in the Watsonville area. The house features a fantastic set of spiraling wooden stairs that leads to a small upstairs loft, as well as a crudely constructed indoor/outdoor “writer’s cottage” that was built by John Steinbeck and his brother-in-law in the same year. The Hamilton House played host to legendary friend Ed Ricketts (fictionalized as Doc Burton in In Dubious Battle) and a menagerie of Monterey citizens memoralized in many of his novels. The house has been up for sale since August of 2007—its fate as yet, remains unclear; its history, far more so.

    It is widely known that Steinbeck was infatuated with the tales of King Arthur from an early age. He writes in The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, a reproduction of the tales of Camelot, “When I was nine, I took siege with King Arthur’s fellowship of knights most proud and worshipful as any alive.” Steinbeck drew heavily on the scope and grandeur of the now-archaic English folklore in many of his works—building up larger-than-life common day heroes and tearing them down with inane archvillains and wicked men of the high courts and upper tiers of society. He also drew heavily on the people and places of Monterey County (his grandmother Elizabeth Hamilton too, was fictionalized as Liza Hamilton in East of Eden). It is this merger of his characters’ ancient archetype and palpable flesh that defines a typical Steinbeck yarn and lends itself to the timeless quality and poignant modernity of his prose.

    It is perhaps Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat that best epitomizes the current state of the Hamilton house or, at least seems to explain the presence of King Arthur everywhere about the property. It is here that Steinbeck created a Camelot comprised of affable loafers who kept their court and “Round Table” in an inherited shanty of a house on the forested hills above Cannery Row. In the author’s own words, “[It] is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castille. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it.” It tells of the virtue of Danny’s friends, their eventual fall from grace, and of the destruction of Danny’s home—a structure not so dissimilar from that at 222 Central Ave.

    Of the ancient rose of Castille, there is some; and of mystic sorrow, there is still more. Elizabeth Hamilton’s house was purchased in the early 1960’s by Richard Andolsen and was kept in its original state despite pressure from the city of Pacific Grove to rennovate the delapidated structure and bring it up to code. Andolsen kept the the two-bedroom, one-bath house outfitted with traditional turn-of-the-century appliances and even went as far as to construct a faux-gold statue of Steinbeck in the front yard. Andolsen it seems, was fascinated if not enthralled with decoding Steinbeck’s Arthurian references—subliminal or otherwise, and operated what is perhaps the world’s first and only John Steinbeck Arthurian Museum in addition to a John Steinbeck cafe on Cannery Row.

    However, just as tragedy struck in Tortilla Flat leading to the eventual destruction of the house and dissolving of the fellowship, so too did it strike the home under Andolsen’s tenure. The death of Andolsen’s son in the house led to his depressive decline and passing in June of 2007. In a fit of Quixote-esque romanticism, Andolsen lived something of an Arthurian existence as well as unlocking its secrets. The house has remained largely untouched — and unseen — since it went on the market.

    Steinbeck describes Monterey in his novel Cannery Row, as “a stink”, a “grating noise”, and a “quality of light”. Today, monuments are built to John Steinbeck on every corner and his name is engraved, and his image embossed on anything that stands still long enough. One can purchase a Steinbeck brownie-sundae from the restauraunt that operates out of his childhood home. A neon-lit tavern that couldn’t tell a brittle-star from a bourbon and soda boasts Doc Ricketts’ name in downtown Monterey. Today the town fairly reeks, not of sardines, but of the legacy of John Steinbeck. The author’s namesake has been the lifeblood of commerce and tourism in a community that initially condemned him for his works; and yet, none of it captures even a small part of the beauty and mystique that is everywhere abundant in the towns of Pacific Grove and Monterey. It is the shopkeepers and loafers of Lighthouse Avenue, two blocks up from Cannery Row, that live the author’s real legacy.

    The statue now standing before the Hamilton house has since become the source of local artist Snick Farkas’s political satire on the town of “Specific Groove” in his long-running Colossus of Gold cartoon. Towering omnipotently over the town of Pacific Grove, the now-crumbling obelisk does make one ponder the fate of the once-quaint home—whether it be remodeled and resurrected or set aflame by a carelessly-flipped match with no one willing to stamp it out. Or, perhaps it will be overun by an ancient rose vine and lost forever in the peripherals of Pacific Grove. As Steinbeck wrote in Tortilla Flat, “Thus do the gods speak with tiny causes.”

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    posted to Cedar Street Times on January 14, 2017

    Topics: High Hats and Parasols


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