Steinbeck’s Long Island home preserved for the nation
Thanks to the drive of an independent bookseller in Sag Harbour, Long Island, one of America’s most famous literary houses has been saved for the nation and will be used as a retreat for writers.
Two years ago, when bookseller Kathryn Sozoka, co-owner of Canio’s Books in Sag Harbour, read that the house in which John Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charlie and The Winter of Our Discontent was coming up for sale she knew that the
“national treasure” they had in their neighbourhood should be preserved for the people.
“I called everyone I knew who could guide and advise me,” she told Publishers Weekly. She spoke to community leaders, local politicians, and Steinbeck scholars and soon launched an online petition to convert the property into a writers retreat. Within weeks, the petition garnered more than 30,000 signatures. Szoka then teamed up with writer John Avlon and artist April Gornik, who live in Sag Harbor, to form the Steinbeck House Committee, which quickly drew the novelist Colson Whitehead, author of The Nickel Boys, another local resident, as honorary chair. Before long, the nonprofit Sag Harbor Partnership signed on to support the committee’s fundraising efforts.
Back in 2021, the house was on sale for $16.75m; the Sag Harbour Partnership have acquired it for $13.5m. The price includes Steinbeck’s waterside writing hut, a 60m pier and glorious views. The agreement now is that there will be ‘low impact’ public access to the house.
The University of Texas in Austin, which currently houses an extensive collection of Steinbeck’s archives, came on board to work out the details of the planned writers retreat. Next the Michener Center for Writers, the university’s MFA program, offered to run the retreat, with its director Bret Anthony Johnston saying he had looked again at Steinbeck’s oeuvre and several biographies, and they impressed upon him “how important community was to Steinbeck, including both Sag Harbor and the community he made with the writers he admired.
Johnston believes that a writers retreat in Steinbeck’s name will carry on the author’s own legacy of supporting early-career writers. When Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, he gave his $1,000 in prize money to an aspiring writer to help him finish his first novel. “That level of support—that commitment to writers and the work they’re making—is the bar he’s set for us,” Johnston said, “and it’s the model that we should use to honour his legacy as a writer.”
There is a photograph on Canio’s Books’ website which shows Steinbeck with his beloved poodle Charley in the garden of the house. Both would surely be happy that this beautiful house and garden can now be shared with writers and non-writers alike.