Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945)

I can’t honestly say that Steinbeck’s Cannery Row alone means a whole lot to me. Combined, however, with the fact that I grew up near Monterey, California and visited often, I was able to submerse myself in the environment of the story quickly and concretely.

I went back there this summer and as I have mentioned before, I find that local literature imbues depth on a place, even if it is a place you already know well. Cannery Row is a snapshot in time of a Monterey I never got to see, but do now.

The very first paragraph is perfect, it is all you need to know: John Steinbeck could write.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky Tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

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And the rush and drag of the waves can be heard as they splash in among the piles of the canneries (64)

The book gave off a feeling that you really get in Monterey and all up the Pacific coast. It is a feeling as if the sea dictates your mood. The ocean imposes itself upon you even if you are miles inland; its heavy energy and ceaseless motion pulls you in. It is hard to feel self-important there, but easy to feel like you belong to the earth.

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The other element that made the story so enchanting was that the characters were endearingly good and realistically flawed. Steinbeck wrote unencumbered people doing what they know. It is refreshing to celebrate good intentions of people you might not expect them from. Cannery Row shows that mistakes are inevitable in the struggle to be good and that it requires open-mindedness and forgiveness to deal with them.

Steinbeck’s character, Doc, suggests that living a good life might be easier than it seems. Maybe we try too hard to achieve status or power in society when it gives too little in return:

“Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think,” he went on, “that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else” (106).

 

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Doc points out the discrepancy between the qualities society considers virtuous and those required for success, a societal virtue itself.

“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second” (107).

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What I underlined:

It was the hour of the pearl – the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself (65)

“They could ruin their lives and get money. Mack has qualities of genius. They’re all very clever if they want something. They just know the nature of things too well to be caught in that wanting” (106).

“Who wants to be good if he has to be hungry too?” (107)

A little world sadness had slipped over all of them (142)

 

Edition: Penguin Modern Classics (2000)

Photos: all mine

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