by Steve Lancaster 6/15/15
Cannery Row was first published in 1945. It is a short novel, less than 200 pages, but within these pages is a profound picture of America — the American dream, and not only is it a biographical picture of John Steinbeck, but also dedicated to his lifelong friend, Ed Ricketts. Like Faulkner, Steinbeck details a part of the country he knows well. Steinbeck grew up in nearby Salinas. The novel begins with a description of Cannery Row, which in its spirit is a complete novel in one paragraph.
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, 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.
Steinbeck, John (2002-02-05). Cannery Row: (Centennial Edition) (p. 1). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Today, cannery row is so changed from Steinbeck’s world that he would never contemplate it is the same place. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the centerpiece of the renewal of the area. Tourists from all over the world can be found there now. The whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches are long gone and not tolerated on the row that is more their home then the tourists, touts, small business, and scientists who now constitute the population.
I went through the row in the early 60s. It was not filled with tourists, restaurants, and small shops selling T-shirts. Mack and the boys were long gone, as was Western Biological. There was still a Bear Flag Restaurant, but I doubt it still served the same product, and surely the famous Dora was gone: “Dora is a great woman, a great big woman with flaming orange hair and a taste for Nile green evening dresses. She keeps an honest, one price house, sells no hard liquor, and permits no loud or vulgar talk in her house. “ (p. 15). “Dora who, madam and girl for fifty years, has through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind. And by the same token she is hated by the twisted and lascivious sisterhood of married spinsters whose husbands respect the home but don’t like it very much”. (15)
Mack and the boys, hobos, or if you prefer, past and future CEOs of ATT, PG&E and Standard Oil are the heart of a series of stories. Some of the stories are funny, some are tragic, some moral and others bring to life a place and the men and women who are living through the depression. We know that the war will come; men and women will be fundamentally changed by war. The economy of Monterey will be changed profoundly, the sardine catch, the lifeblood of the row, will disappear and so will the canneries. All that remain are Steinbeck’s stories. You will laugh, cry, feel the joy of life and the depths of depression. The characters are fiction, but in your heart you know that they lived, loved, laughed, and died on the row. If your of a mind that sees ghosts then you can see Mack, Doc and Lee Chong still on the street living out life with the immortal grace of those who know life is all there is and we must live it.
You could do much worse with a few hours of your time than to sit down with Mack and the boys, Doc, Dora and all the others who make up Cannery Row. Let them tell you their stories. Its ok if you cry, openly or just inside. • (2618 views)