Book Review: Cannery Row

CanneryRowby Steve Lancaster6/15/15
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. • (2675 views)

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23 Responses to Book Review: Cannery Row

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Great review, Steve. You’ve sold me on this. I’ll make it my next book after “The Boys in the Boat.”

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    We lived at the Monterey Presidio while my father studied Greek in preparation for his position as Assistant Army Attaché to Greece, and I don’t recall that we ever visited Cannery Row.

  3. Anniel says:

    Simple folk like me cannot afford to live in Monterey anymore. We can’t even afford the price of a ticket at the aquarium. “Cannery Row” is Steinbeck at his best.

  4. Glenn Fairman says:

    I had the honor of introducing my daughter to Steinbeck, and this wonderful book enchanted her. Years later, we all took a trip to see what’s left of the place. Steinbeck ‘s cast of characters are still a big money draw for the city. It was precious to see her excited by the tourist shops selling kitsch and hawking all things Steinbeck.
    Today, Old John would not be amused, and would wonder where all the free men went, especially after things became more “equal.” The irony of his own legacy would not have escaped his disgust.

    My veneration of his body of work prohibits me from judging his politics too harshly. He was “Red” in the way that children play- which was all passion and posturing. By the time of “Travels with Charlie” he had acquired a bit more discernment…..
    He, like Solzhenitsyn, opened up the world to me. I am better for having read John Steinbeck.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Some “reds” never really seemed to mean it. Many thought that way of Jack London, who considered himself a socialist but never lived it. I will note that I’ve seen the argument made that the movie The Grapes of Wrath (which I have seen, on TMC) makes more sense politically than the book.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Glenn, I will read this book as I do with everything, with an open, but not Swiss cheese, mind. Timothy pointed out that apparently Jack London was a socialist. But I certainly enjoyed his novels of rugged individuality.

      So Steinbeck was a libtard as well? I’m never surprised by the stupidity of artists. Not will I apologize for them, for there are consequences to holding destructive beliefs, even if they are donned only for-show, as is often the case.

      Rush was just ripping the idiot and false Pope, Francis, a new one, saying that while there are Christians around the world being murdered by Islamists, he offers an encyclical on global warming. Catholics should be embarrassed but my guess is that they will, in unison, tell us all that it’s the liberal press distorting what he really said.

      So I shall read this book, and I will even try to like it. But I will never apologize for the sharks on the Left who are the greatest of hypocrites…living a free-market life while claiming that such a life is not for anyone else.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        One wonders how many liberals shout “Galileo!” whenever any conflict between religion and scientific orthodoxy comes up will reflexively cite the pope’s encyclical as proof of global warming aka climate change aka climate disruption alarmism.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Heck, I’m still reading about Galileo and don’t suppose I have the full layout of the land on that situation. It would seem that there were a number of factors quite beyond “science vs. religion” including:

          + It was those with the Aristotelean point of view (whether in the church or in the universities) who got their hackles up about Galileo’s work, at least at first.

          + Galileo could be somewhat abrasive

          + The Pope was under great pressure from other things and turned on Galileo harshly (his former friend), seemingly out of a need for scapegoats and venting. A situation was blown up that otherwise might not have received nearly as much notice.

          Note that the Church today is involved inappropriately in science…though it’s a totally flip-flop, mirror image thing going on, this time on the side of scientists against reason as they promote the pseudo-science of global warming (in support not of some orthodox reading of the Bible in terms of geo-centrism but an orthodox reading of Marx in terms of anti-capitalism).

          The Pope if a fake. He’s an anti-Pope. I don’t think he’s the anti-Christ, but perhaps that is what one looks like, especially if they adopt the policies of Lenin, Marx, and Stalin instead of Jesus, Paul, and St. Francis.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            I agree about Galileo (who considered himself a good Catholic). My point is the hypocrisy of those who use him to attack the Church on science — but will happily reverse themselves when the Church agrees with their new fraudulent “scientific” orthodoxy.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              My point is the hypocrisy of those who use him to attack the Church on science

              Good ol’ Galileo is used like a sock puppet for this kind of stuff. You’re right. The truth, as you well know, is that he was a very religious man. By today’s standards, he’d be considered a religious nut. This guy really believed.

              They also use Darwin as a sock puppet, to some extent, but certainly they use Alfred Russel Wallace — who eventually came to believe that life did not, and could not, arrive by chance — as a sock puppet.

              These matters, as always, are far more interesting and complex than the shut-down minds of the binary Left. Galileo believed in God. He believed in the Church. But he also believed in the Copernican model (or at least saw evidence for it) — a model that never was against Christian beliefs, proper. The idea that the universe was the center, as I believe was pointed out in “The Privileged Planet,” stems from the idea that the earth was lower — corrupt — and the higher you went, the holier you went (and hell was beneath our feet in the burning center).

              That’s not the “man uber alles” idea that the dishonest and/or uninformed atheists say it is. In fact, it is the Left who puts man on a pedestal and deems him not corrupt from birth. They believe in the naive Rousseauian idea that man is basically good and if he is bad it is due only to “racism, sexism, homophobia, and capitalist exploitation.” The actually geography of the idea is entirely secondary to the meaning of it.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Copernicus was himself a cleric. Note that he wasn’t right any more than Ptolemy was. Ptolemy believed the Sun, Moon, and planets all circled the Earth, whereas Galileo believes the Moon circled the Earth and the Earth and other planets circled the Sun. In reality, as Kepler eventually concluded, the orbits were ellipses, with the Sun (and the Earth in the case of the Moon) at one focus of the ellipse, not the center.

  5. Glenn Fairman says:

    One must take the glitterati/intellectualoid posturings of the 1930’s with a grain of salt, since it was then tres chic to be Red amongst the Beautiful and the Idealistic. Even Orwell embraced socialism, and it was not until the temporary thaw under Nikita K. that the horror clearly could not be contained. Eventually truth bares itself — even to the seared consciences of the Left’s True Believers.. Steinbeck was a war correspondent and his patriotism was never truly in doubt — unlike the NYT’s Walter Duranty, who enthusiastically participated in the black charade of Potemkin Villages and effectively strangled every shriek of dissidence with iron partisan orthodoxy. In light of this, it might be interesting to re-visit an earlier work, “In Dubious Battle,” in which the shadowy world of “Trade Union activism” is displayed under a more sympathetic light.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      What makes Duranty so peculiar is that he wasn’t really a communist at all. He came to the Soviet Union as a critic, and naturally found that he couldn’t get any access to anyone of significance. So he changed his tune for pragmatic reasons, not out of conviction. This is one reason why I have been awarding the Walter S. Duranty Memorial Award for Creative Journalism in FOSFAX for years.

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Timothy said:

    In reality, as Kepler eventually concluded, the orbits were ellipses, with the Sun (and the Earth in the case of the Moon) at one focus of the ellipse, not the center.

    And in the scheme of things, we don’t know what holds up the universe (could be on the back of a turtle) or what its bounds are. A lot of quibbling over geometry (as interesting as such discoveries were) when the real fact of just being is left unexplained — round, ellipse, or whatever.

    Newton and company likely had it right when they considered the pursuit of science following in the footsteps of the Creator, trying to see how he put this all together. Given the apparent design in life (and surely design works as the best working explanation) and the apparent fine-tuned universe, this should be the default position. It’s the materialists who have to jump through hoops (creating 10500 universes in a “multiverse”) to try to make it all work out, to make meaninglessness king.

    If one were to try to draw a lesson from the whole Galileo episode it would be that any power structure is going to try to protect itself. One of those ways is protecting various ideas — enforcing orthodoxy. And so what we have in much of the scientific community is a close-mindedness and dogmatism regarding many subjects (and not just heliocentrism) to the extent that they make Pope Urban VIII look like a Boy Scout in comparison.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Note that Newton wrote a lot more about theology than he did about science and mathematics. Apparently he wasn’t considered very good at it, however. Or maybe that just reflects the anti-religious bias of modern scientists.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I’ve read only bits and pieces of Newton’s theology. Couldn’t say one way or another on the quality. Pascal might be a better source for the scientist who does good theology. Whatever one believes, guys such as Pascal are evidence that there is no need to be a whiny small-minded materialist. The world is bigger than the naturalist-diaper-dopey-baby mindset of these cranky dogmatists. They’re not about just another metaphysics. These guys are fundamentalist cranks.

  7. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I can see why Steinbeck would be drawn to socialism. There’s a definite romanticization of the various degraded states of human existence. I don’t know where he’s going to go with any of this. I’m only 10% into it.

    He definitely has a talent for setting the stage, for painting the picture of the time and place. Sometimes he seems to reach too far, to try to be a bit too clever, but that’s a quibble.

    I’ll comment more when I’m a little further into it. So far it has been quite readable.

  8. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I always risk not encouraging book and movie reviews if I post my own opinions that are contrary…as if my opinion counts for any more (not regarding the arts, but I think I have pretty good taste). But I’ll take a stab. I don’t think Steve (or Glenn) are shrinking violets so I’ll proceed. And it’s okay to say I have horrible taste and am merely trying to raise myself above the greats by criticizing them. Wouldn’t be the first time.

    I liked the early going of “Cannery Row.” It was amusing the concept of the bums for whom the pimp was not good enough to sit with them. And I liked the description of Mr. Wong’s (or whatever his name is) General Store that had everything you need. A magical passage.

    I’m about 20% into it now and I’m cooling on the book. His writing seems a bit ponderous. He seems to be straining to be too clever in his ornate descriptions of grit, grit, and more grit. And, most importantly from my vantage point, he has lost me in terms of “suspended disbelief.” I don’t get lost in his world. Instead, I find myself staying on the surface level and viewing a word technician trying to craft evermore gritty prose.

    But I’ll marshall on some more. Promise.

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      You will find most well-regarded writers in the 20-60s write in much the same style. Faulkner, “Intruder in the Dust”, Wolf, “You Can’t Go Home Again”, Hemingway, well just pick one but I favor the short stories, Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby. Even some of the science fiction of the era, I am thinking of the Lensman series, by Doc Smith. Let the stories flow, from one to the next. Don’t let the archaic style put you off, remember your reading almost 100 years after WWI and the roaring 20s and the depression.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Steve, I’m still trudging through it. I read just the other day the somewhat poignant portrait of little “Frankie.” I think that was the kid’s name.

  9. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Oh, Steve, you win. I finished “Cannery Row” and I liked it. It did take me a chapter or two to get into it. I thought some of the writing early-on was self-consciously picturesque.

    I think my favorite segment was the frog hunt. Yes, Doc’s party (both of them) were interesting as well.

    I can certainly understand the libertarian appeal to this book, and I don’t mean to throw this in your face. “Cannery Row” is the glorification of a rough-hewn life. Decency and order are for fools. The real fun happens in the anarchy of people specifically not obeying society’s rule.

    Not having had much of a penchant for that myself, I do understand it is a heavily male trait. And I love this bit:

    It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the 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.” “Who wants to be good if he has to be hungry too?” said Richard Frost. “Oh, it isn’t a matter of hunger. It”

    There are some interesting human observations in the book. I especially like where Doc found that people didn’t like the truth. He once walked cross-country. And when people asked what he was doing, he told them. Many became suspicious and told him to move on. But when he lied and told them “Someone made me a $100 bet I couldn’t do this” he said people took him into his home and offered meals.

    It’s hard to dispute the reality of the uncomfortableness of truth. People have a sneaking suspicion of other people and unless it’s pre-justified in some small way that there is some “angle” about, they might not believe the truth.

  10. Steve Lancaster says:

    Yes there is a libertarian side to Mack and the boys. They are examples of creative non-conformity, but not without skills. All of them take and keep jobs when they need them. They are loyal to friends and distrustful of strangers until proven acceptable. None of them would roll a drunk, or gull a partner. Steinbeck’s opening paragraph aptly describes them as saints and sinners.

    If you were in trouble on the row, say attacked by a thug, who is going to come to your assistance, the “decent people of the hill” or Mack and the boys. So, which is more decent and admirable?

    Each has unique skills, talents and abilities that in the coming years of the depression and the war will be needed. Mack in another guise will be leading Marines on Guadalcanal. They are the prototypical American drifters, men whose names will never be known yet so vital to the growth of the country and the West.

    I believe it is the non-conformists that provide the yeast to keep our country growing. If you remove that yeast the host dies, perhaps slowly but death is certain. You and I don’t have to like it, and both of us may oppose it for different reasons. But society is influenced by two groups, the conservative elite who set the tone and the drifters like Mack who innovate, create and drift on unmarked by history, yet so important.

    One hundred years earlier men like Mack were drifting west, plowing the ground of Iowa, the Dakotas and finding gold in the American River. They built, sometimes failed, often succeeded and moved on. In the words of a song from Paint Your Wagon, they were born under a wandering star.

    Doc is very much a real person. The dedication is to Doc Ricketts, Steinbeck’s best friend. In the old cannery which is now the Monterey Bay Aquarium there is a large section dedicated to Doc Ricketts. I think Steinbeck has captured Doc’s personality in the book. It is a true memorial.

    However, I am pleased that you liked the book. My next recommendation is Tom Wolf, You Can’t Go Home Again

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Yes there is a libertarian side to Mack and the boys. They are examples of creative non-conformity, but not without skills. All of them take and keep jobs when they need them.

      In another lifetime we called such people “bums.” Today we glamorize them as “the homeless,” victims of capitalist white man greed.

      It’s a complex subject, but surely there is, and always has been, a sort of underground of men who — taken in by the bottle, run down by life, or who are simply iconoclasts — have devolved to a life closer to the street. I think libertarians glamorize and romanticize this as well.

      It started at least in the 50’s, and likely earlier, this idea that the ordered, white-picket-fence middle class neighborhood was repressive…so much so that everyone just *knew* that lurking underneath were all kinds of dark things.

      Of course, that is always true in any large population of people. Steinbeck, perhaps showing his inner libtard, also glamorizes the indigent. He at least has the good sense not to turn “Cannery Row” into an anti-capitalist screed.

      That’s not to say that the hobo doesn’t have fun, perhaps even more fun, than the 9-to-5 production-line worker. I’m not immune to critiques of what chasing the almighty dollar can do to people and how utterly boring, even life-sapping, many of these jobs can be. (Do you want fries with that?) It’s just that perhaps for the first time in history, we have the luxury to chase the dollar. Basic necessities are easy to come by, thus making the life of the “homeless” a particularly easy grift to pull.

      If you were in trouble on the row, say attacked by a thug, who is going to come to your assistance, the “decent people of the hill” or Mack and the boys. So, which is more decent and admirable?

      Whether drunk or sober, I wouldn’t trust justice to these guys. Oh, that’s not to say there isn’t there own sort of street justice. But it’s not my preferred brand. Nor is “social justice.”

      I believe it is the non-conformists that provide the yeast to keep our country growing. If you remove that yeast the host dies, perhaps slowly but death is certain.

      This is another myth, probably launched by the Marxists. The non-conformists is considered freer, smarter, more with-it, and certainly no sucker. I’m sure sometimes this is true, sometimes not. But as a myth, it’s been highly influential in our culture, to the point that *anything* traditional is automatically assumed to be inferior and *anything* new is considered to be superior, if only because it is new and novel. And that is where we are now, and from that stems many of our problems.

      That’s not to say that reading about the life of Mack and the boys, Doc, and others in the book wasn’t interesting. It is, in a sort of Charles Bukowski sort of way. By the way, if you liked “Cannery Row,” you’ll probably like some of the books by Bukowski as well. It’s been a while since I read two or three of his books. Warning: It may be hard to keep from taking up drinking to excess. There is a real danger of second-hand drunkenness from his books.

      Also, certainly the people who immigrated to this country were not home-bodies. And I like your idea of being born under a wandering star. Many people still are, and more power to them. But it seems all we have left for those kinds of people is nice stories you can read about in books. Nostalgia is about all that remains. We are a “settled” people now. To even think of, say, letting your child visit the park by himself is now considered child abuse.

      So, all in all, I appreciate the glamorization of the unfettered life. I think “Cannery Row” works well as a piece of literature, a nice fantasy. But I myself wouldn’t read too much more into that. Still, the reality is is that anyone today who wants to live anywhere a free-range life to any degree must necessarily become somewhat of an iconoclast…even verging on the outskirts of anti-social. Soon to not have tattoos or take it in the ass could be mark one as an oddball, perhaps even a criminal.

      I may check out “You Can’t Go Home Again.” We’ll see.

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