Home > 20th Century, American Literature, Novel, Steinbeck John > Human fauna and enchanting landscapes.

Human fauna and enchanting landscapes.

September 22, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck.

“Cannery Row in Monterey 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 martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.”

All is said in the first paragraph introducing the book. Everything is there : Steinbeck’s urgent and rhythmic prose, his compassion, his genuine interest in these people’s lives. He gives them a voice, reveals their existence to the outside world.

 Who are they ? Lee Chong, the Chinese grocer. Doc, the owner and operator of the Western Biological Laboratory. Dora, the madam who methodically runs the local brother named the Bear Flag. Mack and the boys, former bums who moved in the Palace Flophouse owned by Lee Chong. Mr and Mrs Sam Malloy, who live in a ancient boiler. Henri, the frightened painter. A unique and colourful crowd of unpaired misfits. All are damaged by life. None of them runs really right. Steinbeck observes them with tenderness and sympathy trying to show the better of them, without hiding their flaws. His voice is musical, the images original.

 The book is composed of short chapters, sometimes of only two or three pages. The first ones are the description of the inhabitants of Cannery Row. Then comes a thin plot centred around Mack and the boys who decide to throw a surprise party for Doc, to thank him for all the good he does for the neighbourhood. They decide to collect living frogs for him, who needs them at the laboratory and thus earn money to purchase at Lee Chong’s the items they need for their party. The chapters of their outing in a antique Ford T in Carmel to hunt frogs are marvellous. I have not read Mark Twain, but this is how I imagine Tom Sawyer, especially for the technique used to gather frogs.

Their party is a predictable disaster. After a period of social ostracism following the failure of the party, they decide to throw another one, but this time with the complicity of the whole community. Much love is put in preparing the new party because they are grateful to Doc for his prodigal goodness.

 These people live in the edge of town and on the fringe of society. However, they are their own society and stick together. Doc is a central figure, he alone has a relative wealth, an honourable and stable job. He reads, listens to classical music. He is socially above them but his being eccentric prevents him from living in the city. He works in Cannery Row, shares their lives and is a sort of good Samaritan. Everyone on Cannery Row is indebted to him, for an advice, a medicine, some money. He acts like a self-invented social worker. Is he Steinbeck’s alter ego ? We understand why Steinbeck likes them through Doc’s voice:

“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. An while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

 These people live with few things and never complain. It is how life is for them. Their respectability is their treasure, although they have their own idea of what “respectability” means. They do not envy the people living in better conditions but imitate their way of life. Mrs Malloy hangs curtains in her boiler-home which has no windows. Mary organizes tea parties with the stray cats wandering around her house because she has no money to throw real ones. All this is pictured with a tender irony.

 Aside from the lively portray of this crowd, Cannery Row is also a tribute to California. Steinbeck was born in Salinas, not very far from Monterey, Carmel and Point Lobos. This area is the wild coast between Santa Barbara and San Francisco. He depicts the landscape, the sea, the fauna with devotion. Doc’s trip to La Jolla, the beach located between San Diego and Los Angeles is an opportunity to praise the beauty of the panorama.

“The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble”

I felt like being there and walking on this beach too.

 Cannery Row is undoubtedly a remarkable book. Steinbeck’s voice is engaging but not bewitching. It took me time to walk on these streets and not look down on them from a reading tower. However, I enjoyed the descriptions of California and appreciated the generosity Steinbeck put in his attempt to give eternity to this little world. He shows their material poverty and their wealth of heart. All along the novel, their behaviour breathes with dignity. But it lacks the comical touch which makes John Fante a better writer.

  1. September 23, 2010 at 12:13 am

    Have you read East of Eden? My favourite Steinbeck–although I’ve no idea whether or not it’s considered his best.

    Like

    • September 23, 2010 at 7:14 am

      No I haven’t. I studied The Pearl at school and I tried to read Of Mice and Men but I abandoned it. Apparently, I haven’t started with the best ones.
      This could be a good read on my brand new Kindle with the magical instantaneous dictionary. Un vrai bonheur.

      Like

  2. September 23, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    Of Mice and Men is a big one for schools, but there’s more to get your teeth into with East of Eden.

    Like

  1. January 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm

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