Friday, January 27, 2012

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Source of book: I own this

Another entry in my series of books I should have read in High School. I read The Grapes of Wrath several years ago, after reading some excerpts in 11th grade. (See note below for further information on The Grapes of Wrath)

Two things have, in my opinion, caused Steinbeck to become a controversial writer. First, he wears his heart on his sleeve a bit too much for modern tastes. In this, he is a throwback to Victorian times, despite that his writing generally tends toward the realistic style. Second, his underlying socialist philosophy caused him to be rejected by the political right despite his merits, and embraced by the left, despite his defects. And then, there was the allegedly obscene scene at the end of The Grapes of Wrath.

Sadly, all this drama obscures the fact that Steinbeck was an excellent writer. His talents are displayed particularly well in Cannery Row.

This work might loosely be described as historical fiction. The characters are a mix of real and imagined, although the exact events are fiction. Cannery Row was a real place in Monterey, California. Amanda and I spent a portion of our honeymoon in the area, and walked along the waterfront between the decaying foundations of the old canneries and the weed filled vacant lots that seem to have changed little in the 60 years since the book was written.

The central character in Cannery Row is “Doc”, who is based on Steinbeck’s real-life friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Doc’s laboratory was located exactly where it is described in this book – and in fact still exists. Ricketts was a significant figure in his field, and has no fewer than 15 species of marine life named after him. He was killed when his car was struck by a train. (Oddly, this was also the cause of death for James Weldon Johnson – the subject of one of my posts from last year.)

Cannery Row is more of a novella than a full length novel; and yet, it is perhaps not exactly that either. I would describe it as a collection of vignettes set in a single locale and involving a set of characters, but with only a loose narrative arc connecting them. There is Doc, of course; and Lee Chong, the Chinese grocer; Dora Flood, proprietor of the whorehouse; and Mack, the leader of a group of bums. These characters, rather than a detailed plot, drive the narrative.

The opening prelude (which is not numbered as a chapter) is one of the single best descriptions in any book I have read. Not only does it set the stage for the story to follow, but it captures the setting and mood beautifully. Too often, an author will make a beautiful description; but it will turn out to have little if anything to do with what follows. Steinbeck’s descriptions are simple, short, and intimately connected to the characters and the events that follow. Like Hemmingway, he is able to use a minimum of words for a maximum of impact.

Those unfamiliar with Steinbeck might first notice his pessimism. This is not the despair shown by some authors, but it is very much in line with the writing style of his time. Representative is an extended description of the heartless food chain in the tide pool ecosystem. Animals hunt, kill and eat each other, and then, “A wave breaks over the barrier, and churns the glassy water for a moment and mixes bubbles into the pool, and then it clears and is tranquil, lovely and murderous again.”

Another line that struck me in that chapter concerns the character Hazel, whose mother was exhausted after seven children in eight years and was careless about his sex. She named him after an aunt rumored to have some money, and never bothered to correct the mistake. “Hazel grew up – did four years in grammar school, four years in reform school, and didn’t learn anything either place. Reform schools are supposed to teach viciousness and criminality but Hazel didn’t pay enough attention.”

I loved the aside on Model T Fords, although it is too long to quote. (It also contains a reference to female anatomy that some might not find quite as amusing as I did.)

Steinbeck also captured a grain of truth in a discussion about whether people will believe a true explanation. Doc gives up trying to explain his love of knowledge and exploration because others look at him suspiciously. Instead, he makes up ludicrous stories that are somehow easily believed. This is true even on the subject of why Doc has a beard.

“A man with beard was always a little suspect anyway. You couldn’t say you wore a beard because you liked a beard. People didn’t like you for telling the truth. You had to say you had a scar so you couldn’t shave.”

The center of the plot, such as it is, is the contrast of two parties that Mack and his friends attempt to throw for Doc. The first is an unmitigated disaster, although it is quite amusing. The second, is, well, a mitigated disaster. As Steinbeck says, “The nature of parties has been imperfectly studied. It is, however, generally understood that a party has a pathology, that it is a kind of individual and that it is likely to be a very perverse individual. And it is also generally understood that a party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended. This last, of course, excludes those dismal slave parties, whipped and controlled and dominated, given by ogreish professional hostesses. These are not parties at all but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product.”

I would say that this book is a better introduction to Steinbeck than The Grapes of Wrath. For all the merits of that book, it has been tainted by its tendency to be preachy and by the controversy that surrounds it. Cannery Row is both more fun and more natural. Steinbeck simply tells a story, or a series of stories, without trying too hard to be about something.

 One of the old canneries.

 Modern Cannery Row. In this section, some of the old canneries have been converted into tourist shops. 

 On the north end, only remnants of the canneries remain, and the weeds grow in the empty lots. 
Ed Ricketts' old laboratory still exists.

Note on The Grapes of Wrath:

Since I live in the area of California’s central valley described in that book, it would be interesting to explore those issues in a future blog. Nationwide, the book was controversial due to the nudity in the last scene – surely the least sexy use of nudity possible – but apparently librarians in the 1940s didn’t get out much. Here in Bakersfield, the controversy was over Steinbeck’s lack of accuracy in the facts presented. He changed a few things to make the story more dramatic – changes that did not reflect well on the situation here in Kern County. My wife went to an event at the site of one of the old labor camps specifically described by Steinbeck, and interviewed nine of those who lived through the dust bowl days for a college term paper. Interestingly, those who were migrant laborers confirmed that Steinbeck changed details to better suit his narrative and his socialist philosophy. Perhaps I can talk Amanda into rewriting her paper as a guest blog post.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! I haven't read this one either. (I recall trying to read Grapes of Wrath and failing miserably.

    Yes! Yes! Amanda should guest post!