Cannery Row, John Steinbeck (1945)

“It has always seemed strange to me…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.”

Cannery Row is a neighborhood in the town of Monterey, California, a somewhat seedy, but bustling area known for its fish packing plants, bordellos and flophouses and a motley crew of mostly down on their luck ne’er do wells. This curious amalgam of characters also includes a gopher who is looking for a mate to settle down with, a mad scientist with a heart of gold, a proud madam and her bevy of ladies of the evening and a Chinese jack-of-all grocers to name only a few. The story is not told in linear fashion: each character is briefly mentioned in the first few pages, then each successive chapter is devoted to an individual character while the others are in supporting roles, then that character will be a support in another character’s story and so on. A little chaotic, a little confusing which is exactly what life is like for these residents of Cannery Row.

Real life Monterey is located on the central coast of California and has a long history. Native peoples flourished until the Spanish explorers arrived in the 17th century bringing occupation, disease, violence and “religion.” The Spanish were supplanted by the Americans in the 19th century who pushed west from the Midwest and the East and joined by immigrants from every nation; they were all looking for a new, rich and independent life.

Steinbeck chose to concentrate this novel not on the professionals or respected members of society, but those at the edge, the ones who may still be dreaming of the life that first brought them here, but who are, in reality, just scraping by. The pace of life is slow and stagnant, like wading through a thick slippery sludge with much of the good life impossible to hold onto. The characters treat each other like family, however, and their fortunes and losses are shared. The town, too, is alive and sensitive as the vegetation and animal life are verdant or dying with the ebb and flow of human fortunes.

The brilliance of this novel is in the depth of wisdom, hard won, by these otherwise “uneducated” characters who ruminate so profoundly on the raw disappointments that fill most of their days. Yet, even at their lowest, there is some optimism in the coming light, whether it be a birthday party for Doc, enough whiskey or beer for Mack and the boys to enjoy for a night or something new to examine in Lee Chong’s store.

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….[How can these] be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and to let the stories crawl in it by themselves.

And that is exactly what Steinbeck did.

Monterey is a city with a long and brilliant literary tradition. It remembers with pleasure and some glory that Robert Louis Stevenson lived there. Treasure Island certainly has the topography and the coastal plan of Pt. Lobos.

What can profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals? Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves and rascals, bums. Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.

Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon—and his sympathy had no warp. He could talk to children, telling them very profound things so that they understood. He lived in a world of wonders, of excitement. He was concupiscent as a rabbit and gentle as hell. Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next, “I really must do something nice for Doc.”


Title: Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck
Publisher: Penguin
Date: 1945
Device: Trade Paperback
Pages: 196

Challenges: The Classics Club, Mount TBR

6 thoughts on “Cannery Row, John Steinbeck (1945)

    1. I am trying to read more California writers. It seems like a niche, even though someone like Steinbeck is very well known. I’m a fourth generation Californian for goodness sakes. I should know Western classics! I have often visited that area and I just love it, because it isn’t So Cal.😁

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  1. A very enjoyable (and excellent) review — thank you! To my shame, I’ve never read anything by Steinbeck although I do have a copy of Tortilla Flats sitting on the shelf. I have the impression, perhaps mistaken, that the two involve many of the same characters . . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh I can’t wait to read this, I bought it as soon as I’d finished The Grapes of Wrath but I’ve been putting it by until I’m really ready! Your brilliant review is actually the first I read about it and it sounds like everything I’m hoping for! Just that opening quote is so wise and knowing.

    Liked by 1 person

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