John Steinbeck is a writer who experienced the pain of the Second World War and though it is true that many who have read his work have negatively criticized his writing, many have also embraced his work in acceptance and appreciation. Yet, showing his true colours, Steinbeck writes about his childhood in Monterey in a classical book called Cannery Row.
This is perhaps the most humorous of all which he has written, especially since it was written during the war when most people believed authors should have been writing about the hellfire around them. The opening line of Cannery Row sums up his intent of the entire novel in a sentence, the style of his writing deceptively simple. Steinbeck writes with purpose about the loneliness that never leaves and the values of common man, and in his book significant insights about life are presented to the reader.
In the first line of the Cannery Row, Steinbeck spells out what he would be telling in his tale of life, mapping out his artistic terrain. “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.” (5) The second and third nouns, “…a stink, a grating noise…” acknowledge the physical attributes of Monterey. When the Monterey plants were in operation, the fumes were so noxious that in 1936 the mayor of Pacific Grove told the city attorney to sue Monterey (5): “…a poem…a nostalgia, a dream.” Susan Shillinglaw, in an introduction to a copy of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, states an interpretation of the meaning of the book, summarized to combine the real and the imagined:
In this first sentence seven nouns flow from art to life to art, just as the rest of that introductory chapter enumerates the locations, activities, and persons of the Row and then subsides into the metaphor that contains them, the tide pool; just as the early chapters lean in to peer closely at inhabitants of the Row and the later ones draw back to capture the shimmering whole in the parties, and in the last chapter, in the art of poetry. (vii- xxvii)
Steinbeck invites “an expansion of the physical events” with his first sentence, the line a key that opens the door to his novel. (Swisher, The Parable of the Pearl 100)
John Steinbeck’s style of writing is illusively simple yet so deeply intricate. Each simile and each metaphor is so vividly weaved with imagery it is difficult to not picture it. A hilarious image of a simile is Steinbeck’s description of Lee Chong as he takes his post behind the cigar counter in his grocery store. “His fat delicate hands rested on the glass, the fingers moving like small restless sausages.” (10) Another simile describes Doc the morning after his second successful party. “Doc awakened very slowly and clumsily like a fat man getting out of a swimming pool.” (184) Being a scientist, specifically a marine biologist, Steinbeck brings out his love for life in Cannery Row with imagery. The descriptive and realistic narrative of Steinbeck’s text appeals to the reader, bringing them out of their world and into Steinbeck’s world. (31):
Doc was collecting marine animals in the Great Tide Pool on the tip of the Peninsula. It is a fabulous place: when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef. But when the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely. The sea is very clear and the bottom becomes fantastic with hurrying, fighting, feeding animals. Crabs rush from frond to frond of the waving algae. Starfish squat over mussels and limpets, attach their million little suckers and then slowly life with incredible power until the prey is broken form the rock. And then the starfish stomach comes out and envelops its food. Orange and black speckled and fluted nudibrancs slide gracefully over the rocks, their skirts waving like the dresses of Spanish dancers.
Proving his simply complicated writing, Steinbeck includes metaphors like the one at the beginning of his second chapter that summarizes the meaning of his book in metaphorical terms. “The Thing becomes the Word and back to Thing again, but warped and woven into a fantastic pattern. The Word sucks up Cannery Row, digests it and spews it out, and the Row has taken the shimmer of the green world and the sky- reflecting seas.” Cannery Row contains a lengthy metaphorical parable in a charming chapter about a gopher who builds a beautiful home on a perfect site, where there are no cats and no traps and perfect drainage, but where he waits in vain for a mate to appear, and so finally has to leave his paradise and go seek a mate where there are traps and other dangers, for that is what females want.
Edward F. Rickets was a marine biologist and Steinbeck’s closest friend for 18 years until he died in 1948. Steinbeck looked up to him and his work. He was “different from anyone and yet so like that everyone found himself in Ed.” He was a man whose “mind had no horizons. He was interested in everything…never moralized in any way.” (Shillinglaw, vii-xxvii) Ricketts fits the part of Doc in Cannery Row, known by everyone, liked by everyone. As he originally assumed Doc’s place, Steinbeck essentially made Ricketts the narrator of his novel, so that the reader sees as Steinbeck sees as Ricketts sees. Steinbeck makes his home world renown, weaving “strands of Steinbeck’s non- teleological acceptance of what ‘is,’ his ecological vision, and his own memories of a street and the people who made it home. Steinbeck’s art gave this street its form, its identity, and a name that stuck: In 1957 the city of Monterey changed the name of Ocean View Drive to Cannery Row.” (Shillinglaw, Introduction vii-xxvii)
When Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row, he wrote it for the soldiers who asked him to write about something other than the dreary war:
The cannery whistles scream and all over the town men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go work. They come running to clean and cut and pack and cook and can the fish. The canneries rumble and rattle and squeak until the last fish is cleaned and cut and cooked and canned and then the whistles scream again and the dripping, smelly, tire wops and Chinamen and Polasks, men and women straggle out and drop their ways up the hill into the town and Cannery Row becomes itself again-quiet and magical. (Steinbeck, Cannery Row 5-6)
Steinbeck wrote the book to show the world his life. The last year of World War Two was the year Cannery Row was published and was the peak of Monterey’s canning factories when 237,00 tons of sardines were processed. In 1946, the number decreased to 142,000 tons and, in 1947, it dropped to 31,000 tons of processed sardines, an 87 per cent decline in two seasons. All sardine factories eventually closed down, the last one closing in 1973 after canning squid for a number of years. This was a big part of living near the Monterey Bay, but Steinbeck wrote not to tell of the famous canneries or the people who worked in them.
Cannery Row is entirely based on the life of the townspeople after the canneries close and the workers go home for the day. “The ‘hour of pearl,’ he so often reminds us, is a ‘little era of the rest…when time stops and examines itself.’ ” (Shillinglaw, Introduction vii-xxvii) It’s about the life of the city ‘behind the scenes,’ beneath the fame; it’s about what makes it original and distinctive, setting it apart from the world’s busy life. Cannery Row is, using Steinbeck’s metaphor, a tide pool teeming with life after the ocean of commerce recedes. “And each cycle insists that place is defined by the interaction of inhabitants and their environment.” (Shillinglaw, Introduction vii-xxvii)
The reader peers into Steinbeck’s tide pool and finds Mack and the Boys, Doc, Dora Flood, Lee Chong, Henri (the dramatic artist), and most of all finds the interdependence subconsciously overtaking the town. Using the gopher parable in the last chapter, Steinbeck contrasts the books’ acceptance of life that is to what it was or what one wants life to be. Susan Shillinglaw writes in the introduction to a copy of Cannery Row, “Here the writer, like his scientist hero [Doc/Ricketts], scrutinizes what IS, not what might be. Cannery Row is Steinbeck’s purest non- judgmental, ‘non-teleological’ text.” (vii-xxvii) The reader must take the many fragments of Cannery Row and piece them together so to find an artistically bound whole of life.
A key component to Cannery Row that makes known to the reader that it is a reality is the loneliness that hovers over the Row. Cannery Row is the story of a “group of self-determined social outcasts-‘the boys,’ they are called–…inhabiting a deserted house which serves as office and binder of their fellowship.” Mack and the Boys try to throw a surprise party for Doc and his kindness to them but end up destroying Doc’s house while they await his return, pulling a black gloom rumours that have become of the incident over them, the intent of their actions totally disregarded. Charles Walcutt comments in an essay, “Their irresponsible doings are presented farcically and with gusto.” (Swisher, Cannery Row-A Farce 46-47)
Mack and the boys live extremely opposite form Doc, with his ‘classical’ music and his scientific research, yet invariably find themselves simultaneously closer to him than to anyone else they know. Yet Doc balances their irresponsibility with understanding. He digs deeper, always aware of but not looking at the superficial appearance of others, perceptive of the connections of life in Cannery Row. He listens to Mack’s admission of failure and links with Frankie, a shy boy unwanted because of his clumsiness and dirtiness. He is a lonely man with no wife or children, yet he befriends everyone.
Of the forty-five characters addressed in the novel, three, almost four characters have committed suicide. One very apparent incident occurs when the watchman of Dora’s Bear Flag Restaurant tries to join the jubilant group of Mack and the boys, wishing to be noticed, but was rejected and thus self-assured of his loneliness and his uselessness, and killed himself in the Greek cook’s kitchen. Another was the Josh Billings tale was the first contemplated of the Monterey stories that reveals Steinbeck’s sense of rejection in Monterey. Cannery Row was developed since 1939, seriously written in 1944 during World War II, and was completed mostly by Steinbeck’s own loneliness and longing for his new wife while overseas in Europe on assignment as a war correspondent-a journalist reporting news from a war zone.
Jackson Benson, Steinbeck’s biographer, suggested that Cannery Row was Steinbeck’s ‘war novel’, but largely because of the omission of life’s reality. Steinbeck suppresses the war. He writes of his self-loss, his California home, his sustaining friend Ricketts, and of “certainty in a meaningful world.” (Shillinglaw, Introduction vii-xxvii) With all the action-adventure fragments of the lives in Cannery Row, the book is also a sombre one, carrying the energies of Steinbeck’s war experience. Deliberately veiled in meaning is the visionary mode: the Chinaman’s eyes open to a plain of desolation; Henri, the artist who dreamt of agonizing death; and “near the outer barrier between ocean and littoral”, Doc peers queasily at the haunting beauty of a drowned girl. (Steinbeck, Cannery Row 105) Loneliness always finds its way through life, and Cannery Row was no exception.