Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

High on atmosphere, low on plot
John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row was originally published in 1945. The title refers to a waterfront neighborhood in Monterey, California known for its sardine canneries. In this district the reader finds the local grocery store run by a Chinese immigrant, a bordello operated by friendly prostitutes, and a vacant lot and unused building inhabited by bums and squatters. In a neighborhood populated by quirky characters, the Row’s most unusual inhabitant is Doc, a marine biologist who runs a laboratory that sells sea creatures and other animals for scientific and educational use. Doc is beloved by his neighbors for his generosity and wisdom, so much so that the bums decide to throw him a party. Though set during the Great Depression, Cannery Row is predominantly a lighthearted novel focusing on the camaraderie among the denizens of the district.

In the second half of the 19th century, San Francisco established itself as America’s primary literary center west of the East Coast, due in large part to author Bret Harte and his literary journal The Overland Monthly. Born in Salinas, Steinbeck is the culmination of a distinguished tradition of Northern California literature that includes eminent authors Jack London and Frank Norris. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cannery Row. The quirky characters, comic situations, and depictions of merriment amid squalor call to mind the mining town tales of Harte and London, while Norris’s genius for naturalistic description, as seen in novels like McTeague and The Octopus, is reflected in Steinbeck’s vivid depictions of urban life and the California landscape.

The best thing about Cannery Row is its setting. Steinbeck does a great job creating an inviting atmosphere and involving the reader in the lives of the district’s inhabitants. As great a writer as Steinbeck is, however, there is no denying that as far as plot goes this is mostly just a comedic story about a bunch of bums throwing a party for a friend. Occasionally Steinbeck will inject a more poetic interlude to remind you that you’re reading a work of literature, but often this strategy backfires as one style clashes with another, like when a poetry reading interrupts a wild party (literally in one instance). One chapter, apropos of nothing, inexplicably gives us a glimpse into the lives of a married couple that are unmentioned elsewhere in the book. Though this passage sticks out like a sore thumb, it is one of the few that seriously addresses the social conditions of the Depression, as Steinbeck did much more concertedly and effectively in The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. For the most part, the economic reasons for the preponderance of homeless persons in Cannery Row is glossed over in favor of near-slapstick humor.

Another odd thing about the novel is that while Doc is supposedly the protagonist, he is the character about whom we learn the least. It is hinted in several passages that he is a womanizer, but the reader never actually sees him with a woman. Doc is absent from much of the novel and is largely defined by what the other characters say about him. When he is present in the narrative, Steinbeck lovingly describes his laboratory and his profession in fascinating detail, but we never really get inside Doc’s head the way we do with Mack or the other bums.

Cannery Row may not be Steinbeck’s best-written or most profound novel, but it is still a fine work of American realist literature. It is apparent that he had a lot of fun writing it, and there is certainly enjoyment to be had in reading it.
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