Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cannery Row

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Cannery Row, like many of Steinbecks other works, has something in common with so-called local color, or regional, writing. It seeks to capture the spirit of one of the rougher areas of Monterey, California, a port town south of San Francisco on the California coast. Like other local color writing, this novel wants to preserve what it sees as a unique way of life distinct from the kind of everyman existence that most realist novels try to capture. Steinbeck is more idealistic and more sentimental about this than many of his fellow regionalist writers, though. Although it lacks the heavy-handedness of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row still romanticizes its cast of misfits and neer-do-wells to a significant degree.

In its way, this is a utopian novel, which idealizes the values of the lower classes and insists that good fellowship and warm-heartedness are all that are needed to create a paradise anywhere on earth, even here on run-down Cannery Row. The characters in the novel are accordingly stereotyped at times the gruff madam with the heart of gold, the grocer who is a tough and even extortionary businessman but who nevertheless keeps the Row going and is capable of extreme generosity, the shiftless man who cant hold a job but will tenderly nurse a puppy back to health.

This novel is disrupted by subtle (and, sometimes, not-so-subtle) instances of violence and cruelty, though Doc finds a dead girl on the beach, several men commit suicide, and a gentle retarded boy is sent away to an institution because he tried to steal a gift for the person he loves most in the world. In this way, the utopian fantasy of Cannery Row is quietly but persistently questioned. The weight of current events sometimes breaks through this novel is set immediately following the Depression and World War II, and for many on Cannery Row, the war did little to end the Depression. In all these ways, the real world intrudes, to produce a strange hybrid of fantasy and reality. Cannery Row can perhaps be best characterized by what seems a contradiction in terms "It is a realistic utopian novel".

Steinbeck typically uses interspersed anecdotes and vignettes to introduce these instances of darkness. These often take the form of separate chapters that have little to do with the main plot and that often introduce new characters who will not reappear. This structure has several effects. Firstly, it allows Steinbeck to keep his anti-utopian commentary subtle; the book will still be able to end reasonably optimistically. Secondly, it provides him with a way to capture more of Cannery Row, to paint a broad portrait without being forced to construct an artificially enormous plot; he is able to use the collecting technique that Docs work suggests as a model. Finally, it is an extension of Steinbecks overall writing style, which depends on small moments of aesthetic brilliance and occasional off-topic riffs. This style owes something to the modernists of the 10s, particularly Fitzgerald and Faulkner; it also has something in common with techniques used by the Beat writers of the 150s, like Kerouac. Despite his commitment to provide a realistic description of a particular place, Steinbeck still allows himself moments of linguistic free-wheeling and cosmic speculation (the second chapter of the book is a good example of this). Perhaps it is this connection with the aesthetic that allows Cannery Row to maintain its optimistic outlook and to conclude on a positive note despite the undeniable presence of sorrow and misfortune in the world.


John Steinbeck was born in 10 and spent most of his life in the region of California where Cannery Row is set. He studied science briefly at Stanford University and worked at a variety of odd jobs as a young man. Finally, in the early 10s, he began to write seriously. Tortilla Flat, a novel about Mexican-American farm workers in the Salinas Valley, was his first successful novel. Most of Steinbecks novels, including "The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men", are concerned with working-class and lower-class people, whose values Steinbeck found more authentic, if not always morally preferable, to those of the upper classes and intellectuals. Both his politics and his choice of material are colored by the Second World War and, even more significantly, the Great Depression.

One of Steinbecks great strengths is his ability to capture dialect and a sense of place in his writing. This aligns him with many of the other regionalist writers of the early twentieth century. His ear for language and his fondness for landscape are derived from modernism. His work, though, particularly as he grew older, is often hampered by a political heavy-handedness and an excess of sentimentality and pathos. Cannery Row, which appeared in 145, is unique among his writings for its ambiguity of message and emotion; in this work, Steinbeck seems to battle his own literary demons. Although Cannery Row was published at the end of the war, at a time when prosperity had returned to America, it depicts a group of people still trapped in Depression-era conditions and ways of thinking. They are nevertheless good people whose noble intentions and feelings for one another get them through the bad times. Their circumstances become almost an allegorical representation of the evil that inevitably disrupts all lives.
Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 16. He died in 1968.


Mack and the boys - A group of down-and-out but always scheming men who live together in the run-down fish-meal shack, owned by Lee Chong, which they call the Palace Flophouse and Grill. Mack is their ringleader, a smart, charismatic man who can charm anyone into anything; as one of the boys says, Mack could be president of the United States if he wanted to be, but he wouldnt want to do anything like that that wasnt fun. Macks attempts to do things the easy way and to his advantage often get him into trouble. Eddie, another of the boys, is a substitute bartender at La Ida, the local bar. He brings home stolen bottles and a jug filled with remnants from customers drinks; this makes him immensely popular all around. Hazel is perhaps the hardest-working of the boys He often accompanies Doc on collecting trips. Ironically, though, the narrative claims he was too lazy to pick up real criminal habits as a boy. He got his name because his overworked mother didn't notice what his gender was when he was born. Gay lives with the boys because his wife beats him. He is often at the local bar or in jail as a result of brawls with his wife. Gay is a gifted mechanic who can make any vehicle run.

Doc - The proprietor of Western Biological Laboratory, a specimen supply house. Doc is a gentle, melancholy man who is a source of culture, benevolence, and aid for all on the Row. He introduces Dora's girls and the boys to opera, classical music, and literature, and he takes Frankie in and cares for him. He is also a bit of a womanizer. Somehow, though, Doc always seems lonely, and everyone on the Row is constantly wanting to do something to show him how much he is loved.

Dora Flood - The local madam; proprietor of the Bear Flag Restaurant, a brothel. Dora is a huge woman with bright orange hair and flamboyant clothes. She runs a tight ship - her girls arent allowed to drink or talk to men on the street - but she is kindhearted and generous. She paid the grocery bills for many local families during the Depression, and she organizes an aid effort during the influenza epidemic. She is always in danger of being shut down by the authorities, so she must watch her step and do twice as much charitable giving as anyone else.

Lee Chong - The Chinese grocer of the Row. Lee Chongs store stocks absolutely everything, and he is willing to engage in almost any transaction, provided its profitable and risk-free. Sometimes, however, his calculations prove to be wrong, as the business with Mack and the frogs shows. Lee Chong is a shrewd, even occasionally manipulative, businessman but also good-hearted; he extends credit generously, tries to take care of the unfortunate, helps with the parties for Doc, and even arranged for his grandfather to be disinterred and reburied in his homeland.

Frankie - A mentally handicapped boy who is neglected by his mother and taken in by Doc. Frankie is incapable of doing any work; he just seems to do everything a little bit wrong. He loves Doc, though, and frequently tells him so. Frankie is institutionalized after breaking in to a jewelry store to steal a gift for Doc. Frankie can be compared to Benjy in Faulkners The Sound and the Fury or to Lenny in Steinbecks own Of Mice and Men.

Henri - The local artist and a friend of Docs. Although he pretends to be, Henri is not actually French. He keeps up on the latest trends from Paris and is always forming new sets of principles (e.g., no red paint, chicken feathers only) by which to do his work. No one is certain about Henris artistic abilities, but everyone agrees hes doing a beautiful job building his boat, which is up on blocks in a vacant lot. The boat will never be finished because Henri is afraid of the ocean, but, more importantly, it is his lifes work. A series of women come and go from the boat.

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