This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
Only one sentence in Cannery Row made me cringe, the rest is pure joy. John Steinbeck wrote the novella in 1945, he said, for soldiers who were worn out from war and wanted something funny. I read it twice in the last few weeks, as an antidote to the stay-at-home blues.
My husband and I were in Florida on a long-planned mid-winter respite when the Covid-19 downward spiral began. Case counts and forecasts of disaster quickly escalated. We struggled with the dilemma of staying in a state that wanted us to leave or traveling back to Vermont, a state that didn’t seem to want us to return. I had a volume of Steinbeck’s novels with me that in calmer times I had begun to reread. Thankfully, I saved Cannery Rowfor last. I turned to its soothing sweetness when I couldn’t stand to watch the news any longer.
Knowing the plot of Cannery Rowbefore reading it isn’t a spoiler. Its little bit of storyline can be reduced to two sentences: Some quirky characters in mid-twentieth century Monterey California throw a party for a beloved friend. When that doesn’t go well, they throw another one. The characters and the situations are the elements that make the book so lovable.
The focus is a group of homeless men who live together in an otherwise abandoned building. Steinbeck’s sardonic humor is everywhere when he describes them. One of the men is the eighth child of a predictably harried woman; Steinbeck says the mother was so worn out from clothing and feeding her first seven children (“while her husband from a canvas chair gave her every help his advice and reasoning and criticism could offer”) that she at first didn’t comprehend that she’d given birth to a boy. So she named the child Hazel after a great aunt “who was reputed to carry life insurance.” Another character, an artist “Henri”, was so moved by a reading of The Book of the Deadthat he ceased “painting with glue, iron dust, and coloured chicken feathers” and switched to working “entirely with different kinds of nutshells.”
What’s clear almost immediately is the some-would-say unlikely goodheartedness of these homeless men, and Steinbeck’s love and respect for them. They want terribly to do something nice for their friend “Doc.” Their adventures while earning money to throw a party for him are hilarious, and, for me, a lesson in patience and taking life as it comes. They’ve got to borrow a truck, repair so it will run, devise a means to gas it up, and drive it up a hill in reverse because mechanical difficulties mean the truck can’t make it up the steep incline in forward drive. They’re caught trespassing but befriend the offended property owner and solicit his help to catch frogs, which they subsequently use as currency to fund the party.
It’s said that Steinbeck had a life-long love of King Arthur. I think Cannery Row’s character “Doc,” who reportedly was modeled on one of Steinbeck’s close buddies, is an embodiment of that folkloric king. Doc is both philosophical and pragmatic. He’s fundamentally passionate and good, a person who “can kill anything for need, but could not even hurt a feeling for pleasure.” He “tips his hat to dogs as he drives by and the dogs look up and smile at him.”
Doc earns a living supplying sea creature specimens to laboratories and other institutions. He’s often in the tide pools up and down the California coast collecting starfish and baby octopi and sea cradles. Some analyses say that the tide pools, with their various forms of marine life, form the story’s overarching metaphor. For sure, there’s depth in Cannery Rowfor anyone who wants more than a casual read. A gopher, a mint condition connecting rod and piston from a Chalmers, a tea party for cats, and the hauntingly beautiful face of a body in the sea hint at Steinbeck’s view of individuals and society. Anecdotes that do little to advance plot are among the story’s most poignant descriptions.
Today’s feminists and the politically correct may find fuel for complaint. Some may balk at Steinbeck’s light treatment of domestic violence or stereo-types of women. There are deaths by suicide and prostitutes and heavy drinking and physical fighting in the story. But I beg those who might be offended to temporarily table those concerns and read Cannery Rowfor the goodness and humor that are its core.
It’s hard to accept that our current world has been so much altered in a few short weeks; we’re used to incremental, not drastic change. I wonder how long most of us can tolerate the economic stress and ennui of staying at home. “We’re all in this together” is already wearing thin. The only option seems to be to simultaneously press hard on all fronts and fight back with testing, containment, treatment, prevention vaccines, and economic normalization strategies.
I got a couple of days’ distraction by reading and rereading Cannery Row, maybe you will too. And, by the way, that sentence that had me blushing? You’ll have to find it for yourself.