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Monday, June 08, 2015

Cannery Row (1945) by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row, as it appears today.  Cannery Row today is a legitimate tourist attraction, even including an enormous statue installation and dozens of restaurants, hotels and shops.

Book Review
Cannery Row (1945)
by John Steinbeck

     I'm a native San Franciscan, and I frequently went on vacation with my family to the Monterey Dunes, which are several miles north of Monterey proper.   I've been to the modern Cannery Row many times, most recently this winter, when I was there for the California Death Penalty Conference.  On that occasion, we scored (my girlfriend found it) a choice Airbnb that was actually a cottage that John Steinbeck stayed in during one of his many sojourns in the area.  The cottage was in Pacific Grove, just above Cannery Row, which itself, I feel, should be in Pacific Grove, not Monterey if you are to go by the geography of the area, but I would walk down the hill and down the recreation trail depicted above on my way to the Monterey convention center.
Doc Rickett's lab was the real-life inspiration for the lab in Cannery Row.

   Cannery Row as it is today is an iconic locale, but it bears little or no resemblance to the working, Depression era Cannery Row of John Steinbeck's novel.   Today, it is a mid table American tourist attraction, then it was a gritty sardine fishing colony with mild, year-round weather and a healthy coterie of depression era hobos.  The main focus of Cannery Row is the relationship between a local scientist jack-of-all-trades who goes by the name of Doc and a group of said depression era hobos, all of whom have a healthy affinity for alcohol.

  Steinbeck was not exactly a local.  He was raised inland, in Salinas.  However, no one goes to Salinas on vacation, so the Steinbeck/Monterey affinity functions as a hometown-by-proxy relationship.  The major California based novelists of the first part of the 20th century:  Jack London, John Steinbeck and Frank Norris; were instrumental in creating the image of California as a place, but it is significant that none of them wrote convincingly of Southern California.   In fact, the California milieu of Cannery Row seems like more of a proxy for a larger "Pacific Northwest" environment than anything specific to California.

  It's hard to make the case that Cannery Row is the "best" anything- except perhaps "novel about Monterey" but the enduring success of the image Steinbeck created for the Cannery Row location is impossible to dismiss.   Cannery Row is a kind of depression era idyll, for hobos and norms alike.  Cannery Row is like a premonition of the beat era, and the hippie culture which would come to define Northern California two decades later.

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