Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
This Sunday, a book review instead of an excerpt...
My trip back to Michigan last weekend for my brother Stan’s celebration of life led to a long conversation about the state of literacy in America with my brother Steve who, like me, shares my parent’s passion for reading and collecting books. That reminded me of one of my Dad’s favorite books, about which I wrote this review back in January, 2007 for Buzzflash.com. I hope you have a chance to read Cannery Row; it’s a great short introduction to Steinbeck’s extraordinary body of work which informed the nation in a way that set the stage for Truman’s, Eisenhower’s, Kennedy’s and LBJ’s reconstruction of America after the Republican Great Depression.
Next weekend, assuming I’ve recovered enough from Thursday’s back surgery to load it all up, I’ll resume with excerpts of Unequal Protection that we’ve been reading together for the past few months. This being a book review rather than an excerpt, I’m flagging it for all of our subscribers, both free and paid.
Arguably, there’s nothing whatever political about Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.
It chronicles the fictional lives of a few residents of Monterey, California before the great ecological disaster (mostly over-fishing: it’s still debated) of the mid-1940s that wiped out the sardine harvest and threw the boom town into bust.
There’s Doc, the central focus of the novel, based on a close friend of Steinbeck’s, Edward F. Ricketts, one of America’s most famous marine biologists. And Mack, who’s always trying to do good and never quite making it. And an entire cast of characters that reflect the aura of America in the 1930s.
On the other hand, one could argue that the book is entirely political — today — because it shows us a slice of America before the Great Corporate Homogenizers got hold of us.
Before we walled ourselves into our highly-mortgaged houses to stare for hours, alone, at our TVs, eating the mental gruel of multinational corporations who profit from wars.
Before our highest ideal — our “American Dream” — was to build up a small business so we could sell it off to Disney, as did the woman Bush congratulated in his State of the Union speech last week; but when the real American Dream was grounded in community, safety, friendship, and a healthy acceptance of eccentricity.
In 1968, I hitchhiked from Texas to San Francisco, lived there for half a year, and then hitchhiked back to Michigan. Every city was different. Restaurants were locally owned. Hotels and motels had eccentric names. Every main street was different.
It was the world that John Steinbeck writes about in this novel. It was fascinating, an exploration in a very literal sense, discovering dozens of communities that were all uniquely different from each other.
But after Reagan’s “revolution” when he stopped enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, mega-corporations moved in. For much of the 1990s, I made a living in part as a consultant to a variety of government agencies, corporations, and nonprofit organizations, leading me all around the USA (and the world).
Back then the quirky, unique, personality-rich cities of America were just starting to be seriously replaced by chain stores, chain restaurants, chain hotels, and chain franchises. Today, however, if you were to parachute randomly into any town or city in America, it may take you days to find a commercial landmark that would uniquely identify the place.
In this regard — highly political in that it shows us how different the pre-Reagan America was from the post-Reagan America — Cannery Row is a political book.
I didn't go looking for "Cannery Row." As I sat with my father this past summer, helplessly watching him choke and gag on his own blood as he died from asbestos-caused mesothelioma (thanks in part to one of Dick Cheney's companies) while my brothers and I tried to comfort him, I saw the book beside his bed.
He was an inveterate reader — there are about 20,000 books in his basement — and he'd often read his favorites over and over again. After his funeral, I picked the dog-eared paperback up from his bedside and took it with me to read on the plane ride home from Michigan to Oregon.
What I found in “Cannery Row” was a time, and an America, that my parents had often spoken to me about.
My mother’s stories about squeezing the last of the toothpaste from the tube in a door jamb when she went to Michigan State University, because she was putting herself through college by propping planes on weekends and being a lifeguard in the summer, and there was barely the money for toothpaste or toilet paper, much less cosmetics.
My dad’s stories of going down to one of Al Capone's speakeasies as a kid on the south side of Chicago to get a pail of bootleg beer to bring to his dad and uncles as they sat on the stoop in the row houses.
It was a time of challenge and a time of opportunity. It was America before Reagan.
In my Dad’s last email to me, written as he knew he was dying, he talked about that era and, particularly, my Mom‘s role in it:
“Thank you for the wonderful dedication in SCREWED. I wanted to tell you in person but I get so emotional that I can’t talk. But it made me think of what I did in life other than try to lead a good life and do no harm to others. I’m happy with my life although it was selfish because I did the things I did with no sacrifice on my part.
“Then I thought of your mother. She was the one that gave up all her early ambitions and dreams for me and her family. She wanted to be a writer - worked her way thru college to complete her dreams. I still have many of her early writings (if she hasn’t tossed them) which were very good.
“She worked at an airport for money and flying lessons, she took care of a family for room and board, plus all summer with a bunch of girls to earn tuition money. After she graduated she turned down a great job working for the oil companies in Saudi Arabia just so she would not leave her Mother alone. She managed a book store in Grand Rapids where I met her. (When I saw her I told the friend with me that I was going to marry her.)
“After we were married she started to write again. But then little Thomas came on the scene...
“I guess I'm done Thom. I love Jean with all my heart and soul. I have hoped that you could and would write about her as you have about me. I think she deserves it much more. She is the true hero of our family!!!”
They were the last words of his I ever heard — and that in an email — as he couldn't speak by the time I got to Michigan and died two days later.
I realize that telling you a story about my hitchhiking across America, or about my Dad and Mom, isn’t telling you the story of Cannery Row, but in a way it’s very much the story of Cannery Row.
The stories are meta to the novel, as you’ll discover when you read it. My dad was a huge fan of Steinbeck, presumably because he knew so well the America about which Steinbeck wrote.
Beyond that, telling you the story line itself of Cannery Row would be a disservice. It’s a novel, and, IMHO, one shouldn’t have even an inkling where a novel is going when one starts to read if it is to be truly savored.
It was only after I finished the book that I began to research its history, and found a rich treasure trove of information on the web about the history of the real cannery row, the real Monterey of the 1930s, and the real Ed Ricketts. I hope you will, too.
But first indulge yourself in a bit of old-fashioned escapism: step back to the time of the Republican Great Depression and meet a wonderful cast of characters in a story that will leave you smiling, wistful, and newly-informed.
And, maybe, hopefully, we'll all live to see that true spirit of America — its people, so brilliantly drawn by Steinbeck in Cannery Row — again emerge as Americans awaken from our dream-fog of consumerism and hellish wars, and rediscover the sense of self, purpose, and the egalitarian values of community on which this nation was founded.