Cannery Row

20 February 2013
Written by Diana Kenny
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Pulitzer & Nobel prize-winning author John Steinbeck's 1944 novel Cannery Row is Diana's book review this month & as she recounts it remains a classic

When I was younger my introduction to American literature was in the form of works by two iconic authors - Louisa May Alcott and her novels Little Women, Little Men and Jo’s Boys and Mark Twain with his Adventures of Tom Sawyer. That was pretty much it until later in life when I discovered the writing of Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning author John Steinbeck.

It’s hard to imagine young people today reading Little Women and Jo’s Boys  and enjoying them, but Mark Twain and Steinbeck remain classic authors - with Steinbeck winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for his "realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception".

For me it all started with Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row, which I was reintroduced to recently though my book club.

Written in 1944 after Steinbeck, a war correspondent at the time, had returned to America after being wounded in action. Cannery Row is an attempt to re-create the early days of Steinbeck's marriage while living in Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula, California, between 1930 and 1941.

The book’s mix-match group of characters gently rub against each other in the same way that the Pacific Ocean washes up against the sands of the Monterey Peninsula - sometimes peaceful and in tune while at other times turbulent and stormy. 

The basic story line is about giving the main character, good guy Doc, a party. But to throw a party you need money and this is depression time in America and money is very tight so to earn the necessary funds an elaborate scheme is hatched with the inevitable result.

The character Doc was based on a good friend of Steinbeck - marine biologist Ed Ricketts who lived in Monterey at the time. Following the publican of Cannery Row, Ricketts became a celebrity in the area, which apparently irked him somewhat.

Intertwined with the main storyline are ‘vignettes’ - small stories with seemingly no connection to the main theme, but which seek to enhance understanding of the main characters and add an extra element to the story. 

If you have not read Steinbeck before, Cannery Row is well worth starting with - the genuine affection Steinbeck has for his characters shines through.  

Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley region of California, a culturally diverse place of rich migratory and immigrant history. He often filled his stories with struggling characters; the working class and migrant workers during the Dust Bowl and the 1930-40s American Great Depression. According to Wikipedia, Steinbeck was one of the ten most frequently banned authors from 1990 to 2004, with his book Of Mice and Men ranking sixth out of 100 such books in the United States.

Let me finish with an extract from Steinbeck's Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit - for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication to nor any membership in literature.”

 


 

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