by Lee Foster
Author John Steinbeck, if he were alive today and thinking back on his novel Cannery Row, would appreciate the irony that the sardines have had quixotic ups and downs in their population levels off his beloved Monterey Bay in California. They peaked in 2007 and fell back to minimal populations by 2015. More is known today about cyclical ocean temperature and its effect on sardine reproduction. Determining the appropriate sustainable harvest of this fishery will always be controversial, with millions of dollars at stake.
Steinbeck would also probably be impressed that many other aspects of his home territory, which we might call Steinbeck Country, meaning the Salinas/Monterey region, offer a better traveler experience today than it ever did in the past. For example, Pinnacles, the iconic geologically-rich and peak-filled hiking terrain south of Salinas, has been raised to National Park status. This means that a visitor today will find a well-staffed interpretive center both at the western and eastern entrances to the park. The lavish wildflower shows in the spring, especially of goldfields and shooting stars on the Balconies trail near the western entrance, are perennial and unchanging. However, today more people can enjoy them because of the access and assistance offered by the National Park resources. Spring is the luxurious time of year for a visit, when the hills throughout Steinbeck Country are green and lush after the winter rains.
I’ll focus on Pinnacles itself in a future article. For this discussion I’ll consider the legacy of John Steinbeck.
When Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row appeared in 1945, the sardine canning operation was at its peak. Eighteen canneries worked day and night. Monterey was called The Sardine Capital of the World, producing nearly a quarter million tons of canned sardines. Shortly thereafter, the fishery crashed, for reasons then imperfectly understood. The sardines virtually disappeared from these waters and the canneries quickly closed. Today the changes in fish population related to cyclical ocean temperature fluctuations, ocean currents changes, and overfishing are better understood.
The later celebration of the sardine came about in an unexpected way. One of the abandoned canneries, the Hovden, was transformed in the mid-1980s to become the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This is the finest aquarium I have seen in my travels and now ranks as one of the most popular travel attractions in California. A stroke of architectural genius led the aquarium directors to rehabilitate the existing, historic building rather than create a monstrosity foreign to the site.
One central exhibit is a huge round tank called the kelp forest. In the kelp forest and in a separate display shimmering schools of sardines make endless looping paths. Tourists crowd up against these displays to behold the gliding schools. Individual fish in these schools somehow know each other’s position. Some fish species and some bird species have this uncanny built-in navigational skill.
One could be tempted to observe, metaphorically, that both the fish in the tank and the tourists coming to popular Monterey, Cannery Row, and the Aquarium are today’s sardines. Cannery Row is known today for its restaurants, shops, and hotels.
If you mention this little conceit, that tourists are now the catch of the day, to the bronze bust of author Steinbeck where Prescott Street meets Cannery Row, you might detect a wry smile in his demeanor. It is the kind of irony with which Steinbeck filled his novel.
When you walk along Cannery Row today, there are still a few recognizable buildings that figured prominently in the novel, which had a strong documentary basis. The street name was changed from Ocean Avenue to Cannery Row in 1953.
You can still scout out the wooden lab of Ed “Doc” Ricketts, Steinbeck’s comrade, at 800 Cannery Row. Ricketts maintained a weather-beaten frame “lab” where he collected starfish, sponges, anemones, barnacles, and octopi to sell to schools teaching biology. The building is occasionally open to the public, as on the annual, festive, February 27 birthday celebration for Steinbeck.
At 835 Cannery Row stood the Lee Chong Grocery of the novel. Today the building houses various shops.
The Venice Apartments, on Cannery Row between Prescott and Hoffman, were home to Rose, Gracie, and the other working girls of the novel’s Bear Flag brothel. After the novel’s assured popularity, the name of the structure was changed to the Bear Flag Building.
Beyond these buildings, and the saved Hovden Cannery that became the Aquarium, your imagination needs to come into play to recreate the scene, perhaps with the novel fresh in your mind. For example, you would have to glance up the hill behind the Wing Chong Market to find where the Palace Flophouse, the home of some colorful characters in the book, once stood.
Steinbeck characterized Cannery Row as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” On Cannery Row people lived their whole lives, working by day and playing after work in the bars at night. John Steinbeck had the genius to identify in the lives of individual Cannery Row characters the universal human condition.
Cannery Row’s Longevity
What is moving about Steinbeck’s book, when you re-read it today, is the humanity of his social outcasts. He makes you like and care about these people, who were mainly drifters and derelicts, seaside remnants of the wanderers of the Great Depression.
Steinbeck met the challenge that he outlined in the first paragraph of the book. The inhabitants of Cannery Row, if truth be known, he said, were “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches.” But they were also “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men.” The mark of Steinbeck’s genius is that, by the end of the book, he has fully portrayed these characters as falling into both groups. The reader knows instinctively that all of us fall into both groups.
“Doc” was, of course, above them all. Doc was the educated biologist who made his living collecting specimens for dissection. That’s one aspect of the novel that is definitely dated. If you waded into the tide pools today and raped the habitat of all living things, you’d be a pariah. However, through Doc, Steinbeck captures the wonder of the sea, which a traveler to the Aquarium sees today. Steinbeck describes with precision and completeness the fecund life of the Great Tide Pool at the tip of the Monterey Peninsula as Doc collects from it.
Ironically, Doc’s admiration for the full spectrum of the sea’s creatures parallels Steinbeck’s affection for the full parade of humanity in his novels.
Doc, like all the male characters, is hopelessly lonely when it comes to women. Doc is “concupiscent as a rabbit,” notes Steinbeck, and concupiscent means exactly what you think it does. Doc occasionally gets lucky with girls and even enjoys one time when Steinbeck calls him “supernaturally lucky,” but the haunting memory of Doc is his aloneness. In one powerful scene, Doc sees the lovely white face of a girl dead in the tide pools. You don’t quite know if there is actually a dead girl or if it is a vision of the apartness Doc will always feel. It could be both.
Then there’s Mack and the boys, the gang of male pals, the flotsam and jetsam of society, who create their own little society in an abandoned house, called the Palace Flophouse. Mack is the consummate con man, but everything he touches seems to shatter. The main structural energy of the novel is Mack’s desire to do something nice for Doc, such as give him a party, maybe a birthday party.
There’s the whorehouse, of course, run by Dora. Steinbeck does a superb job drawing her character, especially noting how philanthropy is critical for her success. If the police give a charity event, Dora is the biggest donor.
Steinbeck’s humor wears well. His drawing of the Chinese grocer, Lee Chong, remains etched in memory. The funniest scene in the book is the escape of the frogs. Chong has advanced groceries to Mack, who wishes to give a party for Doc. Chong has taken several hundred captured biology specimens, frogs, as collateral at five cents a frog. Mack and his boys have captured the frogs in the Carmel Valley and have a guaranteed sale of five cents per frog to Doc, when Doc returns. Chong brings the frogs to the party, stored in a packing crate, but leaves the party early. Doc is late in returning home to this surprise party. Mack and the boys party away anyway and trash the place, including the packing crate in which the frogs reside. After everyone leaves, the frogs escape through a hole in the packing crate, one by one, into the cool night.
Steinbeck’s poetic economy in the novel is noteworthy. Not a word is wasted in this taut novel. The pace of the book is steady. The paperback edition runs only to 123 pages. This is not a “triple-decker,” a long and leisurely novel, such as one might have expected from a William Thackeray in the 19th century.
The dean of American novelists, Henry James, once wrote a series of articles on what makes good fiction. The most telling quality, he concluded, was that you must like the characters. You must want to read the book again. The public likes Steinbeck’s characters, these real people with all their sufferings and hopes, which is why the author’s reputation remains strong. In the hands of a lesser writer, the same characters from that stressful time might have become cardboard cutouts for a leftist propaganda novel.
When he won the Nobel Prize, Steinbeck made a speech about the novelist’s attitude towards mankind and his characters. The speech makes you think about the frail and lonely humans on Cannery Row and the humanity Steinbeck invested in them. Steinbeck said, “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 emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”
Salinas for the Steinbeck House and the National Steinbeck Center
At any time of the year, a Steinbeck aficionado can make a satisfying trip to Salinas/Monterey and commune with the ghost of the writer, who won both the Pulitzer and the Nobel prizes.
From San Francisco, you head south two hours on Highway 101 to Salinas and Monterey. Salinas is in the valley east of Monterey.
Salinas has experienced an uneasy relationship with this native son. Initially, Steinbeck’s books were banned and burned in various parts of California. The Salinas upper class did not consider Steinbeck’s portraits of themselves in his various novels flattering.
Steinbeck (1902-1968) grew up in this Salinas Valley, a rich agricultural area. The area became the setting for many of his works. From 1919 to 1925 he studied intermittently at Stanford University, but didn’t get a degree. Marine biology was one of his interests, which shows in Cannery Row. Salinas saw itself, warts and all, in Steinbeck’s works. Today some members of the community still resent Steinbeck’s portrayal of Salinas, even as they realize that Steinbeck tourism is more than a cottage industry here.
In Salinas, visit John Steinbeck’s birthplace house at 132 Central Avenue. The restored large-frame Victorian now hosts a restaurant with reserved luncheon seatings Tuesday-Saturday. The author’s upstairs room, the front garret, is closed to the public because the stairs are too steep for these litigious times. However, at first floor level, you can wander from room to room, all used in the luncheon operation, and see photos on the wall, including a cherubic picture of Steinbeck at age 4. A gift shop in the basement, called The Best Cellars, a humor comment on “best sellers,” stocks copies of his works and all sorts of Steinbeck memorabilia.
Downtown Salinas is a quaint, preserved collection of small-town facades, buildings from an earlier era that boosterism never had a chance to destroy. Be sure to stop in on Main Street to see the National Steinbeck Center. Superb graphic and video intros alert you to many of Steinbeck’s books and to the context of his life. A bookstore at the Steinbeck Center offers many of Steinbeck’s books, plus commentary books, such as Susan Shillinglaw’s insightful A Journey into Steinbeck’s California. After the Steinbeck Center, take some time to walk the old downtown of Salinas, which is an open-air museum celebrating an earlier era.
The National Steinbeck Center sponsors a multi-faceted Steinbeck Festival, now projected for each August (though May 6-8 for 2016), featuring speakers, tours, movies of his works, and theater. Each year a new theme is chosen.
“Literature is as old as speech,” Steinbeck once noted. “It grew out of the human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed.”
Cannery Row is destined to remain a slim, poetic classic of 20th-century American literature. The book and its author have grown more needed rather than less needed.
Steinbeck Country: If You Go
Cannery Row is along the waterfront in Monterey. The main Monterey/Salinas tourism information source is the Monterey Peninsula Visitors and Convention Bureau, 787 Munras Ave #110, Monterey, CA 93940, 831/657-6400, http://www.seemonterey.com.
Steinbeck’s Salinas sites include his birthplace, The Steinbeck House, 132 Central Avenue, Salinas, CA 93901, which serves luncheons Tuesday-Saturday, 831-424-3735. See http://www.steinbeckhouse.com.
After the house, visit the National Steinbeck Center, One Main Street, www.steinbeck.org, just two blocks away. Interactive exhibits re-create the author’s life and works. At the Cannery Row exhibit you can imagine the sardine fish and the seagulls.
Steinbeck and Steinbeck Country figure in my three travel books on Northern California. These books can be seen among my various books on my website (http://fostertravel.wpengine.com/shop) and on my Amazon Author Page (http://amzn.to/1jl9Lnz).