When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water.  And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.

Could it be that a book I loved at the age of thirteen or fourteen would have the same effect on me fifty years later?  The answer in the case of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is a resounding yes.

I’ve been rereading Steinbeck after being inspired by the recent TV documentary on the writer that was presented by Melvyn Bragg.  Cannery Row certainly stood the test of time – a little gem, and very much in that American literary tradition, I now see, of Kerouac and the Beats, Whitman and Thoreau, a tradition celebrating the frontiersmen, the outsiders, the ones who prefer to be rooted in the earth rather than tied to a desk, who care about each other far more than they care about a steady job or material possessions.

First published in 1945, Cannery Row is a work of fiction, but with strong autobiographical elements. Its stories and characters weave around Ocean View Drive, a street of canneries near Steinbeck’s childhood home in Monterey (the photo above, by Pat Hathaway, is of Cannery Row in 1975, two years after the last sardine cannery closed).

It was there, in 1930, that Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts, the source for the character of Doc, and a major influence on the ecological ideas that provide the framework for the novel.  Ricketts was a marine biologist and Steinbeck’s closest friend for 18 years until 1948 when Ricketts died in car crash. Steinbeck wrote in the preface to The Log from the Sea of Cortez that Ricketts was a man whose ‘mind had no horizons.  He was interested in everything’.

Ed Ricketts at the tide pool

The idea of the tide pool came to Steinbeck from Ed Ricketts,  and he employs it as a metaphor for understanding human behaviour in general and the inhabitants of Cannery Row in particular.  Steinbeck isn’t particularly interested in the canneries and with what goes on there during the daytime hours – for Mack and the boys, work in the canneries is only resorted to as a last, desperate measure.

What does interest Steinbeck is Cannery Row after ‘the whistles scream again’ and ‘the men and women straggle out and droop their ways up the hill and into the town and Cannery Row becomes itself again – quiet and magical’.  This is the ‘hour of pearl … when time stops and examines itself’.  In Steinbeck’s metaphor, Cannery Row after hours is a tide pool teeming with life after the ocean of work and commerce recedes.

The symbiotic relationships of the natural environment are echoed by the human interactions on Cannery Row. As Doc peers into the tide pool, he comments on the intricate relationships among species, which are essential for their survival.  In much the same way, Steinbeck reveals how Cannery Row’s inhabitants also depend on each other for survival, and any disruption in the natural ebb and flow of that environment (such as the first disastrous party Mack and the boys put on for Doc) send ripples throughout the community that affect everyone.

Cannery Row, all of its parts, all of its people, are interdependent and form a unified whole, and Steinbeck sings it in the beautiful opening paragraph:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries or corrugated iron, honky-tonks, restaurants and whore-houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flop-houses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peep-hole he might have said: ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.

The environment of Cannery Row is shaped just as much by the characters inhabiting it as the characters are shaped by the Row. In spite of their poverty, lack of social graces, and outcast status, the denizens of the Row attempt to help each other. Their plans may often be ill-conceived and poorly executed, but their actions, Steinbeck asserts, come from
the heart.

I don’t know, can you tell me what
What is success?
Is it do your own thing
Or to join the rest …?
– Allen Toussaint

At the outset, Steinbeck describes the world beyond Cannery Row as one where ‘men in fear and hunger destroy their stomachs in the fight to secure certain food, where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about them’.  Mack and the boys, in contrast, are: ‘the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces’:

In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack and the boys dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of cannery Row. What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?

I can see now that when my 14-year old self read these tales of Mack and the boys’ refusal to live by the dictates of conventional society that call into question what should really be valued in human life, it fell into line with a philosophy I was getting, too, from Kerouac, Dylan and all the rest.  Doc sees this, even after the disaster of the first party, when he reflects:

It has always seemed strange to me […] the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.

Doc’s assessment, even after Mack and the boys have caused untold damage to his laboratory, is that it is people’s motivations which define them, more than their actions. Mack and the boys manage to float through life without expending the slightest bit of effort at achieving  anything that conventional society would consider worthwhile.  As Doc again observes:

Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. […] In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean.

If Steinbeck explores the bonds of friendship and community, he also gives us vignettes of those who are, in Dylan’s words, ‘ bent out of shape by society’s pliers’. The novel is full of characters who have been socially ostracised.  There are those like Mack who live on the fringe by choice, and there are the misunderstood who are forced to the margins in a society that demands complete conformity.  Steinbeck writes:

There are two possible reactions to social ostracism – either a man emerges determined to be better, purer, and kindlier or he goes bad, challenges the world and does even worse things.

Steinbeck gives us young Frankie who ‘drifted about like a small cloud. He was always at the edges of groups. No one noticed him or paid any attention to him’ and William, the first watchman at the Bear Flag whose ‘heart broke’ when Mack and the boys would not accept him socially. Both individuals encounter sad fates – Frankie is imprisoned, and William kills himself. Even Mack and the boys experience social ostracism after the disastrous failure of the first party they throw for Doc: ‘Mack and the boys were beyond the pale. Sam Malloy didn’t speak to them as they went by the boiler. They drew into themselves and no one could foresee how they would come out of the cloud’.

Cannery Row is poetry, too: from the opening passage, quoted earlier, full of the noise and smells of the canneries working at full tilt, to the evocation of the ‘hour of pearl’ at sunset, and this evocation of the new dawn:

Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the grey time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter. No automobiles are running then. The street is silent of progress and business. And the rush and drag of the waves can be heard as they splash in among the piles of the canneries. It is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest.

Something I had forgotten was the thrill I felt at encountering the beautiful and exquisite love poem that Doc reads on the occasion of the second party.  The stanzas he reads – that all begin ‘Even now’ – are from a  first century Kashmiri poem, translated from the Sanskrit Chaurapanchasika by the English poet Edward Powys Mathers (1892-1939) who gave it the name Black Marigolds.  The poem tells of a poet’s illicit love for a princess. When they are discovered, he is sentenced to death and confined to prison,  where he writes the poem on the night before his execution.The full text can be read here.

11th century illustrated manuscript of Chaurapanchashika

Edward Powys Mathers is best known for his translation of the Thousand Nights and One Nights.  But his translations from Asian and Oriental poetry, especially Black Marigolds, have long been admired by poets. Steinbeck must have read Black Marigolds soon after its initial publication in the 1920s.  There is an edition of the poem, Black Marigolds and Coloured Stars, with a preface by the English poet Tony Harrison currently available. Harrison’s  preface concludes:

Mathers, erotic aesthete, cocktail-shaking Chinese-American, honorary Arab nomad, bhang-chewer, Turkish bisexual, tormenting puzzle-setter, was a true if minor poet whose assimilation of Eastern modes should rank with Arthur Waley or Ezra Pound, and whose name and achievement should be much better known than they are. And the Black Marigolds of Edward Powys Mathers is a masterpiece that still affects me in the same way even now after almost fifty years.

In Cannery Row, Doc reads to his guests as the party winds down:

Even now
I mind the coming and talking of wise men from towers
Where they had thought away their youth. And I, listening,
Found not the salt of the whispers of my girl,
Murmur of confused colours, as we lay near sleep;
Little wise words and little witty words,
Wanton as water, honied with eagerness. […]

Even now
I mind that I loved cypress and roses, dear,
The great blue mountains and the small grey hills,
The sounding of the sea. Upon a day
I saw strange eyes and hands like butterflies;
For me at morning larks flew from the thyme
And children came to bathe in little streams.

And the morning after, as he clears away the debris, Doc finds the book lying half under his bed, and reads again:

Even now
I know that I have savoured the hot taste of life
Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast.
Just for a small and a forgotten time
I have had full in my eyes from off my girl
The whitest pouring of eternal light –

3 thoughts on “Cannery Row: a poem, a stink, a dream

  1. The same thing happened to me, at the same age; so transfixed was I, at that young age, by the opening sentence, that I easily took it into my own brain and I remember it to this day; at seventeen in an entrance exam, when unexpectedly asked for an essay, I effortlessly remembered it whole, and both quoted it verbatim and wrote a long and loving book review, everything in that book was a foreign country to me but I inhaled it all; I am now seventy, and it rings as clear and as riveting to me now as then, a young English girl; where did I find the book… No idea. But it is saffron yellow cloth!

    1. Everything in your response speaks of the indefinable magic of books, as physical objects as much as cultural experiences. I just don’t see a Kindle provoking the same response! Many thanks.

  2. And, Gerry, your blog title “The light gets in”: I think that is a line from Leonard Cohen; I used that as “Light Gets In” as the title for a silkscreen print I made in 2010; when I get home I will send you an image. EB

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