John Steinbeck (1902-1968) wrote "Cannery Row" during a brief six week period during the summer of 1944. He wrote the book, he claimed, as "a kind of nostalgic thing.... for a group of soldiers who had said to me: 'Write something funny that isn't about the war. Write something for us to read -- we're sick of war.'" Steinbeck dedicated the book to Ed Ricketts. Ricketts was the model for "Doc", the main character in the book. Other characters, including Dora, the madam of the "Bear Flag Restaurant" were modeled or real-life individuals as well.
(The information in this paragraph is drawn from the Library of America edition of Steinbeck's novels -- 1942 -- 1952)
Cannery Row is set in Monterey, California during the depression. The title derives from a portion of Monterey notorious for the processing of the multitudes of fish harvested by the sardine industry. The book is loosely contstructed and consists more of a series of interconnected vigenettes than a fully developed novel.
The primary story-line of the book develops the character of "Doc" a marine biologist who collects frogs, octopuses, starfish, rattlesnakes, and other creatures for sale to museums, universities and others. Doc is highly literate, a lover of science, art and music. Doc also loves his beer and his women. He is also adored by Cannery Row denizens who live in a local flophouse (the "Palace Flophouse_-- a group of men headed by a character named Mack. Much of the book centers around the efforts of these characters to plan a party for Doc. There are many other interesting characters in the book, including Dora, the madam and Lee Chong, the proprietor of the local grocery.
There is much excellent descriptive writing in this book of a Monterey that is no more and of a collection of eccentric and too-lovable characters. There are portions of the book that seem to me to lag and not to advance the course of the story. The characters are vividly drawn, but in both the story and the characterizations I found elements of sentimentality and, perhaps, of over-simplification.
I think the heart of the book lies in chapter 23 where Doc philosophizes about his friendship with the residents of the Palace Flophouse and similar types of people on Cannery Row. Doc finds it "strange" that "the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concommitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, eogtism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second."
There were elements in this book that surprised me. I enjoyed the pictures of Doc and his devotion to classical music -- particularly the works of Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy. Also, there are outstanding literary references. In a climactic scene late in the book, (chapter 30) Doc quotes a lengthy ancient love poem "Black Marigolds" originally written in Sanskrit and tranlated by E. Powys Mathers. The poem fits appropriately into Steinbeck's story and adds a great deal to the meaning of the book. With the music and the poetry, I found something in "Cannery Row" that I didn't expect to see there.
This is an enjoyable and readable book by a great 20th Century American novelist.