Transported to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row

Cannery Row

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Penguin Books; 1994

I felt like I was there, as if I were sitting in the vacant lot across from the Palace Flophouse and looking down at Lee Chong’s grocery and Western Biological. John Steinbeck has a way of describing a place and setting a scene that is so transporting. That’s the biggest reason to read Cannery Row.

I instantly felt the grit and grime of the street and could almost smell the canneries. I could hear the sounds and felt the fog as I tried to find my way through it. And the characters, the people he puts on paper are real. Every one of us understands them and relates to them, and we all have friends and acquaintances just like Mack and Lee Chong and Doc and the others.

The story itself isn’t necessarily an amazing story. In fact, I didn’t feel like it was a story like the kind we generally experience in novels. I felt like he was narrating a time period in the life of Cannery Row’s residents. There just happened to be some elements that made one overall narrative possible. I was just observing this humble life.

One way Steinbeck takes us on this journey is using interspersed chapters that describe something completely unrelated to the plot in between important points in the narrative. They all connect to the people and life of the place, but they aren’t all directly relevant to the story arch.

More than anything, I think Steinbeck used the people and the place to interpret his understanding of the ancient Asian love poem quoted in the end of the book entitled Black Marigolds. Specifically, this stanza:

Even now

I know that I have savored 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—

Even though I’ve been to Cannery Row and found nothing like this story remaining, I will always have Steinbeck’s imagery in my mind. After finishing the book, Mac and the boys are still loafing around the Palace Flophouse, Lee Chong still stands in front of Old Tennis Shoes and Doc still listens to Gregorian chants on the phonograph. There is an aura about the place now, and maybe like Brigadoon, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is still there just lost to us mortals. Perhaps it’s there during the gray time, the time between night and day, that we may be able to hear the voices and sounds and see the shadows of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

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