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By Ray Greenblatt
Geoffrey Chaucer’s fifteenth century Canterbury Tales consists of various literary genres: the Quest, Fabliau, Parable, Mock Autobiography, Legend, Beast Fable, etc. John Steinbeck was a medieval scholar in his own right; at the time of his death in 1968, he was writing a modern interpretation of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. Some critics suggest that Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flat was created in a medieval vein although the characters were Hispanic. In addition to that, I have noticed that his novel Cannery Row (1945), although in prose, offers a different genre in nearly every chapter, as if he were thinking of Chaucer’s writing style.
Since Steinbeck only numbers his chapters—not giving titles which could shed thematic light—my discussion will be chronological to save readers the annoyance of leafing back and forth through the book. Cannery Row is a real place along the waterfront of Monterey, California. In the Depression 1930’s many sardine fishing boats harbored in and miscellaneous people lived in the town.  Steinbeck creates Doc who was a biologist, Chong the grocer, Mack and his pals who were local roustabouts, Dora and her “ladies of the night,” etc. No one character dominates; all of them represent human aspects of Monterey.  The different genres, through which Steinbeck relates his story, add resonance to the recounting.
The prologue to the novel opens with a Prose Poem: “Cannery Row in Monterey 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 of corrugated iron, honkytonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.” (1) The “stink” and “grating noise” obviously describe the sardine factories. Steinbeck is especially taken by “a quality of light” at the dawn of each day over the Pacific Ocean.  This town, where for a number of years Steinbeck first married, lived and started to publish, became “a nostalgia,” “a dream” to him as the years passed. In Monterey through the 30’s he wrote almost yearly some of his most significant works: The Pastures of Heaven (’32), The Red Pony (’33), To a God Unknown (’33), Tortilla Flat (’35), In Dubious Battle (’36), Of Mice and Men (’37), The Long Valley (’38), The Grapes of Wrath (’39).
All of chapter one was a Biography of Lee Chong the grocer, being the most important person in town who deserved a biography. “The top of the glass was his desk. His fat delicate hands rested on the glass, the fingers moving like small restless sausages. A broad golden wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand was his only jewelry and with it he silently tapped on the rubber change mat from which the little rubber tits had long been worn. Lee’s mouth was full and benevolent and the flash of gold when he smiled was rich and warm. He wore half-glasses and since he looked at everything through them, he had to tilt his head back to see in the distance. Interest and discounts, addition, subtraction he worked out on the abacus with his little restless sausage fingers, and his brown friendly eyes roved over the grocery and his teeth flashed at the customers.” (6) Lee’s grocery store was the mainstay of the town; it offered not just food but was a general store jammed with staples to which everyone came.
Chapter two was a study in Symbolism, describing the essence of the men out of work in the Depression who clung together for some kind of security. “Mack and the boys, too, spinning in their orbits. They are the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey and the cosmic Monterey 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 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.” (15)
Chapter three is a Mystery story. William was a watchman in the town but strangely the type of person no one liked. Very depressed, William moped about spewing his feelings. He told a cook, Lou the Greek, that he felt like killing himself.  Tired of hearing his bellyaching Lou offered him an ice pick and dared him to do it: “William’s hand went out for the ice pick and he held it easily in his hand. His eyes looked deeply into the Greek’s dark eyes and he saw disbelief and amusement and then as he stared the Greek’s eyes grew troubled and then worried. And William saw the change, saw first how the Greek knew he could do it and then the Greek knew he would do it.  As soon as he saw that in the Greek’s eyes William knew he had to do it. He was sad because now it seemed silly.  His hand rose and the ice pick snapped into his heart.” (21) Could this really happen? Why did he do it? Is there a point where one does not turn back?
Surrealism has been used in prose, poetry and even painting. In chapter four a boy named Andy has made fun of a mysterious Chinese man: “What happened then Andy was never able either to explain or to forget. For the eyes spread out until there was no Chinaman. And then it was one eye—one huge brown eye as big as a church door. Andy looked through the shiny transparent brown door and through it he saw a lonely countryside, flat for miles but ending against a row of fantastic mountains shaped like cows’ and dogs’ heads and tents and mushrooms. There was low coarse grass on the plain and here and there a little mound.  And a small animal like a woodchuck sat on each mound. And the loneliness—the desolate cold aloneness of the landscape made Andy whimper because there wasn’t anybody at all in the world and he was left.” (24) This is like a Salvador Dali , Giorgio de Chirico,  or  twentieth century Francis Bacon painting come to life.
Steinbeck can smoothly transition from the macabre to Romance as in chapter eight the story of people living in Monterey evolves:
         “’ I like things nice,’ said Mrs. Malloy. ‘I always did like to have things nice for you,’ and her lower lip began to tremble.
          ‘But, darling,’ Sam Malloy cried, ‘I got nothing against curtains. I like curtains.’
          ‘Only $1.98,’ Mrs. Malloy quavered, ‘and you begrutch me $1.98,’ and she sniffed and her chest heaved.
          ‘I don’t begrutch you,’ said Mr. Malloy. ‘But, darling—for Christ’s sake what are we going to do with curtains. We got no windows.’
          Mrs. Malloy cried and cried and Sam held her in his arms and comforted her.
          ‘Men just don’t understand how a woman feels,’ she sobbed. ‘Men just never try to put themselves in a woman’s place.’
          And Sam lay beside her and rubbed her back for a long time before she went to sleep.” (49) Often Steinbeck’s writing consists of passages very close to dialogue in a play.
Josh Billings was an American author of comedy next only to Mark Twain in the nineteenth century. In chapter twelve Steinbeck outdoes Billings by putting him—at least part of him—into a Tall Tale:
          “’ Did you embalm Josh Billings?’
          ‘What did you do with his tripes?’
          ‘Why—I threw them in the gulch where I always do.’
          They made him dress quickly then and they hurried down to the beach. If the little boy had gone quickly about his business, it would have been too late. He was just getting into a boat when the committee arrived. The intestine was in the sand where the dog had abandoned it.
         Then the French doctor was made to collect the parts. He was forced to wash them reverently and pick out as much sand as possible. The doctor himself had to stand the expense of the leaden box which went into the coffin of Josh Billings. For Monterey was not a town to let dishonor come to a literary man.” (73) Notice the humorous understatement that goes with a Tall Tale.
Farce stretches a situation to the extreme mostly through exaggerating the actions of humans—and in this case also amphibians—in the frog-catching scene from chapter 15: “Every frog leaped, plopped into the pool, and swam frantically to the bottom. Then into the pool plunged the line of men, stamping, churning, moving in a crazy line up the pool, flinging their feet about.  Hysterically the frogs displaced from their placid spots swam ahead of the crazy thrashing feet and the feet came on. Frogs are good swimmers but they haven’t much endurance. Down the pool they went until finally they were bunched and crowded against the end. And the feet and wildly plunging bodies followed them. A few frogs lost their heads and floundered among the feet and got through and these were saved. But the majority decided to leave their pool forever, to find a new home in a new country where this kind of thing didn’t happen. A wave of frantic, frustrated frogs, big ones, little ones, brown ones, green ones, men frogs and women frogs, a wave of them broke over the bank, crawled, leaped, scrambled. They clambered up the grass, they clutched at each other, little ones rode on big ones. And then—horror on horror—the flashlights found them. Two men gathered them like berries.” (94)
Melodrama is a counterpoint of black and white values: evil is underscored while good is idealized. In chapter sixteen a house of prostitution reveals its “heart of gold” during an influenza epidemic: “And the girls did their work and then took their pots of soup and went to sit with the Ramseys, with the McCarthys, with the Ferrias. The girls slipped out the back door, and sometimes staying with the sleeping children the girls dropped to sleep in their chairs. They didn’t use makeup for work any more. They didn’t have to. Dora herself said she could have used the total membership of the old ladies’ home.  It was the busiest time the girls at the Bear Flag could remember. Everyone was glad when it was over.” (99)
On a trip Doc headed from Monterey to southern California. Chapter seventeen is a miniaturized example of the Picaresque in which the hero has many varied adventures, in this case eating: “Doc didn’t stop in Salinas for a hamburger. But he stopped in Gonzales, in King City, and in Paso Robles. He had a hamburger and beer at Santa Maria—two in Santa Maria because it was a long pull from there to Santa Barbara. In Santa Barbara he had soup, lettuce and string bean salad, pot roast and mashed potatoes, pineapple pie and blue cheese and coffee, and after that he filled the gas tank and went to the toilet. While the service station checked his oil and tires, Doc washed his face and combed his beard and when he came back to the car a number of potential hitchhikers were waiting.” (104)
In chapter eighteen Doc encounters by the ocean a corpse, which transforms this chapter into a story of the Supernatural: “Between two weeded rocks on the barrier Doc saw a flash of white under water and then the floating weed covered it. He climbed to the place over the slippery rocks, held himself firmly, and gently reached down and parted the brown algae. Then he grew rigid. A girl’ s face looked up at him, a pretty, pale girl with dark hair. The eyes were open and clear and the face was firm and the hair washed gently above her head. The body was out of sight, caught in the crevice. The lips were slightly parted and the teeth showed and on the face was only comfort and rest. Just under water it was and the clear water made it very beautiful. It seemed to Doc that he looked at it for many minutes, and the face burned into his picture memory.” (109)
Theater of the Absurd usually takes place on stage. However, this excerpt from chapter nineteen is a dialogue that could easily comprise part of an acted scene:
          “Dimly on top of the high mast he could see the lonely figure of the skater. He took another drink. He cupped his hand and called huskily, ‘Hey!’ There was no answer. ‘Hey!’ he called louder and looked around to see if the cops had come out of their place beside the bank.
          Down from the sky came a surly reply: ‘What do you want?’
          Richard cupped his hands again. ‘How—how do you—go to the toilet?’
          ‘I’ve got a can up here,’ said the voice.
          Richard turned and walked back the way he had come.” (115)
Steinbeck sustains this light-hearted tone in the following chapter twenty which we can only call Slapstick: “The noise could be heard from the boat works to La Ida. A group of customers from the Bear Flag mistook Western Biological for a rival house and charged up the stairs whooping with joy. They were evicted by the outraged hosts but only after a long, happy, and bloody battle that took out the front door and broke two windows. The crashing of jars was unpleasant. Hazel going through the kitchen to the toilet tipped the frying pan of hot grease on himself and the floor and was badly burned.
          At one-thirty a drunk wandered in and passed a remark which was considered insulting to Doc. Mack hit him a clip which is still remembered and discussed.” (125) Considering that the plot of Cannery Row is basically planning a surprise party for Doc, this burlesque chapter is the climax of the novel.
Steinbeck’s range is very broad. The Realism of works from Of Mice and Men to The Grapes of Wrath is hard-hitting. In Cannery Row he can match that style as well. From chapter twenty-one: “’ She got out of hand,’ said Mack . ‘It don’t do no good to say I’m sorry. I been sorry all my life. This ain’t no new thing. It’s always like this.’ He swallowed deeply from his glass. ‘I had a wife,’ Mack said. ‘Same thing. Ever’thing I done turned sour. She couldn’t stand it any more. If I done a good thing it got poisoned up some way. If I give her a present, they was something wrong with it. She only got hurt from me. She couldn’t stand it no more.  Same thing ever’ place ‘til I just got to clowning. I don’t do nothin’ but clown no more. Try to make the boys laugh.’” (131) Notice the realistic speech patterns: repetition, fragments, incorrect usage; but sincere emotion permeates the speech.
We will conclude our discussion by using another technique that not only Chaucer but also Aesop and others have used, the Beast Fable. In chapter 31: “But as time went on the gopher began to be a little impatient, for no female appeared. He sat in the entrance of his hole in the morning and made penetrating squeaks that are inaudible to the human ear but can be heard deep in the earth by other gophers. And still no female appeared. Finally in a sweat of impatience he went up across the track until he found another gopher hole. He squeaked provocatively in the entrance.  He heard a rustling and smelled female and then out of the hole came an old battle-torn bull gopher who mauled and bit him so badly that he crept home and lay in his great chamber for three days recovering and he lost two toes from one front paw from the fight.” (192)
I could offer further examples of genres used: Naturalism, Tragedy, Scientific writing, Cataloguing, et al.  John Steinbeck must have had much enjoyment employing these various techniques; and yet, they all contributed to the richness of Cannery Row. We could argue that Steinbeck’s best known books are focused on a realistic attitude toward life. However, throughout his career he was always experimenting with topics and literary approaches. From his writing of both short and long fiction, drama and non-fiction, Steinbeck went on to write a diary of his European travels after World War II in A Russian Journal (1948) and a memoir Travels with Charley (1962) which probably confirmed for him the Nobel Prize which he received just a few months after the book’s publication. Even at the time of his death in 1968, he was reentering the medieval world, always curious, always exploring.

You can find the book here:


Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI


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