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Life on Cannery Row

Updated: May 19

Monday morning I spent an hour at one of my favorite hangouts, Barnes and Noble. To be sure, I make quite a few purchases through Amazon, but there is something special about being in a bookstore. I love wandering the aisles. The same is true for me and the library.

I'm not alone in this regard. Consider what Niccolò Machiavelli had to say.

When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.

Montaigne echoed this later in the same century:

When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.

I can relate to what Machiavelli and Montaigne wrote. I've experienced this many times myself over the decades. As a matter of fact, I did so again Monday afternoon as I waited for some work to be completed on my Jeep. While at Barnes and Noble, I bought a copy of Cannery Row which I cracked open as I waited at Tires Plus. John Steinbeck grabbed me by the elbow and led me into a world of his creation.

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 junk heaps, sardine canneries of 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 peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men," and he would have meant the same thing."

Even though my time at Tires Plus ended up lasting several hours longer than expected, Steinbeck had worked his magic. So much so that I've been living on Cannery Row ever since. I can't wait to have Steinbeck whisk me away again to meet more of his friends.

I learned something very interesting about what led Steinbeck to write his tale. My particular copy, seen above, contains a great introduction by scholar Susan Shillinglaw. She noted that the novel was written under a very dark cloud.

However rollicking its action, Cannery Row is also a somber book. As Jackson Benson, Steinbeck's biographer, has suggested, it is Steinbeck's war novel, but largely by omission. He suppresses the war. Cannery Row is born out of loss — of self, of his California home, of the friend who had sustained him, and of certainty in a meaningful world....
In recreating the home that was far more important to him than his native Salinas, Steinbeck retreated from an incomprehensible war, not by escaping into frivolity, as so many critics accused him of doing.

Steinbeck's seemingly disjointed text is integral to it's understanding. It is "as difficult as the life it mimics."

Steinbeck would later comment that the impetus to write Cannery Row grew out of his time as a war correspondent. The novel was penned in response to some soldiers' entreaty, "Write something funny that isn't about the war. Write something for us to read — we're sick of war."

Published in 1945, Cannery Row focuses on the acceptance of life as it is: both the exuberance of community and the loneliness of the individual. Drawing on memories of the real inhabitants of Monterey, California, Steinbeck interweaves the stories of Doc, Henri, Mack and his boys, and the other characters in this world where only the fittest survive, to create a novel that is at once one of his most humorous and most poignant works.

We all need a place like Cannery Row. We need a place where we can weep and laugh.

Where is your Cannery Row?

For a half century now, bookstores and libraries have been that for me.

What about you? Where do you go to relax? Where do you find consolation?

It might be a garden or a hockey rink.

It could be a dog park or a coffee shop.

It might a cabin at the lake, or the Minnesota State Fair.

It could be a bar, or might be a bowling alley.

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash


As much as I love bookstores and libraries, I know of an even better place for me to celebrate or cry. This refuge like no other brings peace and joy to my soul.

I find it a shame that more people pass by the house of the Lord without so much as giving it a second thought.

I find it heartbreaking that so many have walked away from the Church.

I'm not the only one. François Fénelon laments ring true again today:

There is practically nothing that men do not prefer to God. A tiresome detail of business, an occupation utterly pernicious to health, the employment of time in ways one does not dare to mention. Anything rather than God.

What then are we afraid of? Can we have too much of God? Is it a misfortune to be freed from the heavy yoke of the world, and to bear the light burden of Jesus Christ? Do we fear to be too happy, too much deliver from ourselves, from the caprices of pride, the violence of our passions, and the tyranny of this deceitful world?

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