Cannery Row

by John Steinbeck (1945)


It makes sense that this feels like a more mature re-telling of Tortilla Flat, as it was written a decade later and deals with a similar lovable band of misfits in a California town. It’s more thematically ambitious than the earlier novella in that we actually have a loose plot this time around. It’s also more hopeful; the principal guys eventually overcome their can’t-win natures to give the much-loved Doc the party he deserves.

All in all it is a more complete, satisfying novel, and the intimate vignettes with which Steinbeck punctuates the overall plot lend it an authenticity that quite simply evades the works of most other authors. And Steinbeck further peppers these authentic slices of Americana with fairly superficial albeit quite true philosophical asides, such as the following which I found noteworthy:

“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “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.”

While this may not be the most penetrating of insights (and it goes unelaborated upon), it’s also impossible to dispute, in addition to something I would argue we should all take closer to heart.

I would highly recommend this to fans of Steinbeck, and I solidly recommend it to those interested in North-American literature from the early 20th century. I would also suggest reading this instead of Tortilla Flat if you are considering reading the latter, and not reading the latter at all if you have already read the former. I look forward to soon concluding my informal study of Steinbeck with East of Eden.

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