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S T A N L E Y A L E X A N D E R Tarleton State College Cannery Row: Steinbeck’s Pastoral Poem CANNERY ROW : STEIN B EC K ’S PASTO RAL POEM 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 When Malcolm Cowley called Cannery Row “a very poisoned cream-puff,” he meant that the novel concealed its attack on modern American values in what appeared to be an insubstantial con­ fection. In the twenty years since the best of Steinbeck’s fiction was written, it has become a commonplace that his “poison” was brewed for the middle or commercial class values that are dom­ inant in American life. In fact, almost every criticism of Steinbeck has concentrated on his ideas and not his art, on his “skill” as a writer and his sympathetic humaneness but not his remarkable adaptations of traditional literary forms. I hope to show that in the case of Cannery Row the form, Cowley’s “cream-puff,” is that literary confection known since late classical times as pastoral. Now until William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral (1938) pastoral conventions in literature had been relegated to the realm of particularly conceitful artifice. Following Some Versions it has been widely recognized, however, that the “artificial” formalities and pretences of pastoral are the conventional literary signals of 282 Western American Literature certain intellectual conventions. Pastoral is, in Empson’s view, the primary literary convention which reflects the characteristic class relations of western society. Pastoral literature also constitutes a recognizable response to the process of Western civilization which removes men farther and farther away from nature and into the total city. It gets its particular form, sentiments, and aesthetic from the motive of unity which it expresses. As is suggested above, pastoral motives accommodate the age-old need of oneness within humanity itself and oneness with the forces in nature. I agree with Empson, as I understand him, that these two sub-motives are interfused; they are strangely keyed to one another, with the result that pastoral literature typically brings together in rural or even wilderness scenes representatives of (relatively) exalted social classes and (relatively) low social classes. The key figure in such literature is, then, the low man in society, originally peasant, of whom it is felt that he combines in himself both essential humanity and brute nature. Its form can be seen most simply in a tableau: in the center stands the unsophisticated man; on one side of him is ranged the animal kingdom and the whole world of nature; on the near side stands the sophisticated man and, back of him, the city or world of civilized humanity. Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row are very similar books, al­ though I cannot agree with Woodburn O. Ross that Cannery Row is “merely a repetition of Tortilla Flat in everything except tone.”1 The earlier novel is also a version of pastoral, but the mock-heroic tone of Tortilla Flat got out of hand, producing an unwanted, ultimately confusing incongruity.2 Insofar as Cannery Row covers the same ground as Tortilla Flat, the differences are owing to a superior conception of style and its appropriateness to content rather than to any basic change in the intensity of his hatred of artificiality in society. Cannery Row is still solidly in the comic vein of the pastoral tradition from whence comes the form of both novels, but it is obviously more thoughtful and much less a kind 1Woodbum O. Ross, “John Steinbeck: Earth and Stars,” reprinted in Steinbeck and His Critics, ed. E. W. Tedlock, Jr., and C. V. Wicker (Albuquerque, 1957), p. 177. Ross antici­ pates my conclusions about Cannery Row in the following statement: “ . . . the significance of Steinbeck’s work may prove to be in the curious compromise which it effects. It accepts the intuitive, nonrational method of dealing with man’s relation to the universe—the method of the contemporary mystics. But, unlike them, it accepts as the universe to which man must relate himself the modem, scientifically described cosmos.” My interest here is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 281-296
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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