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San Diego State University J A C K S O N J. B E N S O N John Steinbeck's Cannery Row: A Reconsideration John Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row at about the mid-point of our involvement in World War II. It was an odd time to write a funny book. At first glance the novel appeared to be a return to the social comedy and light satire of Tortilla Flat, and that, following the heavy impact of The Grapes of Wrath, seemed to most reviewers to be a giant step backwards. At second glance the novel had too much death and too much bitterness to be considered nothing more than a light entertain­ ment. But if not a comedy, what was it? A comedy turned sour? A mish-mash of odds and ends? While on the one hand the book has become a favorite among many Steinbeck readers and has turned Ed Ricketts into legend and Cannery Row itself into a mecca for tourists, on the other hand, the novel still baffles the critics. Relatively little has been written about it — two major articles, a handful of notes, and another half dozen or so chapters or parts of chapters in critical books. And those who have been obliged to write something about Cannery Row in the course of writing a book about Steinbeck’s work have appeared to be, more often than not, at a loss for something to say. One of the things that makes the book so attractive is that it has been such a puzzle. Steinbeck himself added to the mystery of the book by indicating on several occasions that there was more to Cannery Row than the critics had been able to discover. Then he added to the confu­ sion by suggesting several years later that the novel was a “nostalgic thing” written as relaxation from the depression caused him by his experiences as a war correspondent. This statement rings true, although I don’t think it is the whole truth. Cannery Row is, and I’m sure was 12 Western American Literature meant to be, many things. Among them, the novel was designed as a tribute to a man and to a friendship. That man, of course, was Ed Ricketts. While some who knew Ricketts have felt that he only vaguely resembled the Doc of Cannery Row, the very close resemblance between Doc and Steinbeck’s description of Ed in the biographical sketch “About Ed Ricketts” makes it clear that Doc was patterned after Steinbeck’s vision of Ricketts, nevertheless. Ricketts was a most unusual man — thoughtful, talented, and perceptive, as well as very loving and accepting. Part of the strangeness of Cannery Row is due to Steinbeck’s attempt to recreate the spirit of this man and place it at the center of the novel. Yes strange, because he was unusual and because there are no literary antecedents for Doc except in Steinbeck’s own work. With Doc, Steinbeck presents a very different kind of literary hero for our admiration, a man to be admired not so much for what he does, but for what he is. The novel is infused not with a sense of things to be done, but with a sense of being. Such a dominant mode in itself makes the novel remarkable. But Steinbeck has hinted several times at some mystery at the heart of the novel, something beyond the characterization of Doc and beyond the comedy of Mack and the boys. The first hint came in an article on The Wayward Bus written by Toni Jackson Ricketts for a local Monterey magazine which was later picked up and anthologized in Steinbeck and His Critics (1957).1 Plainly irritated with reviewers and critics who seem always to miss the point while reading Steinbeck and who are unable to see that “Steinbeck consciously writes on several levels,” Toni Ricketts cites the ineptitude of the critical response to Cannery Row and then notes one pale exception: A single critic, Malcolm Cowley, puzzled by an underlying sense of violence in the book, read it again more carefully and con­ cluded that if Cannery Row was a cream-puff, it was a...


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