“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.”
I was sixteen years old when my dad handed me a copy of Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. “Here,” he said. “This is where my love of California began.” It was important to him that I understand because we were about to leave New York City to spend a month in California; it was my final month at home – and my final journey with my parents as a family – before becoming a college freshman. The first sentence of the book struck me from the moment I read it because New York City has always been all of those things to me and it was amazing and enlightening to find someone who so loved a place that he would struggle to find the exactly correct, seemingly contradictory, words to describe it.
I read the book twice on the plane ride to LAX. (Its characters so captivated me that I feared I had read too fast and missed something.) Steinbeck’s magical lyricism swirled little eddies in the tide pools of my imagination. When we finally reached Monterey, I spent hours walking around Cannery Row looking for remnants of Lee Chong’s to the right of the vacant lot, the Bear Flag Restaurant, and Mack and the boys. Oh, I knew that they were long gone by 1977, if they had ever existed at all; but they existed in my mind and in my heart, and maybe that was enough.
They still exist in my heart and mind; in fact, when Jamie began work in Los Angeles, my first words were, “Oh, good. On a long weekend, we can go to Monterey. I love that Steinbeck book . . . “ and here my husband inserted, “Cannery Row.” Apparently, I had mentioned it a few times.
Actually, it is my great admiration of John Steinbeck and deep affection for his characters that brought about an embarrassing moment in my life. About one hundred years ago, during my first year teaching The Grapes of Wrath in tenth grade English, I wanted my students to see the characters as real people, to feel the desperation of the migrants’ situation, and then evaluate what their story meant to the greater world outside the novel. I decided to read aloud from Chapter Fifteen, the scene in the hamburger stand on Route 66, when an unnamed Okie man asks to buy bread from Mae, the waitress. She’s reluctant to sell it: she thinks that the migrants always want something for nothing and, besides, the restaurant needs the bread to make sandwiches for its paying customers. The insistent humility of the migrant man eventually softens Mae’s heart to the point where she sells a fifteen-cent loaf for a dime. When the man pulls the dime from his leather pouch, a penny sticks to it, and taps the counter. Looking beneath the penny, through the glass case, the man sees peppermint sticks and asks if they’re penny candy. He’s seen the longing on the faces of his two starving little boys, and would like to make their lives a bit better if only he can afford to. Mae has seen the children’s frozen, dirt-smeared faces, too, so she lies and says that the candy is actually two for a penny. My eyes began to well with tears at this point in the reading. When I finally reached the part where I intended to stop – where one of the truckers realizes that Mae has lied about the candy’s price and teases her about it – I was snuffling loudly. I stopped reading and gazed at my students; then I wiped away my tears and said, “The way that Steinbeck wrote this scene, the way he uses these characters to show us the need to treat our fellow humans with dignity, always touches me.”
Alex, in the front row, looked at me with utter disgust on his face and said with the condescension that only a fifteen year old boy can muster, ‘They’re not real, you know.”
“They are real to me,” I said. “They are based on real people that Steinbeck knew and they are representative of a bigger problem in the country at the time. And it is because of Steinbeck’s brilliance that we can understand and humanize the broader social issues of life.”
Yes, John Steinbeck’s books have always meant a lot to me. And now I have learned that I am among the lucky few chosen to spend a month in Monterey studying the man and his work at the Steinbeck Institute through the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I am all but speechless in my pride and joy because, after all, I am never really speechless.
“[T]he word is a symbol and a delight . . . then the Thing becomes the Word and back to Thing again, but warped and woven into a fantastic pattern.” (Cannery Row). I am looking forward to making more of that fantastic pattern.