THE CASE FOR “CANNERY ROW”
by Michael K. Hemp © 1995
It should be said that even without the fame bestowed
upon old Ocean View Avenue by John Steinbeck in Cannery Row, Sweet
Thursday and the introduction to the Log From The Sea of Cortez,
the street would have one of the most vibrant and colorful histories of
perhaps any single street in America. The genius of John Steinbeck’s fiction,
however, has graced it with a literary legacy that overlays the epic underlying
struggle of working Americans.
The information contained in this overview of the literary landscape of Cannery Row is the result of years of research with the surviving residents, cannery workers, business people of old Cannery Row. Among them are participants in Steinbeck’s life on the Row in the company of his closest friend and mentor, Edward F. Ricketts.
A particular debt of gratitude is owed to Charlie Nonella, cannery worker, roustabout, roughneck alcoholic and for years constant companion of Harold Otis “Gabe” Bicknell, the ringleader of a group of Cannery Row characters that, thanks to the talent of John Steinbeck, have been (as unlikely as it might have seemed to anyone at the time) immortalized in American literature. Charlie’s contributions to the understanding of Cannery Row as John Steinbeck knew it have proven invaluable to the historic record and literary tradition of Cannery Row.
Now, with Charlie Nonella’s help—and Ted McKay’s late 1930s aerial photographs of Ocean View Avenue—we can see the Cannery Row neighborhood which provides the stage upon which John Steinbeck chose to play out one of the greatest works in American fiction.
The first realization is that there were real people and places behind Steinbeck’s accounts of life—and simpler times—in an America before World War II. It means an important facet of John Steinbeck’s craft is that he didn’t write imaginary fiction at all. His gift was an ability to see, listen and then fashion tales of humor, pathos, sadness and triumph from the lives around him, in places with which he had a strong personal attachment. Cannery Row is perhaps one of the best examples of how a sense of place plays such a major role in John Steinbeck’s greatest literary achievements.
It should also be noted that the apparently simple and entertaining wartime work, Cannery Row, has finally achieved some long overdue recognition as a much more complex and accomplished literary work than most critics have allowed to date. John Steinbeck himself indicated that it was written on four levels, not all of which are clearly defined even today.
When Steinbeck’s official biographer, Professor Jackson Benson, premiered his “True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer” at the 1984 Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, he was asked what he believed were John’s most important works. Without hesitation he replied, “In Dubious Battle...Grapes of Wrath...and Cannery Row.” I swear you could hear the crowd gasp as a group, as if to say with disbelief, Cannery Row in that list?”
At San Jose State (11/04/00) to plan the national Steinbeck 2002 Centennial celebration, Jackson Benson proclaimed enthusiastically that “Cannery Row” is his favorite Steinbeck novel. He did say, though, that if he were asked again, he would now have said “Of Mice and Men” instead of “In Dubious Battle.” He also regretted that Steinbeck is no longer taught at U.C. San Diego since his retirement.
The case for Cannery Row as an important literary work was further advanced in specific detail by Professor Susan Shillinglaw, Director of the Steinbeck Studies Center at San Jose State University. The 1994 Penguin paperback edition of Cannery Row contains her preface in the first detailed presentation of the artful complexity with which Steinbeck weaves one of his most endearing tales. The cover of the book is also distinguished by a Peter Stackpole photograph of none other than Harold Otis “Gabe” Bicknell—the Mack of Mack and the boys!
Real people. Real places. Most of the people are gone now, but many of the places that will live in perpetuity in literature, thanks to John Steinbeck, still remain on old Ocean View Avenue. One of Cannery Row’s real rewards is finding them with the help of this kind of information, which I sincerely hope will enhance your visit to what many believe is “America’s Most Famous Street.”
2001 Cannery Row Heritage Newspaper, page 20
Designed, written and published by Michael K. Hemp
for the Cannery Row Marketing Council
Back to Steinbeck Research Index