Cannery Row - Critical Reception

First published in 1945 by Viking Press Inc., Cannery Row is one of John Steinbeck’s most beloved works. While Cannery Row is classified as a work of fiction, it is loosely based off of Ocean View Avenue, a street of canneries located near Steinbeck’s childhood home in Monterey, California. After the stellar success of Cannery Row, “Ocean View Avenue was renamed Cannery Row in 1953” and has grown into a successful commercial district, due largely to the fame that Cannery Row brought to the area (Blake 8).

To create the characters in Cannery Row Steinbeck also drew heavy inspiration from individuals that he encountered in Ocean View Avenue. The most notable character, and the one to most closely resemble the real life individual they were based off of is Doc, the “kind, bohemian hero” of Cannery Row (Levy 2). Doc is based off of Steinbeck’s close, real life friend Ed Ricketts, a notable marine biologist during his life and whose work is still widely respected today. According to NPR’s Renee Montagne, “[s]ome of the most vivid fodder for the novel came from Ed Ricketts and his biology lab” (12).  According to American Scientist Magazine, “Ricketts's lab on Cannery Row [what was then Ocean View Avenue] was a magnet for scientists, writers, prostitutes, musicians, artists, academics and bums” (Robinson 4). Other characters such as Lee Chong, Dora Flood, and Mack were based off of the real life Ocean View Avenue residents “Won Yee, Flora Woods, […] and Grant McLean, respectfully” (Blake 5).

Cannery Row was met with overwhelming enthusiasm from both critics and the public. In fact, “[s]ome readers found the book so compelling that they searched out Ricketts’ commercial laboratory on the Monterey, California, waterfront […] hoping to walk into the sweet fable Steinbeck had built around his closest friend” (Levy 2). Literary critic Edmund Wilson, who was often hard on Steinbeck, wrote, “I believe that it is the one [Steinbeck book] I have most enjoyed reading" (Stephan 1). Unlike Wilson, some critics felt that Cannery Row did not match the importance of The Grapes of Wrath. However, Cannery Row was still seen as an important work to add to the canon of American literature because it marked an important transition into what is now known as environmental literature. According to an interview with Dr. Brian Railsback - a scholar from Western South Carolina University - in Cannery Row “Steinbeck highlights the importance of keying into everything. From quantum theory to universal cosmology, he stresses the integration of all.” Railsback also claims that “[i]n Cannery Row, he [Steinbeck] uses this overarching metaphor of life as a tidepool…it’s one of the earliest literary themes based on a holistic environmental perspective. Ecocriticism needs to catch up with Steinbeck” (Masters 8).

It is also important to note that Cannery Row is the first novel that Steinbeck completed that did not include a heavy mark of agrarianism, something that was associated closely with Steinbeck’s most highly favored work, The Grapes of Wrath. According to Richard Astro, “Despite the intensity with which Steinbeck chanted his agrarian idealism in The Grapes of Wrath, the harsh reality of World War II apparently convinced him of the inefficacy of agrarianism as a solution to any serious social and economic problems” (109). Astro goes further, claiming that  “[t]he absence of the agrarian motif in Steinbeck's fiction continues in his first three post-war works, Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), and The Wayward Bus (1947), and while each of these works has individual merits, none attains the overall impressiveness of The Grapes of Wrath”  (109).

Despite the critical favoring of The Grapes of Wrath over works such as Cannery Row, there is no question that Cannery Row marked a new kind of writing style not only within the scope of Steinbeck’s works, but in American literature. Cannery Row, like Of Mice and Men is a good example of slice of life literature, defined as “literature [that] is realistic writing that offers a realistic portrayal of life” (Flanagan 1). Even more so than the characters found in The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, the characters found in Cannery Row strike readers with a startling realness. Like Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row is about connections. Both books are “evocative, beautifully rendered portraits of ‘outsiders’ struggling to understand their own unique places in the world” (Stephan 1). But unlike Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row shows a community dynamic verses the dynamic of select individuals or a small group. In Cannery Row, the environment of the Row is shaped just as much by the characters inhabiting it as the characters are shaped by the Row. 

Just a significant as the impact that Cannery Row has had on the literary landscape is the impact that it has had on the landscape of present day Cannery Row in Monterey, California. Cannery Row is one of the few American novels that can be legitimately credited with shaping a portion of the American landscape. As the City of Monterey said in an official statement in 2004, “[t]he City has determined that its Cannery Row area has both historical and literary significance. While many of its historic structures have decayed or been destroyed, many survive, and Cannery Row remains a destination for people interested in both the actual history of the area and the fictionalized setting of John Steinbeck’s novels” (Huelga 1). There is no question that with such dedicated readers and preservationists that Cannery Row the novel and Cannery Row the place will continue to enrich lives in the years to come.