Dan Sandman

03: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

In Books, Fiction on 17/01/2014 at 12:00 pm

Cannery Row by John SteinbeckI own book reviews on a website, the address is rented from WordPress. Every Friday I publish a new book review, and every day I read a selected book. Because the world is chaotic, I attempt to bring order by numbering books. The numbers produced are rational and fixed to the calender system. In contrast, the books represent the infinite dexterity of words: governed by grammar and punctuation, ordered into chapters and page numbers, but nonetheless – sweet and unpredictable – words.


Cannery Row is a waterfront street in Monterey, California. The street’s name was changed, from Ocean View Avenue, sometime after American writer John Steinbeck first published this book in 1945. Set during the Great Depression, the book is a microscopic examination of the street; its joie de vivre characters, its fishy locations, and its place within nature.

The main plot (and there are many subplots) revolves around putting on a party for Doc, a marine biologist who collects sea creatures and studies them. In this recent Penguin Modern Classics edition, borrowed from my local library, there is an informative introduction published by Susan Shillinglaw in 1994. One argument the leading Steinbeck scholar suggests, is that the reader is encouraged to study Cannery Row – a tiny ecosystem – as Doc studies science. Evidence for this argument is found in Steinbeck’s descriptive language, how the author allows details of the natural world to coexist alongside, and interweave with, anecdotal human stories.

However, although Steinbeck’s close sociological study has a loosely scientific approach, at its core are romantic sensibilities and a desire to elevate his beloved home state through language. As the novel’s first sentence suggests: –

“Cannery Row in Monterey is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

And in a way, I feel that this short book, blurring between the lines of fiction and non-fiction, is a unique sort of extended poem: unique in subject matter, style and approach; poetic in sentiment, tone and compassion.

The excellent work of a truly great writer.

  1. I always remember when I first read this book, and what an enormous impact it had on me, in line with works like ‘War and Peace’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’. Truly, in my opinion, one of the great novels of the twentieth century

    • Yes, I agree. At school we read Of Mice and Men which I’ve always thought to be a little overrated. Coming back to Steinbeck, fifteen years later, has been a rewarding experience. Definitely an early contender for my Top Five 2014 Awards!

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