The Cannery Row Scarecrow

“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.”John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

The Cannery Row Scarecrow

This is, perhaps, one of the greatest first sentences ever written into any novel. Steinbeck is best known for  The Grapes of Wrath, the novel that won him the Nobel prize for literature.  For me, I’ve always been a fan of his book, Cannery Row; this is the one I’ve always regarded as Steinbeck’s masterpiece.  In this book, Doc, the  oddly dislocated marine biologist, and Mack, the putative leader of the local stumblebums  are not put out by their poverty of material, but rather, enriched by their hope and possibility.   Theirs is a world of  flop-houses, tenderhearted and straight-forward hookers, and the natural beauty and stench that surrounds them.

This book is fairly populated by hobos, and in the hobo-lore, canneries were a good place to get work on the West Coast; particularly Monterey, where one could also sleep on the beach.  Steinbeck’s coastal  atmosphere is a pungent slice of down-at-the-heels America, populated by “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,”  even though a look through another keyhole would yield “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” for in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, they are all the same thing.

I love the language in this book.  Very often I heard criticism of Steinbeck as being “too spare;” always from lesser writers who were not fit to  knock on his door.  What  thrills me in his books  is that, like Nelson Algren, he does not appraise his  creations or moralize.  They are who they are.  There are a million reasons people wind up where they do in life.  His bums are the genuine article; fully committed to bum-hood, his whores honest about what  you get for what you pay,  and best of all,  Doc (collector of sea creatures, and  the kind of man who tips  his hat to dogs),  Mack (good natured  hustler and swindler), who is one of those human case studies of  “the good in the bad, and the bad in the good.” Eddie supplies the hobos and bums with recycled booze filched from the backwash of the paying customers’ drinks. . .yum. Dora Flood is the pragmatic keeper of the restaurant/whorehouse, the Bear Flag.

These are Americans.  These are the people of whom the great Nelson Algren once observed, “lived behind the billboards.”   What a joy it has been to become reacquainted with Steinbeck. Dust this one off and rediscover a country no longer with us. We know the people in these books — they may go by different names and occupations now but they still walk the walk.

Published in: on May 28, 2009 at 5:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Town Without Mercy

This Town Is HostileHey–

In Timothy Egan’s, The Worst Hard Time, the dustbowl tragedy of the 30’s is chronicled in painstaking and heartbreaking detail.  The ‘Okies’ that Steinbeck later brought to life in the Grapes of Wrath are stranded in farms that have been blighted by drought and duststorms that turn noon into midnight.  This, combined with The Depression, sends hundreds upon thousands of teenagers to the road and the rails to itinerant and uncertain fates and entombing sadness.  Walker Evan’s photographs are a testament to the fates of our grandparents’ generation in America.

My parents were children of The Depression and my mother still remembers it viscerally.  In our house, it was unheard of to waste food; even the slop some of my sisters cooked.  My parents often cautioned us that there were starving people in the world.  As kids, we thought it was just an effort to get us to eat our meatloaf.

One of the books I constantly return to is Hard Times, Studs Terkel’s exquisite oral history of The Depression.  How fortunate we were to have Studs keeping these histories; forever preserving the human voices from a century in audio amber.  Many of these interviews are available through the Chicago Historical Museum’s website where Studs had these tapes transferred digitally so that they would last. “Vox Humana“– the human voice–is what he called this amazing archive, where he lets the American century speak to us in its own voice.

People have asked me since I started these, “What is contemporary about these?”  Maybe everything, maybe nothing. . .and it doesn’t matter.  I see hungry people in my neighborhood in the wealthiest country on earth.  The hobo alphabet is a language of hunger.  Before Studs left this world he often despaired of the collective amnesia of our culture–a”National Alzheimer'” he called it–Studs was an FDR man.  He witnessed and benefited from the New Deal; a bold plan that put Americans back to work.  A great many people didn’t like the New Deal (libertarians still lose their mind over it) but at the time, it lifted our nation out of a Depression.  It gave working people back their dignity.

This one is the hobo sign for ‘This town is hostile.”


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