Archive for October, 2014

An Observed Humanity: Structure and Form in Cannery Row

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 9, 2014 by drmiller1960

I recently finished reading Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck. My daughter had been after me to read it ever since she studied it for her IB English class, and a particular student of mine, who had adored Of Mice and Men, inspired me to read it with him.

I was predisposed to enjoy it, since I tend to respect both my daughter’s literary taste and Steinbeck’s writing, but I had no idea how much the inhabitants of the Row—Lee Chong, Mack and the boys, Dora and her working girls, and, of course, Doc—would move me. As someone who has taught Of Mice and Men a gazillion times, I can state with some authority that Steinbeck is a master of characterization. With a few deft observations of stance, clothing, and speech, he can reveal the deepest fears and hopes of his characters’ hearts. Read this passage, and I dare you not to be impressed with the depth of Mack’s love for Doc, and his remorse at disappointing him:

Mack lumbered to his feet. His hands were at his sides. Doc hit him again, a cold calculated punishing punch in the mouth. The blood spurted from Mack’s lips and ran down his chin. He tried to lick his lips.

“Put up your hands. Fight, you son of a bitch,” Doc cried, and he hit him again and heard the crunch of breaking teeth.

Mack’s head jolted but he was braced now so he wouldn’t fall. And his hands stayed at his sides. “Go ahead, Doc,” he said thickly through his broken lips. “I got it coming.”

Mack’s willingness to be defeated, his active passivity, his inability even to lick his blood from his lips, all point to a hideous, festering guilt for having let Doc down. It is so overwhelming that even Doc, who has every right to beat the crap out of Mack at that particular point in the story, can no longer summon the righteous anger he needs to finish the job.

But while characterization is crucial to this book, I think that Steinbeck’s manipulation of structure and form is key to understanding how Cannery Row so successfully burrows its way into the reader’s heart. Unlike other Steinbeck works, there is no tightly constructed story. Steinbeck asserts in his opening sentence that Cannery Row “is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Subjecting it to the rigors of structure would destroy the very thing that he is hoping to invoke. Like the memory of a lover’s perfume, Cannery Row cannot be captured. Instead, it must be allowed to bubble to the surface, gently and with patience. Like “certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole”, Steinbeck lets his memories of Cannery Row “ooze and crawl of their own will.” Hence, stories of Mack’s canny manipulation of the storekeeper Lee Chong (among others) float effortlessly alongside the tragic story of Frankie. Steinbeck’s panegyrics to the foam-flecked and garbage-festooned streets of Cannery Row coexist with the stories of the whores, housewives, and dreamers who inhabit this world. Just as Doc minutely observes the creatures he finds in the tidal pools of Central California, so too does Steinbeck subject his characters and their environs to a discerning—but nonjudgmental—eye. But the characters, like those interesting sea creatures, depend on their environment and the complex web of relationships with the other organisms sharing that space. So when Mack and the boys in the Palace Flop House ruin their planned party for Doc, creating chaos instead of celebration, their neighbors in Dora’s whore house know all about it and shun them for it. The structure of this book is not linear, but similar to those food webs we all drew in ninth grade biology.

But it is the act of observation that invests this web with meaning. An environment exists independently of the biologist, and Cannery Row, where Steinbeck lived and worked, existed well before he put pen to paper and wrote this book. Yet, unless the environment is observed and interpreted by the biologist or the author, we can develop no sympathy or empathy for it. The scientist (and artist) becomes an alchemist, transforming the dross of seaweed and sweat into poetry and understanding.

Furthermore, even though the structure appears diaphanous and vulnerable, Steinbeck uses a quite familiar form to give it strength. This is an old trick: Of Mice and Men borrows heavily from the traditions and tropes of Greek tragedy, the Joad family’s journey to California has more than a passing resemblance to The Odyssey, while East of Eden is a retelling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. In the case of Cannery Row, I believe that Steinbeck uses the tall tale—that most American of American literary forms—to weave the web more strongly.

There are many instances of the tall tale scattered in this book, but surely the brightest—and funniest—is the description of the frog hunt in chapter fifteen. Mack and the gang—hoping to raise money for a party for Doc—break all known rules of frog hunting, and Steinbeck celebrates the boys’ success in a Homeric listing that reminded me of Browning’s description of the doomed rats in “The Pied Piper”:

A wave of frantic, frustrated frogs, big ones, little ones, brown ones, green ones, men frogs and women frogs, a wave of them broke over the bank, crawled, leaped, scrambled. They clambered up the grass, they clutched at each other, little ones rode on big ones. And then—horror on horror—the flashlights found them. Two men gathered them like berries. The line came out of the water and closed in on their rear and gathered them like potatoes. Tens and fifties of them were flung into the gunny sacks, and the sacks filled with tire, frightened, and disillusioned frogs, with dripping, whimpering frogs. Some got away, of course, and some had been saved in the pool. But never in frog history had such an execution taken place. Frogs by the pound, by the fifty pounds. They weren’t counted but there must have been six or seven hundred. Then happily Mack tied up the necks of the sacks. They were soaking, dripping wet and the air was cool. They had a short one in the grass before they went back to the house so they wouldn’t catch cold.

This is Mack’s proudest moment: the plan he hatched has worked, and the frogs (for which Doc will pay him) will finance the party he and his gang want to throw for Doc. In a hilarious exchange between Mack and Lee Chong, they even become a form of legal tender within the poverty-strapped boundaries of Cannery Row. But they are also the symbols of Mack’s downfall: his fecklessness and alcoholism doom all of Mack’s schemes (except the most venal) to failure. On the night of the party, the frogs escape, leaving the lab and the party in tatters behind them:

Through the broken end of the packing case a frog hopped and sat, feeling the air for danger, and then another joined him. They could smell the fine damp cool air coming in the door and in through the broken windows. One of them sat on the fallen card which said, “Welcome Home, Doc.” And then the two hopped timidly toward the door.

For quite a while a little river of frogs hopped down the steps, a swirling, moving river. For quite a while Cannery Row crawled with frogs—was overrun with frogs. A taxi which brought a very late customer to the Bear Flag squashed five frogs in the street. But well before dawn they had all gone. Some found the sewer and some worked their way up the hill to the reservoir and some went into culverts and some only hid among the weeds in the vacant lot.

And the lights blazed in the quiet empty laboratory.

The purpose of the tall tale is generally to aggrandize the protagonists of the story. Pecos Bill rides a tornado, while Paul Bunyan tamed the Whistling River. Tall tales can also take their heroes down a notch or two, as seen in Mark Twain’s famous story about another amphibian. Steinbeck does both here. But, just as he uses Greek tragedy to illuminate the noble lives of the unheroic men in Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck uses the tall tale to magnify the humanity of his characters, instead of distorting it or diminishing it. Yes, the frogs are symbols of transient glory and aborted dreams, but they are also symbolic of Mack’s intelligence, cunning, and desire to express a humane love for the quietly heroic Doc. In another story, Mack would be the hero, not the goat. Speaking through Doc, Steinbeck acknowledges the superior humanity of the neglected:

Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.

Of course, characterization also gives Mack his particular dignity: it’s interesting, for example, that he always uses the grammatically correct “I and the boys are…” instead of the more expected (but incorrect) “me and the boys are…” But ultimately, it is through the web-like structure of the story and the use of the tall tale that Steinbeck best shows how integral to the life of Cannery Row that Mack and the boys are. And by extension, by exalting the lowest of us, Steinbeck endows each of us with humanity. We are all ennobled by Mack, and far from scorning him –or Dora or her whores or the mercenary Lee Chong or any of the other people who populate Cannery Row—we should celebrate him, his failures, and his triumphs.