Cannery Row (1945) is one of John Steinbeck's most beloved novels. Its mixture of tones and themes, memorable characters, and ability to capture and convey the essence of a place in time has made it a favorite of both readers and critics alike.
Steinbeck has said that he wrote the Cannery Row at the behest of an American soldier who expressed a desire to forget the horrors of World War II. Steinbeck was a war correspondent during the conflict, and thus knew exactly what sort of novel would appeal to someone who was tired of facing death and destruction. While Cannery Row was published in 1945, it is set in the 1930s and does not actually address the war. Steinbeck once described it as a "funny little book" and "pretty nice."
Cannery Row is Steinbeck's 9th novel. He wrote it while living in his family's cottage in Pacific Grove. During this time, he wandered around the real Cannery Row in Monterey, spending time at his friend Ed Ricketts' biological laboratory.
Monterey's first cannery was built next to Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey Harbor, but the resulting stench and detritus necessitated its move to a rocky, coastal strip that led from Monterey to Pacific Grove and China Point (now called Ocean Avenue). The area, nicknamed Cannery Row, was busy and profitable until the over-harvesting of sardines led to the shuttering and abandonment of many of the canneries. Steinbeck's book, though, revived interest in Cannery Row the 1950s and 1960s, and the city of Monterey started to reimagine the area as a tourist attraction. They officially named it Cannery Row in 1958.
Many critics have probed the deeper meaning of Cannery Row, finding allusions to the Arthurian legends beloved by Steinbeck, Steinbeck and Ricketts's interest in the non-teleological philosophy (which is based on the idea of "is"), and a possible response to Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again.
Cannery Row did receive some unfavorable reviews at the time of its release from critics who complained about Steinbeck's sentimentality and deemed the favorable depiction of hobos and prostitutes to be inappropriate. Some Monterey area residents were also unhappy with Steinbeck's depiction of the town. However, a other critics lauded Steinbeck for his realist style and his focus on the lives of working-class Americans. They approved of the way he subtly challenged American conformity, consumerism, and selfishness. Modern critics in particular are quick to celebrate the well-formed ethical and moral statements that Steinbeck conveys in Cannery Row.
Steinbeck wrote a sequel to Cannery Row entitled Sweet Thursday, in which Doc finds love with a young woman named Suzy.
A film version of Cannery Row, largely lampooned, came out in 1982, and a stage version debuted in 1995.