Steinbeck and Northern California

The Great American Road Trip

Destination: Northern California (Monterey)

Book: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Monterey Bay

In Cannery Row, John Steinbeck makes poetry of an once ordinary place, Monterey California, and makes mythological figures of working men and women. (A little trick that he specialized in).  In the introduction to Cannery Row, he asks: “How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise–the quality of light, the tone, the habit, and the dream–be set down alive?’

And comparing writing to his other passion, marine biology and the capture of sea creatures, he answers, “…open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

Cannery Row stacks up as a light weight compared to other Steinbeck novels like East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, or Grapes of Wrath, but it still tells a story about fascinating characters and shines a sharp clear light on a particular place.

A Steinbeck fan on a road trip to Cannery Row in Monterey today,  will notice mostly how it no longer resembles the smelly, working fishing business of Steinbeck’s novel.  Artists and sellers of cyrstals and fried clams fill Monterey’s docks instead of prostitutes, Chinese grocers, and semi-literate roustabouts.  There is a Cannery Row, but it is not the hard-working, gritty place of Steinbeck’s novel. See the happy tourists spending money!

On the other hand, you can find a tribute of sorts to Doc, the main character of Cannery Row, at the grand Monterey Bay Aquarium. Doc’s business consisted of harvesting sea animals and selling them to laboratories. Doc is based on Steinbeck’s real life marine biologist friend, Ed Ricketts. They went tide pool exploring together and took a well know trip: The Log from the Sea of Cortez .

If you take a road trip along the northern California coast, you will find Pacific Grove (butterfly migration), Monterey, and then Carmel (the quaint upscale village we visited last summer) all clustered along the shore along with Pebble Beach golf course and the Seventeen-Mile Drive.  A road trip down California’s Route 1 and a stop over at the Monterey Peninsula cannot be beat, whether you are looking for a romantic getaway, a girlfriends’ weekend or a family trip.

We took our young boys many years ago and stayed in a modest cabin in Pacific Grove. Steinbeck himself lived in a modest cabin in Pacific Grove once upon a time. Nowadays you’ll have to stay farther away from the ocean to find “modest.” Nevertheless, it is a great area for beaches, golf, hiking, shopping for artsy items, eating seafood, and driving through some stunning scenery with rocky seascapes and centuries-old Monterey pines. While you are in the neighborhood, you may want to pop inland to Salinas to see the National Steinbeck Center.

The eternity of sea and impermanence of primitive sea life in tide pools permeates the story and the characters of Cannery Row.  One of the attractions for me is that Steinbeck gives his full attention and sympathy to characters that other writers would turn away from as unworthy or repulsive.

For instance, you have to love Dora Flood, the madame with “flaming orange hair”, who runs a down-at-the-heels, but clean whorehouse. She has, Steinbeck says, “through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, made herself respected…”

Nothing much happens in this novel. The story, such as it is, has to do with five not-too-bright  young thugs who decide to “do something nice for Doc.” Their good deeds go astray in every possible way. People in Cannery Row just make the best of life, going with the flow so to speak, like the sea creatures who exist in the ebb and flow of the tidepool.

Carmel Beach Sunset

You might also like to read:

And check out Joan Baez at Music Road–Kerry Dexter’s contribution to the Great American Road Trip stop in Northern California. After Steinbeck wrote about the working person, many musicians in the sixties turned to folk music, singing of the ordinary person.

Two more stops on the Great American Road Trip. Are we there yet??

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

13 thoughts on “Steinbeck and Northern California

  1. Cannery Row is one of my favorite Steinbeck novels, as much for the fact that my grandparents lived in Monterey and, the story being set there, it reminds me of the trips we often made to their house, driving up from Santa Barbara.

    To me, The Grapes of Wrath is his greatest work, but another book I’d recommend any Steinbeck fan to read is Travels with Charley, a travelogue of his road trip across the United States, with his dog Charley. What impressed me more than anything else while reading this book was what a truly literate man Steinbeck was. His writing style is very simple and bare bones, but that was definitely a matter of choice, not necessity. Travels with Charley is mostly a record of his thoughts and impressions as he drove across the States. His deep knowledge of literature and erudition evinced in this book are amazing.

  2. Only two more stops left? Can’t believe it’s gone by so quickly!

    The Monterey coast is one of my favorite places in the whole darn country; you’re reminding me it’s been way too long since I read Cannery Row. Time to dig it out.

  3. I read this book years ago at school (one of several of this great writer’s books since read). And I was so happy when a few years ago I travelled to Monterey on one of my multiple journeys to Silicon Valley with work and had a superb day exploring the aquarium and old character-filled buildings (the old cannery and the whaling station). You can almost feel and picture the gritty history and salty characters that must have filled Monterey in those fishing days past.

  4. While you’re in Pacific Grove you might want to check out the new Happy Girl Kitchen Co. Cafe and Cannery. I can recommend both their strawberry-lavender jam and their dry-farmed ketchup (not together, of course).

  5. nice description of your experiences with your experiences with northern California, Vera as well as your good insights on Steinbeck. I’m with Kiwi, I think I’d prefer it as it is now.

    are we there yet? not quite — and we’ve been at this trip for more than a year now…

  6. There’s a wonderful waterfront walk between Pacific Grove and Cannery Row. Beautiful views of Monterey Bay across to Santa Cruz, and a beach where dozing harbor seals sun themselves …

  7. Ahh Steinbeck.. that about sums that up. 🙂 I almost think the Cannery Row of Steinbeck would be more interesting than the current one.

    1. I’m sure that Steinbeck could make even the present one interesting with his eye for characters–there are always oddball characters around us. But I tend to agree with you. It’s one of those “You should have seen it when…” kind of things.

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