Cannery Row is less of a novel than a series of vignettes about 1940s’ residents of the cannery district of Monterey, California. These down-on-their-luck characters include Mack and the boys, a group of loafers led by a schemer whose good intentions make up for his shiftiness; Dora, the generous proprietor of a house of ill repute, and her girls; the kind-hearted grocer Lee Chong; and the mentally deficient boy Frankie. The mismatched group has a tight community in the midst of the foul-smelling sardine canneries. The core of the community is a professional man, Doc, owner of the Western Biological Laboratory, a specimen-supply house. Benevolent and cultured, Doc is respected by all and a source of aid from medical advice to the loan of a few bucks. The loose plot of Cannery Row concerns the sincere but sometimes bungled efforts of the community to do something for Doc because he’s such a nice guy.
The model for Doc was Steinbeck’s good friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist who owned Pacific Biological Laboratories. Ricketts mostly lived in his lab in the company of the specimens he collected and welcomed visitors to discuss philosophy, science, art, and whatever. “His mind had no horizon and his sympathy had no warp,” Steinbeck writes of the Ricketts stand-in in Cannery Row.
Like much of Steinbeck’s writing, Cannery Row is sentimental in tone. People the conventional world scorns as “no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums” find human connection and display a kind of dignity in Cannery Row. As Doc notes, they “survive in this particular world better than other people.”
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