Once there's a beer milkshake involved, you've pretty much written off your chances at a Pulitzer.
Sure, John Steinbeck won a bunch of awards for his work, but Cannery Row wasn't exactly major literary award bait like The Grapes of Wrath. Why? Basically, Cannery Row takes itself a lot less seriously. The book came out in 1945, just a few months before World War II ended. Steinbeck wrote it for soldiers. In his own words, it was:
a kind of nostalgic thing, written for a group of soldiers who said to me, "Write something funny that isn't about the war. Write something for us to read—we're sick of war" (source)
So the book might be about all kinds of things, but it's Not About the War. Which means that we really can't understand all of this humor and nostalgia and everything without thinking about, well, the war. After all the horrors of World War II, people looked back wistfully on a world like the one in Cannery Row, where a broken-down truck might be your biggest problem. Steinbeck's book is a love letter to a time and a place that had almost already disappeared by the time it was published.
In other words (beer milkshake aside), we're not saying you should put down Cannery Row and watch Jersey Shore instead. Steinbeck still manages to squeeze in some important stuff between frog-catching expeditions and raucous parties. His big message is that a real community is tied together by guys who value friendship way more than money.
Cannery Row might not be Steinbeck's masterpiece—but hey. Even his minor works are pretty major.
Why Should I Care?
Fair enough. This is a book about a group of bums trying to get enough cheap booze together to throw a party. Aside from the fact that it's funny—madcap frog-collecting is a major theme—why bother reading the book? (Unless you need some tips on collecting a few thousand frogs, that is.)
Well, what's neat about Cannery Row is that John Steinbeck takes a pretty down-and-out group of people—bums, prostitutes, nutty artists, the odd marine biologist—and shows us that they're not just good people, but divine. Kind of like Jesus did. The "saints" of Cannery Row know that it's better to be poor and happy than to ruin things by striving for money. Sometimes, all you need is a good friend to throw you a party.
And that, Shmoopers, is a lesson for the ages.