Study Guide

Cannery Row

By John Steinbeck

Cannery Row Introduction

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.

What is Cannery Row About and 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.


Cannery Row Resources


Steinbeck Galore
If you've already seen Shmoop's guide to Steinbeck, but you still can't get enough, check out The Center for Steinbeck Studies.

Working on the Railroad
If want to hear some secret history, check out this story on the Chinese laborers who built the Western railroads.

In Cod We Trust
Don't know a limpet from an anemone? The Oceana Marine Wildlife Encyclopedia is here to help.

Hang with Mack and the Boys
Cannery Row is a real place in Monterey, California. You can even sign up for a tour of Doc's lab. (Maybe you can sit in one of his bedroom chairs. Sounds like everyone else did.)

Movie or TV Productions

Spoiler Alert
Doc finds love! In the movie, Cannery Row is combined with Steinbeck's sequel, Sweet Thursday. Nick Nolte (as Doc) and Debra Winger (as a prostitute named Suzy) star.

Articles and Interviews

Steinbeck on Steinbeck
The author talks a bit about Cannery Row and his other short novels in this preface.


It's Not All Made Up
Michael Hemp tells us about the history of the real Cannery Row.

Doc Is Trying Out For a Part in Saturday Night Fever
Here's a scene from the movie. At the end you get a glimpse of Mack and the boys and Dora and the girls.

Canary Row
Steinbeck's classic as interpreted by Sylvester and Tweetie Bird.

Do You See the Can?
There's video of the flagpole skater. Have we mentioned how much we love the Internet?


What Was Cannery Row Like? It Stank.
The nice folks at NPR have interviews with former Cannery Row residents and a report on the life of Ed Ricketts.

What Doc's Parties Sounded Like
Here's Ravel's Pavane to a Dead Princess. It's not dubstep, but it'll do.


LOL, Pigasus
Steinbeck's personal logo of a winged pig.

Mack's Ride
A Model T Ford. It comes in any color, as long as it's black.

That Was Then
Cannery Row in 1945.

This Is Now
So evidently tourism took over where sardine fishing left off.