Study Guide

Cannery Row Writing

By John Steinbeck


The deep-laden boats pull in against the coast where the canneries dip their tails in the bay. The figure is advisedly chosen, for if the canneries dipped their mouths into the bay the canned sardines which emerge from the other end would be, metaphorically, at least, even more horrifying (0.2)

You're right, this sentence doesn't have anything to do with writing. We put it in here because this violent and gross process of canning sardines is totally the opposite of how Steinbeck says you ought to capture sea life and stories: gently, and without totally destroying them.

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? (0.3)

Okay, since when have poems, stinks, noises, light, tones, habits and dreams been alive in the first place? Well, Steinbeck probably doesn't mean that these things are literally alive. We're thinking he means that reader won't really feel these qualities if he doesn't write them down just right.

When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of seawater (0.3)

Steinbeck isn't just going off on a tangent about flat worms (though he also kind of is), he's trying to tell us that collecting these worms is like trying to get down all of these super delicate qualities of Cannery Row down on paper. You have to let them ooze, and it probably helps if there's some liquid involved.

And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves (0.3)

So, Steinbeck is telling us that this book is going to be like a bunch of slimy, wiggling stories all collected in a jar. This is the way Doc works, collecting things, carefully preserving them, then sending them away to his customers. In other words: don't expect much of a plot. Just worms.

The Word is a symbol and a delight which sucks up men and scenes, trees, plants, factories, and Pekinese. Then the Thing becomes the Word and back to Thing again, but warped and woven in a fantastic pattern (2.1)

All right, we know this is a tough one, but it doesn't get any harder. Here, Steinbeck is talking about what happens when you try to take something in the real world and write about it. (That would be the Word sucking stuff up). When you read about it, you get something like the original Thing, but it's a little bit different, too. It's been changed by the Word. In other words, go see it for yourself, you big dummy.

The Word sucks up Cannery Row, digests it and spews it out, and the Row has taken the shimmer of the green world and the sky-reflecting seas (2.1)

Doesn't this remind you a little of how the canneries work? Sucking up the sea life, packing it into little cans, and then sending it off … to be eaten, digested, and excreted. He has a way with words, our Johnny.

Western Biological deals in strange and beautiful wares. [ . . . ] You can order anything living from Western Biological and sooner or later you will get it.

"Strange and beautiful" isn't exactly how we'd describe Mack and the boys, but we'll take it. They're the sea life that Steinbeck deals with, just as anemones and starfish are the sea life that Doc collects.

And for students there are sharks with the blood drained out and yellow and blue color substituted in veins and arteries, so that you may follow the systems with a scalpel. And there are cats with colored veins and arteries, and frogs the same (5.1)

So if Doc's lab is the writing desk, then the "books" are the preserved animals that Doc sends out to his clients. That would be us. We want to be able to dissect Cannery Row and understand all about how it works. But—here's the thing. Isn't it kind of, well, wrong to dissect real, living people the same way you'd peer at a shark?

Then the French doctor was made to collect the parts. He was forced to wash them reverently and pick out as much sand as possible. [ . . . ] For Monterey was not a town to let dishonor come to a literary man (12.22)

You kind of have to ask if this long story about what happened to the dead writer's stomach and liver does much to restore honor to him. And then you have to ask if Steinbeck is secretly afraid that something similar is going to happen to his liver.

One time when it was the first of the month and there were curt notes from the water company and the rent wasn't paid and a manuscript had come back from Collier's and the cartoons had come back from The New Yorker and pleurisy was hurting Tom pretty badly, he went into the bedroom and lay down on the bed (24.6)

It's ironic that, while the dead writer in Chapter 12 is honored (kind of), the only living writer in Cannery Row is living pretty badly. Sure, Monterey seems to be saying, just get famous and dead, and then we'll honor you.