Study Guide

Cannery Row Writing

By John Steinbeck


You know authors and their egos: they just love to write about writing. So, it's never a huge surprise when writing is a theme of a book. In the first chapter, Steinbeck sets up a big metaphor between collecting sea life and trying to write about life in Cannery Row, and he's not afraid to get gross: the stories are worms, the resulting books are like embalmed cats and frogs, and so on. Writing in Cannery Row isn't something that artistes do with nice pens at fancy desks. It's a job, like working at the cannery or collecting sea worms. But probably less smelly than either.

Questions About Writing

  • Steinbeck talks about how he's going to go about writing the story about Cannery Row, but he never tells us why. Why does he want to get this kind of crummy place on paper in the first place? What about it is so special, and why does it make a good subject for writing?
  • What's wrong with writing a book like the canneries can sardines? That is, with not being careful about making sure you "set down alive" all of the stories? What kind of book would be like a can of sardines?
  • Is it a bad thing that "the Word sucks up Cannery Row, digests it and spits it out" (2.1)? Is Steinbeck killing Cannery Row in some way, by writing about it?

Chew on This

If writing is like collecting sea life, then Doc is like the writer, making stories out of life. And like a writer, he seems to stand a little apart from the rest of Cannery Row.

Steinbeck's treatment of writing suggests that Cannery Row is leaching the life out of the real Cannery Row. Writing about something inevitably changes it, and to change Cannery Row would kill it.