A New Read on Monterey’s Cannery Row

A couple of weeks ago, I paid a visit to a place originally called Ocean View Avenue, in Monterey, California.

In the early 1900s, this street was locally known as “Cannery Row”, due to the number of sardine canneries lining the street. But of course, it only really achieved notoriety as the thinly-veiled inspiration for author John Steinbeck.  In 1958, fourteen years after the  novel Cannery Row was published, the name of the street was officially changed to its longtime nickname in honor of the book and its author.

Now, I read Cannery Row when I was a teenager but I remembered nothing about it, so when I got home, I pulled my yellowed copy off my bookshelf. I just finished re-reading. From the perspective of destination marketing, I’m a bit surprised that the city of Monterey wanted to honor the novel — if you also don’t remember the book very well, allow me to remind you: it’s grim, people.

Monterey is portrayed as a nasty place, a place that will suck the life right out of you.

Besides the two suicides that happen before the book is half done, men live in large industrial pipes, prostitutes shriek, planned parties go wrong, backs are broken, and cons and swindles are a part of daily life. The only real hero is a man named Doc whose business is basically providing corpses of all sorts of creatures, from jellyfish to cats.

Anything lovely that happens in the book gets messed up in some essential way. To cite just one example, one day, Doc goes gathering octopi and sea cradles. “..he looked under stones, leaned down and peered into tide pools with their brilliant mosaics and their scuttling, bubbling life…”  And in the midst of this rapturous communion with aquatic nature, Doc pushed aside some seaweed and finds the dead body of a young girl.

We never find who she is and why she died, and through this omission we’re made to understand that this is how life works. The moment you truly lose yourself to bliss, you’re likely to turn up evidence of evil, decay.

Things like this happen all the time on Steinbeck’s Cannnery Row, so it made sense when I learned that Steinbeck had mixed feelings about Monterey when he wrote the novel.  According to The Steinbeck Center, in 1944, the author:

… bought a house in Monterey but was unwelcome; no one would rent him an office for writing. He was harassed when trying to get fuel and wood from a local wartime rations board.

Steinbeck wrote that his old friends did not want him, partly because of his works and partly because he was so successful: “This isn’t my country anymore. And it won’t be until I am dead. It makes me very sad.” He left Monterey the next year and moved to New York.”  [The year Cannery Row was published.]

Steinbeck died in New York in 1968, and of course the Cannery RowDSCN7819 of today is nothing like the Cannery Row he once knew. There aren’t any canneries on Cannery Row any more, because the sardines were depleted through overfishing — although there is a new InterContinental, and several wine tasting rooms, mixed in with a certain amount of near-schlocky tourist bait.

The big draw on today’s Cannery Row is the terrific Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is an impressive center of activism on behalf of the earth’s oceans.The aquarium is located on the site of the former Hovden Cannery — which closed in the 1970s, the last cannery to shut down on the street. I can’t help but feel optimistic about that fact –the aquarium is a good that came out of something rather tragic.

I also can’t help but observe that such a happy ending would never have happened on Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

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