Revisiting Cannery Row and the Insights of John Steinbeck

Cannery Row, Monterey, California

Cannery Row, Monterey, California

This past weekend we visited Monterey for a Westmont event. I love the Monterey Peninsula. Its raw beauty, relaxed pace of life and natural encouragement to outdoor activities always captivate me. I first became conscious of Monterey while reading Cannery Row my senior year of high school. Ironically, I visited Cannery Row and the Monterey Peninsula for the first time when I headed to Westmont for the fall semester in 1980. After Cannery Row, I read Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, The Winter of our Discontent, Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charley and East of Eden. Eventually, I realized Steinbeck had become my favorite novelist, as I was drawn to his depiction of people who live at the margins, struggle with the titanic moral clashes that confront every individual and society, and live and work in settings that captivate me and continue to be some of my favorite places in all the world.

What initially struck me and then forever hooked me is the way Steinbeck offers some of the most memorable insights into life from the unique turn he takes on a biblical story, analogy or personality. Cannery Row, Steinbeck’s popular novel based on life in Monterey, includes some of my favorites. For example, “What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world…and return to his mansion with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate and bifocals.” Or in describing the magic of a sunset over the Pacific, he write, “It is the hour of the pearl—the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.” Steinbeck portrays the kindness and genuineness of Doc, who is always in view but rarely at the center, “(He) could listen to any kind of nonsense and turn it into wisdom. His mind had no horizon—and his sympathy had no warp. He could talk to children, telling them very profound things so that they understood.” In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck observes a waitress in New England and writes, “Strange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement. Then, there are others who can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it. Such people spread a grayness in the air about them.”

But I find myself repeatedly returning to East of Eden. Steinbeck took the title from Genesis 4, when God passes judgment on Cain after he has murdered Abel and sends him “east of Eden” to form the first community apart from God. The characters all resemble intergenerational personalities drawn from biblical accounts of good and evil. The book contains one of the most remarkable dialogues on free will versus determinism when two-thirds of the way through the book Lee, the housekeeper, offers a wonderful interpretation of Genesis 3. In this transition we see the intelligence of Lee, who has secretly been traveling to San Francisco to study the ancient text with Hebrew scholars.

Throughout the book, Steinbeck invites us to consider the deeper complexities of life that come as we live and wrestle with good and evil, confront the moral dilemmas that shape each one of us, and draw on our own life energy to respond with choices that determine our destiny. During the weekend, I had an opportunity to reflect on Jesus in the Temple, where the very nature of his questions provoked awe and wonder because they conveyed a deeper, more nuanced understanding of life and its complexities.

As I headed home Sunday afternoon, I took a slight detour and drove downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey and specifically Cannery Row. I parked, bought a latte and listened to the seagulls overhead. I smelled the ocean, heard its roar, enjoyed the warmth of the sun overhead and thanked God for John Steinbeck. As I spent this brief moment of time reflecting on Steinbeck, I became thankful for the people in my life who have opened me to the deeper mysteries of life and the deeper realities of God. I’m grateful for the opportunity each of us has to make a difference every day through our choices.

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