In 'Cannery Row,' a Preserved Simplicity

Steinbeck's novels remain astonishingly popular.
Steinbeck's novels remain astonishingly popular. (Associated Press)
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Thursday, May 8, 2008

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

As a teenager, even into my early 20s, there wasn't a writer dead or alive whose work I treasured more than John Steinbeck's. During the 1950s I devoured his novels -- "The Grapes of Wrath," of course, but also all the rest, including "In Dubious Battle," "The Long Valley," "Of Mice and Men," "The Moon Is Down" and "East of Eden," which was published when I was 12 -- with adolescent passion and utterly without discrimination. My devotion was so blind that, in 1960, I actually let a friend persuade me to trade my crisp new copy of Dwight Macdonald's brilliant "Parodies: An Anthology From Chaucer to Beerbohm -- and After" for his review copy of Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley in Search of America."

Well, time marches on. "Travels With Charley" vanished from my library ages ago, precisely when and where I haven't the foggiest idea, and just a few weeks ago I set things right by purchasing, for not much more than a song, a nice used copy of "Parodies" in its original dust wrapper. Over the years, all of my Steinbeck collection -- of which for a time there had been quite a lot -- disappeared, "The Grapes of Wrath" being the last to go in the spring of 2006 when, in the process of moving from a large house to a smallish condominium, my wife and I had to make draconian literary judgments to pare down our library.

It's tempting to say that when I was a child I read as a child, and when I became a man I put aside childish books, but that's not fair to Steinbeck or, for that matter, to my own youthful self. A decade and a half ago, when I reviewed the first volume of the Library of America's Steinbeck edition (the fourth and last volume has just been published), which contains the first five of his books, I was struck, upon rereading, by "the solemnity, the sentimentality, the heavy-handed irony, the humorlessness, the labored colloquialisms, the clumsiness, the political naivete" that I found in them, but I was also reminded of what had drawn me to him when I was young: "his powerfully sympathetic portraits of American farm workers and . . . the vision of social justice with which his work is imbued." Now, with Second Reading well into its sixth year and with a number of readers asking whether Steinbeck would be included in the series, seems a good time to take another look.

I decided to do so with "Cannery Row." It was first published in 1945, and I read it no more than six or seven years later. I already had read, and delighted in, Steinbeck's first popular success, "Tortilla Flat" (1935), and was thrilled to discover that "Cannery Row" marked a return to Monterey, the coastal California town whose ordinary people Steinbeck loved and portrayed with sympathy and humor. I remembered that in these two books Steinbeck mostly had set aside the preachiness to which he was susceptible and simply had had fun; he was a long way from a humorist, but I remembered these as good-humored books and wondered if I would find that this quality had not diminished over the years.

The short answer is that the good humor is still there, but the book itself now seems strained, dated and not really very funny. This is disappointing if not surprising, but it leaves unanswered the question about Steinbeck that for years has vexed me and innumerable others: Why is it that the work of this earnest but artless writer continues to enjoy such astonishing popularity? It's not hard to understand why his books are widely assigned in middle and high school English classes; they are easy to read, they are honest in their portrayal of working-class Americans, they passionately support basic American values and principles even when they criticize particulars of American life. Whatever their literary shortcomings, they have an integrity to which young readers respond.

But why do adults continue to read Steinbeck in such numbers? Four decades after his death, his books are cash cows for his publisher; he is to Viking Penguin what Khalil Gibran is to Knopf, an endless source of revenue, some of which presumably underwrites riskier books of a more literary nature. From "Cup of Gold" (1929) to "America and Americans" (1967), Steinbeck's books remain in print, along with various posthumous volumes of letters, collected miscellany and so forth. My copy of "Cannery Row" is part of a "Steinbeck Centennial Edition" issued by Penguin in 2002, a handsome paperback complete with jacket flaps, looking for all the world like a European publication. This centennial edition clearly is aimed at adult readers, and clearly it is reaching them; at this writing, its sales rating is far higher than that enjoyed by most recent, well-received books.

Probably the explanation for this will forever be a mystery. It cannot have much to do with the Nobel Prize in Literature that Steinbeck won in 1962; if Nobel Prizes sent American readers into bookstores, they'd still be reading Pearl Buck and Sinclair Lewis. Nor can it have much to do with relevance to the country today, since his books mostly are period pieces. Grace of literary style would send no one to his books, as they have precious little of it.

Why do people still read Steinbeck today while his contemporary William Saroyan ("The Human Comedy," "My Name Is Aram," Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Time of Your Life") is almost completely forgotten? The two writers were remarkably similar in their affection for ordinary people, their belief in the United States and their persistent sentimentality, and in their day both were hugely popular, yet now probably no more than one reader in 25 would be likely to recognize Saroyan's name. The only reason I can come up with for the high esteem in which Steinbeck is still held is his transparent sincerity. It has long been my pet theory that in the popular marketplace, readers instinctively distinguish between writers whose work draws on genuine feeling and those who rely on art or artifice, and that they reward the former while repudiating the latter. From Jacqueline Susann to Danielle Steel, from James Michener to James Patterson, readers have recognized the sincerity of feeling beneath the utter lack of literary merit, and have rewarded it accordingly.

Steinbeck was scarcely so bad a prose stylist as any of these -- though his Nobel Prize is a reminder that literary distinction matters less to the Swedish Academy than political orthodoxy -- but his books shine with conviction that comes from the heart. In "Cannery Row," for example, he gives us an amiable loafer named Mack and his band of friends who settle into an abandoned Monterey building that they christen the Palace Flophouse and Grill. They have "no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment," and the conventional world scorns them as "no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums," but in Steinbeck's eyes they are "the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces" because "in the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack and the boys dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row."

This is sentimentalism pure and simple, if not outright tripe, but Steinbeck's love for these men is transparent and his admiration for their innocent simplicity is utterly sincere. He had a weakness for parable, fantasy and mythology -- "Tortilla Flat," the linear ancestor of "Cannery Row," is a riff on King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table -- and the sweeping thematic generalizations often associated with all of these. He delighted in the antics of Mack and company -- the novel's most successful and engaging scene involves their encounter with a henpecked military officer to whom they bring a brief moment of escape and irresponsibility -- but he took them very seriously. Doc, a warmhearted marine biologist who is the novel's real hero, speaks for Steinbeck when he says:

"Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think . . . that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else. . . . They could ruin their lives and get money. Mack has qualities of genius. They're all very clever if they want something. They just know the nature of things too well to be caught in that wanting."

This comes perilously close to being a variation on the thoroughly discredited theory of the noble savage, but it speaks to Steinbeck's heartfelt admiration for innocence and selflessness. Himself a complex, difficult and ambitious man who eventually moved East and traveled in high-powered circles, he never really lost his connection to the simpler life and values of his native region of early-20th-century coastal California. Readers recognized this in his writing and responded to it, as apparently they still do.

For myself, Steinbeck is most comfortably lodged in a past that is now half a century gone. I no longer can read him -- too often, for me, reading his prose is like scraping one's fingernails on a blackboard -- but he was important to me once and that should not be forgotten. Not many books of our youth survive unscathed into what passes for our maturity, and many other books await that maturity before we are ready to appreciate and understand them. For me, Steinbeck eventually gave way to William Faulkner, but I decline, now, to thumb my nose at my old friend as I bid him farewell.

"Cannery Row" is available in a Penguin paperback ($15).

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