Cannery Row

Book by John Steinbeck

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at buzzflash.com on January 29, 2007.


Arguably, there's nothing whatever political about "Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck. It chronicles the lives of some of the residents of Monterey, California in the early 20th century, before the great ecological disaster (mostly over-fishing - it's still debated) of the mid-1940s that wiped out the sardine harvest and threw the boom town into bust. There's Doc, the central focus of the novel, based on a close friend of Steinbeck's, Edward F. Ricketts, one of America's most famous marine biologists. And Mack, who's always trying to do good and never quite making it. And an entire cast of characters that reflect the aura of America in the 1930s.
On the other hand, one could argue that the book is entirely political - today - because it shows us a slice of America before the Great Corporate Homogenizers got ahold of us.

Before we walled ourselves into our highly-mortgaged houses to stare for hours, alone, at our TVs, eating the mental gruel of multinational corporations who profit from wars.

Before our highest ideal - our "American Dream" - was to build up a small business so we could sell it off to Disney, as did the woman Bush congratulated in his State of the Union speech, but when the real American Dream was grounded in community, safety, friendship, and a healthy acceptance of eccentricity.

In 1968, I hitchhiked from Michigan to San Francisco, lived there for half a year, and then hitchhiked back. Every city was different. Restaurants were locally owned. Hotels and motels had eccentric names. Every main street was different. It was fascinating, an exploration in a very literal sense, discovering hundreds of communities that were all uniquely different from each other.

But after Reagan's "revolution" and he stopped enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act for all practical purposes, mega-corporations moved in. For much of the 1990s, I made a living in part as a consultant to a variety of organizations, leading me all around the USA (and the world). I logged over 7 million miles just on Delta Airlines. And the quirky, unique, personality-rich cities of America had been replaced by chain stores, chain restaurants, chain hotels, and franchises. Today if you were to parachute randomly into any town or city in America, it may take you days to find a commercial landmark that would uniquely identify the place.

In this regard - highly political in that it shows us how different the pre-Reagan America was from the post-Reagan America, Cannery Row is a political book.

I didn't go looking for "Cannery Row." As I sat with my father this past summer, helplessly watching him choke and gag on his own blood as he died from asbestos-caused mesothelioma (thanks in part to one of Dick Cheney's companies) while my brothers and I tried to comfort him, I saw the book beside his bed. He was an inveterate reader - there are about 20,000 books in his basement - and he'd often read and re-read his favorites over and over again. After his funeral, I picked the often-read book up and took it with me to read on the plane ride home from Michigan to Oregon.

What I found in "Cannery Row" was a time, and an America that my parents had often spoken to me about. My mother's stories about squeezing the last of the toothpaste from the tube in a door jamb when she went to Michigan State University, because she was putting herself through college by propping planes on weekends and being a lifeguard in the summer, and there was barely the money for toothpaste or toilet paper, much less cosmetics. My dad's stories of going down to one of Al Capone's speakeasies as a kid on the south side of Chicago to get a pail of bootleg beer to bring to his dad and uncles as they sat on the stoop in the row houses.

It was a time of challenge and a time of opportunity. It was America before Reagan.

In one of my dad's last emails to me, he talked about that era:

"Thank you for the wonderful dedication in SCREWED. I wanted to tell you in person but I get so emotional that I can't talk. But it made me think of what I did in life other than try to lead a good life and do no harm to others. I'm happy with my life although it was selfish because I did the things I did with no sacrifice on my part.

"Then I thought of your mother. She was the one that gave up all her early ambitions and dreams for me and her family. She wanted to be a writer - worked her way thru college to complete her dreams. I still have many of her early writings (if she hasn't tossed them) which were very good. She worked at an airport for money and flying lessons, she took care of a family for room and board, plus all summer with a bunch of girls to earn tuition money. After she graduated she turned down a great job working for the oil companies in Saudi Arabia just so she would not leave her Mother alone. She managed a book store in Grand Rapids where I met her. (When I saw her I told the friend with me that I was going to marry her.)

"After we were married she started to write again. But then little Thomas came on the scene...

"I guess I'm done Thom. I love Jean with all my heart and soul. I have hoped that you could and would write about her as you have about me. I think she deserves it much more. She is the true hero of our family!!!"

They were the last words of his I ever heard - and that in an email - as he couldn't speak by the time I got to Michigan.

I realize that telling you a story about my hitchhiking across America, or about my dad, isn't telling you the story of Cannery Row, but in a way it's very much the story of Cannery Row. The stories are meta to the novel. My dad was a huge fan of Steinbeck, presumably because he knew so well the America of which Steinbeck wrote.

Beyond that, telling you the story line itself of Cannery Row would be a disservice. It's a novel, and one shouldn't have even an inkling where a novel is going when one starts to read it. It was only after I finished the book that I began to research its history, and found a rich treasure trove of information on the web about the history of the real cannery row, the real Monterey of the 1930s, and the read Ed Ricketts. I hope you will, too.

But first indulge yourself in a bit of old-fashioned escapism - step back to the time of the Republican Great Depression and meet a wonderful cast of characters, in a story that will leave you smiling, wistful, and newly-informed.

And, maybe, hopefully, we'll all live to see that true spirit of America - its people, so brilliantly drawn by Steinbeck in "Cannery Row" - again emerge as Americans awaken from our dream-fog of consumerism and hellish wars, and rediscover the sense of self and community and purpose and the egalitarian values of community on which this nation was founded.

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