The Humanity of John Steinbeck

“There’s nothing like that first taste of beer.” – Doc, from Cannery Row

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John Steinbeck was born on this day in 1902 in Salinas, California. Steinbeck gave a voice to the disenfranchised and those who struggle to labor for a living. He became a household name for his book, Of Mice and Men, published in 1937, which was adapted for Broadway and won the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play the same year. Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, published in 1939, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; its protagonist Tom Joad has been the subject of songs by musicians ranging from Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen.

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But it’s Steinbeck’s Cannery Row that I’ve read a dozen times since I first picked it up twenty-some years ago. My daughter read Cannery Row out of curiosity and asked me what I saw in the book that I read it over and over. My answer is this:

Steinbeck creates a world of tramps and drunks and whores held together by a protagonist named Doc, a demigod marine biologist who walks across the street from his lab each day to buy two quarts of beer, and writes about it with such eloquence and humanity it is as powerful as scripture.

Perhaps more powerful.

 

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About Jim Brennan

Jim is a Philadelphia-based writer, author, poet and editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal.
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8 Responses to The Humanity of John Steinbeck

  1. Sophie33 says:

    Thanks for this lovely post! I really enjoyed it! xxx

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  2. LB says:

    Jim, I’ve not read Cannery Row (yet!) but the quotes in your blog and in the comment section surely have me wanting to suggest it to my book group. Thank you for inspiring me to read it

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  3. Paul B says:

    I was thinking about Cannery Row yesterday due to the anniversary – I know it is one of your favourites and indirectly you persuaded me to read it. It is a fantastic novel with perhaps the most evocative and best opening paragraph of any novel. Thank you for the introduction!

    “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”

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    • Jim Brennan says:

      That description of Cannery Row is what hooked me many, many years ago. Thanks for writing it here, Paul. I think I shall go back and read it again.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jim Brennan says:

      “Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.” Those lines belong in scripture.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Brittany says:

    I’m intrigued! Sounds like an entertaining read.

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