“Cannery Row…is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”
— John Steinbeck, from his novel ‘Cannery Row’
Wow! With a beautifully written introduction like that, who wouldn’t want to visit this place? Cannery Row is my favorite novel by American author John Steinbeck. It may not be his best book, but it’s the first of his I’d read and the one that made me a fan. Published in 1945, Cannery Row is set in Monterey, California during the Great Depression, near a waterfront street lined by sardine canneries. The book’s setting is secondary to the narrative and the many colorful characters Steinbeck develops. Steinbeck wrote a sequel to Cannery Row, called Sweet Thursday, some 10 years later, a much less interesting novel in my opinion (as is true of most sequels).
One of the book’s main protagonists is Doc, a marine biologist based on Steinbeck’s real-life best friend, Ed Ricketts (who died tragically in a car crash). Like Doc in the story, Ed Ricketts actually had a Biologic Supply company on Cannery Row wherein he pickled and sold marine specimens collected from Monterey Bay to schools, universities and museums. A film version of Cannery Row was released in 1982, starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger, and a stage version came out in 1995.
This is the final segment of our journey into John Steinbeck country. My pals (Wayne and Neil) and I visited Monterey specifically to explore Cannery Row before heading our separate ways. This waterfront street has become a hugely popular tourist attraction. Sadly, it has all the sappy trappings of big tourism and I don’t think John Steinbeck would recognize this place or spend much time at Cannery Row were he still alive. Gone are the colorful characters and almost all the sardine canning factories (the last of which closed in 1973 because of a collapse in the sardine catch). A few of the old cannery buildings remain but these have been remodeled and upgraded to fancy hotels and shops. Today’s Cannery Row has gift shops, hotels, eateries and trinket stores. The most interesting place on Cannery Row, and really in a world to itself, is the Monterey Bay Aquarium which is one of the Row’s bookends. This may be the world’s finest aquarium, certainly of the ones I’ve visited, and we’ll discuss it more detail soon.
Cannery Row also has a small park known as Steinbeck Plaza, a pleasing break from crowded hypercommerce, featuring ocean views, a bust of John Steinbeck, a pleasant garden, and statues of the characters of Cannery Row. And, of course, the Row still offers great views of Monterey Bay and the cool refreshing breeze off the sea. If there’s a reason to visit Cannery Row today its to take in these beautiful views and to visit the Aquarium.
To see the layout of the Cannery Row, please click on this link.