Stuck on Steinbeck

I have a teeny-tiny obsessive compulsive streak that occasionally comes out in my reading.  I find an author that either I really like or I’m really intrigued by and I keep reading until I’ve read all his/her works.  This happened back in the eighties with Michener and Uris.  Those were long days. And even longer nights.

I honestly don’t believe I’d read more than an excerpt  of Steinbeck when a neighbor who enjoyed book talks placed East of Eden in my hand and said, “Carol, you need to read this.”  We’ve heard that sentence before, haven’t we?  And the rebel in me heartily resists unless the source is well known and trusted. (Never mind that often I’m the one placing books in others’ hands with those words.  Never mind, I said.)

I have a shelf in which I keep borrowed books so they don’t get co-mingled with my own collection.  This shelf was getting thick and so, after a year, I picked up East of Eden and started in.  And suddenly I couldn’t put it down.  That modern re-telling of Cain and Abel was painful, raw, provocative and beautiful all at once. 

Since our library has several Steinbeck books on tape, I listened to The Grapes of Wrath another disturbing but compelling book.  It provided context for the limited knowledge I have about life in America in the Thirties. Next, I listened to The Pearl a parable of sorts. 

Cannery Row is a narrative which knits the yarn of short vignettes into a whole piece. Many of the chapters could stand alone as examples of fine writing to study.  We see a slice of the lives of Doc, a marine biologist; Dora, a madam; Mack and his buddies, general drifters; and Lee Chong, the owner of a grocery store.  They are collected together in a sketchy neighborhood of abandoned canneries.

The opening sentence can compete with the best of opening sentences: “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.”

Steinbeck’s similes and metaphors are stunning:

Why did his mind pick its way as delicately as a cat through cactus?

…casting about in Hazel’s mind was like wandering alone in a deserted museum.  Hazel’s mind was choked with uncatalogued exhibits.  He never forgot anything but he never bothered to arrange his memories.  Everything was thrown together like fishing tackle in the bottom of a rowboat, hooks and sinkers and lines and lures and gaffs all snarled up.

He was such a wonder, Gay was–the little mechanic of God, the St. Francis of all things that turn and twist and explode,
the St. Francis of coils and armatures and geats.


No one has studied the psychology of a dying party.  It may be raging, howling, boiling, and then a fever sets in and a little silence and then quickly quickly it is gone, the guests go home or go to sleep or wander away to some other affair and they leave a dead body.

Doc awakened very slowly and clumsily like a fat man getting out of a swimming pool. His mind broke the surface and fell back several times.

Next up is John Steinbeck’s trip across America in Travels with Charley.

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6 thoughts on “Stuck on Steinbeck

  1. What I find amazing is that Cannery Row today looks almost exactly like in this picture you’ve posted (with the except of car models)!  I recognized it right away when I saw it.  I read several Steinbeck books for class in high school (maybe that’s because I grew up in California?) and one of my college English professors gave us a final on Steinbeck’s short story, “Chrysanthemums.”   I’m glad you like him, too.

  2. “And the rebel in me heartily resists unless the source is well known and trusted.”
    I’m the same way! That’s why I resisted reading Austen for so long – I hated being told what to read. Then I started in on Austen and Dickens and other classics, and realized they are on all the “must-read” lists for a very good reason!
    Carrie

  3. Oh what a delicious post to start my day!  I came here by way of Semicolon because the mention of The Saturday Review of Books was the only new article up at Mental Multivitamin.  Your link caught my eye because, well, it was the only Steinbeck in the list.  Yes, I latch on to authors that way, too, and Steinbeck is, without doubt, my favorite.
    I started my love affair with Steinbeck’s writing in high school.  I read Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, then chose Steinbeck as the American author for my English research paper my junior year.  For some reason, it was many years before I ever read The Grapes of Wrath, and immediately upon completing it, I knew I had to read more.  I’d read that Steinbeck considered East of Eden his best work, but I couldn’t believe it could get any better than The Grapes of Wrath.  He was right, of course.  Reading East of Eden was a revelation to me.  It made so many things clear.  Sometimes fiction sheds greater light on truth than the simple facts alone could ever reveal.
    My 17-year-old and I share this passion for Steinbeck.  Cannery Row is one of his favorites, perhaps second only to East of Eden.  He identifies with the characters, different as they may be from him.  I think that is the beauty of Steinbeck’s writing–he breathes such life into each of his characters that the reader can’t help but feel he knows them each personally, their hardships, their heartaches, their joys, their motives.  His characters are three dimensional and real and they could be anyone–your neighbor, your friend, your father, or you.  Steinbeck also gives dignity to each of his characters and creates empathy for them, from the wise, respectable figure of Samuel Hamilton to the simple vagrants of the Palace Flophouse.  Even Cathy Ames is a pitiable creature, if we can only just begin to understand from where her depravity and evil stem.
    Goodness!  This has gotten long.  Thank you again for a wonderful start to my morning.  I think you’ll enjoy Travels With Charley.  You may never see America or Americans the same way.  And you may find yourself longing to pack up your things and set off on a cross country tour to find Steinbeck’s America.

  4. Boy, I’m the odd person out, I guess.  I don’t much care for Steinbeck, and really didn’t like The Grapes of Wrath.  I thought it was almost a muckraker, in the vein of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. I do agree, though, that his writing style can grow on one!

  5. It’s uncanny that you mentioned _East of Eden_ just now.  I haven’t read it since high school, but it has been on my mind the past couple of weeks.  I was thinking my daughter might appreciate it now, and that it might be fun to re-read it myself. Had to laugh at the “cat and the cactus” quote.  Our cat is always dislodging our cactus from its pot~~seems to think it is a plaything. I can’t imagine how he rolls it around without getting pricked.

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