Many critics are quick to belittle Cannery Row as a silly, trivial book, suitable more as a frothy mid-century film musical than as a serious contribution from the author of In Dubious Battle (1936), The Grapes of Wrath, and the later East of Eden (1952). Judged by these monuments, Cannery Row is justifiably consigned to the second rank of Steinbeck’s work, yet the novel is interesting in its own right. Discounting The Moon Is Down (1942), a novella with propagandistic intentions, Cannery Row is Steinbeck’s first major work after his Depression masterpiece. It shows his renewed interest in the comic portrayal of the simple, uncomplicated lifestyles of the lovably dispossessed, a subject already treated a decade earlier in Tortilla Flat (1935), a picaresque novel written in mock-heroic style about the “paisanos” of Southern California, quixotic latter-day knights who are, in fact, the true literary forebears of Doc and the boys of Cannery Row. Tortilla Flat was Steinbeck’s first major success, his first book to be bought by Hollywood, and the first in which he found his characteristic subject matter.
Ten years after Cannery Row, Steinbeck again returned to the treatment of the lovable bums in Sweet Thursday (1954), a novel far below the quality of Cannery Row but one which nevertheless served as the basis for a (short-lived) Broadway...
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