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 musical entitled Pipe Dream. Cannery Row is thus the central book in a triumvirate of novels, the first near the beginning of Steinbeck’s career and the last near the end of it. Cannery Row balances the two. If it lacks the innocence and promise of Tortilla Flat, it recapitulates much of the earlier novel’s spirit while evoking a more genuine nostalgia, a more tranquil whimsy. At the same time, Cannery Row looks ahead to the trivial entertainment of Sweet Thursday, a book that tries too hard at reprising an already played out tune. Cannery Row is thus the final effective evocation of one of Steinbeck’s most enduring subjects.