John Steinbeck’s Joyous Humanism

John Steinbeck. Cannery Row. 1945. Working-class romantic realism.

Cannery RowJohn Steinbeck is a humanist in a thorougher sense than in the  Erasmusian sense of cynically mocking the follies of mankind, or in the Voltairean sense of irrationally exalting reason. He’s a humanist because he loves humanity, every single vagrant and drunkard—Steinbeck opens his eyes, arms, and heart wide to his fellow human beings, and he possesses in abundance those hallmarks of the really great writer: sensitivity and sympathy.

Cannery Row comprises a series of vignettes grounded in a poor street of Monterey populated by lumpenproletarians: tough, decent, joyous bums who nab and sell 500 frogs to throw a party for a lonely but loved marine biologist, who buys four quarts of beer for breakfast from a Chinese whose shop is opposite a brothel run by the civic-minded madam Dora. This happy interconnectedness reflects Steinbeck’s deeply spiritual romanticism toward creation; he tweaks the Lord’s Prayer to hail “our Father who art in nature” in Chapter 2 and interjects a spirit-vision in Chapter 4. Surely Cannery Row could be written nowhere but in California.

In these tales, even drowned corpses smile and are lovely. Nevertheless, pain and heartbreak, as well as warmth, suffuse the text. Like a tidal pool left by the receding ocean and shortly to be inundated once more, Cannery Row is crowded with denizens interconnected with each other in an environment at once “tranquil and lovely and murderous”—and that’s just fine.

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