Panning ‘Cannery’ Steinbeck's novel didn't wow the critics on first arrival


Previously published on Substack’s Monterey Neighbors & Friends

By Joe Livernois

The New York Times Book Review hated it. So did most of the other East Coast elites. But that didn’t stop Monterey from parlaying John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” into a template for its billion-dollar tourism industry.

Despite the critics, Steinbeck’s 1945 novel was an instant best seller. Readers seemed to get a kick out of the slap-happy cast of rascals, bums, inebriates, prostitutes and a beloved marine biologist named “Doc.” Among other things, “Cannery Row” describes the lost entrails of a dead humorist, an artist who used chicken feathers as his medium, and local ne’er-do-wells who sloshed through tide pools in search of sea life they could sell for wine money.

What’s not to like, right?

No one has yet been able to identify a plot in “Cannery Row,” but plots are beside the point. And maybe overrated, I suppose.

The only real local bit of deep literary relevance in “Cannery Row” is found in the opening sentence. That’s where Steinbeck refers to Monterey as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” It’s beautiful, really, but that opener tempts readers with a promise of the profound. There’s no Timshel in “Cannery Row,” no mystical monologues about the existential struggle to break free from our oppressors, no allegorical bindlestiffs.

Now considered a classic, at the time of its publication a certain breed of critics dismissed the work as mere whimsy and easy caricature, the sort of slim pickings that reviewers love to hate because it allows them to mine their febrile talents for hilarious ridicule and clever zingers.

Bad reviews are some of my favorite reading — Pauline Kael, the late film critic for The New Yorker, was the master of the devastatingly funny hit pieces. But I liked this potshot from a fellow named F.O. Matthiessen, aimed at “Cannery Row:”

“If you picked this book up without the author’s name on the title page you might guess that it was someone who had read ‘Tortilla Flat’ and had decided to write a Steinbeck novel,” Matthiessen wrote. “It’s a puzzler why Steinbeck should have wanted to write or publish such a book at this point in his career.”

Matthiessen was a distinguished social critic and Harvard professor at the time he got the assignment from The New York Times Book Review. His essay was published New Year’s Eve, 1944, two days before the book’s release. He was dismissive with a capital DIS.

Describing the novel’s colorful characters, for instance, Matthiessen wryly noted that it’s a wonder that “they seem entirely free of lice or cirrhosis of the liver or other occupational diseases.”

So it went with most of the Important Reviews written by Distinguished Critics for the Thoughtful Publications along the Eastern Seaboard. A lot of it was Steinbeck’s own fault. After the near-universal praise that followed “The Grapes of Wrath,” everything else fell disappointingly short for the grim arbiters of taste who wrote exclusively for their high-brow East Coast audiences.

Some of the reviewers were actually offended. Disappointed. Aggrieved.

Over at The Boston Globe, the headline over critic Dorothy Hillyer’s harsh assessment of “Cannery Row” read:

The Giant Steinbeck of the Grapes Has Shrunk to Ah Whimsy Me

“The man whose human concern produced the most socially significant novel of the late thirties, a document of shocking impact, a novel with some of the most sustained episodes and some of the most moving writing to be found in an American novel has journeyed back, not forward,” Hillyer wrote.

And yet — and yet — the simple existence of “Cannery Row” created a lucrative cottage industry for Monterey. Cannery Row tourism filled the void in the stinky little noisy town after the sardines disappeared and after a series of mysterious late-night fires destroyed the last of the canneries. The landlords along the Row parlayed the success of the book into an accessible tourist mecca for folks who can’t afford Pebble Beach or Carmel.

And it worked. The five-block length of Monterey seafront is mostly a happy place these days, a commercial excuse to celebrate something that happened there a long time ago. Good times are had there. Meals are served. A world-class aquarium emerged.

There are fading ghosts and the whiff of mystique to the area, I suppose, pushed along occasionally by popular culture. For a while there, film lovers could watch the latest flick at the Steinbeck Theater in Cannery Row. I recall a cringey movie adaptation of “Cannery Row,” released in 1982, with the casting of Nick Nolte forever tarnishing the legend of Ed Ricketts, aka the “Doc” character.

To be fair, “Cannery Row” did have its fans in the literary world. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, writing for The Miami Herald, loved Steinbeck’s creation. “Nowhere before have his descriptions of people and places been so delicate and fine,” she rhapsodized. “Nowhere has he been able to make us see the trembling beauty of human happiness with so rare a quality.”

At the Los Angeles Times, reviewer Benjamin Howden admitted that “Cannery Row” wasn’t Steinbeck’s best effort. “But the parts that are good are so uproariously funny that the little volume bids fair to outsell everything he has done since ‘Grapes,’” Howden declared. “If you can’t laugh it’s your own loss.”


So how did the hometown newspaper deal with “Cannery Row?”

For its review of the book, the editors at The Monterey Peninsula Herald turned to Ritchie Lovejoy, staff writer and a resident character. Lovejoy was one of Ed Ricketts’ closest friends; his line drawings illustrated the marine biologist’s famous “Between Pacific Tides.” He and his wife Tal were regulars at Ricketts’ Cannery Row laboratory, where all the research and all the heavy drinking took place.

Being the local guy asked to review an author of Steinbeck’s prestige for the local fish wrap might have been an awkward assignment, and Lovejoy pulled it off without offending Steinbeck, Ricketts or the local riffraff. In with his review was to review the international reviewers who had already reviewed “Cannery Row.”

Lovejoy quickly explained what the story “seems” to be about: “It is a book that afforded the writer a lot of fun in his work, which is something far too few writers get out of work. This makes it fun to read.”

Fun, according to Lovejoy, is a concept the East Coast snobs simply didn’t understand. Lacking silly distractions in their own lives, Lovejoy suggested, the snobs couldn’t possibly appreciate a serious novel based on characters who didn’t take themselves all that seriously.

“It may be the dreamlike quality of Steinbeck’s writing, although vivid, just cannot strike even the remotest chord of reality in the mind of a city dweller or to go a step farther, anyone as far east as the Nevada border,” Lovejoy wrote.

“Fie! Fie on Steinbeck, or anybody else, who tells a simple story these days. It shocks a reviewer and burdens a publisher to print a story. It is black-marketed, like cigarets; and read by everybody like naughty boys with dime novels in a hayloft.”



Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who reviewed “Cannery Row” for the Miami Herald, was a fierce activist in Florida, a journalist, suffragist and civil rights leader. She was also a staunch advocate on behalf of the Everglades against efforts to drain it for development. If her name seems familiar these days, it’s likely because of the devastating 2018 mass shooting at a high school that had been named in her honor.

F.O. Matthiessen, critic who panned “Cannery Row” for The New York Times Book Review, was known for examining the “lasting value of American classics as products of a certain author, society and era.” His major book is American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. He died at an early age as a result of injuries sustained after a fall off a tall building.

Ritchie Lovejoy, the Monterey Peninsula Herald writer, covered the waterfront for several years. Among his achievements, it should be noted that Lovejoy disappointed readers when he dispelled the myth that a giant serpent — a sea monster named “Bobo” — had washed ashore.

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.



About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *