Of all the American writers influenced by a sense of place, there were perhaps few who wove pieces of home into their writing as deftly, and as frequently, as John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California, about 30 miles away from Cannery Row on the beautiful Monterey Bay, which would one day be the site of one of his most famous works.
Steinbeck’s Monterey was a small rural town, more aptly described during his childhood as a settlement. His summers were spent immersed in farm work, on the ranches of the rolling fields and hills of Monterey County. Life by the bay was vibrant and colorful, rich with the customs of the many cultures of the people who settled the area. On the shores of the sparkling bay, and among the verdant hills of Salinas, Steinbeck came of age in a place and time that was unlike any other, a lush and thriving valley where humans had thus far managed to live in harmony with their fair surroundings.
After failing to publish successfully in New York, where he moved after briefly attending Stanford University, Steinbeck switched coasts yet again. He lived in California for several years, in the Lake Tahoe and Los Angeles areas, but it wasn’t until he returned home to the valleys and shores of his childhood that he began to write the stories that would bring him commercial and critical success. Calling back to his experiences working among migrant workers on beet farms in Salinas, Steinbeck began to write the stories of common Californians, whose stories were all around him, as they struggled to live through the Great Depression.
In 1945, Cannery Row was published. Steinbeck described the area, the center of Monterey’s fishing and canning industry, as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” His story of Mack and friends throwing a party for Doc called not only upon the location, then known as Ocean View Avenue, but also on the cast of characters he knew from his own daily life in the area: restaurant and grocery store owners, flophouse denizens and local bums.
Perhaps the sad romance of a place is the fact that it cannot be saved from time, cannot be shielded from the winds which constantly wear down the rocks of its borders, scattering its pieces like grains of sand. Monterey’s Ocean View Avenue became known as Cannery Row in 1958, paying homage to Steinbeck and his characters long after the beginning of the decline of the canning industry. Tourism, which began in 1880 with the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the building of hotels in the area, now picked up as Monterey became a landmark. Upscale restaurants and bars sprung up as the canning industry died. Cannery Row became a tourist attraction, almost unrecognizable from the nostalgia, the dream laid forth by Steinbeck. One of these tourist destinations, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, was established in homage to the direction established by Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, noted marine biologist and model for the fictional “Doc” in Cannery Row.
The small, sleepy towns of Monterey County, and the sprawling ranches on the ochre hills of Salinas, now only exist as they once were in the pages of Steinbeck’s masterpiece East of Eden. Monterey’s ocean-side town is now home to Starbucks and Pinkberry, expensive restaurants and cocktail bars. Still, if you stand quietly near the site of the old canneries, taking a moment to breathe in the salty, fishy air of the bay, and listen to the barks of sea lions basking on the rocks below, you can just barely make out the world that Steinbeck saw, the land and the people that were so important to him, like a dim view of a landscape under the beaming sun. The details that made the place legendary are lost, but its heart is still there. Thanks to the work and devotion of John Steinbeck, it always will be.