Robert Fulford's column about John Steinbeck and Monterey, California

(The National Post, February 29, 2000)

Monterey, Calif.

Along Cannery Row on the weekend, storekeepers and local boosters and the people at the Monterey Bay Aquarium were celebrating, as they always do, the birthday of their patron saint, John Steinbeck, who was born just a few miles inland at Salinas on Feb. 27, 1902. Steinbeck made Monterey what it is today, and the people who live here never cease to proclaim their gratitude. Steinbeck is to Monterey what Goethe is to Weimar, what L.M. Montgomery is to Cavendish, what Shakespeare is to both Stratfords, and what God is to Jerusalem -- that is, an author of such copious fame that enough of it spills over to make a town illustrious by association.

When Steinbeck knew Monterey best, in the 1920s and 1930s, it was called the sardine capital of the world. Cannery Row was the waterfront street from which fishpackers sent canned sardines around the planet. When the sardines ran out, Monterey was in danger of becoming a ghost town. Fortunately, Steinbeck was creating a local mythology at least as valuable as the fish stocks, in three anecdotal books of fiction about low-life Monterey characters -- Tortilla Flat (1935), Cannery Row (1945), and Sweet Thursday (1954). Those books eventually attracted curious visitors, and the visitors became the basis for a flourishing tourist town.

On Saturday the aquarium ran a conference in Steinbeck's honour and on Sunday the Cannery Row Foundation organized a celebratory dinner, a Steinbeckian walking tour and a visit to the lab once used by his marine biologist friend Ed Ricketts. These events slightly raised the reputation of a writer who in Monterey is never less than famous. A bronze bust of him gazes directly across Cannery Row toward the Steinbeck Centre, a shopping mall. Not far behind the bust is Steinbeck's Espresso Bar, which in turn is next to a wax museum, Steinbeck's Spirit of Monterey, where a recorded voice purporting to be Steinbeck's tells local history.

On the street, stores display signs announcing their links to the books. A cafe insists it is the original La Ida, where a bum in Cannery Row serves as part-time bartender and pours the remnants of patrons' drinks into one jug, to be taken home and shared with four or five fellow squatters in a warehouse. An antique store announces it's on the site of the Wing Chow Market, to which Steinbeck's characters were chronically in debt. Along the street a mural depicts prostitutes on the site of Flora Wood's sporting house.

The Monterey Trilogy has a folkloric tone, as if Steinbeck were recording the myths of a society that had been too busy to write down its own. This isn't quite the same Steinbeck who described the Okie migrants trekking west from the misery of the dust bowl to find immortality in The Grapes of Wrath. Nor is it the stern moralist who wrote East of Eden, that grim family chronicle, and The Winter of Our Discontent, the novel that helped him win the Nobel Prize by exposing everything that a Swedish academic would find most repellent about America.

Steinbeck brings to the Monterey books a cheerful acceptance of the underclass that would be impossible to imagine today. In his account, the bums of Monterey are not homeless and underprivileged: They're lucky. They have chosen their way of life because they like it. They lead vague, dreamy lives of idyllic ease, steal constantly from each other and from everyone else, and stay drunk on cheap wine and a brand of whisky they call Old Tennis Shoes. They routinely drive while drunk. They get arrested from time to time, perhaps for fighting or for wanton destruction of property, but they like being sent to jail because they see their friends there. In the Monterey Trilogy, they come across as enchanting bums leading an enchanted life.

Steinbeck, who died in 1968, may have been the last writer for whom the word ''hobo'' carried romantic meaning. The Beat Generation, which borrowed some of his sensibility, wrote about educated, articulate wanderers living self-consciously poetic lives, like the people in Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

Steinbeck's characters, by contrast, barely understand that there's another way to live. In some cases that's due to limited intelligence, or self-inflicted stupidity. Steinbeck describes one alcoholic's mind as a museum of uncatalogued exhibits. But the most sympathetic character, Doc, based on Ed Ricketts, praises the bums as truly free men: ''Look at them. There are your true philosophers ... In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed ... They can do what they want.''

Steinbeck treasured the sleaziness of Monterey and its people. He wrote that Cannery Row ''is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.'' He noted that someone said it was inhabited by ''whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,'' but he argued that those same people, if looked at in another way, could be seen as saints and angels.

Given this sentimental attraction to the underclass, and given his well-known dislike of bourgeois respectability, it's not hard to imagine what Steinbeck would think of the Monterey that he helped create. Like any writer, he would be delighted to see his name still so prominent, but he would probably find his old home town appalling. Like all the prosperous small cities in California, it shapes its business streets out of a half-hearted and mainly commercial respect for history. The architecture runs to Mission style, which means the sort of building that Spanish missionaries would have constructed had they been funded by global corporations and profoundly committed to retailing.

Joan Didion once remarked that ''a place belongs forever to the writer who claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, and loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.'' Last week, at the conference centre in Monterey, I heard a collection of geeks, gurus and multi-millionaires exchanging ideas about the shaping of the future by digital processes that didn't exist when Steinbeck walked the Earth. All the important sessions took place in a theatre called the Steinbeck Forum. Monterey keeps Steinbeck alive, whether his ghost approves of it or not.

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