Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Steinbeck's Monterey

John Steinbeck wrote that Cannery Row in Monterey is "a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."

Not any more it isn't. Now it is a boardwalk, a string of hotels, a tourist trap, a commercial paradise, and, final insult, a Bubba Gump. Nonetheless, nothing can take away from the beauty of the views, as you can see from this shot taken behind the Bubba Gump. You can't see it, but out on the little chain of rocks that shows right next to the building is a seal sunning itself.

The canneries are gone, and so are the bums and whores of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Almost nothing of Steinbeck's vision remains, and it doesn't help to know that he felt this same way when he visited Monterey later in life. Just a couple of structures are left. One is the Wing Chong grocery, immortalized as Lee Chong and then Joseph and Mary's groceries in the aforementioned novels. It's now a souvenir shop, and not even a good one, though the faded original sign remains.

The only truly authentic thing left is Ed Ricketts' lab at 800 Cannery Row. Here I am, on the steps pretending to enter, with unwitting passersby below me. You have to know to look for this; there's no sign, no marker, nothing. The town owns the building and has done nothing with it.

Ricketts was Steinbeck's very close friend, so close that when Steinbeck went out to take care of his affairs after Ricketts' death in a car accident in 1948, he burned all their letters. Having read some of Steinbeck's letters to other friends, I can only imagine how extremely personal they were. Ricketts is immortalized non-fictionally in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, but most famously as the drunken, generous-hearted Doc of the novels; though he didn't entirely agree with the portrayal, he appreciated it. It really gave me a lot of geeked-out pleasure to go to his home, even though I couldn't go in.

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