January 30, 2009

Homeless Lit: Cannery Row


Cover of the first edition of John Steinbeck's 1945 novel.
This is the first in a series looking at how homelessness is presented in literature. Does fiction present homeless folk realistically? Are we romanticised? Are we presented as scummier, less-wholesome beings than the good people most of us are? Are the homeless people of yore different from what we're like today?
--
"a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream"
-- A description of the street Cannery Row,
from the first sentence in the book.

Cannery Row is the story of many poor and interesting people who live on Cannery Row, a street next to the Pacific Ocean, where many sardine-canning factories stood, in Monterey, California.
A character called Doc is usually identified as the main character in the story, but, truly, the plot of the story results from the many actions of "Mack and the boys," a group of men who are homeless at the beginning of the book, and whom the omnipotent third-person narrator tracks most closely for the whole of the story.
As I say, Mack and the boys are homeless at the beginning, but in Chapter I, they gain possession of a Cannery Row building, thereafter refered to as the Palace Flophouse, where they take up residence without need of paying rent. A solid mass of text describing Mack and the boys concludes Chapter II [emphases, mine]:
Mack and the boys [spin] in their orbits. They are the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey and the cosmic Monterey where men in fear and hunger destroy their stomachs in the fight to secure certain food, where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about them. Mack and the boys are the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces. In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack and the boys dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row. What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals? Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums. Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.
There's lots of interesting stuff in this paragraph.

First, Steinbeck [as an omnipotent, crotchety third-person narrator] calls Mack and the boys [Mack, Hazel, Eddie, Hughie and Jones] "the Beauties, the Virtues, the Graces." He is refering to the Charities of antiquity. Quoting wikipedia, "In Greek mythology, a Charis (Χάρις) is one of several Charites (Χάριτες; Greek: 'Graces'), goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity and fertility. They ordinarily numbered three: Aglaea ('Beauty'), Euphrosyne ('Mirth'), and Thalia ('Good Cheer'). In Roman mythology they were known as the Gratiae, the 'Graces.'"
Certainly, the five homeless men friends are very admirable in many ways, as are the biggest subset of the homeless in Sacramento. They are clearly, basically good-hearted and well-meaning and mostly oblivious to their own self-interestedness and destructiveness.
An early tangential story, within the greater story of Mack & boys' efforts to throw a big party for good old Doc, has a lonely watchman, named William, trying to make friends with the five homeless guys. For no particular reason, the homeless guys reject William, and after some other insensitive encounters, William plunges an ice pick into his heart. "It was amazing how easily it went in. William was the watchman before Alfred came. Everybody liked Alfred."
From an unsourced commentary, found online, some wisdom about the 'tragedy within merryment' which repeats in Steinbeck's sad novella:
The symbolism of chaos-and-order is basic to Cannery Row; various characters, each in his own fashion, try to arrange and observe what cannot, in any essential aspect, be changed. As Steinbeck says in one of his "inter-chapters" or digressions, it is the function of The World - of human communication - to create by means of faith and art an Order of love which is mankind's only answer to that fate which all men, and indeed all life, must ultimately share. And if John Steinbeck turns to the "outcasts" from society as symbols for this vision, it may be that only the outcasts of machine civilization can still remember who they truly are.

Once again, even in this most charming of books, Steinbeck recapitulates the themes
so integral to his work: the need of the human animal to organize, to combine for purposes beyond that of the mere individual appetite; the corruption and poison of moral pomposity and insane acquisition; and the loneliness-within-brotherhood of all flesh and mortality.

In Zen terms, the novella hones in on the idea of interbeing [A state of connectedness and interdependence of all phenomena], or, similarly but perhaps better, circuminsessional interpenetration. We all both deflate and delight each other, usually without much awareness of our powers of destruction and our ability to bring joy. We are also oblivious to the realization that each other is all we have and that the one thing we don't have is ourself. [We stupidly, endlessly defend the illusion of ego.]
In the quote from Chap II, Steinbeck writes about "fear and hunger," which is, again, the paired cheribim of "fear and desire" [in the garden of Eden] which destroy us and hold us back, and is what we must overcome to save us. In the rescue mission in Sacramento, fear and desire ["you risk going to hell" and "jesus would love to see you in heaven"] are used to rescue homeless men from the fear and desire ['destitution/meaninglessness/drudgery of the homeless condition' and 'alcohol! drugs! immediate relief!'] outside the rescue-mission property gates. [I would say that instead of swapping one's fear-and-desire for some other set of fear-and-desire, life's purpose is to overcome fear-and-desire, altogether, and -- as with most things that suppress us -- we overcome them by examining them closely and finding them not to be so special or to be a real threat.]
In the novella, Mack and the boys cause a lot of trouble while, mostly, having good intentions. In the wake of their parties and clever adventures, other people's lives are damaged. But, Doc, the book's great good supposedly-responsible character, too, is rather-unintentionally the cause of destruction. A character in the shadows, a retarded lad named Frankie ["Frankie drifted about like a small cloud."], hangs out at Doc's lab. Because he loves Doc, he steals a clock as a present for him. As a result of the theft, Frankie is hauled away to a life in an institution with Doc being rather oblivious to it all.
Late in the book, Doc makes some observations about Mack and the boys to a friend with whom he is drinking some beer and listening to classical music:
Doc said "...Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else."
and a little later ...
"It has always seemed strange to me," said Doc. "The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second."
"Who wants to be good if he has to be hungry too?" said [Doc's friend].
"Oh, it isn't a matter of hunger. It's something quite different. The sale of souls to gain the whole world is completely voluntary and almost unanimous -- but not quite. Everywhere in the world there are Mack and the boys. I've seen them in an ice-cream seller in Mexico and in an Aleut in Alaska. You know how they tried to give me a party and something went wrong? But they wanted to give me a party. That was their impulse."
Certainly, Mack and the boys are romanticised and overly admired by the narrator and main character, Doc, compared to the harsh glare of reality. But there is an element of truth to all that the narrator & Doc [that is, Steinbeck] is saying. From being alienated to the madness of a regular back-stabbing life, the bums of Cannery Row and the acclimated-homeless people of Sacramento enjoy a certain availability to wisdom and openness and genuineness that is -- damn it -- admirable.

10 comments:

anonymous said...

Nice article.

Tom said...

Thanks, anon. It was fun to read the book, honing in on the homelessness aspect and to write my essay.

This is something I will definitely want to do again. Anyone who can recommend novels that have a homeless element to them, I would appreciate telling me. [in this comment thread would be good]

"Ironweed" is one that was recommended to me.

Michaelann Bewsee said...

Just took a quick look at the titles on my bookshelf and nothing about homelessness immediately jumped out at me but I did see one of my favorite books, The Tenants of Moonbloom. No, they're not homeless, but they live in an incredibly dilapidated apartment building in a poverty-stricken section of New York.

All of the characters are vivid and alive, but the real story is Moonbloom's a perpetual student who becomes a rent collector in his slumlord brother's buildings and is gradually awakened and transformed.

A slender little book that I will definitely read one more time before I die.

Michaelann Bewsee said...

Forgot to say it's by Edward Lewis Wallant, who also wrote The Pawnbroker.

Tom said...

thanks enormously, michaelann. I will GET ... THAT ... BOOK! It sounds wonderful and in line with my "homeless lit" studies.

Tom said...

While the Sacramento Public Library didn't have the book, the LINX network the library uses, which combines the books of dozens of libraries, did have The Tenents of Moonbloom.

BTW, there is a GREAT 1963 review of the book at the TIME magazine webspace.

Tom said...

Hmmm. Another book comes to mind for the Homeless Lit project, because of the city of Sacramento's proposed anti-scavenging ordinance: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

Bob Campbell said...

Tom...visited Cannery Row last week for first time in forty years. Met and talked with several of the homeless currently living there. Hope you will find time to get down there.
Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell said...

Tom...visited Cannery Row last week for first time in forty years. Met and talked with several of the homeless currently living there. Hope you will find time to get down there.
Bob Campbell

Thomas Armstrong said...

Thanks, Bob. I haven't been in Monterey in something like 20 years. I would very much like to see the city and what's there relating to Steinbeck, again.