This is a classic that I was long overdue in getting around to. We stayed a couple days in Monterey Bay in the summer of 2008 on our way back from Grand Lodge in Anaheim that year. We wanted to see the aquarium and maybe some kayaking, but mostly we needed to get far away from Los Angeles and get some seaside R~n~R time in. Anyway, the aquarium is at one end of Cannery Row, a Steinbeck featured backdrop to the book of the same name and he is their celebrated son. Given the scarcity of places where novelists are admired, even revered, we took notice. However with a paperback edition going for $23 in the aquarium gift store we waited until we were home and dug out East of Eden instead.
Steinbeck's wonderful descriptions of the Salinas valley are scented with dust and pollen. His writing combines the knowlege of many seasons just as a watercolorist adds many layers to paper. There is a simple timelessness to the setting that draws you in long before the characters are introduced. His generational tale of fathers and sons is underlined by the biblical title. The distant father, the sinful or absent mother, sons gifts accepted inequally all ties through the title back to Genesis 4:16. Steinbeck's focus on Timshel, the Hebrew word for "thou mayest" is a great key to the novel.
Explicitly, as the decendents of Cain humanity may overcome the shortcomings of our parents and form for ourselves our own destiny. The stories characters are flawed works, but deliberately so in order to show the better nature of each. Steinbeck strives for us to realize that each of us is flawed but it is those flaws, and our emotional natures that make us human. Each character has both a positive character trait and a negative one. Its the choice of each character which one gets developed and to what extent. This is I think the message of the book, that our choices define us and that failing to make a decision is a choice as well.
My personal favorite moment of the book is where Steinbeck is describing the death of three men in Chapter 34. The first man was richer than anyone, but despite his good works later people were glad to see him dead. The second man was "Smart as Satan" but didn't understand or respect human dignity, he used bribes and wickedness to warp men. When this second man died he was powerful but hated for it. The third man dedicated his life to making people brave and raising up their dignity in a time when ugly forces in the world sought to break men down and fill them with fear. When this man died, people burst into tears and didn't know how to continue without them.
I've always felt that when we die we are judged by those that we leave behind and their love or contempt for us. I consider my greatest riches to be the love and respect of my friends and family, so I really identified with this passage and saw why Steinbeck set it aside in a chapter of its own, unrelated to the rest of the novel. Historians say that Steinbeck wrote this book as a magnum opus dedicated to his two sons who were four and six at the time, that he wanted to describe his background and family history to them in rich detail. His love is palpable and clear in this work, it in many ways reminds me of Dostoyevsky, whom I'm told Steinbeck greatly admired. I am certainly left with a great admiration of Steinbeck's talent and prowness by this book.