Skip to main content

Self-Consciousness and Its Antidote

ISSUE:  Spring 1945

Cannery Row.
By John Steinbeck. The Viking Press. $2.00. The Leaning Tower. By Kathcrine Anne Porter. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50.

“Cannery Row” is a book to like and then to pan. If you skip the opening pages, it is fun to read, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It amounts to six Martinis with an onion, shrimps mayonnaise, chopped livers, and pickled herring. It is as good a set of “stories” as you will hear in a club car between Seattle and St. Paul. It gives you character, psychology, “irony and pity” (see “The Sun Also Rises”), and fifty laughs—not belly laughs, but high thin laughter in the top of the head. You feel ashamed to find fault with anything so clever; it is looking a gift horse in the mouth. But Steinbeck is himself to blame. A man who has given us “Tortilla Flat,” “The Red Pony,” “In Dubious Battle,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Moon Is Down,” has raised expectations which cannot be satisfied with any such hasty improvised piece as this. The stuff of the book is promising; his special knowledge of this stuff is a great asset to a story-teller. What comes near to spoiling the whole thing is, first, the want of style, and second, the want of a consistent or rational point of view.

Steinbeck begins, unhappily, with self-conscious reflection on his subject and the artistic problem it presents, in a manner half Sandburg manque and half overcharged journalese. “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Lee Chong and “the boys” in the first section rouse an interest that has been damped by this prologue; but then we are flattened out again by the philosophic posturings of the section in which Lee Chong is represented (not uninterestingly) as “evil balanced and held suspended by the good,” while “the boys” are put forward archly as “the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey,” a prayer is addressed to “Our Father who art in nature,” and the Gospel is parodied by the facetious inquiry: “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?”

“Cannery Row” is a second and inferior version of “Tortilla Flat,” which was a sympathetic picture of care-free men whose lives will not gear in with that of a workaday world. The style of Tortilla Flat was a whimsical adaptation from “The Little Flowers of St. Francis,” and was supported by the Castilian dignity and Catholic piety of the paisanos. The point of view was a pagan adaptation of the medieval friar’s, benignly indulgent even of outcasts, who are after all somehow children of God. Steinbeck’s humorous lightness of touch and his evident fondness for his fallible creatures in “Tortilla Flat” induced in the reader a “willing suspension of disbelief,” so that we did not think of putting the awkward questions of sociology and psychology. In “Cannery Row” the Castilian dignity and Catholic piety are wanting; the humor has largely given way to paradox and wisecrack. The lightness of touch has given place to a rather heavy-handed sentimentalism, in which the bum and the whore are set in direct contrast to the bookkeeper and the housewife as possessing both the virtues we admire and the happy state of being we desiderate.

Unfortunately, the circumstances of the story do not bear out this interpretation. Lee Chong and Dora are honest tradesmen, constructively serving the needs of their clients: but the needs of Dora’s clients are obviously not those of men who have found a good way of life. Even the lascivious Doc will never come in to Dora’s for a “trick”; “he probably figures a girl that’s workin’ has got a different attitude.” As for the bums, they are not models of healthy humanity; all that is related of them shows them to be psychological invalids and social misfits. They have kindly impulses, but without organization, they generally misfire and leave a mess behind them. As with the artist Henri, their gratifications are simply minor retrievements out of failure.

The orderly world is ready to laugh at the slips and falls of the disorderly; the responsible to take an occasional holiday with the disorderly, like Prince Hal with Falstaff. Such is the stuff of comedy from Menander to Dickens. And we are ready enough to prefer the honest eccentric to the pious hypocrite. We do not complain of Steinbeck’s subjects, nor of his fondness for them; what leaves the bad taste is the confusion of his thinking. And even that we shouldn’t mind if he would keep it to himself. What spoils the fun is his soap-boxing for a way of life which he demonstrates to be precarious and unsatisfying.

In the art of fiction, the first level of craftsmanship is making the characters live in the story as they lived in nature. The second level is that on which the human values are discriminated and pointed up. It is here that understanding, feeling, taste are paramount. The third level is that on which the human values so discriminated are given the radiant intensity of light. This is the level of genius. It is on this level that a Chekhov or a Dickens operates. Mr. Steinbeck is very successful on the first level, and sometimes he has touched the third. It is on the second level that he most often fails. His feeling is too often partial, his taste defective, and his understanding unripe.

Opinions will differ as to whether, in “The Leaning Tower,” Miss Porter’s work has the vibratory intensity of genius. There is a perhaps deceptive quietness in her tone which may lead us to do less than justice to her writing. Her characters live, no doubt of that. And still more sure it is that she offers a firm and fine discrimination of the values in living. And all the more so that she never tries to point them out to us; phrases and abstractions she abjures, and is content to let the characters do the showing.

One advantage she has over Steinbeck is that everything is pictured on the ground of an established and self-respecting culture. It happens to be the culture of responsible people still immersed in an old Kentucky tradition; and whether it be in Texas or Berlin, and whether the people are reconciled to the tradition and happy in it or unhappy and at odds with it, there is still the norm, the long-practised way of life, as a point of reference. What gives quality to human living is self-respect. What gives definition to a character is the equation between self-respect and the other circumstances—happiness or misery, social status, success, frustration, and fulfilment. Such is the personal dialectic of character. It is all one to Miss Porter whether or not her characters are important and whether or not they are “good.” She is no moralist and no success-monger. She is as feminine in her point of view as Chekhov. It is the quality of the living, the feeling, that counts; and she knows how to put the feeling in terms of the characters themselves.

They may be stern matriarchs, in this book of tales and sketches; they may be negro mammies; they may be helpless children ruined by a conspiracy of grownups; or brother and sister in happy childhood making their adjustments to the sacred mystery of sex; or the young artist trying to find iri Berlin the blue flower of esthetic inspiration; or the people of Berlin struggling in a net of monstrous and indefinable menace—in every case, the spiritual state of the character j is delicately but firmly dramatized in a personal situation that has the impact of sober truth.

The besetting sin of humorist and philosopher is self-eon-sciousness; self-consciousness is often the making of genius, but more often the ruin of talent. Miss Porter is neither humorist nor philosopher; and she is refreshingly free from self-consciousness. What she has in plenty is artistic conscience. She has it as Flaubert had it, or Jane Austen, but more deliberately than Austen and somewhat less militantly than Flaubert. She is more a truth-teller than a realist. To Steinbeck she is the perfect antidote.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading