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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sardines in Literature

Air Date: Week of

As John Steinbeck’s popular novel Cannery Row turns fifty, reporter Bill Drummond explores the author's passion for marine biology, and the ecological warning contained in this book. Steinbeck's widow says her husband was among the first to foretell the collapse of California's sardine fishery.


CURWOOD: John Steinbeck isn't the first novelist that many people would think of when it comes to writing about environmental change. But in fact, much of his work recounts human tragedy linked to ecological disaster. His early bestseller, the Grapes of Wrath, for instance, chronicles life in the dustbowl, and also serves as a powerful testimonial to the dangers of soil erosion. But Steinbeck was at perhaps his most environmentally conscious when he wrote Cannery Row, a vivid account of the sardine industry in California's Monterey Bay: an industry oblivious to the doom that lurked around the corner thanks to over-fishing. This spring marks the 50th anniversary of its publication. William Drummond has more.

DRUMMOND: John Steinbeck is best known for Grapes of Wrath, a serious novel which examines the Okie migration to California. By contrast, Cannery Row is playful and humorous. It's about how Mac and the boys, who live at the Palace Flop House, go on a frog hunt to collect enough specimens to throw a party for their friend Doc, who's a marine biologist. Steinbeck's widow Elaine says the Cannery Row novel was special.

E. STEINBECK: It showed his relationship with the people who lived there by the sea, and who lived off the sea. It just set the spirit of John's background and of his interest.

J. STEINBECK (early recording): It was almost dark when young Dr. Phillips swung his sack to his shoulder and left the tidepool. He climbed up over the rocks and squashed along the street in his rubber boots. The streetlights were on by the time he arrived at his little commercial laboratory on Cannery Street in Monterey.

DRUMMOND: This is the actual voice of John Steinbeck reading from a story he had written about Cannery Row. Elaine Steinbeck said her husband's first love was writing.

E. STEINBECK: His second passion in life was marine biology, and he pursued it all of his life for great fun, and also knowledge.

DRUMMOND: Steinbeck took a biology course at Stanford before dropping out and moving to a cottage near Monterey. It was then that he met Ed Ricketts, a gifted marine biologist. Steinbeck's biographer Jay Perini says the collaboration between the socially conscious novelist and the biologist was one of the most remarkable in American literature.

PERINI: Ed Ricketts became the transforming influence in his life, his best friend, and the intellectual force behind his best early fiction right up through the Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck would go into Ed Rickett's lab every afternoon and watch him as he examined sea specimens. He would go out with him on boats collecting specimens and examples.

DRUMMOND: Ricketts worked in the tidepools, examining the relationship between different species living in a biosphere. Steinbeck studied how human populations interacted. Susan Schillinglaw, director of the Steinbeck Research Center at San Jose State University, says Steinbeck brought the biosphere concept into literature.

SCHILLINGLAW: He had, early on, an appreciation for nature from his father. He was very interested in humans' relationship to the environment before he met Ricketts. However, I think that conversations with Ed Ricketts in the 30s in Cannery Row helped both of them crystallize ideas. They were soul mates, if you will.

DRUMMOND: The great popular and financial success of Grapes of Wrath made Steinbeck rich. This gave him even more opportunity to pursue his interest in biology. Jay Perini.

PERINI: In 1940 he went on his famous expedition to the Sea of Cortez, and Steinbeck and Ricketts together wrote The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which is I think a kind of semi-masterpiece. One of the great examples of nature writing, or good scientific literary writing in American literature.

DRUMMOND: Steinbeck also wrote the foreword to a small monograph authored by Ricketts called, Between Pacific Tides: A Study of Tidepools. More than 50 years later that book is still the all-time bestseller of the Stanford University Press.

E. STEINBECK: To go back one more time to Cannery Row, John was the first ecologist, I think, and he's often been called that by people in marine biology. Because he was the first one to preach against the over-fishing. He said the sardines are here now, but the sardines will be gone because you're over-fishing them.

DRUMMOND: The old canneries have all closed, and a collection of restaurants, T-shirt stores, and curio shops have replaced them.

(Tour guide: "... to the left here. The building on the ocean side of the street was torched in 1978 by arsons, and now it's rebuilt and a collection of shops and restaurants. And across the street is the original warehouse, which is also now a collection of shops and restaurants here. What I'm going to do is walk through...")

DRUMMOND: The area is thriving, not because of fish but because of tourists who come to catch a glimpse of what Cannery Row was like years ago.

POWERS: Just on the other side of that building you'll see a big, wooden, kind of like huge crate sort of thing. And heavy. And it is what we call a sardine hopper.

DRUMMOND: Dennis Powers is Director of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station at the north end of Cannery Row.

POWERS: And the ships would pull up, and they would dump their sardines into it and there would be like a siphon that would suck the sardines into the cannery. And they would be canned in there. And so there's still remnants of these things around.

DRUMMOND: The remnants of the heyday of the sardine fishery are few. In fact, the only cannery building still in use is the one that houses the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Hopkins Marine Station and the Aquarium are working to prevent another over-fishing disaster, such as the one that decimated the sardines. Sandy Lydon is a history professor at Cabrillo College. Lydon says the fishing village that Steinbeck loved has become one of the country's leading centers for marine research.

LYDON: Right in that brown building over there is a brand new research project on tuna. It's the first joint research project between Hopkins Marine Station and the Aquarium. And so, [there's] really high-powered tuna research going on in there.

DRUMMOND: Embedded in Steinbeck's works are ideas that biographer Jay Perini thinks are especially appropriate today.

PERINI: He said if American corporations don't adopt a conservative, long-term view of the environment, they will destroy themselves ultimately, and we will have a country which will be, you know, will be a Third World country in 100 years if we can't come to grips with this. And that's why Steinbeck is incredibly relevant right now. We've lost this long-term community vision.

DRUMMOND: The anniversary of Cannery Row's publication is being celebrated all year in central California. There will be seminars, readings of Steinbeck's works on the radio, and this spring a Steinbeck festival in his hometown of Salinas. For Living on Earth, I'm William Drummond reporting.



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