Athenaeum Meeting Minutes – September 15, 2002 – Dog & Duck Pub

Attending:  John Mays, Jimmy Martin, Alan Hunt, Bob Hardister, Pete Hansen, Stephen Hansen, Joel Aud, Chris Mack, Skip Mencio, Eli Pickering

Book for Discussion:   Tortilla Flat & Cannery Row, John Steinbeck


John: Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row are not the same style. Tortilla Flat is simpler. The language is plainer.

Chris: Cannery Row has a deeper theme. Doc espouses a little philosophy in chapter 23, "Doc said, ‘Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think," he went on, "that Mack and the boys know everything that 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,"

John: The end of Cannery Row changes one’s outlook on the novel. It seems clear there is a deeper meaning than in Tortilla Flat.

Eli: From the beginning of Cannery Row the novel seems darker, a little more serious than Tortilla Flat. The little boy Frankie is an example of the incapacitated character so prevalent in Steinbeck’s work. One would not expect to find such a character if the book was happy go lucky like Tortilla Flat.

Chris: If Mack and the boys are analogous to the Paisano, where is there an analogous character to Mack in Tortilla Flat?

John: Steinbeck writes about society, and one of the themes in Cannery Row is how we operate in a society. The stray chapter about the gopher tells us life is often not worth living if we do not accept some risk. The gopher has the perfect home, but he must go where the traps are to really live. Same with Doc, who knows what it will cost him big to let Mack throw him a birthday party, but he goes along with it anyway. He, like the gopher, must go where the traps are to truly live.

Eli: The narrator tells us Doc knew his birthday party would cost him big!

Bob: Tortilla Flat is told as an epic played out with antiheros. Steinbeck borrows from the Arthurian legends to lend weight to story.

Eli: Is Pilon truly as altruistic as he appears? It seems everything he does he does for his friends, but it always turns out tragically for everyone BUT Pilon.

Pete/Jimmy: No. He is not serious about his generosity. He is just out for himself.

Chris: Everything we do has some selfish aspects, even a seemingly selfless act like having children.

John: Is Steinbeck trying to make that point in the novel?

Eli: The scene where Pilon barters Big Joe’s pants for wine is hilarious. "He held them to the light. ‘Can you see through them? No! The stiffness, the discomfort has been taken out of them. They are in prime condition." "No", she said firmly. "You are cruel to your husband, senora. You deny him happiness. I should not be surprised to see him going to other women, who are not so heartless. For a quart, then?" Later on after Pilon steals back the pants he finds Big Joe trapped on the beach, half naked, with a girl scout troop camping nearby, "Who stole my pants, Pilon? I have been lying here for hours, and could not go away because of those girls."

John: This is an example of Neo-realism in American literature. Anyone can be the protagonist, not just Kings, or people of high station. This is a relatively new development in literature.

Eli: The journal Contemporary Literary Criticism has several hundred pages on Steinbeck, most of it on Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, or The Grapes of Wrath. The critic Peter Lisca notes a common character theme for Steinbeck’s work, "[Tortilla Flat] introduces two important changes to Steinbeck’s treatment of the "drop-out" (which is a better term than escapee). First, whereas the earlier characters of this type had deliberately rejected the clear advantages available to them, in the form of family and education, these Mexican-American paisanos find themselves initially in a poor position to compete in American Society. Second, the "drop-out" is no longer shy, retiring, solitary, but an active gregarious member of a whole community of "drop-outs".

Pete: The author is writing for depression era people, and the down and out quality of the paisanos is something the reader could identify with, and perhaps laugh about.

John: In Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, the author is not attempting to make socio-political statement by choosing lowly people as the main characters. These books do not describe the horrific plight of the poor in order to endorse a socialist agenda. The paisanos are meant to be lovable.

Chris: Steinbeck does not shy away from political commentary. Some of his books do address contemporary social issues of the dustbowl era.

Jimmy: In Objectivist terms, the paisanos are looters.

John: Here is a contrast with Rand. For Rand, only economic achievement is meritorious.

Jimmy: What have the piasanos achieved at all?

John: Inner peace. Tranquility. Community. Doc, for instance, finds merit with Mack and the Boys, where Rand would find none.

Chris: Steinbeck does challenge us to re-evaluate our definition of success.

Alan: One commentator I was reading asked what I thought was an interesting question: "Given the novel's own implied definition of success, who is the most successful character: Doc, Mack, Dora, or Lee Chong?" The commentator went on to argue that Dora was possibly the most successful.

Chris: Doc is the most successful character.

Jimmy: There is a disconnect with reality in these stories. Desperately poor people are not this happy.

Pete: The paisanos romanticize their own poverty.

Bob: Doc comes across the dead girl, goes back to his house to find it trashed, and lays out Mack as soon as he sees him. How real is that? Who would not want to react exactly as Doc did?

John: It is great how everyone gets mad at each other, has a fight, and then gets over it like it was nothing.

Pete: Like Big Joe’s beating. He gets the crap beat out of him, but the next day it is all right, and everyone is over it. It is almost like Big Joe knew he deserved it.

Eli: What were the impressions of Steinbeck stylistically? On a scale with Shakespeare on one side and Rand on the other, where does Steinbeck lay?

John: Rand was a quack. A literary lightweight.

Jimmy: He has a wonderful touch. The scene where the Pirate preaches a sermon to his dogs is beautifully done, "The dogs sat in their places and watched him earnestly. Senor Alec Thompson flapped his tail, until the Pirate turned to him. "Here is no place for that," he said. "Saint Francis would not mind, but I do not like you to wag your tail while you listen. Now, I am going to tell you about Saint Francis." That day his memory was inspired. The sun found interstices in the foliage and threw brilliant patterns on the pine needle carpet. The dogs sat patiently, their eyes on the Pirate’s lips. He told everything the priest had told, all the stories, all the observations. Hardly a word was out of place. When he was done, he regarded the dogs solemnly. ‘Saint Francis did all that,’ he said. The trees hushed their whispering. The forest was silent and enchanted. Suddelny there was a tiny sound behind the Pirate. All the dogs looked up. The Pirate was afraid to turn his head. A long moment passed. And the moment was over. The dogs lowered their eyes. The tree-tops stirred to life again and the sunlight patterns moved bewilderingly. The Pirate was so happy that his heart pained him. ‘Did you see him?’ he cried. ‘Was it Saint Francisco? Oh! What good dogs you must be to see a vision.’ The dogs leaped up at his tone. Their mouths opened and their tails threshed joyfully."

Pete: Did anyone else pick up on all the Catholic imagery? Is Steinbeck Catholic? He writes from a Catholic perspective very well.

John: Like any good author, Steinbeck gets into his story, telling it from the inside out. Growing up in the Salinas Valley in California, it is very likely he knew the culture intimately.

Jimmy: The author incorporates the piasano’s superstition into the story, and could easily make it look silly, but chooses not to do so.

Eli: Steinbeck’s stylistic merit is not shared by all. This is from critic John S. Kennedy, "Dozens of contemporaries write consistently better than he, with greater subtlety and polish, greater depth and force. He can produce pages of beauty and impact, preceded and followed by pages of sheer trash, the emptiness of which is accentuated by the pseudo-grandeur or pseudo-primitivism of the diction. He can be acutely sensitive and true for a chapter, then embarrassingly sentimental and cheaply trite. He can write dialog with authenticity and bite, and go on to more dialog which is reverberant rhetorical noise. He can juxtapose a penetrating analysis of human feeling, especially of sense impression, and painfully artificial fabrication. In short, he has at least as many faults as he has felicities in his talent; his books are by no means rigorously weeded."

All: Kennedy is nuts.

Joel: Steinbeck wrote by dictating to himself.

Pete: He is a meticulous wordsmith.

Chris: Lee Chong is a very funny character. Steinbeck says he trusted his clients until further trust became impossible. That is the way to be.

Eli: Doc seems to take all the suffering in Cannery Row. While Mack and the boys experience a little guilt over tearing up the Doc’s place, it is the Doc that experiences all the darkest moments. It is Doc that finds the dead girl, and is so moved by it he does not seek the reward. It is Doc that can not face the "social death" of Frankie after he is jailed for stealing to give to Doc on his birthday. Doc seems to take all the lumps.

John: Doc is changed at the end of the book, and his experience is encompassed in the poem he read at the party.

"Doc closed the book. He could hear the waves beat under the piles and could hear the scampering of white rats against the wire. He went into the kitchen and felt the cooling water in the sink. He ran hot water into it. He spoke aloud to the sink and the white rats and to himself:

Even now,
I know that I have savored the hot taste of life
Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast.
Just for a small and a forgotten time
I have had full in my eyes from off my girl
The whitest pouring of eternal light-

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. And the white rats scampered and scrambled in their cages. And behind the glass the rattlesnakes lay still and stared into space with their dusty frowning eyes."

Chris: It sounds very lonely.

Pete: Tortilla Flat ends very lonely, too. All the paisanos walk away from Danny’s burning house, no two of them together.

John: Doc has engaged in this wonderful experience, this great party, with the community of cannery row. In essence he has "savored the hot taste of life".

Joel: Who among you can identify with this scene? After a heavy night of drinking you get up, half dazed, and during the course of the day memories of the night before slowly come back and you realize you experienced a crazy night, and the "hot taste of life".

Chris: Sometimes tasted it twice.

Bob: The scene where Doc kicks the hitchhiker out of his car is classic. Here is this stuffy bastard taking advantage of Doc’s charity, and then insulting him. Doc tells him to get out, and then orders up a beer milkshake.

Eli: Cannery Row treats the reader to vivid descriptions of nature, and natural things. Doc collects a variety of marine animals, and Steinbeck gives us long descriptions of them and their environment. It is a distinguishing feature separating the two books, because there is little of it in Tortilla Flat.

Pete: Steinbeck was a marine biologist by trade.

Bob: Steinbeck claimed to have known a guy like Doc, that ran a little naturalist store in Monterey which serves as the model for Doc and Western Biological.

Pete: Early in Tortilla Flat, Danny goes a little overboard, foreshadowing his insane rampage at the end. What is Steinbeck trying to tell us? Did the paisanos get what they deserve?

Eli: The ending is nothing more than the end of an episode in their lives which revolved around Danny. When he was gone, the glue holding them together disappeared. All good things come to an end.

Bob: Danny cracks under the burden of ownership. He could no longer handle the stress of owning the house. Danny’s duel with an unseen, unnamed enemy is a mythical ending. There is a lesson of human responsibility.

Pete/John: It echoes in some ways the end of Beowulf.

Jimmy: When Danny’s house catches on fire, the paisanos are struck by a "celestial thought". "The burning stick landed on an old newspaper against the wall. Each man started up to stamp it out; each man was struck by a celestial thought, and settled back. They found one another’s eyes and smiled the wise smiles of the deathless and hopeless ones".

John: It was better to let the house burn than to have the "piasano code" betrayed by Danny’s relatives, or someone else.

Skip: They were blissfully content with the community they had with Danny, and change was unacceptable.

Chris: It is illustrative of an enduring fact. Good moments come and go, but good stories last forever.

Eli: Danny may be gone, and the party may be over, but we are told the legend of both lives on, forever woven into the history of the Flat! Did anyone notice the difference in the alcohol of choice between the two books? The paisanos are winos while Mack and the Boys are hard liquor men. The "community jar" Eddie brings home from the bar is repulsive.

Pete: Community is a consistent theme within both books. The Paisanos represent the foolishness of the world.

Alan: Doc is a collector, and the book is a collection of stories that build a mosaic of life on the Row. The introduction was written beautifully, "When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl under their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle for sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book-to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves."

Bob: Darling is a symbol for Mack and the Boys. She is the epicenter of despondency in the community, and the source of its recovery after she survives distemper. Her recovery is precipitated by Doc, despite the fact that Doc is still angry at Mack and the Boys. Doc is an example to us of working in a redemptive manner in the lives of others, even when we work on behalf of our enemies.

Pete: The scene with Pilon and the chicken is so well done, "Pilon mused, ‘Poor little bare fowl. How cold it must be for you in the early morning, when the dew falls and the air grows cold from the dawn. The good God is not always so good to little beasts." And he thought, ‘Here you play in the street, little chicken. Some day an automobile will run over you; and if it kills you, that will be the best thing that can happen. It may only break your leg or wing. Then all your life will drag on in misery. Life is too hard for you, little bird." Needless to say, Pilon goes on to eat the bird.

Bob: Even though they are transients, Mack and the Boys seem not to lack for quality of life. During the first morning of the great frog roundup, they are camped on beach, cooking chicken. It is a great scene, "The smell of chicken stew was heartbreaking. Hazel had picked a fresh bay leaf from a tree by the river and had dropped it in. The carrots were in now. Coffee in its own can was simmering on its own rock, far enough from the flame so that it did not boil too hard. Mack awakened, started up, stretched, staggered to the pool, washed his face with cupped hands, hacked, spat, washed out his mouth, broke wind, tightened his belt, scratched his legs, combed his wet hair with his fingers, drank from the jug, belched and sat down by the fire. ‘By God that smells good,’ he said".

Skip: Doc makes a wonderful observation, that encompasses one of the themes of Cannery Row, "’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, egoism and self interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second."

Eli: There are not any bad guys in these stories. Torelli could arguably be a bad guy, but even he is comic relief, and if he is meant to embody evil, he is a demon with no teeth. That is part of what makes reading them so delightful.

John: Were any of you sympathetic to the prostitutes?

All: No. Like the poverty stricken "drop-outs", the life of the hookers was quite romanticized.

Eli: The random chapters toward the end of Cannery Row are too disparate, and distract from the book. John’s interpretation of the gopher chapter is sound, and so I do not doubt the other seemingly unrelated outtakes also carry significance, but the effect was distracting. What is the point of Mrs. Talbot?

Chris: Steinbeck is creating a mosaic; a collection of stories.

Eli: That would be fine if he had tied them together, but to make 90% of the story cohesive, and fail to tie in every other chapter at the end is odd. And Mrs. Talbot frankly is a weirdo throwing tea parties for her cats. It is more than a little sad.

Bob: Remember the story is autobiographical to an extent. It could be Mrs. Talbot was modeled on a real person.

Chris: She is not a sad character. The last line of her chapter ends, "God! A kid of hers is going to have fun." She is not sad in the face of poverty, and that is the point.

Eli: Lift these chapters out of the book, and it does not affect the plot, or change the meaning one bit. It is doubtful it would affect the impact of the story at all. If they are superfluous, I wonder why they are added at all.

Voting for November:

(John) The Trial
(Eli) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
(Pete) The Prince
(Pete) Interpretation of Dreams
(Joel) Varieties of Religious Experience 
(Chris) Unbearable Lightness of Being

Next Meeting:

October 12th at the Dog and Duck Pub

October:   The Sun Also Rises, Earnest Hemingway

November The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

Athenaeum Meeting Minutes