John Steinbeck was born in 1902 and spent most of his life in the region of California where Cannery Row is set. He studied science briefly at Stanford University and worked at a variety of odd jobs as a young man. Finally, in the early 1930s, he began to write seriously. Tortilla Flat, a novel about Mexican-American farm workers in the Salinas Valley, was his first successful novel. Most of Steinbeck's novels, including The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, are concerned with working-class and lower-class people, whose values Steinbeck found more authentic, if not always morally preferable, to those of the upper classes and intellectuals. Both his politics and his choice of material are colored by the Second World War and, even more significantly, the Great Depression.
One of Steinbeck's great strengths is his ability to capture dialect and a sense of place in his writing. This aligns him with many of the other regionalist writers of the early twentieth century. His ear for language and his fondness for landscape are derived from modernism. His work, though, particularly as he grew older, is often hampered by a political heavy-handedness and an excess of sentimentality and pathos. Cannery Row, which appeared in 1945, is unique among his writings for its ambiguity of message and emotion; in this work, Steinbeck seems to battle his own literary demons. Although Cannery Row was published at the end of the war, at a time when prosperity had returned to America, it depicts a group of people still trapped in Depression-era conditions and ways of thinking. They are nevertheless good people whose noble intentions and feelings for one another get them through the bad times. Their circumstances become almost an allegorical representation of the evil that inevitably disrupts all lives.
Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1963. He died in 1968.
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