Steinbeck’s Wisdom

John Steinbeck apparently believed that there is some good in all of us — no matter how degenerate we appear. He was fond of writing about the scraps and bits of cast-off humanity that others ignored. In Cannery Row, for example, he writes about a small community of people who are likely to be unnoticed and dismissed as beneath contempt, if not avoided at all costs. The main group of five men, led by Mack, are “bums” in the eyes of most of us. They don’t work unless absolutely necessary — and then only as long as they must. They live with their dog they love too much to train or restrict in any way in a deserted warehouse, called the “Palace Flophouse,” owned by a Chinese man who has decided he is better off letting them live there rent-free than to turn them away and possibly suffer unseen consequences. The only “respectable” character, and the central character in the novella is “Doc,” an educated marine biologist who collects specimens along the California coast, prepares them for dissection and study in America’s colleges and universities, and lives a quiet and sober life among his jars, his books, and his beloved records (remember them??)

Midway through the novella a bizarre incident occurs in which Mack and his boys drunkenly trash Doc’s laboratory and home in their well-meaning desire to throw him a party because he has been good to them; Doc is indeed beloved by all in Cannery Row because he is gentle, caring, and only too willing to put himself out for others. Mack and the boys (“I and the boys,” as he says) feel awful about what their excess of enthusiasm has brought to Doc’s doors — it takes Doc, who arrives after the party is over, a day to clean up the mess they have left behind. Accordingly there is a rift between Doc and Mack’s crew, but it is one they are determined to mend — by throwing him another party (at the suggestion of the madam of the local whore house)! In the meantime, as they go about planning the party in secret, Doc is having a beer with one of his friends and reflecting on Mack and his boys “the Virtues, the Beatitudes, the Beauties,” as Steinbeck calls them; Doc comes up with the following speech which strikes me as worldly-wise:

“Doc said, ‘Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think,’ he went on, ‘that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will ever 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 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.’ This speech so dried out Doc’s throat that he drained his beer glass. . . .

“‘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, egotism, and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.'”

Can I hear an “AMEN”!!??


6 thoughts on “Steinbeck’s Wisdom

  1. Preach on Doc Curtler. This is a classic and you are so right about Steinbeck. As I am reading this quote, I am thinking of the leader of Russia who is being caught in a lie, so his reaction is to lie some more or point the finger at others. Or, leaders of various organizations I consulted with who are as greedy as they come. Or, almost any politician who sells his/ her soul to win and then leaves office wealthier than when he/ she arrived. Why can’t we value straightforward, honesty more? Elizabeth Warren goes after cheaters and she is painted by some as a pariah. Thanks Hugh, BTG

  2. Amen, Hugh! (And BTG!).

    There is an echo of Doc’s speech in the speech given by James Earl Jones’ character in the movie “Field of Dreams,” when he says baseball symbolizes all that was ever good in America and all that ever could be again. It’s poignant because that point in the movie, the only ones who “see” and believe in the ballgame being played in the corn field are social outcasts, business (farm) failures, and children. And they are ridiculed for doing so.

    The “successful” men – bankers and investors — are too cynical and greedy and don’t see all the great ballplayers, or the sheer joy of a game of catch, going on before them.

  3. Steinbeck points to a huge hypocrisy, doesn’t he? We say we prize one thing but our actions reveal that we prize the opposite! Thanks for your comments.

  4. “Amen!”
    I am in town for faster internet, and the restaurant where i usually use the high speed internet was closed! i ‘m using the same slow usb modem while having lunch elsewhere, and for some reason when i read the first line, John Steinbeck apparently believed that there is some good in all of us — no matter how degenerate we appear.” i reacted with a touch of sadness…

    part i know wast from an earlier encounter this morning with the flisheman that i am sure broke into my house.. i saw him ‘tresspassing’ on my friends’ land as he moved his hand-built crab traps and poked through the rank growth along the river. my first reactino to seeing him was to puff up and watch as if i were the prison guard.. and i reminded myself to have compassion.. to love my enemy… and to be glad i was not born into a life similar to his…

    so thanks for a timely post, and i agree.. if it were a landowner or attorney taking his son for a fishing outing, i would have smiled, waved and wished them luck.

    thanks hugh.. i needed that reminder!


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