For Elizabeth, With Love
Sweet Thursday, by John Steinbeck
Viking Press, 1954, Penguin Classics, 2008
Reviewed by Seana Graham
“For Elizabeth, with love”–that’s how Steinbeck dedicated this late sequel to the more famous Cannery Row, which takes place not long after the Second World War has drawn to a close. Those who still can have returned to their old home to take stock and examine their wounds. As Steinbeck tells us in the opening, “the war got into everybody”.
One of the things I admire about this novel is that Steinbeck is cognizant of the change the war has wrought. He uses the same characters, mostly, but he doesn’t attempt to rewrite the same book. If you read Cannery Row only, you might expect it all to go on forever, Doc Ricketts still collecting specimens, Lee Chong running his grocery and so on. But Lee Chong has taken off for Tahiti. Doc recognizes something of himself in this desire for something new, but doesn’t know exactly what he hungers for.
“Who knows?” Doc responds when Mack asks why Lee Chong left. “Who knows what lies deep in any man’s mind? Who knows what any man wants?”
Sweet Thursday is the account of how Doc’s community attempts to help him answer this question for himself. It is comic in its various attempts, but serious in its underlying purpose.
This was another book that I read recently at the behest of my reading group. As longtime residents of the Central Coast of California, we found the book satisfying on many levels. Many of us had connections with the lower half of Monterey Bay and as much as this tale has a fabulous quality, it is very precisely placed. We thrilled to some passing reference to Santa Cruz across the bay, for instance, where we were at that moment discussing it. It was almost as if Steinbeck was giving us a nod. And we all had at least some passing experience of this earlier era of post-war living in the region, even if it was a few decades after the fact, when coastal California was still a sleepier place than it is now.
One thing I was struck by is that the book reveals itself as of an earlier era by its vernacular. If you watch movies of the late forties and early fifties, you will know what I mean. Americans simply don’t talk this way anymore. It’s not in the narrative voice, where Steinbeck seems our contemporary. But it’s in pretty much every line of dialogue.
There’s a romance at the heart of this book, and that didn’t seem dated in any way that matters. It’s the story of two people who should be together but don’t know it, or may know it but don’t know how to get there. There’s a realism in the way Steinbeck depicts how people repel what they most want or need, and I suppose in an ideal world we would all have a community like the denizens of Cannery Row to help us past our self-created hurdles.
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