Joseph Campbell in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

In the recent posting on Joseph Campbell (Aug 16), I mentioned that he was friends with John Steinbeck while living in Monterey, CA, and Steinbeck modeled a character in Cannery Row on him. I had read that so many times in so many places, I assumed it was common knowledge and did not keep track of the references. As with so many things, there is more to the story.

Yes, Joseph Campbell did know John Steinbeck while living in Monterey, but only for a year (1931–1932), long enough to have a conspicuous affair with Steinbeck’s wife, hardly a basis for friendship.

(Campbell later married one of his students at Sarah Lawrence College, and stayed married to her all of his life.  She was a dancer and became a noted choreographer.  They lived in Greenwich Village and had no children.  Apparently, they did not stay in contact with Steinbeck who also moved to New York City.)

Steinbeck did model a minor character after Campbell, but, understandably, not an admirable one. The character was Joe Elegant, a cook and wannabe author at the local brothel. Campbell was also a wannabe author and had tried writing a novel, but gave it up, thankfully for all of us.  (Reading Campbell is like stumbling your way through a fun house maze where you are constantly bumping into a mirror.)  Joe Elegant is depicted as a notably handsome man, as was Joseph Campbell.

The character Joe Elegant does not actually appear in Cannery Row, but in Steinbeck’s sequel, Sweet Thursday, set a few years later. You probably never heard of Sweet Thursday. Neither did I.

Adding to the confusion, a movie was made of Cannery Row in 1982 starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger that creatively combined the story lines in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday (an adaptation, they call it). The character Joe Elegant was too minor to appear in the movie. It was not another Grapes of Wrath.  The movie was widely panned, and only appears occasionally on very late-night TV.

(Cannery Row, the book, may have been cutting edge when written in 1945, but it wouldn’t make it by today’s standards.  Nor should it be expected to.  All literature moves forward, all literature evolves to fit the times. I hope it is no longer being forced on high school students.)


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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