Words and pages provided a sort of laboratory for Steinbeck and Ricketts to experiment and shape their ideas, and in their literature we find the greatest synthesis of their philosophical and scientific thought. Consequently, the written word will play a vital role in this course.
1. Who was Edward Ricketts?
Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row made a hero of Doc, who was, in life, Edward Flanders Ricketts, a marine biologist who operated a small marine biological lab in New Monterey. He was John Steinbeck’s closest friend for eighteen years, and their friendship was essential to Steinbeck’s thinking and his art. It was arguably the most vital connection of Steinbeck’s life—fulfilling some deep psychic need more completely than any other relationship, including those with his three wives. In nearly every one of Steinbeck’s novels, a male character offers to another male solace, wisdom, insight, and the “toto picture,” to borrow a favorite phrase of Ed’s—that male character was always modeled on Ed Ricketts holistic appreciation of life.
2. What was Ricketts’s and Steinbeck’s holistic philosophy?
Ricketts and Steinbeck were intellectual sparring partners, scientific investigators, soul mates, and collaborators. They discussed any and all subjects—the mathematics of music, observations of animal behavior, interpretations of modern art, the philosophy of Carl Jung. With Ricketts, Steinbeck fashioned one of the twentieth century’s most incisive texts wedding scientific discovery to humanistic ideals, Sea of Cortez. To appreciate fully the friendship, shared ideals, and intellectual camaraderie of Steinbeck and Ricketts is to comprehend one of the most unusual collaborative ventures of the twentieth century—which resulted in the text that Steinbeck always said was his favorite, Sea of Cortez.
3. Where will we go to trace Steinbeck’s and Ricketts’s careers?
In this class, we will take several field trips. In Monterey, we will listen to a recording of “The Snake” in Ed Ricketts’s lab on Cannery Row. We will see where the John Steinbeck Aquarium was to be built at Hopkins Marine Station. [Fig 9 and 10] We will walk along Cannery Row, locating sites mentioned in Steinbeck’s novel. We will walk Steinbeck’s Pacific Grove, see his home of the 1930s (unchanged), collect specimen in The Great Tide Pool where Ricketts and Steinbeck collected, walk on the beach at Asilomar where “The Seer” in Sweet Thursday talks to Doc. In short, we will steep ourselves in Steinbeck’s Monterey Peninsula. Time permitting, there will be a trip to Salinas to visit the National Steinbeck Center.
In Mexico, Steinbeck and Ricketts’ 1940 trip will be reconstructed through close reading of Sea of Cortez. Ricketts’s own notebooks will be examined, comparing his notes to the published work. Steinbeck’s documentary on Mexican life, The Forgotten Village, will be shown, a searing portrayal of village life in 1940. Time permitting, the text and film of The Pearl will be discussed.
4. How will other writers contribute to an understanding of the Monterey coast and Sea of Cortez?
Robinson Jeffers wrote “the most powerful, the most challenging poetry in this generation,” declared the New York Herald Tribune in 1928. Four years later, he was on the cover of Time magazine. That same year, Edward Ricketts, John and Carol Steinbeck, and Joseph Campbell poured over Jeffers’s poetry. Poet of Big Sur and the wild Pacific coast, he lived in nearby Carmel.
Mary Austin and Richard Henry Dana also wrote of their encounters with coastal Monterey, and students will read excerpts from their work as well as from an early explorer in the Sea of Cortez, William Beebe. All of these writers will be used as point and counterpoint to the writings of Steinbeck and Ricketts.