This Day In Literary History
On December 5th, 1941, Sea of Cortez, the classic nonfiction book by the legendary American writer John Steinbeck, was published. Subtitled A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, it was co-written by the noted marine biologist, ecologist, and philosopher Ed Ricketts.
The two men had first met in 1930. Steinbeck had always been interested in marine biology; Ricketts, a professional biologist, had a small laboratory in Cannery Row where he prepared specimens of intertidal plant life for sale to universities and other laboratories.
Steinbeck spent many hours with Ricketts in the lab and they greatly enjoyed each other's company. In 1939, Ricketts published Between Pacific Tides, a definitive textbook study of intertidal fauna.
The following year, Steinbeck was in desperate need of escape and relaxation following the controversy surrounding his classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) - he had been publicly vilified as a communist propagandist, though he had taken great pains to avoid being labeled as such.
Meanwhile, Ricketts had been planning another specimen collecting trip along the Pacific coast. The two friends decided to go together. Steinbeck hired a sardine fishing boat called the Western Flyer take them down the Pacific coast and into Mexico.
To offset the cost of the trip, Steinbeck and Ricketts decided to write a book together about the expedition. They both kept detailed journals, which they would rework into a book manuscript.
After sailing leisurely and fishing down the Pacific coast, they refueled in San Diego and moved on to Cabo San Lucas. There, they were greeted by Mexican officials and began collecting specimens.
They and the crew of the Western Flyer engaged in frequent battles with the boat's outboard motor, which they nicknamed the Hansen Sea-Cow. Their problems with the motor served as a running gag in the book:
Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing.... [it] loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed... when attacked with a screwdriver [it] fell apart in simulated death... It loved no one, trusted no one, it had no friends.
At La Paz, out of beer and warmly received by the natives, they hit the town and enjoyed the hospitality. They also spent three days collecting specimens. Steinbeck would base his classic novella The Pearl (1947) on his time in La Paz.
On their way to San José Island, Steinbeck, Ricketts, and their crew ended up rowing their boat when the cantankerous Hansen Sea-Cow refused to start. From there, they moved on to Puerto Escondido.
In Puerto Escondido, Steinbeck and Ricketts found their most abundant fauna collecting ground. They also hung out with some new Mexican friends, eating, drinking, and listening to dirty jokes in Spanish.
The six-week expedition would take the men to many other locations around the Baja California peninsula. They would collect over 500 species of intertidal plant life and discover 50 new species of marine life, including three new species of sea anemone.
Dr. Oscar Calgren of the Lund University's Department of Zoology in Sweden named these species Palythoa rickettsii, Isometridium rickettsi, and Phialoba steinbecki after the two men who discovered them.
When Steinbeck and Ricketts got back to Monterey, they began work on their book. After the manuscript was submitted, Steinbeck's editor wanted the title page to state that Steinbeck wrote the book, which included appendices by Ricketts. A furious Steinbeck shot back, "I not only disapprove of your plan — I forbid it!"
He enjoyed writing Sea of Cortez with Ricketts. He liked the challenge of applying his skills as a novelist to writing scientific nonfiction and making it entertaining. The book is part scientific text, part travelogue, and part philosophy.
Steinbeck believed that Sea of Cortez was the best work he'd done, but expected the critics to savage it. He also expected it to be of limited commercial appeal. The reviews were mixed, but mostly favorable.
The book was indeed a commercial failure, but not because of limited appeal. It was published on December 5th, 1941 - two days before the Pearl Harbor attack took place, bringing the United States into World War II. Suddenly, marine biology was the last thing on the public's mind.
The revenues from Sea of Cortez were not nearly enough to allow Ed Ricketts to pay John Steinbeck back for financing their expedition. Steinbeck didn't care. He remained close friends with Ricketts, on whom he based the character of Doc, the good-natured, booze guzzling marine biologist who appears in Cannery Row (1945) and other novels.
In 1948, Ricketts was killed when a train struck his car. Steinbeck was devastated. Three years later, their book was reissued as The Log from the Sea of Cortez. The new edition included a biographical preface titled About Ed Ricketts. This time, the book received the commercial success it was due.
Quote Of The Day
"When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day's work is all I can permit myself to contemplate." - John Steinbeck
Today's video features a Stanford University symposium of lectures on how John Steinbeck's relationship with the environment was depicted in his books. Enjoy!