Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Collaborators and Cohorts

Main content start

“Collaborators and Cohorts:
Edward Flanders Ricketts
& John Steinbeck”

by Susan Shillinglaw, San Jose State University

For the marine biologist, Edward F. Ricketts (1897-1948) and his friend John Steinbeck (1902-1968) the study of marine ecology was central to their livelihoods, their shared world view, and their writing. In the intertidal, they saw a metaphor for the complexity of life itself, both physical and metaphysical.

In 1923, Edward Flanders Ricketts came to the Monterey Peninsula from Chicago to study marine ecology, setting up one of the first biological supply businesses on the west coast. By vocation he was a scientist, providing marine specimens to biological labs and schools around the country; by avocation he was a fine observer, thinker, and humanist who willingly explained invertebrate life to anyone strolling on the beach.

Between Pacific Tides, 1939

Between Pacific Tides is, in effect, a narrative spread sheet of intertidal life. Published in an era when authoritative texts on the intertidal were organized by scientific classification, Ricketts” book was notable, even revolutionary, because of its accessibility (his voice throughout is homespun, certainly chatty and engaging) and its organization by habitat. Rickettts” vision of ecology is holistic, because his central concern is with relationships among organisms and between organisms, including man, and their environment. Ricketts” mind, Steinbeck wrote, “had no horizons.” Today he would be called a deep ecologist.

Sea of Cortez, 1941

Ricketts is best known, perhaps, as Steinbeck”s close friend, the model for “Doc” in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. He also collaborated with Steinbeck on Sea of Cortez, published in 1941. Ricketts and Steinbeck had been friends for a decade when they decided to launch an expedition into the Gulf of California to catalogue marine life in the Gulf littoral, a relatively unexplored region in 1940. In March of that year, a crew on The Western Flyer collected and catalogued animals in the intertidal. The book describing this voyage is truly a collaborative venture: Steinbeck wrote the narrative using Ricketts” field notes and Ricketts prepared a phyletic catalogue of more than 500 invetebrate species collected on the voyage. Steinbeck”s narrative touches on history of the Gulf, the history of science, philosophical speculation and descriptions of intertidal collecting sites.

For both Steinbeck and Ricketts the tidepool is a metaphor for the complexity of all life, as suggested in one of the most famous passages in Sea of Cortez: “…a man looking at reality brings his own limitations to the world. If he has strength and energy of mind the tide pool stretches both ways, digs back to electrons and leaps space into the universe and fights out of the moment into non-conceptual time. Then ecology has a synonym which is ALL.” (72). Their sense of connectivity included invertebrates, their environments, man”s impact on that environment, and the philosophical implications of it all, what Ricketts called the “toto picture.”

Cannery Row, 1945

John Steinbeck captured that same holistic perspective in fiction, the 1945 novel Cannery Row. As Steinbeck notes in his opening chapter, the tidepool is the book”s central metaphor; Monterey”s Cannery Row is a human tidepool. Specimens are Doc himself, Mack and the boys, Flora Wood—brothel owner—and Lee Chung—grocer. The book also embraces specimens from other habitats around Monterey and Carmel Valley—the boy Frankie or Mary Talbot or the crusty owner of a frog pond. And in the Chinaman”s eyes or the vision of a drowned girls, the book embraces a kind of mystical awareness, what Ricketts” called “breaking through” the physical world to awareness of cosmic connections.

For Ricketts and Steinbeck, the tidepool suggested ALL.