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Ed Ricketts

Photo: Fred Strong; courtesy Pat Hathaway/California Views Photo Archives
Deep Thinker: A photo of Ricketts taken in 1936 by Fred Strong, his brother-in-law.

Sheet-Metal Memories

A catch of new books illuminates the life of marine biologist Ed Ricketts, the inspiration for 'Doc' in John Steinbeck's 'Cannery Row'

By Geoffrey Dunn

I THINK it is safe to say that the life of Edward F. Ricketts is the most celebrated "untold" story in the history of American arts and sciences.

For the better part of two decades, Ricketts, a widely respected marine biologist living first in Pacific Grove and later on what would come to be known as "Cannery Row" in Monterey, was Nobel laureate John Steinbeck's best friend, sounding board, mentor, drinking companion and, perhaps most importantly, his collaborator.

It was Ricketts who provided the colorful and complex persona for Steinbeck's bittersweet portrayal of "Doc" in both Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday. And Ricketts served as inspiration for characters in as many as a half-dozen more of Steinbeck's novels and short stories, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck himself once wrote "that Ricketts was the greatest man I have ever known" and that "everyone near him was influenced by him, deeply and permanently." The two spent the better part of their formative years as young adults basking in each other's native intelligence and sharing their innate curiosities about the natural world.

"Very many conclusions Ed and I worked out together through endless discussion and reading and observations and experiment," Steinbeck would acknowledge in an essay titled "About Ed Ricketts," which appeared three years after his friend's death. "We worked together so closely that I do not know in some cases who started which line of speculation since the end thought was the product of both minds."

Ricketts himself was an accomplished writer and scientist, even though he had no formal degrees or institutional appointments. He is the principal author of Between Pacific Tides, a path-breaking ecological account of intertidal life along the Pacific coast stretching from Sitka, Alaska, to northern Mexico. Ricketts also co-wrote with Steinbeck Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research and was entirely responsible for the extensive phyletic catalog that accompanied its first printing.

At the time of his untimely death in May of 1948, Ricketts was reworking a fascinating trilogy of philosophical essays while preparing for yet another major marine study, with Steinbeck, of the Pacific Northwest.

Everyone who encounters Ricketts, either the legend or the man, seems to want to claim his discovery for their own. In the foreword to Breaking Through: Essays, Journals, and Travelogues of Edward F. Ricketts, Susan F. Beegel asserts that Ricketts is "paradoxically famous and yet relatively unknown." In Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Story of Ed Ricketts ... (with emphasis on the untold), Eric Enno Tamm declares "that few people know the true story of Ed Ricketts," characterizing him as "a lone, marginalized scientist" and an "outcast."

In spite of his varied accomplishments, and despite the fact that more than a dozen species of sea life have been named after him, not to mention a major university research vessel, an underwater reserve and at least one rather lively bar in Monterey—and not to mention the fact that Nick Nolte played his character in a major motion picture in the 1980s—there still seems to be a somewhat subterranean quality to his reputation that at times borders on the cultish. And maybe that is the point of these recent works.

Edward Flanders Ricketts, the man whom Steinbeck would mythologize in Cannery Row as "half Christ and half satyr," was born to a Studs Lonigan childhood in Chicago in 1897. With the exception of an idyllic year spent in the rural hinterlands of South Dakota, Ricketts' childhood experiences were primarily urban.

As Katharine A. Rodger points out in her splendid introductions to both Breaking Through and Renaissance Man of Cannery Row, in the summer of 1919 Ricketts enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he gradually came under the influence of biologist W.C. Allee, a pioneer in the seminal field of ecology. Although an enthusiastic student, Ricketts never received a degree.

Instead, he and a college pal came out West and founded a specimen supply business, Pacific Biological Laboratories. He eventually set up shop on Ocean View Avenue, in New Monterey, only a few steps down from where the Monterey Bay Aquarium sits today, a history that is richly chronicled in Michael Hemp's Cannery Row. He was also married and had three children.

In the summer of 1932, Ricketts embarked on a journey aboard a 33-foot vessel to the Pacific Northwest with friends Jack and Sasha Kashevaroff Calvin and his young neighbor and the future mythologist Joseph Campbell, then living on the Monterey Peninsula. Eric Enno Tamm's enthusiastic Beyond the Outer Shores does a fine job of re-creating that influential journey, during which Campbell assisted Ricketts in his collections, and the two young men engaged in a running discussion about philosophy, human experience, native cultures and the deep meaning of the varied totems they encountered on their journey to Alaska. Their friendship would last until the end of Ricketts' life.

In the case of Steinbeck, there is a great deal of lore wrapped around his initial meeting with Ricketts. Steinbeck himself said that they met in a dentist office. Steinbeck's generally reliable biographer, Jackson Benson, speculates that they met at the home of the Calvins, probably in 1930.

What is not under contention is that Ricketts, five years Steinbeck's senior, had a profound impact on the ambitious young writer from Salinas. During the rag-tag days of the Depression, the two became almost inseparable.

While Steinbeck was at work on some of his most famous novels, including Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flats, In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, Ricketts was busy, too, getting Between Pacific Tides ready for publication and working on a trio of complex philosophical essays that drew heavily from Eastern thought.

Just how much influence Ricketts had on Steinbeck is subject to intense literary debate. In his seminal work, John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist (University of Minnesota, 1973), Richard Astro asserted that Ricketts had "a titanic impact" on Steinbeck's work. Steinbeck's biographer, Jackson J. Benson, however, somewhat downplayed Ricketts' role, asserting that the "ultimate responsibility for the work in its entirety is Steinbeck's."

After reading through the assorted writings and letters collected by Rodger in both Breaking Through and Renaissance Man, I lean toward Astro.

Take for instance the case of Sea of Cortez, which originally appeared with Steinbeck and Ricketts listed as co-authors. Many have assumed that the narrative portion of the book was written entirely by Steinbeck.

In fact, a close reading of the "Verbatim Transcription of Notes of Gulf of California Trip" in Breaking Through shows that a significant portion of The Log From the Sea of Cortez (as it is now called) was taken directly from Ricketts' notes. And the famous "Easter Sunday" passage from The Log is virtually a direct rewrite of Ricketts' "Essay on Non-teleological Thinking," also included in Breaking Through. That Ricketts' name was omitted as co-author of The Log in subsequent editions is a literary crime of grand proportions.

Of course, what many consider to be a crime of even grander proportions took place in May of 1948 after Ricketts was killed when his Buick crashed into a train while he was pulling out of Cannery Row. Steinbeck went into Ricketts' laboratory and took his entire correspondence with Ricketts, burning all of it, according to Tamm, and later claiming that he did it to protect Ricketts' privacy. Of that I'm not so sure. Many feel that Steinbeck may have been covering his own tracks, including his literary debt to Ricketts. One of the great loves of Ricketts' life, Jean Ariss, opined, "[Steinbeck] never wanted anyone to know the tremendous influence that Edward had on his writing and his work."

What isn't up for contention, however, is that Steinbeck's writings deteriorated greatly following Ricketts' death and that he never achieved the same level of literary excellence that he did while his friend was still alive. The proof may, in fact, be in the pudding.

It should be duly noted that much of the material included in Breaking Through had been previously collected in a two-volume set, The Outer Shores, edited by the legendary marine biologist Joel Hedgpeth in the 1970s, but these volumes have been long out of print and left out a significant portion of the material. Rodger has now, thankfully, restored the writings to their original form and added some new jewels to the mix, including the foreword to Ricketts' 1925 Pacific Biological Laboratories Catalog, an early foreshadowing of his environmental sensitivities and concerns about marine conservation.

And what of Steinbeck's varied portrayals of Ricketts? Excusing the exaggerations and poetic license that Steinbeck may have taken with particular details in his rendering of "Doc," Steinbeck severely diminished Ricketts' accomplishments as a scientific writer and observer. He also never once mentioned that Ricketts was a loving father to his three children (two of whom, Nancy Ricketts and Ed Rickets Jr., have contributed charming short memoirs to Breaking Through).

Fatherhood was, apparently, an aspect of Ricketts' life that Steinbeck couldn't come to terms with; he seemed to prefer his pal as a beer-drinking, lonely womanizer. Only that wasn't even a fraction of the story.

Perhaps Steinbeck was looking too much into his own mirror as he fashioned his fictional renderings of "Doc." Doc's isolation and melancholy, particularly in Sweet Thursday, would seem to be more Steinbeck than Ricketts. Indeed, Ricketts' attraction for so many people, including Steinbeck, was that he embodied his ideals, while Steinbeck was merely able to espouse them.

A quarter-century ago this month, when I reviewed the Hedgpeth volumes of The Outer Shores for a West Coast magazine (ecstatically, I might add), I nonetheless made the assessment that because of Ricketts' often stilted prose "much of the material collected here probably would not have been published were it not for Ricketts' close association with Steinbeck."

Now, I am not so sure. The fact of the matter is that Ricketts was so far ahead of the curve in so much of his scientific writing, that the value of his ecological worldview—Steinbeck or no Steinbeck—now stands firmly on its own.

Breaking Through: Essays, Journals, and Travelogues of Edward F. Rickets, Edited by Katharine A. Rodger; foreword by Susan F. Beegel; UC Press Press; 369 pages; $39.95 cloth. Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Story of Ed Ricketts, The Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell, by Eric Enno Tamm; Raincoast Books (Canada); 392 pages; $22.95 paper; Thunder's Mouth Press; 392 pages; $15.95 paper. Renaissance Man of Cannery Row: The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts, by Edward F. Ricketts, edited by Katharine A. Rodger; University of Alabama Press (2002); 344 pages; $45 cloth, $24.95 paper. Between Pacific Tides (Fifth Edition), by Edward F. Ricketts and Jack Calvin, Revised (1948 et al.) by Joel W. Hedgpeth, Revised (1985) by David W. Phillips; Stanford University Press: 680 pages; $31.95 paper. Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck's Old Ocean View Avenue, by Michael Kenneth Hemp, photography from the Pat Hathaway Photo Collection; The History Company (2002); 128 pages; $19.95 paper. www.caviews.com

Geoffrey F. Dunn, Ph.D., is the author of 'Santa Cruz Is in the Heart' and the director of several documentary films, including 'Dollar a Day, 10¢ a Dance,' 'Chinese Gold' and 'Calypso Dreams.' He would like to thank Ed Ricketts Jr., for helping to clarify and illuminate some of the material in this article.

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