John Steinbeck and his Voyage to The Gulf of California

“Below the Mexican border the water changes color; it takes on a deep ultramarine blue – a washtub bluing blue, intense and seeming to penetrate deep into the water."[1] This quote is from "The Log from the Sea of Cortez", the author is well known but not for this book. John Steinbeck’s more known works include "The Grapes of Wrath," "Of Mice and Men" and "Cannery Row". Many of his books have a common character, based on his friend Edward Flanders Ricketts. Ricketts was an important part of Steinbeck’s life and his writing. One topic that Steinbeck and Ricketts worked on together was during their expedition to the Gulf of California. They wrote about it in their book "The Sea of Cortez", which was later transformed into "The Log from the Sea of Cortez". This essay covers John Steinbeck’s life, his friendship with Ed Ricketts, and "The Log from the Sea of Cortez".

John Steinbeck was born in 1902 to John Ernst Steinbeck, Sr. and Olive Hamilton. He had three sisters, two elder sisters named Ester and Beth, and a younger sister named Mary. Steinbeck had attended Stanford University, but he left with no degree. Even though he is known for literature, “[Steinbeck] loved to learn about marine biology.”[2] His friend, Ed Ricketts, encouraged Steinbeck’s love of marine biology and they wrote a book together on the topic in the Gulf of California. During the early years of his writing, Steinbeck and Carol Henning, his first wife, were not able to afford living on their own. They only survived because his father would bring gifts and his mother would supply cooked meals.[3] It wasn’t until later when Steinbeck became famous for his writings that he was able to afford the life of a writer. He married a second time to Gwyn Conger, but left right after the wedding to be a war correspondent for World War II. He had two sons with Gwyn, they are his only children. She divorced Steinbeck after Ricketts’ death. Both the death of a friend and the divorce lead to depression and a break from writing. He would marry a third time to Elaine Scott, they stayed married until his death in 1968. Steinbeck continued to write and in 1962 Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

John Steinbeck has had many influences on his work and his life, but none more influential than Edward Flanders Ricketts. Steinbeck met Ricketts in a dentist’s waiting room. They both knew of each other and decided to go for a drink, according to Steinbeck.[4] This was the beginning of a friendship that would last their lives. Because of this friendship, Steinbeck now had a muse for many of his well-known characters, including Doc from "Cannery Row" and Friend Ed from "Burning Bright". Together they went on an exploration of the Gulf of California. They would document their journey in The Sea of Cortez. “The consistency in Steinbeck’s existence was his friendship, his sheer camaraderie, with Ricketts.”[5] The consistency would last eighteen years. Steinbeck and Ricketts had planned to go on another expedition in the summer of 1948, unfortunately Edward Flanders Ricketts died before they could go on their voyage. Rickett’s car stalled on train tracks and he was hit by the Del Monte Express, he died days after. John Steinbeck was not able to make it back to California before Ricketts passed. After Rickett’s funeral, Steinbeck returned to New York to find that Gwyn filed for divorce from him. Steinbeck moved back to Pacific Grove, “because of his friendship with Ricketts, Pacific Grove had taken on the aura of a definite home.”[6] They were the best of friends, and moving back to Pacific Grove may have been a way to feel closer to his lost friend. Steinbeck wrote an essay at the beginning of "The Log from the Sea of Cortez", titled “About Ed Ricketts.” He wanted closure after Ricketts death, unfortunately the essay had “not laid the ghost.”[7] Ed Ricketts was a large part of John Steinbeck’s life and writings, but Steinbeck could not find closure in writing about Ricketts. “Cannery Row was Ed Ricketts’s book, just as The Sea of Cortez had been.”[8]

“In the words of critic Joseph Millichap, “Mexico always had been an important symbolic place for Steinbeck.”[9] While Steinbeck had written many books and movies about Mexico, one was "The Log from the Sea of Cortez." John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts decided to go on an expedition to the Gulf of California in 1940, “once it was called the Sea of Cortez, and that is a better-sounding and a more exciting name.”[10] They would go to different areas in the Gulf, such as Loreto, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto San Carlos to collect samples of the marine life. This book was important because there was not a concise book about the area. Steinbeck and Ricketts read the books that were available at the time that were over the Gulf of California. They found that there was not many books over the subject and the books they could find were muddled.[11] They decided to create a book that would give information about the marine life and give philosophy that they wanted to share with the world. The friends chartered The Western Flyer and they set off to the Sea of Cortez. They stopped at many different locations to gather information on the region, in the tide pools and surrounding area. In Loreto, before Steinbeck, Ricketts, and their crew could go upon the shore they had to meet with the officials of the town. “[The Mexican officials] greet a fishing boat with the same serious ceremony they would afford the Queen Mary.”[12] They were very welcomed in the town, they were given a tour of the town and the church. This was a similar experience that the expedition would have at the different stops. “This last foray to Mexico helped establish Steinbeck as a writer conversant with Mexicans and Mexico.”[13]

A team decided to recreate Steinbeck and Rickett’s voyage of the Sea of Cortez. Their venture shows the changes from 1940 to 2004 of the Sea of Cortez.[14] They found that the tide pools that were teeming with life and different species are depleted, now even the common species that were found in the area in 1940 are gone. If we want to preserve the area that Steinbeck and Ricketts explored and the species that they observed there, then we need to make sure that we do not trash the regions during spring break.