Monday, June 21, 2021

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

Scientific expedition with Walden-esque philosophizing
When John Steinbeck was beginning his career as a writer, he befriended a marine biologist named Ed Ricketts who had established a laboratory in Monterey, California. Ricketts was the basis for the character of Doc in Steinbeck’s novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. In 1940, Steinbeck accompanied Ricketts and a small crew of workers on a specimen-collecting expedition to the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California, between Baja California and mainland Mexico). Steinbeck wrote up a narrative account of this journey, which was first published in 1941, accompanied by Ricketts’s scientific data. In 1951, a few years after the death of Ricketts, Steinbeck’s account was separated from the scientific findings and published as The Log from the Sea of Cortez. This later edition opens with an extended eulogy/biographical sketch of Ricketts, written by Steinbeck, followed by Steinbeck’s record of the expedition.

Due to frequent references to Charles Darwin and The Voyage of the Beagle, one gets the impression that Steinbeck modelled his account after that earlier expedition narrative. The Log is written in the first-person by Steinbeck, usually employing the collective “we.” One very odd aspect of The Log is that Steinbeck never mentions Ricketts, as if he weren’t even on the boat. A few of the crew members are named—Tiny, Tony, Tex, and Sparky—but none of them ever really rises to the level of an individual character. Steinbeck has no qualms about taking some literary license with the narrative, inserting his personal reflections and emotional impressions, but the lack of any substantial characters renders The Log oddly impersonal, as opposed to the biographical chapter on Ricketts, which is entirely personal.

Steinbeck was not attempting a strictly scientific narrative here. The official catalogue of species was up to Ricketts. Nevertheless, most of the content of Steinbeck’s account is scientific in nature, though written for more of a general audience like the readers of National Geographic rather than the readers of, say, The Journal of Marine Biology. Steinbeck describes each of the stops made by their boat, named the Western Flyer, to collect specimens among the tidal pools along the gulf shore. He also lists the species of marine animals found there, explains some of their distinct characteristics, and describes the crew’s methods of collection. Beyond the zoological content, Steinbeck provides a nautical travel narrative detailing weather activity, ports of call, and coastal terrain, as well as scenes of shipboard life, drinking bouts, and the crew’s adventures on shore. He also adds a great deal of interesting detail about the Mexican peoples they encountered along the way.

From a literary standpoint, the most valuable passages in the book are what might be called Steinbeck’s philosophical digressions, which in some sense resemble those of Henry David Thoreau in his nature memoir Walden. While observing the fishes and marine invertebrates of the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck frequently extrapolates theories about human nature and society through the lens of Darwinian evolutionary biology. One extended digression in particular, on teleological thinking, is largely the philosophy of Ricketts, the mentor, as distilled through the literary voice of Steinbeck, his mentee. As in Walden, such lofty asides really elevate The Log from a simple wilderness memoir to an inspirational literary work. The adventurous reader will envy the crew of the Western Flyer for their freedom of wanderlust and the intellectual excitement of their discoveries, but it is Steinbeck’s thought-provoking musings on the universe at large that will compel the reader to return to the book for future perusals.
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