restricted access Renaissance Man of Cannery Row: The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts (review)
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Renaissance Man of Cannery Row: The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts. Katharine A. Rodger, ed. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002. 283 pp. Cloth $39.95; Paper $24.95

Katharine Rodger's auspicious first book is a welcome and timely addition to the continuing—and rapidly expanding—conversation on Edward F. Ricketts's is indisputable significance as an intellectual figure in his own right, not just as a blip on the radar screen of contemporary Steinbeck studies. Ricketts (1897-1948) is best known as a maverick marine biologist whose pioneering holistic ecological views drove two important environmental texts—Between Pacific Tides (1939), and Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941). By themselves these are considerable accomplishments. The former has gone through multiple revised editions and is still currently in use as a college textbook; the latter is arguably one of the essential (but also most unheralded) cross-disciplinary environmental works of the last century.

But the fact is, these achievements do not fully define Ricketts's overall legacy. He was a polymath who wore many hats. He read and wrote extensively about biology, ecology, music, poetry, and religion. People were drawn to Ricketts, and he befriended numerous prominent scientists, artists, and scholars throughout his life, many of whom he corresponded with regularly, Rodger claims (xi). Ricketts's correspondents among the famous included Paul De Kruif, Henry Miller, Joseph Campbell, Torsten Gislen, Herb Kline, and of course John Steinbeck; among the Cannery Row regulars he wrote to Ritch and Tal Lovejoy, Dick and Jan Albee, Remo and Virginia Scardigli, Sparky Enea, Xenia Cage, Elwood Graham, Jim and Peggy Fitzgerald, and his family. Ricketts represented something different to each of them, and Rodger's book allows us to witness his multiple facets of personality directly.

Among its many virtues, Renaissance Man of Cannery Row demonstrates the continuing value of original scholarship and archival research. In her genealogical project, Rodger, a former Acting Director of San Jose State University's Martha [End Page 141] Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, was generously facilitated with personal information and primary documents provided by Ricketts's only son, Ed Ricketts, Jr. (who was completely erased in Steinbeck's fictional portraits of the marine biologist father), and by other family members, including daughter Nancy (also expunged from Steinbeck's fictional accounts). In attending to these rich and often hitherto buried materials, Rodger has performed an important recuperative task because she has allowed the senior Edward Ricketts to speak for himself, and so, in a sense, has saved him from being the victim of any further involuntary mythology. Rodger's volume provides a kind of Geertzian thick description of Ricketts's lively life and career, which was a mix of science and poetry, pragmatism and philosophy, capitalist economy and spiritual knowledge, both in and out of Steinbeck's orbit (Steinbeck's name appears repeatedly in this collection—Ricketts seems to have been star-struck by his famous pal—though only twelve of the letters are actually addressed to him). Rodger's volume opens a window not merely into the fascinating quality of existence at Pacific Biological Laboratories, but into the whole bohemian environment of 1930s and 1940s Monterey/Pacific Grove/Carmel. (Rodger's book indicates that there is an exciting social, intellectual, and artistic study yet to be written of that time and place.)

The heart of this book is a selection of 136 lightly annotated letters (sometimes too lightly annotated: one looks in vain for information in the Index and Works Cited entries on influential scientist Jan Smuts, whose essay on Holism deeply inspired Ricketts, and philosopher John Elof Boodin, whose works are mentioned several times, and whose phrase, "the laws of thought must be the laws of things," was quoted prominently in Sea of Cortez). The series covers the period from November, 1936, when everything Ricketts owned (including his impressive and irreplaceable scientific library) was destroyed in a fire at Pacific Biological Laboratories, to his untimely demise twelve years later in May, 1948, when he died three days after his car was hit by a train. Ricketts emerges from this archival collection as the compellingly...