Steinbeck Studies 15.2 (2004) 23-30
[Access article in PDF]
"Second Try of Opening Preface" by John Steinbeck
The friendship between Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck may well have reached its peak in 1940, the year the two traveled together to the Sea of Cortez. In 1939, each had published what was arguably his greatest accomplishment—Between Pacific Tides and The Grapes of Wrath. Yet both emerged from their respective projects in very different states of mind: The publication of Between Pacific Tides after years of struggle with Stanford University Press energized Ricketts, while Steinbeck was exhausted after composing The Grapes of Wrath in one hundred working days. Facing a whirlwind of critical acclaim tempered by violent opposition to Grapes, Steinbeck sought a new direction for his energies—one that would temporarily take him away from fiction. In a much-quoted letter to friend Carlton "Dook" Sheffield, he captures this pivotal moment:
[...] I must make a new start. I've worked the novel—I know it as far as I can take it. I never did think much of it—a clumsy vehicle at best. And I don't know the form of the new but I know there is a new which will be adequate and shaped by the new thinking.
Steinbeck's "new form" was marine biology, and in late 1939 he embarked on a project—and, ultimately, a voyage—that would mark the culmination of the philosophies and ideas that he and Ricketts exchanged over the course of their eighteen-year relationship. [End Page 23]
Immediately after publication of Between Pacific Tides, Stanford University Press suggested that Ricketts start work on a handbook of the most common intertidal species in the San Francisco Bay area. Steinbeck eagerly signed on a few months later, seeing the project as one that would help make him conversant in marine biology. As he wrote to his agent, Elizabeth Otis: "I have a terrific job of reading to do. Ricketts is all right but I am a popular writer and I have to build some trust in the minds of biologists. This handbook will help do that" (Steinbeck and Wallsten196). They planned to write the book collaboratively, each composing essays on general principles of ecology and animal descriptions; Steinbeck was to then collate them into a handbook for high school students and general enthusiasts. Joel W. Hedgpeth, first editor of Ricketts's essays, notes, "Ed always thought that Steinbeck would have been a fine biologist, and admired his very sharp eye on the seashore, his ability to see things that even Ed missed" (1:31).
By early 1940 they had completed partial drafts that outline the book's format: It would mirror the ecological arrangement of Between Pacific Tides but delve even deeper, drawing further parallels between intertidal life and human society.
In the draft of his "Zoological Preface" to the San Francisco book Ricketts writes:
Who would see a replica of man's social structure has only to examine the abundant and various life of the tidepools, where miniature communal societies wage dubious battle against equally potent societies in which the individual is paramount, with trends shifting, maturing, or dying out, with all the living organisms balanced against the limitations of the dead kingdom of rocks and currents and temperatures and dissolved gases. A study of animal communities has this advantage: they are merely what they are, for anyone to see who will and can look clearly; they cannot complicate the picture by worded idealisms, by saying one thing and being another; here the struggle is unmasked and the beauty is unmasked.
Even the two chief philosophies of human society are paralleled on the shore: those dedicated to the [End Page 24] principle that the individual serves the state, chiefly as a unit or cog in that supra-personal social organization that is the colony; and those based on the democratic principle that the state serves the all-important individual. The latter are exemplified by the octopus and by other actively predacious animals which, by their individual...