- Hidden Treasure:The Steinbeck-Rudloe Letters
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A half century ago, in the midst of a productive literary career, John Steinbeck published The Sea of Cortez, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday, a work of nonfiction and two novels centered on the life of a marine collector. Later in life, Steinbeck was good friends with a young man who lived in the Florida panhandle named Jack Rudloe, the founder and managing director of Gulf Marine Specimen Laboratory in Florida. His education and research facility is nestled off the thready highway that cuts through the sleepy fishing town of Panacea, located on the Sunshine State's Gulf Coast. Rudloe is an outspoken conservationist, marine naturalist, and gifted collector. Gulf Specimen has provided specimens to over thirteen hundred institutions across the nation for teaching and research purposes. Rudloe is also an avid writer. The author of nonfiction books, a novel, and numerous articles, he is a critically respected and well-received teacher and storyteller. Perhaps one of the vehicles that paved the way for Rudloe's personal success was the unlikely correspondence that he shared with Steinbeck. They exchanged over thirty letters (recently given to the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University) and this relationship had a significant influence on modern day marine science, from natural products to ecology.
That a young New York transplant, struggling to make a place for himself within a small oceanside community, was able to catch the attention of the 1962 Nobel laureate may seem odd. Rudloe was born in Brooklyn, New York, and lived there until his early teens, when his family moved to Lanark Village, a small [End Page 109] town on the Florida Panhandle whose population scratched out a living from oysters, crabs, fish and timber. In the late 1950's and early 1960's Rudloe, as a teenager, was looking for opportunities along the rural panhandle and realized that the Gulf of Mexico was a boundless resource: "[T]here was basically a market for marine life, I was interested in it, there was diversity there, and I was able to spark a small business, which was supplying animals to labs in schools and . . . the marine environment is a much richer area than anything terrestrial. So once you get out here there's a much greater diversity. And not only that, there was a much greater interest in marine life as opposed to spiders or frogs" (Personal Interview. Note: All direct quotations by Rudloe in this article are taken from this same interview).
The social novelist was a former Stanford marine biology major, and Rudloe's stationery caught his attention. "I had a little letterhead with a picture of a hammer head shark and an eel on it or something like that," said Rudloe, "and it said Gulf Specimen Company at the time." Jack also focused on one of Steinbeck's personal treasures: The Log of the Sea of Cortez (1941). Along with Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954), these works all focused on the life of a marine collector.
In catching Steinbeck's attention with a letterhead that appealed to the author's fondness for marine science, and in focusing on a book the prize-winning writer himself held dear, Rudloe was able to breech the fortifications set up against "flatterers," those "people who want something," as Steinbeck put it in a letter to Rudloe. As Rudloe explained, the intertwining of writing, language, science, and study was set as the two began a correspondence that would span more than four years and would include three visits.
According to Rudloe, "And that's where we began our correspondence. And at the time, I'm saying to myself, 'Well, can I really do this?' because there was no guidelines, and it was, it was just an idea. I picked up a few little orders here and there. I didn't know what the heck I was doing." In referring to both his marine collection activities and some early writing...