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R I C H A R D A S T R O Oregon State University Steinbeck and Ricketts: Escape or Commitment In The Sea of Cortez? Nearly all of the critics of John Steinbeck’s fiction agree that the novelist’s best writing contains a strong commitment to the struggle for human rights and a compelling argument for the dig­ nity of the individual. These qualities are, in fact, the hallmark of his greatest social novels, In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, in which Steinbeck’s genuinely simple and objectively clear prose style presents, evaluates, and ultimately gives meaning to the very definite battle between the decent family farmers who live on and work the land and their common enemy, the land-monopolists or agri-businessmen who seek to replace a democratic state with a plantation system of agriculture.1 But while the critics have championed Steinbeck’s “radical humanism”, they have coincidentally lamented what Arthur Mizener calls “the destructive effect of his love of philosophizing” which, Mizener feels, leads him into impossible paradoxes and contradic­ tions so that even his very real talents are obscured or overshadowed.2 The focal point for this critical disenchantment with Steinbeck seems to lie in the rather unique social metaphysic expressed in The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1941), the published narrative of the Steinbeck-Ricketts expedition to the Gulf of California in March-April of 1940. And Stanley Hyman, noting that in the Log Steinbeck “writes a final elegy to concepts of social progress,” echoes the feelings of many critics when he suggests that this book is “a literal rebirth” for Steinbeck “in which he kills off all his remaining social compulsion and emerges into a perfect scientific vacuum.”3 Steinbeck’s social commitment is also apparent in such works as Viva Zapata., Their Blood is Strong, The Forgotten Village, The Moon is Down, and Of Mice and Men. * 2Arthur Mizener, “Does a Moral Vision of the Thirties Deserve a Nobel Prize?” The New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1962, p. 45. 8Stanley Edgar Hyman, “Some Notes on John Steinbeck,” Antioch Review, II (June, 1942), reprinted in Steinbeck and His Critics, eds. E. W. Tedlock and C. V. Wicker (Al­ buquerque, 1957) p. 162. 110 Western American Literature Even Peter Lisca, Steinbeck’s most accomplished critic, cites Sea of Cortez as evidence that Steinbeck embraced escape as an heroic human attribute alongside of commitment.4 One might be tempted to argue in Steinbeck’s defense that the novelist’s shift in thematic focus from The Grapes of Wrath to Sea of Cortez should not have provoked the negative critical reaction which has been sounded in many quarters. For, as Steinbeck him­ self has maintained, since “by the process of writing a book I have outgrown that book, I have not written two books alike. Where would be the interest in that?”5 But because Sea of Cortez is an important book which has been identified as a major statement of Steinbeck’s world view, simple explanations, while helpful are not sufficient. Indeed, Lester Marks, in the first full-length thematic analysis of Steinbeck’s fiction, states that the novelist’s overall phil­ osophy of life is comprised of a set of basic concepts stated in the Log.6 Marks then proceeds from novel to novel showing how Stein­ beck integrates these notions to form the thematic design of his fiction. In the same vein, Peter Lisca states that “Sea of Cortez stands to his [Steinbeck’s] work very much as Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa stand to that of Hemingway.”7 To be sure, Sea of Cortez and particularly the narrative portion which precedes the scientific phyletic catalogue is an extremely valu­ able index of many of Steinbeck’s basic beliefs about the world; for among other things, the essay-like nature of the Log makes it far simpler to pinpoint ideas and attitudes in this work than in his novels or short stories. But while and precisely because Sea of Cortez is a highly important work in that it contains many of Steinbeck’s characteristic attitudes, if too many critical facts about the...


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