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68 Western American Literature John Steinbeck and Edward R. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist. By Richard Astro. (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1973. 259 pp. $12.95.) With the warning that “the serious reader of Steinbeck’s work must be prepared to examine the vast horizons of science in general and marine biology in particular, and so most Steinbeck critics face a task foreign to their dispositions and back­ grounds,” Oregon State Professor Richard Astro begins the labor — and it is no slight one — of evaluating the influence of the friendship and the ideas of Edward F. Ricketts on John Steinbeck. In Astro’s words, “No analysis of Steinbeck’s world-view, his philosophy of life, can proceed without a careful study of the life, work, and ideas of this remarkable human being who was Steinbeck’s closest personal and intellectual companion for nearly two decades.” Although Astro’s account of Ricketts’ life and work is perhaps necessarily briefer than the “careful study” he seems to promise, his succinct reduction of Ricketts’ ideas makes it finally possible to determine just what his share of Steinbeck’s finished work is — and in the process liberate Steinbeck for all time of the charge that he was an author totally dependent upon the ideas of another man. Apparently Steinbeck met Ricketts in 1930; the marine biologist was killed in a car-train accident in 1948. Between those years and even afterward Steinbeck regularly incorporated into his fiction dramatizations of their running philosophical arguments, with Ricketts making periodic appearances more or less as a character in certain of Steinbeck’s works. Astro concisely defines the ambiguities in Ricketts’ terminology, his use of such phrases as “non-teleological thought” and “is thinking,” and then concludes that “what he really seems to be talking about . . . is an open approach to life by the man who looks at events and accepts them as such without reservation and qualification, and in so doing perceives the whole picture by becoming an identifiable part of that picture.” Whereas the highest attainment of the Rickettsman is a “breaking through,” an understanding-acceptance, Steinbeck’s own “organismal” philosophy includes a teleology of goals and moral questing that is at odds with Ricketts’ rejection of ethical impositions generally. It is the attribution of language stressing the need for non-teleological thought, language which occurs most importantly in the jointly-authored Sea of Cortez, which has caused Steinbeck critics the most difficulty previous to Astro’s researches, for the assumption of Steinbeck’s authorship has not been easy to square with Steinbeck’s evident interest in human individuals making moral choices; now, however, the conclusions which some of us have reached by a rough logic appear substantiated in manuscript evidence for the first time. We can only be grateful: Steinbeck studies will never be the same. With this sharp climb accomplished, Astro proceeds to somewhat of a downhill slide; the bulk of his book’s volume, but not its substance, is devoted to a rapid scanning of nearly all of Steinbeck’s writing, with the newly-clarified Ricketts position serving as critical touchstone. In this he is somewhat less successful. Astro’s survey is neither the total re-examination of Steinbeck in general that he is so admirably equipped to deliver (and will, one hopes, someday — and at great length), nor yet the sharply focused treatment of ideas he himself has now made possible. He is best with works that have not yet received much serious attention at all, but in which the Ricketts-Steinbeck distinctions are critically important, Reviews 69 such as The Moon Is Down, Burning Bright, and East of Eden. He has less to say about other works that is at all new, and I confess myself unable to understand his criteria for deciding which Steinbeck works are “successes” or “failures.” What can he mean, moreover, in saying that “Steinbeck’s tendency to philosophize seriously mars” the “otherwise . . . highly important” To a God Unknown, when that book could not exist without its serious philosophizing? I do not think he understands the ending of The Winter of Our Discontent, but few of Steinbeck’s critics seem to anyway. And he...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 68-69
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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