The Cannery Row Contingent
A discussion of Steinbeck’s influences would be incomplete without a mention of Ed Ricketts. Entire books have been written endeavouring to unpack the vast inspiration these two men gleaned from each other; it is an impossible task to do their relationship justice in a mere paragraph. Ricketts, born in Chicago in 1897, ran the Pacific Biological Laboratory in Cannery Row. The lab became the epicenter for parties, discussions, and philosophical gamboling. Simply put, Steinbeck and Ricketts used each other as sounding boards for obscure and fascinating philosophical ideas. They worked together to refine Steinbeck’s theory of the phalanx (a theory about group behavior that Steinbeck pondered while caring for his ailing mother), his theory of non-teleological thinking (a philosophy stemming from Ricketts’ idealization of “true” things), and they even co-authored a book. In 1940, Steinbeck, Ricketts, Steinbeck’s first wife Carol, and a crew of eclectic sailors left Monterey Bay on an expedition to the Sea of Cortez, where they collected and studied numerous types of marine life and speculated on their varying philosophies of life, human and animal. The book that resulted, Sea of Cortez, is a nearly 600-page conglomeration of journal, philosophy, and taxonomy that truly symbolizes the nature of their friendship.
Ricketts’ influence on Steinbeck is perhaps best explained in Steinbeck’s own words, and Steinbeck gave us many to choose from; Ricketts is immortalized as the character “Doc” in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. While this fictitious characterization of Ricketts is certainly romanticized, it accurately conveys the ultimate respect and reverence Steinbeck held for his friend. Katharine A. Rodger explains: “Steinbeck’s Doc is both an accurate and an exaggerated portrait of Ed Ricketts. Doc’s interest in philosophy, music, and poetry derives directly from Ricketts’ own” (il). In both novels, Steinbeck shares true stories from Ricketts’ life and even includes direct references to the music and literature that Ricketts found so overwhelmingly inspiring. Through these works and others (Ricketts is considered possible inspiration for the characters of Jim Casey in Grapes of Wrath, Lee in East of Eden, Dr. Winter in The Moon is Down (Rodger xxv), and Doc Burton in In Dubious Battle), Steinbeck truly shared Ricketts’ overwhelming spirit with his readers. But these fictitious representations were not enough. After Ricketts’ untimely death in 1948, Steinbeck wrote a tribute called “About Ed Ricketts” that became the preface to a new edition of Sea of Cortez (this new edition, called The Log from the Sea of Cortez, did not list Ricketts as co-author). In this tribute, Steinbeck exhibits the pain he felt in Ricketts’ death, and honors their remarkable friendship:
Knowing Ed Ricketts was instant. After the first moment I knew him, and for the next eighteen years I knew him better than I knew anyone, and perhaps I did not know him at all. Maybe it was that way with all of his friends. He was different from anyone and yet so like that everyone found himself in Ed, and that might be one of the reasons his death had such an impact. It wasn't Ed who had died but a large and important part of oneself. (America and Americans 184)
Another member of the Cannery Row club was the young and yet undiscovered Joseph Campbell. It happened that Joseph Campbell, who would become renowned for numerous works on comparative mythology and religion, moved into the home next door to Ricketts’ house just as Steinbeck found himself slogging through To a God Unknown (a book that draws significant inspiration from the interplay of religion and myth). Campbell later explained that he and Steinbeck learned very much from each other (and Ricketts, of course). He felt “that some of the mythic images in [Steinbeck’s fiction] may have come out of their discussions,” (Benson 223) and he was almost certainly correct; Steinbeck often transcribed private discussions and conversations into his novels. Truly, those philosophical and drunken evenings must have left an impression on both writers. It is no small coincidence that Steinbeck, Ricketts, and Campbell all went on to be very successful in their writing, each drawing from ideas tossed around in laboratory parties that would thrill the likes of Doc, Mack, and the boys.