John Steinbeck is a name known to most Americans. Required reading in high schools around the country, a Nobel Prize winner, and his works perennial reprinted, few know, however, that the writer was also greatly interested in science and travel. Best friends with the marine biologist Ed Ricketts (inspiration for the character Doc in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday), in 1940 the two decided to organize a scientific expedition to Baja California to collect intertidal specimen samples. Looking to recoup money from the excursion, Steinbeck combined his notes with Ricketts upon their return to the US and published The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Well, not exactly, but you’ll see.
Vivid descriptions, personal reflection, and that subtle insight into people that makes Steinbeck one of the greats are present in Log. Capturing every bit of jocularity with the crew, the joys of being at sea, and the dwindling colonialism of Mexico, Steinbeck brings his talents as a writer to full bear describing their six weeks aboard the 75 ft. refurbished sardine boat Western Flyer. Captain Berry, the mechanic Tex, deckhands Sparky and Tiny, and even their bedeviled little motorboat, the Sea Cow, come to full, breathing (or in the Sea Cow’s case, wheezing) life under his pen. The towns and villages along the coast of the Baja peninsula and Mexican mainland having little contact with the outside, Steinbeck et al, in addition to their main aim of collecting samples of intertidal marine life, were often ambassadors. Receiving a variety of greetings and welcomes at the different ports they sail to, Steinbeck goes into loving detail every stop along the way, making the book a travelogue as much as a scientific recount.
Infused in the narrative is a great deal of Steinbeck and Ricketts’ philosophy. A more direct and personal look at the author’s opinions than his novels, Steinbeck exposes and questions much of humanity’s position in the chain of life, the power structure behind this setup, and what makes humanity individual and group oriented. Intended or not, nature and performing scientific work provides the perfect backdrop for these examinations.
A warning: The Log from the Sea of Cortez is published in two different forms. The book which is the subject of this review is the narrative portion, while the original, Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, contains both Steinbeck’s narrative as well as Ricketts’ scientific findings. So while the former includes limited notes on the specimens collected, the latter can be considered to have equal parts journal and scientific commentary. Thus, for those looking for less about marine biology and more in the way of travel and culture, seek out The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
In the end, Steinback’s travelogue would be welcome to those interested in Baja California, Mexican culture, and travel onboard a diesel-engine ship in the 1940s, particularly the Gulf of California. Anyone interested in Steinbeck’s talents as a writer of non-fiction would also do well to pick this up. Every bit as engrossing as his fiction (save the scientific bits), it’s difficult to be disappointed. Those who read and enjoyed Travels with Charley will find much of the same insight, this time imbued with a sense of adventure and fun that Ricketts and Steinbeck’s trip obviously was. Having visited Baja California myself, I was looking out over the turquoise sea, reflecting upon their journey.