Doc For Reals: Canadian author will discuss revealing new Ricketts bio at Thunderbird.
Thursday, July 8, 2004
Ed Ricketts isn’t exactly a household name outside the Monterey Peninsula area. Hence the title of a strong new biography: Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell.
As author Eric Enno Tamm points out, the world-at-large is far more familiar with “Doc,” Steinbeck’s fictionalized version of Ricketts, whose “legend of beer drinking, sexual indulgence and propensity for misadventure” defines life on Cannery Row in the 1930s and ‘40s.
In an effort to separate man from myth, Tamm, a writer and fisheries conservationist from British Columbia, spent the last few years buried in archives and venturing “humbly” in Ricketts’ wake, from the Sea of Cortez to Sitka. The result is a well-researched book focusing on Ricketts’ ecological and philosophical legacy and his profound influence on two friends: Steinbeck and mythologist Joseph Campbell.
Tamm’s inspiration to discover the “real” Ed Ricketts was sparked by accident while sifting through the archives of the British Royal Museum in Victoria.
“I’d decided to write a history of Ucluelet, the fishing village I’m from, when I stumbled upon a reproduction of Ricketts’ diaries from one of his expeditions to Vancouver Island,” Tamm explained.
Fascinated by this inadvertent glimpse into Ricketts’ life, Tamm wrote an article for Vancouver’s alternative weekly, The Georgia Straight, which was received so well, he felt compelled to attempt the book. Tamm was struck by the immensity of Ricketts’ contribution to ecology, as well as his indirect effect on American letters and philosophy.
Piecing together Ricketts’ unpublished research papers, philosophical essays, notebooks, diaries, financial and corporate records, personal correspondence, interviews with family and friends, newspaper clippings, steamship logs and, of course, the writings of Steinbeck, Tamm resurrects Ricketts’ brilliant, eccentric and ultimately tragic story.
Along the way, he proves that Ricketts was a major force behind Campbell’s 1948 classic The Hero With a Thousand Faces, with references to a partial 1939 Ricketts essay that outlined the book’s thesis. Tamm also illustrates how Ricketts’ influence on Steinbeck was far more profound than the writer’s Bohemian caricatures suggest.
The book is not without its juicy details: there’s a reason Steinbeck portrayed his friend as the prototypical Beatnik. Yet the most sordid revelations in the book deal with Campbell’s dalliances with Steinbeck’s first wife in 1932. “Actually, Ricketts was having an affair at the same time,” Tamm says. “He and Campbell sort of escaped on a collection trip to Juneau.”
Wisely, Tamm focuses on Ricketts’ huge contribution to modern ecology, particularly his northwestern expeditions.
“At the time of his sudden death, Ed Ricketts was completing, with the help of John Steinbeck, the most ambitious coastal scientific investigation ever attempted,” Tamm writes. “Its geographical scope and zoological breadth were simply unprecedented, and more significantly, the ecological approach employed was visionary, ahead of its time by decades.”
Following on the heels of 2002’s excellent Renaissance Man of Cannery Row: The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts, edited by Katharine A. Rodger, Tamm’s biography is long overdue and sorely deserved. The recognition will undoubtedly reveal to the world what most of us on the Monterey Peninsula already knew: Steinbeck’s “Doc” was only a shadow of Ricketts’ true genius and spirit.
Eric Enno Tamm will talk about Ed Ricketts and Beyond the Outer Shores Saturday, July 10 at 4pm at Thunderbird Books, 3600 Barnyard, Carmel. 624-1803. Free.