Thursday, November 25, 2004
Everyone involved with the little Ed Ricketts wing temporarily installed at the National Steinbeck Center is blown away by a recently discovered hand-written journal on display as part of the show. Among the photographs, biological specimens and other pieces of Ricketts’ life gathered for the first time, thejournal may in fact be the most arresting item.<>>
Kathryn Rodger, who curated the exhibit, points to an early passage in the book, which she found with the help of Ricketts’ son. In the passage, as Rodger mentions with barely concealed amazement, Ricketts describes “the reason why, and the circumstances under which, they decided to go to Mexico.”
“They” were of course Ricketts and John Steinbeck, and the trip to Mexico was the great scientific and literary adventure to the Sea of Cortez. And there in this modest volume, in pencil, in Ricketts’ own elegant hand, when the idea of the journey was just dawning, is a prediction: “It could be a great thing. Maybe a very great thing…a modern Odyssey.”
The reference to Homeric myth was probably accidental, and yet inevitable. Ricketts counted among his close friends at the time Steinbeck, whose novels certainly approach the level of mythos, and Joseph Campbell, the great scholar whose study of myths became a phenomenon.
It’s perhaps also inevitable that Ricketts himself has become a myth—only partly due to Steinbeck. The fact is that the man was too remarkable for his time, ahead of his time, as it happens, and nobody, until very recently, has really documented his actual contribution to his culture. There are now efforts underway to correct this oversight, and three of the authors of those efforts were present at the opening last Friday night of the “Tidepools to the Stars” exhibit.<>Lead curator Rodger, author of Renaissance Man of Cannery Row, was joined by co-curators Eric Enno Tamm, author of Beyond the Outer Shores, a newish account of Ricketts’ explorations in British Columbia, and Jon Christensen, a New York Times science writer who participated in a re-creation last spring of the Sea of Cortez expedition. >
Speaking after a slide-show by Rodger, Christensen called the Ricketts/Steinbeck friendship “one of the great collaborations between a scientist and a writer in our literature.” Despite the happy-go-lucky image of Ricketts of Cannery Row (“Doc being a metaphor for the spirit of Ed as Steinbeck perceived it,” according to Cristensen), there is a tragic element to the myth.
“The Odyssey is about coming home,” Christensen said. “The real tragedy of this story is that it was in the coming home that the collaboration was cut short.”<>Christensen was referring to the fact that while Ricketts and Steinbeck were sailing back to Monterey, Hitler was invading Normandy. Within days after their return, Pearl Harbor was bombed. Steinbeck took off for the war, leaving his plans for a book about the journey behind. By the time he returned, Ricketts was dead—killed in a car accident. >
As Christensen told the story Friday night, the audience became silent. As it had 60-plus years ago, the real world invaded our scientific-literary reveries, resonating with news from today’s headlines. Such is the power of myth.