The Real Ricketts
Exhibit celebrating the seminal Beatnik scientist offers only a glimpse.
Thursday, November 25, 2004
With the gradual inevitability of a tidal change, Edward F. Ricketts is finally getting his due. Once a mere footnote to John Steinbeck’s legacy, Ricketts’ own unique genius is being celebrated with a slew of recent books and now, “From the Tide Pools to the Stars: The Pacific Vision of Edward F. Ricketts,” a new exhibition hanging through February at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.
A mysterious and fascinating man, Ricketts’ legacy has been largely ignored because it lacks a substantial body of work from which to draw. He remains a shadowy figure largely due to the 1936 fire that razed his Cannery Row lab and home and destroyed all of his material possessions. To complicate his memory further, Steinbeck’s vivid fictional portraits of his friend Ricketts as “Doc,” the freethinking, proto-Beat scientist living on the margins of society in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, inevitably subsumed the serious, hard-working but philosophical scientist who spent most of his energies searching for his ultimate goal, the truth.
Following in a sizeable wake of new interest in the real Ed Ricketts, “From the Tide Pools to the Stars” portrays the man in a way that Ricketts himself would have appreciated. It honestly presents the existing evidence and allows the visitor to draw his own conclusions.
Curated by Katharine A. Rodger, author of Renaissance Man of Cannery Row: The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts and the forthcoming book Breaking Through: The Collected Major Essays of Edward F. Ricketts, the exhibit presents a compelling but ultimately incomplete and distant view of the man, reminiscent of Rodger’s book of edited letters.
Like Ricketts’ body of surviving correspondence, the lab equipment, handwritten letters, photos, books, and records that represent him in the exhibit lack a real intimacy and fail to reveal the man’s soul. It’s all too official and archaeological. Too much must be inferred from the inanimate. Yet there are moments in the exhibit where we see glimmers of the personality that attracted and influenced such luminaries as Steinbeck, mythologist John Campbell, and Henry Miller.
A triptych of previously unseen black-and-white portraits, contributed by Ricketts’ son Edward Ricketts, Jr., captures the man’s cagey hobo smile. Ricketts had horrible teeth and rarely smiled for the camera, yet one of the black-and-white photos catches him looking away from the lens, unable to resist laughing at his own unease or something the photographer has said. It’s one of the exhibit’s most revealing moments and manages to capture a glimpse into the interior landscape of the man.
When his lab burned down, Ricketts primarily bemoaned the loss of his beloved library and extensive record collection. Although friends helped him replace some of the most valued components, Ricketts would never be able to afford a complete restoration of both collections. “From the Tide Pool to the Stars” features what Ricketts obviously considered his integral texts and music—books such as a volume by the Chinese poet Li Po and Toward the Metaphysics of Space, and records of Chopin and “Ave Maria.” The titles alone give us a distinct sense of Ricketts’ aesthetic, but seeing the thumb-worn copies and hearing the music piped into the exhibit hall are wonderfully visceral details.
Other highlights of the exhibit include selected letters from Ricketts’ original correspondence, original receipts and records from Pacific Biological Laboratories, preserved marine specimens Ricketts collected throughout his career, tuning forks Ricketts had made for his studies of the musical scale, notes and notebooks from various collecting trips, and Ricketts’ personal typewriter.
Because of Steinbeck’s influence on his public image and his own holistic worldview, cultish personality, and Beatnik sensibilities, it’s easy to overlook Ricketts’ vast contributions to marine science. His research along the North American Pacific coastline earned him a reputation as one of the pioneers of marine biology and ecology. In 1939, Stanford University published his ecological handbook of intertidal marine life, Between Pacific Tides. The 5th edition is still used as a textbook at many universities. Not bad for a guy without a college degree.
The exhibit does an excellent job of highlighting the three major Pacific coast regions Ricketts studied during his lifetime: the American coast from California to Washington, the Baja Peninsula and Sea of Cortez, and the Outer Shores of British Columbia and Southeastern Alaska.
In addition to being a marine biologist, Ricketts was a philosopher. Using a distinctive blend of scientific method and metaphysics, he devised a philo-scientific ontology he called “non-teleological thinking” or “is” thinking, in which the search for cause and effect are abandoned for a Zen-like acceptance of things as they are. It’s a suitable frame of mind with which to enter “From the Tide Pools to the Stars.” We may never have a holistic portrait of the real Edward F. Ricketts, but the ideas, manuscripts and artifacts which have survived him infer an earthy, mysterious intellectual who is equal parts literary legend and marine biologist. And that’s just the way things are.
The exhibition is free with paid admission to the National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St., Salinas. 796-3833 for info. Ends 2/27/05.