August 2006

Michael Antman


The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

A fresh look at some unfairly neglected books of the past century that may not survive much longer in this one.

I had remembered John Steinbeck’s nonfiction book The Log from the ‘Sea of Cortez,’ which was published in 1941 and which I first read some time in the 1980s, as a sort of message-in-a-bottle from a lost world of astonishing abundance.

The book, a fascinating amalgam of seafaring adventure, personal philosophy, and marine biology, recounts in journal form Steinbeck’s specimen-collecting voyage on a sardine boat around the Baja Peninsula into the Gulf of California (once upon a time called the Sea of Cortez). He was accompanied on this expedition by, among others, Edward Ricketts, the model for Doc, the beer- and women- loving, conformity-hating marine biologist in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. It is Ricketts’s original journal that forms the basis of much of Sea of Cortez.

Together on their 4,000-mile journey, Ricketts and Steinbeck encounter an impossibly rich stew of oceanic and tidal-pool life forms: razor clams, and fiddler crabs, and crabs with bright blue claws, and anemones with “long orange-pink tentacles,” and sting rays, and green coral, and heart urchins, and stinging worms, and swordfish that leap about “in pure joy or exhibitionism,” and “the sulphury-green and black cucumber,” and spiny lobsters, and sea snails, and sand dollars, and “a most delicious fish” called skipjack, and “huge stalk-eyed conchs,” and flying fish, and innumerable other swimming and flying and creeping creatures, not just in abundance but in beautiful profusion.

I would not remember this book so fondly, however, if it were only an account of a specimen-collecting expedition. Steinbeck’s distinctive voice -- his delight in oddball singularity, his sense of humor, his romantic attachment to the down-and-out, his stirring and humanistic though on occasion wooly or self-evident philosophizing -- all are on display here as abundantly as the marine life he renders so vividly.

Upon re-encountering this book, however, I discovered two sobering truths. First, a good part of Steinbeck’s humor is dependent upon condescending to the very “down-and-outs” whom he manifestly adored, as seen in his portraits of the colorful bums who populate Cannery Row. Take, for instance, this excerpt from Sea of Cortez recounting the expedition’s side-trip to a cantina in the “sad little town” of San Lucas:

There is nothing more doleful than a little cantina. In the first place it is inhabited by people who haven’t any money to buy a drink. They stand about waiting for a miracle that never happens: the angel with golden wings who settles on the bar and orders drinks for everyone. This never happens, but how are the sad handsome young men to know it never will happen? And suppose it did happen and they were somewhere else? And so they lean against the wall; and when the sun is high they sit down against the wall. Now and then they go away into the brush for a while, and they go to their little homes for meals. But that is an impatient time, for the golden angel might arrive. Their faith is not strong, but it is permanent.

When Steinbeck and his companions order Carta Blancas, “(t)he cockroaches in their hordes rushed in to see what was up. Big, handsome cockroaches with almost human faces. The loud music only made us sadder, and the young men watched us. When we lifted a split of beer to our lips the eyes of the young men rose with our hands, and even the cockroaches lifted their heads.”

The fact that Steinbeck and his companions, evidently the “angels with golden wings” everybody has been waiting for, order “beer all around” at this juncture hardly redeems this regrettable passage, nor does Steinbeck’s revelation that the young men, “too far gone in sorrow… drink their warm beer sadly,” which suggests inadvertently that the whole passage was based on an idiotic premise to begin with.

The second thing I discovered was not Steinbeck’s fault, but rather a product of my own wishful remembering. I had recalled Sea of Cortez as being an account of a pre-industrial seascape of great beauty and greater bounty, yet upon re-reading it, it is clear that even 70 years ago (the book was written five years after the expedition) the modern world already was rapidly encroaching. As Steinbeck notes, “the Japanese shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region.”

And later in the book, discussing the “perfectly streamlined and partly transparent” amphioxus, Steinbeck says, “channel dredging and perhaps the great number of motor boats have made them very rare.” It is not pleasant to contemplate how much rarer these creatures must be today, or how much more prevalent the motor boats, or how much more “dredged” and “scooped” the marine environment of the Sea of California must now be.   

I had forgotten these provisos because, in the pathetically thin broth in which we swim, tales of natural abundance and adventure are incredibly attractive. But Steinbeck took the world on its own terms then, as he would do if he were alive and writing today. (He also, for what it’s worth, probably would have shed his condescension, which was a product of his times no less than the more self-conscious and well-intentioned but equally transitory cultural assumptions of many contemporary writers.) And it is this clear-eyed view of the world in both its fecundity and its ongoing destruction that makes Steinbeck’s worksuch an absorbing account of a time long past. In an age when ocean-dwelling, and for that matter, land-dwelling, creatures are being depleted at an ever-increasing rate, Log from the ‘Sea of Cortez’ remains an enriching and indelible document.

The Log from the ‘Sea of Cortez’ by John Steinbeck
ISBN: 0140187448
320 Pages