illustrated portrait of American author John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

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Did John Steinbeck have an affinity for boats? 

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Boats do seem to bear a great significance for John Steinbeck. For one thing, it was a small boat which afforded him the opportunity to catch food during the Great Depression. There were also many hours that Steinbeck spent with his close friend, Ed Ricketts, as they traveled in Ricketts' boat.

Steinbeck claimed that it was the crabs and fish that he caught while in his boat, along with fresh vegetables from his garden, which sustained his wife and him in the desperate times of the 1930s. During this time, too, Steinbeck met Ed Ricketts, who was both a marine biologist and a philosopher. The two men became close friends, going out together in Ricketts' boat and conversing about Ricketts' ecological philosophy. Ricketts proposed that man is a part of a great chain of being, a creature who is caught "in a web of life" that is so expansive that it exceeds man's comprehension, and certainly his control.

In the years between 1930 and 1936, Ricketts became a very close friend of Steinbeck's, who spent many hours on the sea with him. Steinbeck recorded one of their journeys and its influence on his philosophy in his nonfiction work The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck's novella The Pearl also evinces the influence of Ed Ricketts upon the novelist's thought. In the narrative of The Pearl, the protagonist Kino is a pearl diver, who owns a small boat which he has inherited from his father. One day, after he dives from his boat, Kino finds a huge, beautiful pearl, one that he calls "The Pearl of the World." He is elated because when he sells it, he will have enough money to pay the physician to cure his baby boy, who was bitten by a scorpion. Before acquiring the pearl, Kino was turned away from the home of this physician because he is a mere peasant, but now he has hope. However, the forces of Ricketts' so-called "web of life" entrap Kino and he is blocked by his social status despite his efforts to overcome it. He also must fight the men who would steal the Pearl of the World, and misfortune strikes as his baby is killed. In despair, Kino and his wife return to the beach and hurl the Pearl back into the sea.

In a sense, then, for Steinbeck, boats can transport people to different states of life. Thus the boat figures into his philosophy, an ecological philosophy that he gleaned from his experiences on the sea with his close friend Ed Ricketts.

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