(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The catalog lists, in logical scientific form, the discoveries made during the expedition. It represents a taxonomic report and little more, like numerous other reports derived from observations in nature. It reflects scientific inquiry of a basic and systematic kind that advances knowledge through the steady accumulation of data. In the log, Ricketts and Steinbeck offer philosophical perspectives and scientific speculation to justify and transcend the limitations of this inductive approach.

The varied log section represents a complex account of the journey, beginning with the preparations, detailing the long voyage to the mouth of the gulf, and proceeding with a discussion of each successive stop where specimens are collected. Interspersed throughout are reflections and discourses on a wide range of topics: nations and societies, human relationships, mistakes of the expedition, humorous mishaps and adventures, and philosophical speculations.

The authors embarked at a time when the world stood on the brink of cataclysm, and they could only assume that the war engulfing Europe would widen to involve the United States. This awareness leads to pessimistic reflections on war, though the expedition avoids newspapers and radios for six weeks. The authors also reflect on poverty and unemployment, still major social problems in the United States late in the Depression, and see no remedy. They take little consolation in the assurance by a Mexican that all Americans own Fords and are therefore affluent.

During preparations for the expedition, they find only incredulity among the practical sardine fishermen of Monterey when they seek to charter a boat for science. With luck they find a receptive newcomer, Anthony Berry, with a seventy-six-foot boat, the Western Flyer. When they discover that its engine room is immaculate, a point of importance to Steinbeck, they hasten to secure it for the expedition. In official circles, they encounter similar skepticism. They receive little encouragement from the State Department; the Mexican government is uncertain and hesitant, yet it finally grants them permission to collect specimens in the gulf and along its shores. Because the Mexicans they meet during their stops are skeptical about the expedition’s scientific purpose, the authors concoct the story that they are selling the collected specimens to wealthy Americans as souvenirs. This reassuring and more plausible explanation leads to such cooperation from the basically friendly Mexicans that they begin bringing valuable specimens to sell to the collectors.

The journey involves humor, good fun, and not a little drinking, reflecting the book’s subtitle, A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. Although the crew members grow skillful in helping to collect, they...

(The entire section is 1146 words.)