Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

As a scientific account of invertebrate marine life of the gulf, Sea of Cortez holds a modest but secure place among similar studies. While scientists are inclined to view it as the work of amateurs, the ample data and cumulative species totals make it useful. Its discoveries about patterns of distribution of species in the area are significant, though the methodology was not sufficiently rigorous to establish major generalizations; those generalizations offered in the narrative, including reflections on the distribution of species within the gulf, remain tentative. On the other hand, it should be noted that Ricketts and Calvin’s Between Pacific Tides remains a pioneer work of its kind; it has seen numerous reprintings.

As nature writing in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, John Audubon, and John Muir, the log portion seems assured of a significant place. It portrays an area then little known except to the fishermen who benefited from its abundance. The combination of vivid description, humorous narrative, and philosophical reflection make the work rewarding to read.

Drawn from eclectic sources, the book’s scientific and philosophical ideas are heavily dependent upon those of Charles Darwin, yet they include ideas, like the chain of being, that predate Darwin. An early example of an ecological approach to natural science, the book emphasizes the interdependence of living things, the abundance of forms and individuals, the ordering of nature to promote species survival, and symbiosis. To illustrate these ideas at work, the authors call attention to complex life communities, which Ricketts refers to as superorganisms, and to mass patterns of behavior such as those of schools of fish, freely drawing analogies to human life. These ideas, particularly of human beings as part of a social structure, recur in Steinbeck’s later fiction. Gradually, however, emphasis on collective behavior gives way to inner conflict as Steinbeck creates individuals who are responsible for their ethical choices.