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In March, 1940, John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts began serious preparation for a six-week biological expedition to the Gulf of California, which they designate by its earlier name, the Sea of Cortez. Ricketts, the owner of the small Pacific Biological Laboratories in Monterey, California, had long been interested in the invertebrate marine life of the California coast. Steinbeck’s best friend for eighteen years, he exerted a profound influence on the novelist’s thought and became the model for Doc in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945). Steinbeck, who financed the voyage, had long shared his friend’s interest in marine life. Tired of the adulation and controversy that followed publication of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), he viewed the expedition as a peaceful and revitalizing interlude in the turbulent career of a writer. The expedition departed from Monterey on March 11, 1940, and returned on April 20; actual exploration in the gulf occurred from March 17 through April 12. Sea of Cortez, a genuine collaboration by the two explorers, consists of a narrative account of the expedition from its preparation stages until the beginning of the homeward voyage on April 13, along with an annotated scientific catalog of species taken.

Ricketts viewed the gulf expedition as an extension of his previous study of invertebrates along the California coastline, which culminated in the publication of his and Jack Calvin’s Between Pacific Tides (1939). The expedition was designed to study the invertebrate marine life of the gulf’s littoral, that portion of the coast between tide levels. Since tides inside the gulf are relatively high, the littoral, with its numerous tidal pools, offered a wide expanse for collecting. Capturing, preserving, cataloging, and describing the greatest possible number of species and individual animals formed the group’s major activities. Beyond collecting and making taxonomic descriptions, the authors envisioned important discoveries about patterns and the distribution of marine life in the gulf.

Apart from illustrations and introductory matter, Sea of Cortez divides into two major parts: a narrative account and a phyletic catalog of the species collected. The narrative portion, republished by Steinbeck in 1951 as The Log from the Sea of Cortez, represents the tradition in American nature writing that originated with Henry David Thoreau and continues through writers such as John Muir and Joseph Wood Krutch. It reports and describes scientific discoveries and natural phenomena and offers philosophical reflections, human interest, and human perspective. While informing the reader about unknown or unappreciated facets of nature, it places discoveries in a human context and illuminates through reflection. The Steinbeck-Ricketts narrative portrays the gulf as teeming with marine life, a contrast to the barren and inhospitable land along its shores. Primarily an account of the expedition, the narrative bears a resemblance to travel literature; among Steinbeck’s writings, the log most nearly resembles his later Travels with Charley (1962).

Following the introduction, the narrative is divided on the basis of date, each chapter usually opening with an account of the locale chosen for that day’s collecting, followed by descriptions of the major species found and reflections on the experience. There are, however, gaps in the dates. A few daily entries describe shore visits to Mexican villages and towns along the coast.

The “Annotated Phyletic Catalogue and Bibliography,” included as a long appendix, lists and describes approximately five hundred species collected and identified during the expedition. While the explorations concentrated on the littoral, a few species from deeper waters are included. Among the numerous species, one finds ninety snails, fifty-four crabs, and twenty-two fish (the only vertebrates taken). For each phylum, the work lists species arranged by class and family. Under each such heading, previous studies are listed and thoroughly annotated; then each species is separately entered with observations about its condition, abundance or scarcity, and geographical distribution. For each phylum, a summary section provides species totals and comments on the general significance of the discoveries.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 40

Astro, Richard. John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist, 1973.

Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, 1984.

Ferrell, Keith. John Steinbeck: The Voice of the Land, 1986.

Fontenrose, Joseph. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation, 1963.


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