My friend Roger Dorband told me I had to read Steinbeck’s book about Baja California and the Gulf of Mexico, The Log from The Sea of Cortez.* Of course I went to Powell’s, and of course Powell’s, existing under the grace and blessing of heaven, long may it do so! had a paperback copy. Charles and I read it aloud, enjoying it greatly, and I wanted to write about it, because it’s a beautiful book and not very well known. But then, when I read the introduction to the 1995 edition (I generally leave introductions till after I’ve read the book) I almost thought I didn’t want to write about it. What I learned troubled me and greatly complicated my response to the book.
But Steinbeck was a complicated man. No use trying to simplify him. And if, in writing The Log, he dodged certain complications, that’s no reason why I should.
The book chronicles a six-week, 4,000-mile journey in a fishing boat (a Monterey purse-seiner), undertaken in the spring of 1940 as a scientific collecting trip to and in the great arm of the sea between Baja California and the mainland coast of Mexico. It is recounted day by day, as a log. It appears unmistakably, solidly factual: a record of the weather, the places visited, and the inter-tidal creatures seen and collected on the trips ashore. Yet in the telling of this straightforward narrative, something very important is not told. The story is true, but it is not the whole truth, and therefore cannot be nothing but the truth, since a lie by omission is no less a lie for being invisible.
Why did Steinbeck need to lie?
In The Grapes of Wrath, he kept his passionate temperament under a fierce, masterful control. He thereby achieved an honesty that I’m not sure he ever achieved again. In the alternate chapters of that book, many of them praising the splendor of the land – beautiful, passionate descriptive writing, filled with the pain that informs the whole book, the pain of seeing something absolutely good misused, abused, broken – his handling of the material is powerful and flawless. He describes; there is little explaining and almost no preaching at all. That is what I mean by control. He controlled himself, in the interest of seeing clearly and telling what he saw as completely, as honestly as he could.
In his early books, the material sometimes gets out of hand, and truthfulness gets warped by opinion or by over-facile emotion. Tortilla Flat (1935) isn’t the insightful book I expected about Monterey people by a man who had lived with them and knew them, but a rather patronising confection masquerading as machismo and confusing alcoholism with spirituality.
It was his first success, and a big one. Yet he had the strength to move almost directly away from that kind of success. He wrote In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men, and then his masterpiece. The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939.
Two years after it came the original edition of Sea of Cortez, co-authored with his friend the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. The Log is Steinbeck’s narrative of the voyage, excerpted ten years later from that first, collaborative version.
They were, he tells us, aboard the Western Flyer, one scientist doing research on tidewater fauna, one writer helping the scientist, and four crew, professional fishermen. His portraits of the crewmen are affectionate, humorous, and respectful. Now and then a bit of the Monterey-boys-drink-hard-and-thus-are-wise stuff turns up; but it’s only right and natural that a book about hardworking men in a small ship will include some of the predictable, traditional forms of male bonding. And because all six of them really were working hard, not running away from work in order to booze, Steinbeck can be very funny, without getting coy or boastful, about the amount of beer aboard, and the port visits.
So, four Monterey fishermen plus the two researchers who hired them. It worked out fine. All six of them were nice guys, and they had a hell of a good time, and it’s a hell of a good story.
But — perhaps reading aloud one notices these things more — something about the way it’s told kept making me uncomfortable. Steinbeck uses the first person plural, speaking throughout as “we.” This may reflect the fact that the original version of the book was a collaboration, but it’s confusing, tricky. Sometimes “we” means all six men. Sometimes it means himself and Ed Ricketts (not named in the book, though the crewmen are). Sometimes it’s evidently Steinbeck repeating things he learned from Ricketts. And sometimes it’s definitely Steinbeck going off on philosophical journeys by himself, making large, cloudy preachments or thinking fascinating thoughts. So some of the “we”s seemed truer than others, some had an odd, artificial ring.
Then I read the Introduction and discovered that all the “we”s are false.
The all-male crew of six is a fiction. There were seven people aboard the Western Flyer. One was a woman, Steinbeck’s wife Carol. He took her, or she chose to go, in an attempt to salvage their troubled marriage.
When he wrote the book, he – to use a verb that has never lost for me its terrible resonance from the dictatorships in Argentina and Chile – he disappeared her.
That they divorced soon after is neither a surprise nor a justification.
So in The Log, Steinbeck presents a falsified record as a factual one. Defended as artistic license and by the nobody-knows-what-truth-is argument, such fact-bending and lying by omission is now far more acceptable than it was in 1940, indeed rather fashionable. I doubt it will bother many people as much as it bothers me. I just wish, I bitterly wish, that he’d had the self-respect to know that all he had to do was tell the story straight on, first person, with all the people on board, and Ed Ricketts’ incredibly prescient insights to illuminate it, not as a fairy-tale of six guys on a jolly escape from ordinary life, but as a true story of seven people on an extraordinary voyage through a difficult, beautiful, haunting, and – for two of them, surely — painful reality.
Well, so, you have to forget the disappeared wife. You can’t wonder about her, if you want to read the book. And I still say read it, because though the author evaded instead of controlling his material, so it missed being all it might have been, still, it is a delight. Telling the story day by day, using all his marvelous power of accurate, immediate description, Steinbeck takes us with him on that little shrimp-boat in those strange, mirage-laden, inland waters, so lonesome then and so remote. An unforgettable trip.
And his meditative flights, though a bit pompous sometimes, are often brilliant and lovable. I can only give a taste, such as this from page 178. Their work in the Sea of Cortez was identifying, counting, and collecting the creatures of the tide pools. He’s been talking about the relative importance of common species and unimportance of the rare ones. He’s using ideas he learned from Ed Ricketts, a true pioneer in ecology, whose ideas are part of the foundation of a great deal of our thinking now. But the language and the mystical delight are pure Steinbeck.
[…It] seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And then not only the meaning but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. […] It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.
Or, from the last page of the Log proper, as they head north on the grey, fierce ocean, away from the sunlight and shallows of the Gulf:
There was some quality of music here, perhaps not to be communicated, but sounding clear and huge in our minds. The boat plunged and shook herself, and rivers of swirling water ran down into the scuppers. Below in the hold, packed in jars, were thousands of little dead animals […The] wind blew off the tops of the whitecaps, and the big guy wire, from bow to mast, took up its vibration like the low pipe on a tremendous organ. It sang its deep note into the wind.
8 October 2011
*Viking published Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts, in 1941. In 1951, Viking published the narative part of the book separately as The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck. This is the book I read, republished as a Penguin Classic in 1995, with Steinbeck’s tribute to Ricketts, and a very useful Introduction by Richard Astro.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.
She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.