More About Steinbeck: Troubled Waters

Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood Kolischby Ursula K. Le Guin

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.

Out Here coverUrsula 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.



More About Steinbeck: Troubled Waters — 16 Comments

  1. Ursula, thank you for posting the missing person. I’ve read a lot of Steinback, but not that particular book. Several years ago I made the discovery that Gerald Durrell’s books “My Family and other Animals,” and “Birds, Beast and my Relatives” disappeared Lawrence’s wife and child and misstated a number of facts about the family, in the interest of making it “funnier,” or not showing the families dirty laundry; I’m not sure which.
    I’d already been disturbed and upset when G. Durrell suddenly eliminated his first wife from all references to the Jersey Island Zoo after she had loyally supported him through thick and thin for so many years, but learning the reality behind the Durrell menage hurt… because I would have rather had the much more real and human reality. I will probably read the Sea of Cortez, now, but I will be keeping in mind your comments. Thanks.

  2. @Kier Salmon

    I am sorry to learn from you about G. Durrell – I loved “Birds, Beast and my Relatives” since I read it, which is most of my life. It was always clear to me that the book was censored and “beautified” here and there (otherwise publishing it would make GD a total sociopath in my eyes), so I never treated it as a real diary/autobiography. Disappearing brother’s wife and children for compositional reasons – just to choose some possible explanation – seems quite strange. I would still try to justify him by believing he did it in order to respect his brother’s family’s wish to protect their privacy. But deleting his wife from the Jersey Island Zoo history is just ugly.

    That is an old question – how much our knowledge about an author influences our judgement of her/his work… And: is it always better to know the truth?
    All of us re-create ourselves this way or another, conciously or not (which includes shaving, make-up, wearing fancy clothes and jewelry, and concealing some physiological aspects of our lives). Perhaps to some extent this tendency makes world a better place.

  3. As for Steinbeck, communist propaganda made a lot of fuss after his visit to Vietnam during the war after he (allegedly) said that shooting Vietnamese is like killing little yellow bed-bugs – at least this is how I remember it. The point was to deprive him of the Nobel prize that was already awarded to him. Obviously, Soviets were seriously disappointed by the fact that the author of books such as “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men” (which made him widely published behind the Iron Curtain) supported the war. But given the amount of pure lie produced by the propaganda guys I was never sure how much truth there was in these particular allegations (I hope that none). Anyway, he was a complicated man, for sure.

  4. I did my unpleasant homework and browsed through a volume of feuilletons by a talented Polish communist propagandist (be his name forgotten) – I keep several books from that period just to have look at them now and then, to make sure I remember what propaganda looks like. And indeed, on February 1967 our Wormtongue writes about Steinbeck’s fascination with weapons during his visit to Vietnam, and he quotes some of Steinbeck’s writings on the subject, which proves the guy had access to fresh materials forbidden to average citizens behind the Iron Curtain. And, yes, there is “killing bed bugs” in one of the neighbouring pieces (communist propagandists very quickly learned Goebbels idea of repeating). But I am close to sure that our Wormtongue would precisely quote Steinbeck’s racist comments, giving full detail, as he used to do in similar situations, were this particular allegation based on any evidence. So I believe I remember correctly communist TV’s insinuations against Steinbeck (although I am not completely sure, I was a kid when I think I heard them) but – at least at this particular case – I think they were just insinuations, a normal thing in the communist TV.

  5. Sounds like a wonderful book. Nonfiction is a problem. In fiction you can vanish your wife, and it’s okay, but she — and you — are fictional.

  6. @Eleanor

    I do not know about the Steinbeck book, I did not read it – but when I read G. Durrell’s book mentioned above it was clear to me that “Gerry’s brother Larry” is only a far relative of the actual famous Lawrence Durrell, the author of “The Alexandria Quartet”. Sure, it was nice to read about him, but it was not more voyeurist than reading about “Gerry’s mother” or “sister”. And you are right – I liked Gerry, because he was likeable, but I was aware that he is probably as fictional as other characters he describes. I do not know where the border of obligatory honesty in writing lies (I once read a long text by UKL on this subject but I am not sure I agree with it). Obviously, written testimonies for legal purposes, scientific reports or even journalist reporting are examples of writing that we need to rely on in making our judgement and taking important decisions that may seriously influence our lives. So it is clear that user’s manuals or medication prescriptions are no place for fiction. But when I read a book “Papa You’re Crazy” by W. Saroyan, dedicated by him to his son, and describing from the son’s point of view time spent by him with his father, I nevertheless do not mistake the son for actual Saroyan’s son Aram, and father – for the actual W. Saroyan, the author (even though the “father in the book” is a writer). Come on, when you listen to a fisherman describing a really great fish he once caught, do you trust him unconditionally or do you rather take into account a customary exaggeration? Does slight brightening of the reality really make him a regular liar?

  7. To really get a feel for Steinbeck, it pays to read a collection of his letters published after his death. My copy is now dead (paperback, long-fallen-apart, never have purchased the hardback replacement) but it fleshes out the whole picture somewhat, as well as the Carol-Gwyn-Elaine pieces of Steinbeck’s life.

    Another good one is Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, edited by Robert DeMott.

  8. As a footnote, Steinbeck got caught up with evolution and biology, trying very hard to use these sciences and related other natural studies disciplines as a model for his fiction. It is a sad lesson to all creative writers and thinkers, perhaps, that this, which was employed initially as a circumvention of writer’s block, or, “What do I do now?” — made it progressively more unpleasant and difficult for him to write creatively.

    I read this is years ago in a vast biography of Steinbeck, and puzzled over it for weeks, going over this section frequently. Also, as were most (male) writers of that era, his treatment of wives and mistresses was appalling.

    If I recall correctly, the biography was The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography by Jackson J. Benson — almost 1200 pp. long. I read it on the subway to and from work, at lunch, etc. I read it for months and months!

    Love, C.

  9. My experience is that science can inform and inspire fiction quite nicely. I believe Mrs. Le Guin has written that science and art are not in any natural or cultural opposition to each other.

  10. I don’t know about THE great American novel, but A great American novel is most certainly The Dispossessed – although perhaps it doesn’t qualify because it lives in a bigger context than the narrow walls of one nation?

    I’ll share this anecdote if you haven’t heard it already: the Dispossessed is the most recommended book on this list of books being sent to the Occupy Wall Street library, and most every other book on this list is economics theory. ( The Dispossessed is a book that has something important to say to those who are working and dreaming for a better system now, and I wager it will have something important to say to those who live in that better but imperfect future.

  11. @Felix

    I am deeply worried by the news from you. Not because I do not like “The Dispossessed” – as I wrote in a neighbouring thread, I think it is a fine novel. Actually, I like it and appreciate the fact that Mrs. Le Guin made an effort to thoroughly analyse the society of Anarres, with all its good and bad aspects, and offered some insight into mechanisms hidden behind them (quite unlike most Western authors in the seventies who either were “useful idiots”, as Soviets called them, unconditionally believing the communist propaganda and therefore supporting the false utopia, or hateful McCarthy types suspecting everything that smelled communist to them of capital treason). However, I believe that UKL did cheer the anarchist idea so much that she heavily underestimated its dark side – although in “The Dispossessed” this imbalance was not as catastrophic as in “The Eye of the Heron”. There, most likely, are good reasons for the fact that for thousands of years no anarchist utopia lasted successfully for longer than a generation or two, and even that usually only in small groups that became more and more hermetic. So, I do find it disturbing that the Occupy Wall Street people fall under the same spell.
    Not because I think there is nothing to protest against, but because I believe the protest goes wrong direction and it will either derail soon, or – a much worse option – it will derail only after it takes whole society with it.

    As we used to say in Poland under communist regime, capitalism is the exploitation of man by man, and communism is the reverse (the Wikiquote traces this back to John Gardner’s “The man from Barbarossa” but since the joke was well known back in the seventies and the novel was published in 1991 I dare doubt this attribution).

  12. We mostly see capitalist/libertarian (and in some ways utopian) A-Io and anarchist Anarres in the novel, but there is also Stalinist Thu and Third World Benbili.

  13. @ John Cowan

    Sure. What I mean is that even assuming the excellent (=horribly difficult, actually) condition for the Anarres experiment, and even assuming that the Anarres society started as a company of ideal human beings, after several generations it would exist only if it were rotten with hypocrisy, exploitation and abuse of power – so it could only last as formally anarchist at the cost of breaking all its original rules in practice. It is an unstable equilibrium – it may be the highest social form but it quickly gets degenerated and when this happens, it usually ends up very low, whereas modern democratic systems, while they have their own ugly aspects, are at least much more stable than the anarchy and still much better than openly opressive regimes.

  14. Clearly Steinbeck was going through the run-up to an unpleasant divorce at the time. I suppose he can be considered justified in leaving Carol out of the book, since otherwise it would have become a book about his relationship, not about the collecting trip.

    Just started reading “East of Eden” – which Steinbeck considered his masterpiece – and found myself wondering whether he had created the psychopathic character of Cathy Ames as a way of getting back at Carol (based on the similarity of the names). I suppose there’s no way to tell. The novel was started ten years after the divorce, but resentments can fester for a long time. In fact I found all the main female characters in the book to be pretty unpleasant (not to be judgmental, but he comes over as a fossilized misogynist…)

  15. For Steinbeck in Vietnam see:

    I was surprised to find that Stienbeck really wrote the “hands of Casals” fragment which I long though of as a pure product of communist propaganda (although they twisted it to make it sound much worse, as if it referred to shooting instead of piloting a helicopter). You will also find “bedbugs” thing there, but fortunately is again not as bad as the communist propaganda guys version.