John Steinbeck — Ed Ricketts

Steve Newman Writer

The Story of Friendship

John in the 1960s. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

John Steinbeck knew Ed Ricketts for eighteen years, first meeting him in a dentist’s waiting room in October 1930, although John has, over the years, given different versions of where they met. Wherever it was, a deep and trusting friendship evolved that shaped both their lives, and certainly helped make Steinbeck the writer he became.

Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist, was born in Chicago in 1897 (john was born in 1902 in California), and grew up with a younger sister and brother. According to his sister he “…had a mind like a dictionary and was often in trouble for correcting teachers.” When he left school (college), in 1917, he became something of a hobo, eventually getting home just in time to be drafted into the army, where he served in the army medical corps, and was, according to Steinbeck, a fine soldier. After military service he studied zoology at the University of Chicago, leaving without a degree, choosing instead to walk to Florida, hitching lifts. His wrote up his adventures, which were published in Travel magazine. He then went back to university for a while, got married, had a child, and with his wife, Anna, moved to California, and with Albert E. Galigher set up the Pacific Biological Laboratories - in Monterey - of which, after a few years, he became the sole owner, employing his father to help run the business. Two more children (daughters) came along, and then (at the dentists?) he met John Steinbeck.

From that moment the lives of the two men changed, as John has written:

“ Knowing Ed Ricketts was instant. After the first moment I knew him, and for the next eighteen years I knew him better than I knew anyone, and perhaps I did not know him at all. Maybe it was that way with all of his friends. He was different from anyone and yet so like that everyone found himself in Ed, and that might be one of the reasons his death had such an impact. It wasn’t Ed who had died but a large and important part of oneself.”

Ed Ricketts in 1937. Source: Jokohok

When Steinbeck first knew Ed his laboratory was an old building in Cannery Row, which he’d transformed, with the entrance “…a kind of showroom with mounted marine specimens in glass jars on shelves around the walls.”

Ed’s Laboratory

It was kind of ramshackle and smelly and dusty, with papers stacked everywhere: it resembled the kind of person he had always been: ever so slightly bohemian and on the verge of taking off somewhere else. As Steinbeck writes:

“ Ed believed completely in the theory that a letter unanswered for a week usually requires no answer, but he went further. A letter unopened for a month does not require opening.”

It was probably Steinbeck who kept him there. It couldn’t have been the white rats that Ed kept in cages, all multiplying like…well, like white rats. It was certainly the work, the making and mounting “…and baking…” the delicate microorganisms, the results of which brought in the lab’s income. His work was precise and learned: he was an expert in his field, and Steinbeck loved experts, wanted to learn their skills, and that was the case with Ed, who became something of a brother for John, as he probably did for Ed. They looked alike too, and Steinbeck wasn’t that fond of paperwork either, other than a novel in progress. As Steinbeck has suggested, they saw each other in each other.

Then came the fire (an electrical fault somewhere) with most of Cannery Row destroyed. All that was left of Ed’s lab was a safe, a typewriter, and Ed’s car, even his clothes had gone, although he didn’t have too many of those. Steinbeck describes the aftermath of the fire:

“ After the ashes had cooled, there was the safe lying on its side in the basement where it had fallen when the floor above gave way. It must have been an excellent safe, for when we opened it we found half a pineapple pie, a quarter of a pound of Gorgonzola cheese, and an open can of sardines — all of them except the sardines in good condition. The sardines were a little dry. Ed admired that safe and used to refer to it with affection.”

Ed, along with the rest of Cannery Row who’d been affected by the fire, took the power company to court. What struck Ed was that the idea of objective truth went out of the open windows of the court house as each side presented their own truth as the truth. Ed had never thought about that before. In his lab he sought and found the objective truth: the reason for the death of a species, and the increase in another. He lost interest in the trial and got on rebuilding the lab, with the safe given pride of place.

We see Ed in all of Steinbeck’s writing after The Grapes of Wrath. John’s growing dry sense of humour starts to occupy his work, and not just Cannery Row, but all of his work, including East of Eden. His ability to incorporate that humour amongst his increased attention to detail, has grown amidst the devastation and the mess of our lives (Ed’s overflowing desk and the white rats) which Steinbeck tackles head on.

I believe all of this came to a head during the marine exploration that John and Ed made in the ’30s, in the Western Flyer,which resulted in the now famous writing collaboration, The Log from the “Sea of Cortez”, which is highly literary, yet wonderfully scientific. You can tell that John was having the time of his life, as Ed must have. You can see the empty fish (and beer) cans strewn across the cabin floor.

Source: Monterey County Weekly

When Steinbeck moved to New York the two men saw less and less of each other, and in 1948 there was bad news for John.

There’s no better way of describing what happened than to quote from John’s About Ed Ricketts:

“ Just about dusk one day in April 1948 Ed Ricketts stopped work in the laboratory in Cannery Row. He covered his instruments and put away his papers and filing cards. He rolled down the sleeves of his wool shirt and put on the brown coat which was slightly small for him and frayed at the elbows.

“ He wanted a steak for dinner and he knew just the market in New Monterey where he could get a fine one, well hung and tender.

“ He went out into the street that is officially named Ocean View Avenue and is known as Cannery Row. His old car stood at the gutter, a beat-up sedan. The car was tricky and hard to start. He needed a new one but could not afford it at the expense of other things.

“ Ed tinkered away at the primer until the ancient rusty motor coughed and broke into a bronchial chatter which indicated that it was running. Ed meshed the jagged gears and moved away up the street.

“ He turned up the hill where the road crosses the Southern Pacific Railways track. It was almost dark, or rather that kind of mixed light and dark which makes it very difficult to see. Just before the crossing the road takes a sharp climb. Ed shifted to second gear, the noisiest gear, to get up the hill. The sound of his motor and gears blotted out every other sound. A corrugated iron warehouse was on his left, obscuring any sight of the right of way.

“ The Del Monte Express, the evening train from San Francisco, slipped around from behind the warehouse and crashed into the old car. The cowcatcher buckled in the side of the automobile and pushed and ground and mangled it a hundred yards up the track before the train stopped.”

Ed was badly crushed but still alive when a doctor arrived and asked Ed how he was. Ed didn’t know. He lasted a couple of days, living off his strength and vitality, and then within a moment died.

John Steinbeck was shattered.

I believe it was Steinbeck that gave Ed that strength and vitality, and a will to live, to live for his kids and his wife, and his lab, and the folks in Cannery Row. To stay put and not wander off like a hobo again.

In Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, the character of Doc (based on Ed) has been reading.

“ Doc closed the book. He could hear the waves beat under the piles and he could hear the scampering of white rats against the wire. He went into the kitchen and felt the cooling water in the sink. He ran hot water into it…”

Source: Sardine Boat Pictures

A 50th Anniversary Article: John Steinbeck 1902–1968

Steve Newman Writer

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I'm a playwright, editor, director, poet and writer, lyricist and historian living and working in Shakespeare’s Stratford…

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