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Renaissance Man of Cannery Row: The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts

Renaissance Man of Cannery Row: The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts

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by Edward F. Ricketts, Katharine A. Rodger (Editor)

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This portrait of one of John Steinbeck's closest friends illuminates the life and work of a figure central to the development of scientific and literary thought in the 20th century.

Marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts is perhaps best known as the inspiration for John Steinbeck's most empathic literary characters Doc in Cannery Row, Slim in Of


This portrait of one of John Steinbeck's closest friends illuminates the life and work of a figure central to the development of scientific and literary thought in the 20th century.

Marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts is perhaps best known as the inspiration for John Steinbeck's most empathic literary characters Doc in Cannery Row, Slim in Of Mice and Men, Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, and Lee in East of Eden. The correspondence of this accomplished scientist, writer, and philosopher reveals the influential exchange of ideas he shared with such prominent thinkers and artists as Henry Miller, Joseph Campbell, Ellwood Graham, and James Fitzgerald, in addition to Steinbeck, all of whom were drawn to Ricketts's Monterey Bay laboratory, a haven of intellectual discourse and Bohemian culture in the 1930s and 1940s.

The 125 previously unpublished letters of this collection, housed at the Stanford University Library, document the broad range of Ricketts's interests and accomplishments during the last 12 and most productive years of his life. His handbook on Pacific marine life, Between Pacific Tides, is still in print, now in its fifth edition. The biologist's devotion to ecological conservation and his evolving philosophy of science as a cross-disciplinary, holistic pursuit led to the publication of The Sea of Cortez. Many of Ricketts's letters discuss his studies of the Pacific littoral and his theories of “phalanx” and transcendence. Epistles to family members, often tender and humorous, add dimension and depth to Steinbeck's mythologized depictions of Ricketts. Katharine A. Rodger has enriched the correspondence with an introductory biographical essay and a list of works cited.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The letters do not disappoint. They are especially rich in the type of free-ranging discourse on art, literature, and music that attracted Ricketts's coterie, as well as in his special qualities as a friend, chief among them his self-deprecating humor and his deep and compassionate interest in the problems and motivations of others."—Susan Beegel, coauthor of Steinbeck and the Environment and editor of The Hemingway Review

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University of Alabama Press
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Alabama Fire Ant Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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Renaissance Man of Cannery Row

The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts

By Katharine A. Rodger, Edward F. Ricketts Jr.

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5087-1


1936 — 1938

On November 25, 1936, a power surge in the Del Mar Cannery caused a fire on Cannery Row that destroyed Pacific Biological Laboratories, including all of Ricketts's personal and professional records and correspondence. Ricketts escaped, saving only his car, the clothes he was wearing, and a portrait of him by James Fitzgerald (see letter dated March 31, 1937; in "About Ed Ricketts," Steinbeck asserts Ricketts also saved his typewriter, but in The Outer Shores, Hedgpeth notes that Ricketts's own inventory of lost property did not include his typewriter or car). While rebuilding the lab, Ricketts stayed with Fred and Frances Strong at their home in Pacific Grove. Friends and family members surprised Ricketts at Christmas by giving him some of his favorite books in order to help rebuild his lost library. His gratitude is apparent in his letters.

The following is the earliest letter found after the fire.

To V. E. Bogard and Austin Flanders
December 16, 1936

Dear Bogard and Austin: You will be interested to hear what's been happening.

We have the lot almost entirely cleaned up, still one large pile of wood and debris stacked together. Most of the concrete seems to be alright.

Rough plans have been drawn for a shack-like board and bat structure to house office and labs, 28 × 33'. Estimated cost, top $981, plus $100 for rough in plumbing and $75 for conduit, or vice versa. Labor and material plus 5%. Estimate by builder who does much of the cannery work and who was sent up into Oregon by 3 of the local canneries to build 5 plants there. We have saved lots of conduit, cast iron pipe (all of which is good), and some valves and galvanized pipe that seems alright; this will reduce the cost. Galv. iron too expensive.

As soon as insurance company pays up (they are investigating criminal carelessness) I will have this part erected. Then Roy and I will get busy with 2 × 4s and erect galvanized iron roof over shark tanks, run the conduit and water pipe out there for immediate start on shark preparing.

The balance of the $3000 will have to go for equipment, stationary, such few items of stock as we have to buy (maybe none, can trade for most), a bit to Rodriguez, and small truck to replace present car.

It looks not impossible now, altho still terribly difficult. Very hard to pack orders, without any decent facilities, out in the rain.

Insurance company investigation has been delegated to [a] local electrical engineer, and I have given him [a] statement. He has worked out a very interesting picture, amply supported by evidence. There were about 4 pieces of neglect, any one of which might now have resulted thus, but the combination of which was sure to cause terrible fire sooner or later. He says the evidence, from the type of wiring, fact that fuses didn't blow as they should etc (on the power pole), is that the full power load of between 500 and 1000 horsepower at 2300 volts was flowing both thru our place and the entire Del Mar plant, that all the wires took afire and burned until they burned out, starting dozens of tremendously hot fires. The fire is known now to have started at the main switchboard that fed all 5 of the Del Mar Canning Co. plants. He says that ordinary house fuses are no valve in the face of such a load; they blow but still transmit. I'm glad I didn't go near our wiring. Next time I'm going to try to devise some protection against this thing that the electric companies say can't happen. I think a 5 or 10' length of smaller diameter, before the service comes to the switchboard, would surely do it. That would burn before the inside or switchboard wires took afire.

I am still staying at Frances', Carmel 1146 in case you need to phone. Soon as roof is up again at the lab I'll move back down there. The cannery is not going to rebuild this year, despite previous reports, and there's no certainty that they'll ever rebuild here. The city seems to be awfully mad at them, and they surely should be.

V. E. Bogard (1889–1952) worked at University Apparatus Company, which sold laboratory supplies and equipment primarily to the University of California, Berkeley. Bogard worked closely with Austin Flanders, a distant maternal relative of Ricketts. According to Nan Ricketts, "Austin was a major stockholder and president of University Apparatus Co. He had lived in Berkeley for many years, and knew the state well, and all the interesting places" ("Recollections" 26). Flanders helped the Rickettses settle into California during the 1920s, taking them on trips to Santa Cruz and Yosemite and showing them local areas of interest.

In 1924, Austin Flanders became a shareholder in Pacific Biological Laboratories. As part of the agreement, University Apparatus Company paid off the lab's debt, and Flanders was named vice president of Pacific Biological Laboratories.

The "criminal carelessness" Ricketts mentions did, in fact, lead to a lawsuit: Ricketts and the Del Mar Cannery vs. Pacific Gas and Electric. Pacific Gas and Electric won. In a 1937 letter to Jack Calvin, Ricketts comments on the waterfront fire and loss of Pacific Biological Laboratories: "Insurance totaled only $3000; loss was nearly $12,000." While Ricketts did, in fact, collect the three thousand dollars insurance money, he never received additional reimbursement from the lawsuit.

Roy Lehman worked intermittently for Ricketts at Pacific Biological Laboratories assisting with lab work and collecting. Vincent Rodriguez owned much of the property on Cannery Row and had sold Ricketts the lot on which Pacific Biological Laboratories stood.

* * *

To Colonel and Mrs. Wood
Pacific Grove, California
December 26, 1936

Dear Col. and Mrs. Wood:

The candy arrived for the children and they were very thrilled — the best by far they have ever had, and the biggest box: to which children aren't insensible. Part of your good wine already has been enjoyed under the proper auspices of good fellowship and good food.

As John may have told you, I was very much surprised Christmas Eve at the Christmas tree celebration, preparations for which he knew about, as everyone else did. But I didn't. When I was asked to pass out a group of wrapped presents — presumably to little Peter — I was surprised to find the first addressed to me. Put it aside, with modesty presumably becoming. The next also was to me, and the third. Then I tumbled and almost wept. Odyssey, a fine German Faust, Blake (facsimiles of the original illuminated copy), 4 of Jeffers, the new edition of the World Poetry Anthology, Shelley and Keats, a fine Walt Whitman, a new and good translation of the tao of Lao Tse, other things. I put "Darkling Plain" with these things where it doubly belonged: in that company, and because it too was in the nature of a rehabilitation present at Christmas time. Have read already much of it; I read slowly and not often. I like an exact and lovely economy of words. As in many of those things, but I noted particularly "A Neighbor differs with the Master of Tor House." Fine scientific exactness: "earlier darkness departed later." The fine honesty, really quite deep, of a thing found to be "so" (whatever the condition may be), and then calmly and quietly stated so with exact economy of words, hasn't been considered often enough. Leaving the words, I have thought a good deal about the contents of that poem; I mean even before I read it, because that's a constant problem. I worked up some ideas of it once. John has a copy of the essay-like thing that resulted. It considered Jeffers. When (if!) I can get to making another copy, I'll mail it on. Think you'll be interested.

Reading this, I hope her physician will suggest the oil for your grandchild. Attached is the information I have on shark liver oil. I hope it fills the bill. I am wishing a most happy New Year to you.


Col. Charles Erskine Scott Wood (1852–1944) managed three distinct careers in his lifetime: as an infantry officer in the Indian campaigns; as an attorney in Portland, Oregon; and as a poet and satirist in Los Gatos, California. From his home, The Cats, which he shared with his second wife, poet Sara Bard Field (1883–1974), Wood maintained friendships with renowned artists such as Ansel Adams, Robinson Jeffers, and John Steinbeck, among others. Wood and Ricketts most likely met through Steinbeck, as both Wood and Steinbeck were living in Los Gatos at the time.

Darkling Plain was Sara Bard Field's 1936 volume of poetry published by Random House. As Ricketts indicates in his letter, Field gave him a copy soon after the lab fire.

* * *

The following was attached to the Woods letter dated December 26, 1936.

To Colonel and Mrs. Wood
Pacific Grove, California
December 27, 1936

I heard of shark liver oil first through G. E. MacGinitie, then associate professor at the Hopkins Marine Station (of Stanford University) here at Pacific Grove. He said it represented an entirely new principle, that their professor of biochemistry, Dr. Hashimoto, had reported on it verbally at a seminar, after having done quite a bit of work on it. Mac was giving it to his son Walter. Later it came to be known quite favorably locally for its general tonic effects, and especially in arthritis and allergic conditions. How it was originally discovered I cannot imagine, although even that might still be traced, since the reduction plant operator who originally produced the oil is still here.

Shark liver oil of this type is not a vitamin concentrate. A number of analyses and evaluations have been made, and the vitamin content is known to be low, almost negligible. Some other factor operates. Hashimoto stated that the unknown active element or elements simulated cortin (extract of the cortical layer of the supra renal, the core of which secrets adrenaline) a vitally necessary hormone-like substance which is being used experimentally to keep alive cats that have been adrenalectomized. I cannot instantly check up on cortin, my reference library is gone without trace and "the place thereof knows it no more," but as I recall, it's vitally important now in physiological research and gland therapy, expensive, and difficult to obtain in even reasonable purity.

Anyway, vitamins are known not to be present, at least not in significant concentration, and the usually spectacular results have to be attributed elsewhere. I think of the situation symbolically in the following light:

During certain illnesses, the normal vitamin intake of the human body seems inadequate, and enormous concentrations have to be prescribed. It is as though the vitamin retaining (or elaborating or utilizing) mechanism were a sieve, with interstices small during health so that a high proportion of the vitamins normally present in food would be retained, but with the mesh becoming large and loose in certain pathological conditions so that to get the same amount of total retention, enormous dosages would be required. (Of course the situation probably isn't mechanical at all, and it's factually incorrect to consider it with reference to be at least symbolically enlightening). Now carrying on this confessedly inadequate figure of speech, it is as though shark liver oil contracted to normal proportions the vitamin retaining mesh, so that the normal intake of vitamins became again adequate.

That's a bad example and a bad hypothesis despite its aptness, but it often conveys an emotional understanding of a situation quite different than pictured, and not picturable otherwise.

Since Dr. Hashimoto's original research at Hopkins Marine Station, either he severed his relations with Stanford or they with him. He left without publishing, went to Monterey Hospital on a research fellowship endowed by Mrs. Sidney Fish (for the purpose of continuing s.l.o. [shark liver oil] investigation I understand) but again left no notes and published nothing, going from there to UC (I think in the medical school at S.F.). Now he is in Los Angeles on his own, still working with the oil, according to Schaeffer who sends him 5 gallons of the commercially produced oil from time to time. Schaeffer says that Hashimoto is working out a method of concentrating the aphrodisiacal qualities of the oil for the benefit of Hollywoodites.

I had in my files, now burned, letters from several hospitals, clinics, and individuals who commented on the successful use of this oil in conditions of post-operative shock following removal of ovaries, etc. There is abundant evidence of its efficacy in arthritis and asthma. Nothing of course can be done with it in a large way until the active ingredients have been isolated and studied — a research problem of considerable magnitude — but in the meantime, there's no reason why individuals can't profit by its use. I know dozens of people who have taken it just as they would take cod-liver oils and there's been not a single untoward result. Only one case, Isabelle West, of no effect. Experience indicates there's no need of its constant use. My mother took it for a few months only, several years back until she recovered completely from her arthritis, and hasn't touched it since. When any of us get run down, suffer from recurrent colds, we take shark liver oil (if it's available) for a month or so.

Availability is the greatest difficulty. The great basking sharks from which this oil is produced can be taken here only at certain seasons of the year, and sometimes they're missing for a year or more. The capture of so large an animal offers difficulties in the way of equipment and technique. Whale handling methods would probably work. At present no one fishes them. Frank Lloyd and Jo Machado took a few, then Frank Lloyd and Hilary Belloc. But Hilary has gone up to SF to work in the book department of the Emporium, and anyway, as Frank says who has gone back to fishing rock cod — there aren't any sharks and we lose too many harpoons.

When the properties of this oil become generally known and accepted, the large demand will automatically take care of the supply situation, boats will be especially equipped, and fishermen from here north will be capturing these cosmopolitan north-temperate-zone fish. Until then, we'll just have to make out with what oil is available, worrying more about supply than about rendering methods.

* * *

To Thayer Ricketts
February 8, 1937

Dear Thayer and Evelyn:

There has been little time for writing you since the fire. Hasn't this been a trouble time for the Ricketts family! Everyone seems to have been hit. You should have seen me roaming around early in the morning, shivering without shoes or sox, or even adequate clothing, looking for hot coffee in places not even open yet. Not much shock to it otherwise, tho. I expected not to be able to sleep for seeing the flames leaping up, but it didn't bother me at all. Altho the last time in SF, at a cheap hotel, I couldn't sleep until I had made sure I knew the way to the fire escape, and that my flashlight was at hand. Amazing how fast a thing like that can go. But apparently 2300 volts at 1500 horsepower wasn't being pumped thru the cannery, and possibly into our plant.

It was good and kind of you folks sending me that nice pen and pencil — at a time particularly when things haven't been too easy with you. I got a grand start at the shower Frances arranged; I was very much surprised. About 20 books, clothes, etc. John sent electric coffee maker. 8 cup size. I thought how appropriate it was for him. Enough coffee for him and me during one of our long confabs.

I thanked our lucky stars that you hadn't already assembled the glass sealing outfit before the fire. It would have been gone too, with nothing to show. Keep it in mind still. We want and need it now more than ever before. If I can get a bulge on even our few competitors in this not-highly-competitive field, it will be particularly nice from now on. We need every advantage we can get. Hard times ahead. I can envision a vial-package that will be more serviceable than anything heretofore available, and that will make a big hit with ye goodly prof. With the strain that has been put on you financially and in a business sense recently — Uncle Gwyn sick etc — I imagine you won't have even a minute to work on such a thing for some time, but keep it in the back of your mind anyway. There may sometime soon be an opportunity. I can take care of any required expenses; just let me know beforehand. Another thing I thought to mention: We have in the past, and will again in the future, do a lot of delicate operating on cats in connection with embalming. We use a good many dozen cats in a year, and can use more as I develop better sources of supply. Adequate shadowless light is always problem. If you ever take in thru exchange, any junky Operay lights — the overhead type — that are inadequate for hospital use and so have little value, we might be able to pick one up at low cost. We wouldn't be justified in paying much; in the past we used a bank of 5 drop cords with green porcelain shades, and that was OK. But a shadowless light up out of the way would be convenient if it could be got cheaply. Don't know if ever such an opportunity will be available; I may be barking up the wrong tree. Maybe you can use all 2nd hand equipment that comes in there. I can always dig up five or ten dollars for some useful gadget.


Excerpted from Renaissance Man of Cannery Row by Katharine A. Rodger, Edward F. Ricketts Jr.. Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Katharine A. Rodger is a Steinbeck Fellow at San José State University where she continues work on Rickett's scientific achievements and personal life.

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