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Stanford Report, December 3, 2003

A whodunnit for the literary set: Why was Ricketts removed from Cortez book? Only a few highly-valued copies of original Sea of Cortez book listing both author names are believed to be in existence


The question of who actually wrote Sea of Cortez is one of the stranger chapters in the Steinbeck-Ricketts legend. The original book, Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, published by Viking Press in 1941, lists the authors as "John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts." That book was 598 pages long and consisted of two parts: a 270-page narrative log of the expedition, and a 328-page phyletic catalog that included descriptions and photographs of the many sea creatures collected in Mexico.


Courtesy of Special Collections,
Stanford University Libraries

Photo: Sonya Noskowiak
Courtesy of Special Collections,Stanford University Libraries
Clockwise from top: Ricketts collects samples in Monterey Bay. His lab was a popular gathering spot for the denizens of Cannery Row. Steinbeck poses for noted photographer Sonya Noslowiak in 1935. On the Western Flyer, the boat that took them on their Sea of Cortez journey, Steinbeck (second from right) is flanked by his wife Carol and prize fighter Orazio Colleto and other friends in a 1940 photo.


That Ricketts was primarily responsible for putting together the catalog is not in dispute. What irks many Ricketts scholars, however, is the widespread belief that the narrative log was entirely written by Steinbeck, when in fact much of it came directly from the pen of Ricketts.

The source of the controversy and confusion can be traced to Viking's decision -- after Ricketts died -- to publish the log separately under Steinbeck's name alone, removing Ricketts as co-author and dropping the phyletic catalog entirely. The new version, published in 1951 and renamed The Log from the Sea of Cortez, also included a poignant essay by Steinbeck titled "About Ed Ricketts."

What makes this so intriguing is that, a decade earlier, Steinbeck had insisted that he and Ricketts be listed as co-authors. Steinbeck was quite up front about the fact that although he was responsible for writing the final narrative, much of it was based on Ricketts' daily journal of the trip. Richard Astro, author of John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist, cites a 1941 memo from Steinbeck and Ricketts to Viking explaining how portions of Ricketts' journal "were incorporated into the final narrative, and in one case a large section was lifted verbatim from other unpublished work [by Ricketts]."

Given Steinbeck's open acknowledgement of Ricketts' contribution to the final narrative, why did he agree to let Viking strip his friend's name from the cover of the 1951 edition?

This question has never been satisfactorily answered, says Ricketts expert Katharine A. Rodger. "Steinbeck scholars have documented the fact that the log notes that Ricketts took were what in many cases Steinbeck was basing large sections of his text on," she says. "What a lot of people haven't done is to actually go through a copy of Ricketts' original typed script and compare it to the published version of the narrative. It turns out that Steinbeck keeps a lot of Ricketts' wording, and that huge chunks are simply cut and paste."

A few months ago, Ed Ricketts Jr. provided Rodger a newly discovered typescript of his father's original notes, which include previously unpublished details about the 1940 expedition. Reading through the typescript reveals numerous passages that appear verbatim in The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

"I don't think Ricketts was a great writer, but there are moments in here where he really puts it best, and I think Steinbeck recognized that," Rodger says. "That's really a wonderful thing that happened in this collaboration, because Ricketts didn't like his own writing. He thought John wrote better, and he recognized how wonderfully John wrote. Unfortunately, the Steinbeck scholarship often presents Sea of Cortez as an insight into Steinbeck's mind. I think it's really insight more into how he and Ricketts communicated, and how they really bounced ideas back and forth."

In 1995, Viking's parent company, Penguin Group USA, published a paperback version of The Log from the Sea of Cortez with John Steinbeck named as sole author. The original book, Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, had the misfortune of being published the first week of December 1941 -- just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a result, it was quickly forgotten and soon went out of print. Only a few highly prized copies are known to exist today, including three in the Stanford University Libraries' Department of Special Collections. The newly discovered Ricketts typescript has been donated to Stanford.


It is widely believed that RIcketts, seen above, made significant contributions to the narrative log that made up nearly half of the Sea of Cortez book, originally published in 1941. But that didn’t stop Viking Press from reissuing the book in 1951 without Ricketts’ name, a deletion that Steinbeck apparently approved of. Photo: George Robinson