A.J.'s Reviews > Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell

Beyond the Outer Shores by Eric Enno Tamm
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Aug 29, 08

bookshelves: biography

This is not the only book on Ed Ricketts. Richard Astro wrote two, and you can pick up a hardcover copy of the out-of-print John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist from your local used bookseller, if you happen to have three or four hundred bucks burning a hole in your pocket. For the rest of us, there's Beyond the Outer Shores.

It's perhaps surprising that there has not been more interest in Ricketts. He was arguably the most important influence on Steinbeck, who wrote two novels (Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday) in which he is the central character. The Log from the Sea of Cortez concerns a collecting trip made by Steinbeck and Ricketts, and a curious, philosophizing Doc Ricketts figure appears in In Dubious Battle (Doc Burton), The Moon is Down (Doctor Winter), The Grapes of Wrath (Jim Casy) and Burning Bright (Friend Ed).

And Steinbeck wasn't the only intellectual of his day to hang out with Ricketts. Joseph Cambell was part of that circle, as was John Cage.

Ricketts himself did important work as a marine biologist. Because Ricketts lacked academic qualifications, he published no journal articles. But he did publish an important book, Between Pacific Tides, a catalogue of intertidal animals of the California coast that was unique in its day for its ecological approach. Between Pacific Tides is still a standard text.

Beyond the Outer Shores gives us a detailed biography of Ricketts, but late in the book, unfortunately, Eric Tamm attempts to build up Ricketts by attacking Steinbeck. In Tamm's version, this was not a productive friendship, but a case of a creatively bankrupt writer stealing the ideas of a friend and putting them into print. Tamm points to the common perception that Steinbeck published little of worth after The Grapes of Wrath, and suggests he was nothing without Ricketts. But this is no more credible than supposing that Carol Steinbeck, who typed the manuscript of Grapes and made editorial suggestions, was the novel's true author. (After the divorce, Steinbeck never matched the achievement of Grapes: post hoc, ergo propter hoc.)

In doing this, Tamm does a disservice to both Steinbeck and Ricketts. Ricketts can stand on his own two feet. But otherwise, Beyond the Outer Shores is an excellent read.
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