Bruce Robison reviews Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell, by Eric Enno Tamm (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2004) in American Scientist Online:
Ricketts is perhaps best known for having been the prototype for “Doc,” the central figure in John Steinbeck’s novels Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954). By most accounts the fictional Doc, who loved women, beer and truth, was much like the man who operated Pacific Biological Laboratories on California’s Monterey Peninsula from 1923 until his untimely death in 1948.
Ricketts, who supplied prepared biological specimens to schools, was a gifted field ecologist. His coastal collecting trips led to a seminal book on intertidal ecology, Between Pacific Tides (Stanford University Press, 1939). It went beyond taxonomy to describe intertidal animals holistically, placing them in the dynamic context of their habitat and ecology. Concepts that we now take for granted, such as competitive exclusion, and habitat descriptors such as wave shock, were novel then and seemed to threaten the established order. Ricketts was “a lone, largely marginalized scientist” with no university degrees, and he had to struggle long and hard against the “dry ball” traditionalists of the time just to get the book published. Yet today it is widely regarded as a classic work in marine ecology and is now in its fifth edition.
Ricketts’s lab on Cannery Row was a magnet for scientists, writers, prostitutes, musicians, artists, academics and bums. Gatherings there included discussions of the interplay of philosophy, science and art, and often evolved into raucous, happy parties that went on for days.
Steinbeck was a frequent visitor, and Ricketts had a strong humanistic and naturalistic influence on the writer’s work in the 1930s and 1940s. Ricketts’s persona appeared in several of Steinbeck’s most powerful novels, including In Dubious Battle (1936) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Steinbeck occasionally referred to himself as a biologist, and ecological themes run through much of his finest work, as Tamm points out. Tamm also notes that except for East of Eden (1952), Steinbeck’s fiction and his literary reputation declined after Ricketts’s death.