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Ed Ricketts and the 'Dream' of Cannery Row

A memorial to Ed Ricketts is located on the site of the 1948 auto accident that took the marine ecologist's life. A train plowed into the side of his old Buick, and Ricketts died three days later.
Cindy Carpien, NPR News /
A memorial to Ed Ricketts is located on the site of the 1948 auto accident that took the marine ecologist's life. A train plowed into the side of his old Buick, and Ricketts died three days later.

Fifty-five years ago, the best friend of novelist John Steinbeck was hit by a train after his Buick stalled on the tracks near Monterey, California's Cannery Row. At his death, Ed Ricketts was something of a celebrity. Steinbeck had cast Ricketts as the fictional "Doc" in his best-selling novel.

In a two-part report for Morning Edition, NPR's Renee Montagne tells the tale of Cannery Row, the place, and Ed Ricketts, the real-life Doc of Steinbeck's Cannery Row, a loveable intellectual who ran a lab amid the foul-smelling strip of sardine canneries and honky tonks.

John Steinbeck began his story this way: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light... a nostalgia, a dream."

The stink was the smell of sardines. Fourteen canneries lined Ocean View Avenue in the 1930s, when the novel takes place. "The view was a veritable ocean of sardines, pouring into the canneries that gave the street the name by which it is universally known," Montagne says.

Doris Bragdon was a teenager then, living a few blocks away from Cannery Row. She remembers that when a young cannery worker named Joe Bragdon stopped by to ask her for a date, "he'd come to the house and his clothes would be all smelly and... I'd make him stand on the porch instead of coming in. "

"Downwind from her," Joe adds.

Back in the 1930s and '40s, more than 100 sardine boats plied the waters off Monterey.

Today, Anthony Russo's green and white boat is practically the only one left. His father and uncle were part of a long line of Sicilians who fished sardines, and Russo has vivid memories of Cannery Row before the sardines disappeared.

"Back in those days when all the fishermen went fishing..., they used to all meet on the old wharf," Russo says. "They used to go fishing with their suits, then they'd change on the boats. They'd come down there all dressed up, after they'd had a Sunday dinner, you know. There'd be like 200 men down there. And then as the skippers came down and the skiffs were there, they'd get on the skiffs and they rode out to the boats to go fishing for the week."

This was the world that John Steinbeck conjured up in Cannery Row. The book wasn't about fishing or canning sardines, but the real Cannery Row was so colorful in its heyday that historian Michael Hemp insists the book is barely a novel at all.

"There was no shortage of really unusual people here on Cannery Row to write about," Hemp says. "The fiction wasn't even a stretch of the imagination. All John had to do was look around and he had plenty of material here."

Some of the most vivid fodder for the novel came from Ed Ricketts and his biology lab. In the weathered wooden building, squeezed between two enormous canneries, Ricketts stored the specimens he sold to school labs -- frogs and cats and the tiny marine creatures he collected during hours spent in the tide pools off Monterey.

"By the time John Steinbeck met him in 1930, Ricketts was more or less living in his lab and in the company of caged snakes. To the sounds of Leadbelly, or a Gregorian chant, one could enjoy jug wine, arty women, and -- most of all -- marathon sessions of philosophizing," Montagne says.

Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw says the young novelist was instantly hooked. "For Steinbeck, Ricketts was accepting because he just listened and tended to turn whatever people said into something that sounded brilliant. Sort of the 19th century salon. That sense that out of conversation grows truth and reality. And whatever ideas you have grow out of conversation."

Scholars see Ricketts-like characters in many of Steinbeck's novels -- wise, all-seeing characters -- like Casey in The Grapes of Wrath and Slim in Of Mice and Men.

Ed Ricketts made his first appearance in Steinbeck's 1935 short story "The Snake": "It was almost dark when young Dr. Phillips swung his sack to his shoulder and left the tidepool. He climbed up over the rocks and squashed along the street in his rubber boots. The street lights were on by the time he arrived at his little commercial laboratory on cannery street in Monterey."

Katie Rodger says she can't imagine anyone would prefer the fictional character over the real man. She has just completed his biography, Renaissance Man Of Cannery Row: The Life and Letters of Edward F. Ricketts.

Rodger says it wasn't just John Steinbeck who appreciated Ricketts' mind. Those who partied and swapped ideas at the lab included the young composer John Cage, the budding mythologist Joseph Campbell and the writer Henry Miller.

Ricketts followed a live-in-the-moment philosophy and he viewed everything as interrelated parts of a whole, Rodger says. "I think to Ed Ricketts there was no difference between a good poem, an interesting piece of music and... a sea spider."

This worldview also set Ed Ricketts apart from his peers in the world of marine biology. Steve Webster, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, says Ricketts was a holistic ecologist long before most people had heard the word ecology. And he was one of the first to take marine life out of strict categories and place it back into its natural habitat.

In 1939, Ricketts published an elegantly written textbook called Between Pacific Tides. Now a classic, it's been updated four times by noted marine biologists and remains one of publisher Stanford University Press's most successful books.

The novel Cannery Row is also a reflection of Ricketts' worldview. Steinbeck said it should be read as if set in a human tidepool teaming with life, fascinating in all its aspects.

Steinbeck and Ricketts were not only friends, they were collaborators. Steinbeck had been interested in marine biology since his days at Stanford University. In 1940, just after Steinbeck's epic novel The Grapes of Wrath was published, Steinbeck and Ricketts embarked on a six-week marine expedition to the Gulf of California. During the trip, which covered 4,000 miles of coastline, they discovered 35 new marine species. The following year, the book based on their expedition, Sea of Cortez, was published. It was co-written by Steinbeck and Ricketts.

Ricketts' goal was to document the entire coast from Alaska to Northern Mexico. Steinbeck and Ricketts were planning another trip, this time to the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia in 1948, when Ricketts died at the age of 50.

Steinbeck didn't make it back from New York to say goodbye to his best friend, some say his alter ego. But in Cannery Row, he left behind a poignant epitaph: "Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you into a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon and his sympathy had no warp."

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