On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth next month, John Steinbeck will be justly celebrated as a major American writer. Between 1929 and his death in 1968, Steinbeck published nearly 30 books. His masterpiece, Oklahoma farmers in the dust bowl years and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are the two novels that most affected the American conscience.
But Steinbeck’s powerful social realism is by no means his only claim to greatness. He has also significantly influenced the way we see and think about the environment, an accomplishment for which he seldom receives the recognition he deserves. Not that Steinbeck or his fictional characters were green activists, passionately concerned with issues like water quality and clean air. Yet well before ecology was a subject of much public interest, Steinbeck was artfully introducing readers to ideas about all life-forms—most definitely including our own—being interdependent parts of an organic whole.
He explained this belief most directly in the Gulf of California. Many believe this was Steinbeck’s best work of nonfiction and one of the most important nature books of the 20th century.
It’s not clear whether Steinbeck’s thinking influenced Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and the other natural scientists and philosophers who formulated the now-prevailing environmental dogma. But the we-are-all-in-this-together theme was a distinctive one in some of his strongest work. And Steinbeck’s definition of "we," which included everything from sea slugs to the stars, anticipated ideas about the web of life, the rights of rocks and other tenets of current holistic ecology.
Steinbeck came rather late to his interest in the biological sciences. Born and raised in Salinas, California, he was part of a rather bookish, never very affluent, white-collar family. Contemporaries remembered him as something of a loner and an avid reader of romantic allegories and legends, particularly those having to do with King Arthur. He and his younger sister, Mary, sometimes dressed up and played at being residents of Camelot. But like small-town kids everywhere always looking for something to do, he often got out into the surrounding countryside. Alone or with pals, Steinbeck roamed the long Salinas Valley and the shores of the Monterey Peninsula, where his family had a summer cottage.
There’s ample evidence in much of what he later wrote that Steinbeck was deeply stirred by those surroundings and was a sharp, accurate observer of common natural detail. Consider this, for example, from The Grapes of Wrath. "Beside the road, a scrawny, dusty willow tree cast a speckled shade ...its poor branches curving over the way, its load of leaves tattered and scraggly as a molting chicken....He knew there would be shade, at least one hard bar of absolute shade thrown by the trunk, since the sun had passed the zenith....He could not see the base of the tree, for it grew out of a little swale that held water longer than the level places."
After enrolling at Stanford University in 1919, Steinbeck dropped in and out (because he was broke or bored) for six years, working between stints as a ranch hand, a radio salesman and on surveying and dredging crews. He showed no interest in earning a degree and, for the most part, attended only classes whose subjects engaged him at the time: journalism, literature and creative writing, among others. In the summer of 1923, he took a course in field zoology offered at the Hopkins Marine Station, a Stanford branch in Pacific Grove. The class, a survey of animal life on the shore of Monterey Bay, introduced Steinbeck to the belief that everything in nature was connected to everything else.
In 1925 Steinbeck went to New York to establish himself as a serious writer of fiction. After several disheartening months, he returned to California where he kept on writing, married Carol Henning, the first of his three wives and, in 1930, met a biologist named Ed Ricketts, who became his best friend and profoundly influenced his intellectual outlook. Ricketts had grown up in Chicago and attended the university there, where he was a disciple of W. C. Allee, another prominent early ecologist. He went to the Monterey Peninsula to establish the Pacific Biological Laboratory, which he eventually moved to Cannery Row, along the waterfront. Ricketts earned a living by supplying slides and specimens of marine animals for classroom use. That business provided him with sufficient means and leisure to pursue his true passion: studying the "good, kind, sane little animals" who inhabited intertidal zones along the northern Pacific coast.
Ricketts was a firm believer in "non-teleological" or "is" thinking. Such an approach, he said, "concerns itself primarily not with what should be, or could be, or might be, but rather with what actually 'is.'" It was the extent to which Ricketts practiced his beliefs that impressed Steinbeck. Ricketts accepted people as they were, flaws and all. Steinbeck was so intrigued that in many of his novels he created characters somewhat modeled on Ricketts—the kind, ruminative Preachers and Docs seeking what is.
First and last a storyteller, Steinbeck often gave the impression that he and Ricketts spent most of the 1930s carousing and speculating about metaphysics. In fact, during the decade after they met (Ricketts was killed in 1948 when his car was hit by a train), Steinbeck wrote the six books upon which his reputation as a novelist still rests: Tortilla Flat, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, The Long Valley and The Grapes of Wrath. The last appeared in 1939, the same year Ricketts published his own masterwork, Between Pacific Tides, an ecological reference still highly regarded by marine biologists today.