John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Childhood Expedition, and a World Already Discovered?

A book with a map as its cover, about some great expedition over water; these kinds of stories are simply irresistible to a literate sailor like me. Add the value of reading the work of people as important as Steinbeck and you’ve created my next read. This book reminded me of what it is like to be out at sea when the days melt into nights with only the sky to narrate social constructions that spin round twelve spots twice. I imagine I am out collecting samples of different species with Steinbeck and Ricketts and the crew of the Western Flyer. Harpooning a bluefin, anchoring according to the tide, avoiding the venomous spike from sea urchins in the shallows. I want to wade in the water oblivious to the land or the liquid, in my own separate space, a new dimension, my face turned down to the seafloor, my neck sore but my heart racing in anticipation of a possible discovery. 

Steinback wrote that a naval officer once asked him:

“‘Have you thought what happens in a little street when one of your shells explodes, of the families torn to pieces, a thousand generations influenced when you signaled Fire’ ‘Of course not,’ he said, ‘Those shells travel so far that you couldn’t possibly see where they land’.” (35)

I imagine what happens when that submarine launches that missile. I imagine that land that is too far away to actually see- if we stay in our place of launch at least. Now wading in the water with our pants rolled up beyond our knees, avoiding those urchins, seems juvenile. I ask myself what is the point in collecting and documenting these lives while we are destroying the lives of others across this grand sea?

I must admit, Steinback’s writing on the indigenous people he “observed” is nothing short of offensive and outdated. Although a lot of this book sets a good foreground for his future writing and political theory which we know as being more on the left, I do think he romanticized and simplified cultures that were so systematically dismantled. Don’t get me wrong, he does acknowledge this thorough genocide of the indigenous people around the Sea of Cortez, yet his analysis of that intrinsic steps in imperialization sometimes fell flat. Let us not read books like this and ignore their “political incorrectness” merely because they are outdated. I always think back to how Jamaica Kincaid said she would rather have a reader read the Brontë sisters than herself, yet all the books she published refuted the layers of white supremacy embedded in Victorian text. Let us acknowledge and dive deep into the hurt but let us not bury it to forget this history. 

I am not extremely well versed in all of Steinback’s work, but I can say this expedition throughout the growth of this own individual text was telling. Much like the biological wonders Steinback and his mates encountered, his own germination can be observed, poked at and prodded, preserved in formaldehyde when you stop at the end of the night at one chapter and pick it up the next day. I imagine us putting this book in the tank with some of his vast creatures and I see a young John turn into a man. Expeditions like this one are never just about the surface level mission after all, right? While the cover of evolving creatures sure is romantic, what I take away from this book is Steinback’s interpretation of man most intensively. 

Lastly, the idea of discovering the unknown really struck me. Besides that foundation being deeply appropriated by westernized influences, I also beg to argue if the undiscovered even exists. Steinback would often wonder what other man had stepped foot in places before him. Yet as he picked up and wondered at these very lively creatures I couldn’t help but think about their own personal narratives. Products of their environments: Steinbeck and his men literally learned that you could understand the history of a geographic religion by looking at those creatures who inhabited the spaces for centuries. Instead of finding books in a local library, newspaper articles detailing a town’s history, Steinback picked up an eel and was told a different story. Steinback never discovered a fresh set of empty pages to write about a land undiscovered, he merely cut and pasted differently ripped-out pages of a vast book with no ending. A starfish on this page and a hammerhead on the other. Aren’t these the kinds of stories that we see even beyond on boats in the water or submarines sending missiles. I realized that the undiscovered matters because it makes up the story we live, the story that develops as we speak. 

Maybe that is what Steinbeck realized too, and what prompted his writing to be so foundational to our worldly understanding of the Universe and our man-made systems, especially in places of intense nature, like the Sea of Cortez where his adventure and journey really started.

Published by ellakotsen

student at Bryn Mawr College

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