SEA OF CORTEZ

John Steinbeck

For a month Steinbeck joined an Exhibition to collect species of fauna in the Gulf of California, once known as the Sea of Cortez. It is not a travel book, although the parts where the author breaks into travel are the most interesting. 

This is mostly a go-out-and-find-a-new-species book. It some ways it is like Moby Dick, Melville writing about whales and killing them with heavy political overtones. It is also like Theodore Roosevelt’s book about traveling up the River of Doubt(?) or the River or No Return, in the middle of the Amazon in 1913. Roosevelt almost killed himself and everyone else. That story became repetitive – one portage after another, shortage of food, equipment lost, people missing, everything what should happen in the jungle did. It was tiresome reading. I stopped halfway and flipped to the end.

Likewise, Steinbeck has days where everyone searches for species. One collection day is like other collection days. I didn’t care if it was Easter Sunday. He observes about some scientific writing (Chapter 10) “In some reports it is impossible because of inept expression…” Steinbeck does write adequately, but the reader really has to love species. Steinbeck takes another shot in Chapter 17: “The literature of science is filled with answers found when the question propounded had an entirely different direction and end.”

Upon arriving in La Paz Steinbeck gives warning to California, which no one has heeded: “On the water’s edge…a new hotel…before long and the beautiful, poor, bedraggled old town will bloom with a Floridian ugliness.” That is the California’s coast line from San Francisco, south, looks like: plastic, cement, steal and glass along with the old, reliable El Camino Real. Today, Steinbeck might agree that Cannery Row has become a hippie, freak Disneyland.

Steinbeck writes about Mexican youth: “At last we stopped in front of a mournful cantina where morose young men hung about waiting for something to happen. They had waited a long time – several generations – for something to happen.” (Chapter 9)

Further on, Steinbeck wonders: 

“It would be interesting…to explain to one of these Indians our tremendous projects, 

our great drives, the fantastic production of goods that can’t be sold, the clutter of 

possessions which enslave whole populations with debt, the worry and neuroses that go 

into the rearing and educating children who find no place for themselves in this world: 

the defense of the country against a fanatic nation of conquerors, and the necessity to

become frantic to do it; the spoilage and wastage and death necessary for the retention of the crazy thing; the science which labors to acquire knowledge, and the movement of 

people and goods contrary to the knowledge obtained.” (Chapter 21) 

Avoid the species but read this book.

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