Michael Kenneth Hemp

About Michael Kenneth Hemp

The novelist Michael Kenneth Hemp is a John Steinbeck writer, speaker, and consultant and the founder of The History Company and Cannery Row Foundation. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, he is a former USAF Special Intelligence Officer and magazine writer-photographer and a frequent guide at Doc’s Lab for scholars researching the history of Cannery Row. He and his wife Terri Adrienne Wolfson live in Carmel Valley, California.

A Second Wind for John Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez Vessel: Michael Hemp Reviews Kevin Bailey’s Book The Western Flyer


Cover image of The Western Flyer, Kevin M. Bailey's book

How can I begin a review of The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries without stating upfront that I have rarely marked or underlined a book so much as this little volume? A historian’s habit, perhaps, but this book demanded more focus and rereading than almost anything in my recollection. As you may glean from its dust jacket and cover flap, the author has utilized for the basis of the book the storied accounts of a boat—The Western Flyer—arising from its famed 1940 voyage of science and leisure to Baja California’s Sea of Cortez. Chartered by author John Steinbeck and accompanied by his friend and collaborator, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts—the “Doc” of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday—its timing also removed Steinbeck from the vitriolic and dangerous reception by agricultural interests of his recently published novel The Grapes of Wrath, which exposed the hardships of the Dust Bowl Migration.

This book demanded more focus and rereading than almost anything in my recollection.

Kevin Bailey’s craft, however, is in the artifice of using the widely recognized popularity of the John Steinbeck-Ed Ricketts voyage as the vehicle for his personal and professional quest. Like Ricketts, a marine biologist, Bailey astutely chose The Western Flyer for its literary and ecological celebrity. But more to his purpose, the irony of the vessel’s guilty participation during subsequent decades in the devastating collapse of four major fisheries of the Pacific Northwest is concisely and poignantly documented. The account of ecological alarms unheeded merges with a fascinating new exposition of an aspect of John Steinbeck and Sea of Cortez only now gaining the appreciation it deserves: Steinbeck’s collaboration with America’s most important marine biologist, Edward F. Ricketts, and the role of The Western Flyer.

Image of The Western Flyer in 1937

For the first time in popular print, Bailey details the saga of this classic American fishing vessel, designed and built with perfectionist expertise by the Croatian boat builders of the Tacoma, Washington, area in the late 1930s. His account of the Western Flyer’s timeline begins with construction at Western Boat Building by the boatyard’s Dalmatian owners (shown here, from right): Martin A. Petrich, Frank Berry, and Tony Berry, Frank’s son and the skipper of the boat when it launched in May of 1937. Here’s where Bob Enea, a personal friend and a source for Bailey’s research, comes in: Tony Berry married into Enea’s family, enabling Berry to become a member of the Monterey, California, sardine purse-seine fleet, even though he wasn’t Sicilian. Bob Enea’s intimate family familiarity with this topic enabled Bailey to explain how John Steinbeck was ultimately successful in chartering the last available boat in the Monterey fleet for the Baja expedition. Virtually all the Sicilian boat owners were leery of Steinbeck’s pro-union sympathy, and many probably considered him a Communist, as his critics among California’s corporate elite claimed. And then there was the conundrum of a chartering all the way to the Gulf of California—not to fish!

Image of Tony Berry, Frank Berry, and Martin Petrich

Bob’s contribution to this powerful little book did not end there, however. Tony Berry, the owner and skipper of The Western Flyer, and the colorful deckhand Horace “Sparky” Enea were both his uncles, making possible a level of informed appreciation of life aboard ship absent from even the most informed readings of Sea of Cortez and its reissue with Steinbeck’s essay “About Ed Ricketts“ as Log from the Sea of Cortez in 1951. I am not going to dwell on the voyage for those readers already familiar with John Steinbeck’s classic account of the serious collecting and crazy escapades aboard and ashore in Baja—except to say that Bailey’s work presents another charming and informative dimension of the story for neophytes venturing into the pages of Sea of Cortez for the first time.

Bailey quotes some of the best of the John Steinbeck who described in Sea of Cortez the relationship he experienced with The Western Flyer as a form of man’s communion with boats for millennia:

The sight of a boat riding in the water clenches a fist of emotion in a man’s chest. A horse, a beautiful dog, arouses sometimes a quick emotion, but of inanimate things only a boat can do it.

* * * * *

A boat, above all other inanimate things, is personified in a man’s mind. . .  . Some have said they have felt a boat shudder before she struck a rock, or cry when she beached and the surf poured into her. This is not mysticism, but identification; man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man-shaped soul.

Image of The Western Flyer in Port Townsend dry dock

One facet of Kevin Bailey’s excellent story does, however, require a re-write: the ending. At the time of publication it appeared that the fate of The Western Flyer was sealed, relegating her to a truncated or deconstructed future as part of a hotel-restaurant attraction in Old Town Salinas. Now one man with a boat-shaped mind and the will and means to save The Western Flyer has done just that. In January, marine geologist John Gregg negotiated a deal to buy the boat and remove her death by slow decomposition after two sinkings and years of exposure in a Port Townsend, Washington, boatyard. Today she resides in a boat-barn at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op, where restoration by world-class wooden-boat restorers will recover her former glory.

One facet of Kevin Bailey’s excellent story does, however, require a re-write: the ending.

The fate of a valiant wooden boat, threatened with destruction both natural and unnatural—as in becoming a restaurant motif—propels Bailey’s highly readable text tracing The Western Flyer’s timeline. Bailey’s clear and concise account of her complicity in the serial destruction of crucial fisheries in the Pacific Northwest after her role in the romantic, literary, philosophical, and ecological immersion of Sea of Cortez cannot help but drive a conscientious reader toward Bailey’s goal: to understand, as Ricketts and Steinbeck did, that the oceans and their fisheries must survive or we do not. Thus the Western Flyer story, so full of irony, will have a happy ending after all. A player in the mindless, greedy, irresponsible damage of untold natural fishery resources, so near death from neglect that some said it couldn’t be done, The Western Flyer rises again, this time as an icon of ocean-life preservation: a seagoing classroom for students of ecology and the marine sciences.

The fate of a valiant wooden boat, threatened with destruction both natural and unnatural—as in becoming a restaurant motif—propels Bailey’s highly readable text.

Kevin Bailey’s little book has the tight, complete, joyful feeling of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Yet it’s so packed with helpful information and remarkable detail that my copy was well marked up, underlined, and highlighted when I finished. Yours will be, too.

Photo of The Western Flyer after launch from Western Boat Builders (Tacoma, Washington) in 1937 courtesy Petrich Families Collection.

Photo of Tony Berry, Frank Berry (his father), and Martin Petrich, builder-owners of The Western Flyer, courtesy Petrich Families Collection.

 Photo of The Western Flyer in Port Townsend, Washington’s Boat Haven Yard by Anne Shaffer, courtesy Coastal Watershed Institute.

Calling Dr. Freud? Letter Explains John Steinbeck’s Short Story “The Snake”

1953 LP cover image of John Steinbeck reading "The Snake."

Fresh questions raised by scholars about the source of John Steinbeck’s brief short story “With Your Wings,” recently published for the first time, reminded me that Steinbeck’s college friend, the writer A. Grove Day, once sent me a personal letter with an eye-witness explanation of the incident behind “The Snake,” an earlier short story set in Doc’s Lab on Cannery Row. “The Snake” was written before Tortilla Flat appeared in 1935, and Steinbeck’s friend Bruce Ariss, the Cannery Row painter-writer-publisher, printed it as “A Snake of One’s Own” (the original title) in a local publication called The Beacon. In 1938 the short story was published in Esquire magazine and in Steinbeck’s classic short story collection The Long Valley, where it continues to attract readers fascinated by its gritty, gruesome subject and intriguing origin.

Image from cover of Michael Kenneth Hemp's new history of Cannery Row“The Snake” takes place in a familiar version of Ed Ricketts’ Doc’s Lab on Cannery Row, a frequent venue in Steinbeck’s writing and a big part of my recently revised book Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck’s Old Ocean Avenue . Steinbeck tells the story from the viewpoint of a Dr. Phillips, the story’s Ed Ricketts character, and it contains stark sexual symbolism frequently interpreted by critics in Freudian terms. But did the disturbing incident at the story’s core come from Steinbeck’s imagination, or did it really happen as described? Even Steinbeck’s friends from the time didn’t agree about where he got the idea for “The Snake.”

Image of John Steinbeck's friend A. Grove DayWhile reading comments by Robert DeMott  concerning the context of John Steinbeck’s forgotten World War II story “With Your Wings,” I recalled an acknowledgement letter I received years ago from A. Grove Day, the late historian and biographer who became Steinbeck’s friend at Stanford in the 1920s, where both were members of the famous Stanford English Club. Born in Philadelphia in 1904, Grove died in Hawaii—the subject of his special expertise as a scholar—in 1994. I found his fascinating 1987 letter about “The Snake” in my files, postmarked from Honolulu.

Image of A. Grove Day's letter about the origin of John Steinbeck's "The Snake"

Grove’s letter, which shows his skill as a writer and his knowledge of Doc’s Lab, augments other interpretations of “The Snake,” including those by two other friends from Steinbeck’s Stanford student days, Toby Street and Dook Sheffield. (In this photo of the English Club, Day is seated far left on the middle row; Street sits third from the left on the same row.) Grove’s letter claims that Ricketts’s father—who helped out at his son’s Cannery Row marine specimen business—caught the snake on a golf course and put it in a cage at the Lab, where “a young lady with us” fed it a white mouse as the snake’s first meal in captivity. Sheffield, who became a newspaper reporter, was more direct when he spoke about the story. He claimed that a local showgirl needed the snake for her act, although a rattlesnake would be a dangerous choice for the purpose.

Image of the Stanford English Club with Grove Day and Toby Street

Street commented about “The Snake” in a 1975 interview with Martha Heasley Cox, founder of the Steinbeck Studies Center at San Jose State University. His version possesses the weight of what lawyers call credible evidence and is quoted in full below. At this point in his exchange with Professor Cox, Street mentions “a girl that was on the circuit here [who] took a fancy to Ed.” When asked by Cox to explain what he means by “the circuit” (roadhouse and bar entertainment replacing vaudeville with some burlesque), Street employed a combination of diplomacy and directness developed in his post-Stanford career as a Monterey attorney for clients including John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. Like Grove, Street was as careful with facts as with feelings. When he spoke to his interviewer for the record about “The Snake,” he may have omitted living names, dates, and details.

“They used to have, you know, the piano player and a couple of girls and they’d entertain and they’d go around. And this girl happened to be [at the Blue Bell Café] and took a fancy to Ed, and Ed invited her to the lab. And she was a kind of sexy-looking dame and so while she was there, he said that he had to feed the snake. He had a big cage, quite a big cage full of white rats—and he went in there and selected one and put it in with the rattlesnake. The mouse ran all around, and this girl was just fascinated by the damned thing. And then, pretty soon, the little mouse stopped and the rattlesnake struck. Its fang caught in the mouse. And when he pulled, he brought the mouse back with it, and of course the mouse didn’t pay any attention, just ran around until the toxic effects began to take hold. His back got all rigid, and he stood up on his back feet and when he fell down, he put his paws right on his nose, like that. This girl, by this time, was right up there looking down at that. And the rattlesnake went over, and you know the way they do—they go up and down the body, noticing how long it is and whether it is still alive. Their auditory nerve is on their tongue. It then finally discovered that the mouse was in fit shape to eat. He went over and went through all his business and got his jaws on the edge and took this little mouse in his mouth. And she watched, oh, I think perhaps half an hour, until there wasn’t anything left but the tail of this mouse hanging out of the snake. John made a story out of it and gave it a lot of implications that probably were there.”

Cover image of Inside Cannery Row by Bruce ArissIn his way, Toby Street agrees with Grove Day about the story’s Freudianism, as does Bruce Ariss, a Cannery Row legend in his own right. Bruce’s book, Inside Cannery Row: Sketches from the Steinbeck Era, identifies a tweedy, spinsterish dean from an eastern girl’s college as the woman in Doc’s Lab who became excited and told Ricketts she wanted to pay him to keep and feed the snake for her.


Image of Frank Wright at Doc's LabFrank Wright, another friend of Ed Ricketts from the 1940s, introduced me to “The Snake” more than 30 years after Steinbeck wrote his short story. Following Ed’s death, Frank became a member of the circle of men who saved Doc’s Lab, all friends of Monterey schoolteacher Harlan Watkins, who rented Doc’s Lab in the early 1950s before buying it from the Yee family (the real-life family of Lee Chong in Cannery Row). Watkins eventually sold the Lab to Frank and friends, and it was there that Frank first played for me the LP recording of John Steinbeck reciting “The Snake”—a dramatic way for any new reader to participate in Steinbeck’s provocative short story. Brought to life by Steinbeck’s distinctive baritone and experienced where the incident occurred, “The Snake” takes on a powerful feeling all its own. Friends lucky enough to have Frank as their Cannery Row guide continue to enjoy listening to John Steinbeck recite his story while visiting Doc’s Lab.

Now listen for yourself. Pay particular attention to what Steinbeck says before he recites the story. Though missing from printed editions, the compelling comments Steinbeck makes here about “The Snake” confirm how he liked to cover his tracks in his writing. Using the same phrase (“something that happened”) he employed elsewhere about other challenging subjects in his fiction, Steinbeck makes a funny reference to the sex-symbolism that distressed certain readers of “The Snake” from the beginning: “One of my favorite pieces of fan mail came from a small town librarian. She said it was the worst story she’d read anywhere; she was quite upset at its badness. Actually it isn’t a story at all. It’s just something that happened . . . . ”

Image of Joseph Campbell interviewed on Cannery RowPostscript: Steinbeck’s reading of “The Snake” and “Johnny Bear”—another short story from The Long Valley—was released in 1953 as a now-rare Columbia Literary Series record album. As noted, the details about the story’s origin provided by A. Grove Day in his letter differ in emphasis from those offered by Toby Street and Dook Sheffield, whose versions differ substantially from that of Bruce Ariss. As I thought about time and memory, another conversation with a friend of John Steinbeck came rolling out of the past. In 1983 I interviewed the great Joseph Campbell in Doc’s Lab, where he recalled the time “Ed called us all down to the Lab to watch him feed a rattlesnake.” Here is what Campbell had to say about “The Snake” that day on Cannery Row three decades ago.