Publish Lifeboat

by Ryder W. Miller

[Note: a version of this paper was presented at the John Steinbeck's Americas Centennial Conference at Hofstra University in March 2002.]

Mexico City
February 19, 1944
To Annie Laurie Williams, by Telegram


Though receiving an Academy Award nomination in 1944 for best original story for Lifeboat, Steinbeck was never madder at any of his screen adaptations. Alfred Hitchcock and John Steinbeck were a strange choice for collaboration. Hitchcock, the auteur and master of suspense. Steinbeck, the proletarian and realist. Whereas Steinbeck's characters worried if they had food enough to eat, Hitchcock's characters debated about which restaurant to eat at, with one of the considerations being how to avoid being poisoned.

Steinbeck's unpublished manuscript for Lifeboat, which you need to make an appointment to read at one of the few Steinbeck research centers in the country, at first glance isn't extremely different than what Hitchcock created on the screen, but it is different enough. Donald Spoto, in The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, recounts what Hitchcock and company did to Steinbeck's work:

The difficulties of realizing a script for Lifeboat were considerable. John Steinbeck, who thought that Hitchcock's obsession with a single set inhibited the drama, left the project after sketching a few scenes and a prose summary. MacKinlay Kantor was then brought in, but Hitchcock was disappointed with him and asked Macgowan to let him go. Finally Jo Swerling, who had crafted several scripts for other directors, worked on the screenplay until mid-July; but just before shooting began that month, Hitchcock, working alone at home, rewrote all the dialogue himself. He then asked Ben Hecht to read the script and to make some suggestions about the final scenes, as Hecht had done for Foreign Correspondents.

Robert E. Morseberger wrote in Film Quarterly that the result was "an uneven conglomeration of Hitchcock suspense, Steinbeck philosophy, and Swerling situation and dialogue." Among other things like racism and snobbery, Steinbeck "objected to the way in which Swerling had removed his gritty realism and replaced it with slick and implausible details."

Lifeboat tells the grim tale of survivors from a bombed Allied freighter trying to survive at sea while World War II rages. On board the lifeboat in the movie are a reporter, a union worker from Chicago, a millionaire, a seaman, a British radio operator, a nurse, a Negro steward, and an English woman with her dead baby. In many ways they are a microcosm of humanity, and when they pick up an enemy from the German submarine that bombed them, the group has to decide what to do with him. Lifeboat is about survival, but it is also a study of how society reacts when the enemy has become vulnerable. For some unnamed reason, union worker Albert Shienkowitz wants to throw the German overboard immediately. Others are mistakenly more trustworthy. In the movie the German becomes the pilot, and even helps by performing an operation to save one of the passengers. But he has secret plans, and when he is found out the others in the lifeboat get rid of him. Though factitious, humanity has bonded to protect themselves on the unpredictable ocean.

Steinbeck could write a story about survival at sea. Hitchcock could direct a film with an enemy aboard the lifeboat. Both men show their mastery in revealing the nuances of society despite the harsh conditions—there are rivalries, romances, and relationships—but they are each the victim of their own situation. Hitchcock, who had seen his native England heavily air bombed by Germans, directed a film without a cry for the end of the war, as in Steinbeck's story; instead it was a stronger justification for the war effort. Steinbeck may have been more sympathetic because he was farther away from the war in America, he was German-Irish, and he generally had a better opinion of people than Hitchcock. Lifeboat was written before Steinbeck went on to cover the war as a reporter in Europe.

So Steinbeck wrote a different Lifeboat. He used a narrator to tell his anti-war story; the action is also less restricted to what was occurring on the boat, something which Hitchcock was particularly interested in exploring. In Steinbeck's novella the outer world is as important as the human drama on the boat:

The dawn comes sneaking up in a fog at sea. First everything is black and then it's like a little white colored been mixed in like pouring cream in coffee. First you can't see anything and then before you know it you can pick out a few little outlines and then gradually the darkness thins out against the light so you can see things.

Porpoises swim by in Steinbeck's work. The survivors are impressed by the night sky. And like always, Steinbeck shows his concern for working people (who in this case were shuffled out into the war). Steinbeck wrote about how people could be pushed to violence, but in the unpublished novella the reporter is a possessive Congresswoman and also a victim of the anger of the crew. Ironically, the perpetrator is the man chosen to captain the ship, an industrialist who forgot to tie down the food which is lost overboard.

Steinbeck's Lifeboat, though mainly about the war, also falls into the popular tradition of stories about survival at sea, and could find a welcome spot on the book shelf next to Steinbeck's other ocean-related works: Cup of Gold, The Log of the Sea of Cortez, Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, The Pearl, and The Winter of Our Discontent. Steinbeck wrote social commentary, comedies and philosophical treatise about the sea and its neighbors, and with Lifeboat he adds an adventure story. In fact, if Steinbeck's novella were to appear in book form it might remind people of Steinbeck's ocean writing, which is generally either overlooked or considered mostly humorous by editors of ocean-writing anthologies.

A.C. Spectorsky in The Book of the Sea (1954), for example, points out that "Those familiar with his marine descriptions in such books as The Sea of Cortez may, in their delight with the ribald humor of Cannery Row, have slipped by its brief opening section on the character of a tidal pool, the finest piece of writing on a marine subject which Steinbeck has ever done." In American Sea Writing: A Literary Anthology (2000), editor Peter Neill also focuses on Steinbeck's "keen-eyed, funny, and casually philosophical narrative, from which the excerpt below is taken." And most collections of ocean writing do not even represent him. Nature Writing anthologizer John A. Murray does not include Steinbeck in either The Seacoast Reader or A Thousand Leagues of Blue: The Sierra Club Book of the Pacific: A Literary Voyage. Nor is Steinbeck anthologized in either The Oxford Book of the Sea, edited by Jonathan Raban or The Oxford Book of Sea Stories, edited by Tony Tanner. Ditto The Norton Book of The Sea, edited by John O. Coote. Sections of Lifeboat, though not Steinbeck's other ocean writing, could be but is not included in Rough Water: Stories of Survival from the Sea, edited by Clint Willis.

In any event, Lifeboat is certainly not "funny," "casual" or "ribald." Steinbeck in many ways took a different stand on the ocean. It should not be forgotten that he wrote at a time when science was becoming more prominent, and he was part of the forces that help shape the beginnings of modern environmentalism. Unlike Ernest Hemingway, who was a fisherman and hunter, Steinbeck the fisherman was also a budding marine conservationist. Joel W. Hedgepeth, in "John Steinbeck: Late Blooming Environmentalist" concludes that Steinbeck's most sophisticated thinking about the environment was in his later works, especially America and Americans. Warren French, in "How Green Was John Steinbeck?" wrote that "Steinbeck was wise to avoid commitments; his problems began when he made them. If in this context one asks, 'How "green" was John Steinbeck?' the answer is 'not very, and a good thing, too.'" But as French also points out, "Steinbeck's writings demonstrate that one's head is not always where one's heart is." His heart was with the sea. It was a lifelong interest. Steinbeck wrote in an article for Popular Science that "The Sea... offered us immense opportunities, not only to feed the hungry and to provide scarce minerals, but also to learn about our as-yet-unexplored planet and ourselves." Thus it is also worthwhile to ask: How "blue," in the sense of caring about the ocean, was John Steinbeck?

In nonfiction, Steinbeck complained directly about the harm that was occurring to the environment in such books as The Log of the Sea of Cortez, Travels with Charley and America and Americans. But the warning is also in his fiction; those who harm or exploit the sea pay the price in Steinbeck's work, a pattern which can be gleaned from the storylines and settings. For the buccaneer Henry Morgan in Cup of Gold, the ocean was a waste of time. As John Ditsky writes in "Cannery Row: Passageway in the Heart": "Steinbeck was showing the futility of Henry Morgan's piracies, a life-course that followed leaving behind a true ideal in a pursuit of an illusive and false one."

Doc, like the sea creatures he studies, is also under the microscope in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Much of the community in the latter is destitute because the ocean, after the demise of the fishery stocks, has failed to provide. Strangely, Doc, the worldly humanitarian and marine scientist, isn't trying to find a solution—he is too busy drinking, fornicating, and performing other civic duties. Mack and the Boys, the members of society that the Cannery Row community can no longer support, represent the community's anger towards him. Doc may be the non-teleological hero (as Susan Shillinglaw has observed), but he is hardly what French and others are looking for in Steinbeck's fiction—a "model and inspiration for an ecologically oriented political agenda"—and he pays the price in a number of ways.

The family in The Pearl lose their child because robbers try to steal the valuable "Pearl of the World" from them. "For centuries men had dived down and torn the oysters from the beds and ripped them open…But the pearls were accidents, and the finding of one was luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods or both." Maybe Kino should have settled for the lower price, which was more money than he had ever seen, as his brother and wife suggest, for something that was "ripped" and "torn" from the sea.

The residents of Bay Town, similar to the residents of Cannery Row, never really recover from the loss of the whaling industry in The Winter of Our Discontent. The Hawleys are left to flounder in the aftermath when whaling oil ceases to be a commodity: "There was a time when a few towns like New Baytown furnished the whale oil that lighted the Western World. Student lamps of Oxford and Cambridge drew fuel from this American outpost. And then petroleum, rock oil gushed out in Pennsylvania and cheap kerosene, called coal oil, took the place of whale oil and retired most of the sea hunters. Sickness or the despair fell on New Baytown-perhaps an attitude from which it did not recover." The ocean in Steinbeck's fiction, like the real ocean, can be hurt or superseded. It can stop providing, and whole communities which exploited it in the past can suffer as the result.

Steinbeck is probably not very known for his ocean writing because it appears in his less-famous and less-critically acclaimed books. The Log of the Sea of Cortez was sneered at on the East Coast. Cannery Row was written to entertain the troops and Sweet Thursday was a follow up in a similar vein. The latter two are considered by Millichap to be part of Steinbeck's literary decline, which produced works that were palatable for the uncritical masses, designed for adaptation to the big screen. These works fall low on the list of the Steinbeck books that should be read, behind the photographic and realistic early works of the 1930's (The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men), East of Eden, and in this light, the exception: The Pearl. For those who were not appreciative of Steinbeck, or for those who think we need only be responsible for only the most famous books of even the great writers, Steinbeck's ocean writing fell among, in a word, his "Steinblechhh." But in a different light, rather than being considered failures, one can view his later works as satisfying the desires of other markets, even if the critics didn't approve. Californians and marine scientists are fond of his ocean writing to this day.

But did Steinbeck ever satisfy those who wanted an exciting adventure or a riveting tale about survival at sea? In "Flight" he did. The Grapes of Wrath is sort of an adventure. Cup of Gold is fun if not exciting, and Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday are light entertainment about those funny people who live by the ocean. The Pearl and The Winter of Our Discontent, though they explore our relationship with the ocean and remind that it may cease to provide, are really moral tales. The Log of the Sea of Cortez offers humor, science, and food for thought for the philosophers. Thus Steinbeck's published ocean writing has given us wonder, humor, moral responsibility, exploration, enlightenment, and a warning. The novella Lifeboat rounds out Steinbeck's ocean works with an argument against the stupidity of war set amidst an exciting tale about the sea—which, as Steinbeck had to learn personally, doesn't always provide.


Beegel, Susan F., Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., eds. Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Benson, Jackson. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. New York: Viking, 1984.

Coote, John O. The Norton Book of the Sea. New York: Norton, 1989.

Day, A. Grove, and Carl Stroven. Best South Sea Stories. Honolulu: Mutual Publishing of Honolulu, 1964.

Ditsky, John. "Cannery Row: Passageway in the Heart." The Steinbeck Newsletter, Spring 1999, p. 5-8.

French, Warren. "How Green Was John Steinbeck?" In Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., [Missing page numbers]. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Hedgpeth, Joel W. "John Steinbeck: Late-Blooming Environmentalist." In Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., [Missing page numbers]. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

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Murray, John A., ed. A Thousand Leagues of Blues: The Sierra Club Book Of The Pacific: A Literary Voyage. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1993.

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Shillinglaw, Susan. Introduction to Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Spectorsky, A.C. The Book of the Sea. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1954.

Spoto, Donald. The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Ballantine, 1983.

Steinbeck, John. A Life in Letters, eds. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten. New York: Viking, 1975.

---. Once There Was a War. New York: Viking, 1958.

---. Cup of Gold. New York: Penguin, 1929.

---. Of Mice and Men / Cannery Row. New York: Penguin, 1978.

---. The Log from the Sea of Cortez. New York: Penguin, 1977.

---. The Pearl. New York: Viking, 1947.

---. Sweet Thursday. New York: Viking, 1954.

---. The Winter of Our Discontent. New York: Viking, 1961.

Tanner, Tony, ed. The Oxford Book of Sea Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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