Saturday, August 21, 2021

Quote of the Day (John Steinbeck, on America’s Westward Movement)

“Jody hardly knew when Grandfather started to talk…. ‘I tell those old stories, but they're not what I want to tell.…It wasn't Indians that were important, nor adventures, nor even getting out here. It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast. And I was the head. It was westering and westering. Every man wanted something for himself, but the big beast that was all of them wanted only westering….

" ‘We carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs. And I was the leader. The westering was as big as God, and the slow steps that made the movement piled up and piled up until the continent was crossed.

" ‘Then we came down to the sea, and it was done.’ He stopped and wiped his eyes until the rims were red. ‘That's what I should be telling instead of stories.’"—American Nobel Literature laureate John Steinbeck (1902-1968), “The Leader of the People,” in The Red Pony (1937)

The Red Pony was my first John Steinbeck book, and though I have read several more since then, this quarter of interconnected stories has resonated the most with me, along with Of Mice and Men.

“The Leader of the People” especially interested me with its themes of generational conflict (garrulous Grandfather annoys taciturn son-in-law Carl with his oft-told tales of pioneering and Indian fighting), the fascination of boys with adventure stories, and, as seen here, the meaning of the Western movement for the American spirit.

The devastation of the land, the displacement of Native Americans, and the violence and sense of loss involved in this migration are as necessary and important to recall as revisionist historians have told us over the last few decades.

But future historians would also have to incorporate what the California native Steinbeck sensed, over four decades after the U.S. Census Bureau officially declared the closing of the American frontier: that “westering” was possible not just because of a spirit of individualism, but also because of the aspirations and cooperation for the public good on those wagon trains crossing unfamiliar, untamed land.

For anyone wondering, the image accompanying this post shows Jack Elam as Grandfather in the TV movie version of The Red Pony, with Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara and Clint Howard as, respectively, the father, mother and young boy. It was broadcast in 1973, around the same time that I read the book, and though not as well-made as the 1949 big screen adaptation starring Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy, I can still recall it vividly, nearly a half-century after the only time I viewed it.)

(This post is dedicated to the memory of my good friend Ann, who died three months ago. I am sure not only that she loved reading The Red Pony, but also that she would have enjoyed teaching it to her high school students.)

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