A fallen human world amidst natural beauty

John Steinbeck (1902-68) was a major American writer back in the days when writers mattered in America. His writings, especially The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men, are still being censored and are anathema to California agribusiness. Although he grew up in a small city, he revered family farms and wrote compellingly about some ambitious California farmers, especially in his ambitious late novel East of Eden and in the interconnected stories of The Pastures of Heaven.

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First published in 1932, The Pastures of Heaven is the work in which Steinbeck found his voice — or, more correctly, voices, since there was the wry, mock-heroic Mark Twain-like Steinbeck as well as the naturalistic chronicler of doom and degradation in the Zola tradition. Doomed semi-retarded characters pop up very often. The most famous is Lenny in Of Mice and Men, but in The Pastures of Heaven there is the artistic (idiot savant) Tularecito, Hilda Van Deventer, Alice Wicks, and Manfred Munroe, plus an epileptic, and many delusional characters, although the line between ill-founded dreams and psychopathological belief is fuzzy in Steinbeck’s stories (and in real life, I think). Pat Humbert is animated into redecorating the house he has inherited by a plan to propose marriage once he has the house perfected. The possibility may have been remote and any opportunity was lost by the delay of his project, but I’d classify this as illusion rather than delusion.

The Whiteside desire to establish a dynasty based on a dynastic castle of a house is not insane, but strains against the low fertility of an exhausted bloodline (degeneracy is the prime naturalist trope) and the more than remote possibility that the next generation will have different dreams. Molly sacrifices the life and happiness she has been building up for a fear that is not paranoid, but still seems exaggerated. I guess that the Lopez sisters are delusional in not seeing what they do as prostitution, but the ignorance of what other people (local polite society) thinks is a boon to Juntius and Robbie Maltby — as long as they are able to maintain their self-image as philosophers living happily off the land. The imaginary world (and riches) of “Shark” Wicks blocks doing what he would have needed to do to attain the image of himself he entertained and promulgated to the neighbors.

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Although most of those living in the pastures of heaven are (circa the early 20th century) only second-generation residents, and more than a few move away over the course of the book, it is a new family, the Munroes, who settle in what is believed to be a haunted house and cursed farm in the center of the valley, who — mostly inadvertently — disturb the tenuous psychological balance of other characters. These outsiders are catalysts (another good naturalist notion) for other residents to attain their disasters and to recognize the unreality or failure of their dreams. Friendly, eager to help, and totally conventional, the Munroes set off disillusionment and tragedy (Tularecito being locked up in an asylum, Hilda Van Deventer’s death, the burning of the Whiteside home that was built to stand 500 years, the Maltbys leaving their pastoral idyll to make money in San Francisco, John Whiteside to go into business in Monterey, etc.)

Steinbeck (especially in Tortilla Flat and Sweet Thursday) sometimes seems to me to have condescended to his “simple people” characters. His bemused tale of the Lopez sisters comes close to this, but is not discernible in the story of Tularecito and the gnomes. There is also often a misogynist panic in Steinbeck (especially in the stories in The Long Valley) when writing about women as anything other than madonnas or prostitutes. This makes the story of the teacher Molly Morgan exceptional in the Steinbeck oeuvre: a sympathetic, rounded female character who is neither a mother nor a prostitute. It is also the most technically complex of the stories in The Pastures of Heaven.

Other than the faux-jaunty prologue about a Spanish corporal discovering the valley chasing escaped Indians from the concentration camp that was the Carmel Mission, there are no weak stories in this collection.

 

The second half ot the introduction to the Penguin addition by James Nagel (who also supplied notes I consider superfluous) should have been an afterword, but I think that he is right that in this story cycle, inspired in part by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and by Stephen Crane’s Whilomville Stories, Steinbeck “discovered the central subject of his greatest work, the simple people of the Salinas Valley, struggling against the odds, against economic deprivation and the legacy of a past that threatens to overwhelm them [as in Faulkner’s fiction]…. Many of the themes of Pastures—the destructive potential of conformity, the dangers of self-delusion and false social values—he continued to explore throughout his career.” Steinbeck’s style, subject, and fundamental themes first became visible in The Pastures of Heaven.

Although his books were once burned in Salinas, and the self-annointed newspaper of record in America published in what was then his home chose to publish a dismissal of his work on the day he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Steinbeck’s work has endured with little encouragement from academia. All of his books of fiction are in print and his sometimes sentimental, sometimes brutal lyricism continues to draw “voluntary readers” (that is, those not assigned to read “classics” for courses). For anyone unfamiliar with Steinbeck’s themes and style, or anyone who finds his big books (The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden) strained, The Pastures of Heaven is an excellent point of entry, better even than the short stories collected in The Long Valley (though the latter volume contains my favorite, “Leader of the People”).

This was part of an epinions writeoff for the Steinbeck centenary.

©2002, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

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