The first two novels by John Steinbeck (1902-1968) were historical novels: the pirates of Cup of Gold (1929) and the Vermont homesteaders farm family ranching/farming in central California in To a God Unknown (1933). Although I think that Steinbeck hit his stride a year earlier with the interlinked stories of The Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown prefigures the much later and very much longer East of Eden: both chronicle the fall of a stubborn patriarch in meso-California. To a God Unknown is more about brothers than about fathers and sons; not least in the name of the main character it also prefigures Thomas Mann’s sprawling Joseph and His Brothers.
Joseph Wayne has some of the trickster qualities of the Biblical Joseph, as well as a sense of himself as in special touch with the divine—though a completely pagan divine. Restless trying to make a go of farming in Vermont, Joseph receives his father’s blessings to go wes. Once he is somewhat established in the Jolon Valley (called Nestra Señora in the novel), he bids his brothers to follow him to adjoining plots in a promised land. After his father dies, Joseph is convinced that his father’s spirit takes up residence in a huge oak tree.
Worshipping a tree and mating with the earth (suspiciously similar to a scene in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, Joseph’s animism appalls his fiercely puritanical brother Burton, and the clash between extreme paganism and extreme New England Protestantism is the central conflict of the novel. Burton is laregely on his own since one other brother, Thomas, has a fairly pagan relationship with nature, particularly with animals, and the other, Benjy, is a womanizing drunkard. Burton does not doubt that he is an agent of The Lord despite the lack of allies, and Joseph is equally sure that he recognizes the magic of springs and trees, stones and earth. Joseph, again in a very Lawrence mode, feels united to “the heritage of a race which for a million years had sucked at the breasts of the soil and cohabited with the earth” (not the California earth, which has not been inhabited by humans nearly so long…) and that he has a covenant with the sacred earth. Burton breaks the covenant and Joseph tries to re-establish one and takes on some Christ-like suffering for the sins of the world, eventually seeking to sacrifice his life for “his people.”
The many subplots and lyricism about the land and its sort-of resident druid (Joseph) get very overwrought and To a God Unknown is perhaps the most misogynist of a very misogynist writer’s works. It often reads like particularly bad D. H. Lawrence heaving and groaning with The Mysteries. There’s nature mysticism in The Pastures of Heaven, too, and doom lies heavy across much of Steinbeck’s work, but The Pastures of Heaven has the saving grace of irony that is missing from To a God Unknown. I think that The Long Valley, The Red Pony, and Of Mice and Men are Steinbeck’s most fully realized writings and the place for the uninitiated to start. To a God Unknown is of interest for showing Steinbeck grappling with some Big Themes and in showing that hs work after it exhibits a quantum leap from his first novel in skill in drawing believable characters and having them meet various dooms in plausible ways.
©2001, 2017, Stephen O. Murray
This was another posting in the Steinbeck centenary writeoff on epinions.