Tag Archives: California

The Wayward Bus Limps into San Francisco (?!)

33 Days after the John Steinbeck centenary and the epinions writeoff I organized to commemorate, Alex Fraser (as macresarf1) delivered the following.

Pros: Readable tale about Post-War Americans the next generation rebelled against: America as it was.

Cons: Slack writing and a weak plot.

The Bottom Line: THE WAYWARD BUS marks the beginning of Steinbeck’s decline in the eyes of critics, perhaps rightly so, though EAST OF EDEN lay before him. Interesting even when second rate.

Recommended: No

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When last I left you, we were at the corner of Mission and Valencia, staring at a white haired man through the front window of the Abandoned Planet Book Store. I had not planned to come there, but it occurred to me that the old man might have a copy of THE WAYWARD BUS by John Steinbeck. I had promised colleague Stephen Murray a review of the 1947 novel as part of a write-off he organized. The book was not in my collection, and as became discouragingly clear after several weeks, it was out of print and hard to find. Fortunately, this man had a copy. In fact, it was the only Steinbeck left on his shelf devoted to the California writer.

“Had a lot of his books,” he said. “All bought up around the time of his [100tth] birthday, about a month ago. No one seems to care much for this one.”

“I know,” I said, feeling a mixture of guilt and relief.

Thus, did I buy a stained copy of Steinbeck’s first Post War novel, one of his least successful, for $4.62. Coming away with it and a couple of copies of “Peace News” the man pressed upon me, I did not realize that dental problems and mechanical difficulties would further postpone this review.

Although I enjoyed THE WAYWARD BUS in the early 1950’s, I saw right away why the critics condemned it at the time. Steinbeck’s best work was always site specific, and detailed in fresh, supple language. However, his writings like THE PASTURES OF HEAVEN, IN DUBIOUS BATTLE, TORTILLA FLAT, OF MICE AND MEN, THE LONG VALLEY, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and CANNERY ROW had made him enemies among certain individuals who thought he was writing about them, their homes and their lives. And so, after several years writing journalism and screenplays during the War, working on a big novel, EAST OF EDEN, he turned out THE WAYWARD BUS as a rather vague potboiling yarn about characters not native to Steinbeck Country.

First, I noticed that the novel is set somewhere on the edge of California’s great Central Valley, presumably near [north-south] Highway 99, or perhaps [east-west] Highway 152. It begins in a place Steinbeck has made up called Rebel Corners and goes on to refer to places like San Ysidro, perhaps San Francisco, and then San Juan de la Cruz, possibly Fresno. Never having been to California when I read THE WAYWARD BUS the first time, none of the geography bothered me much, but having lived out here many years now, on this re-reading, I was bothered where the action was taking me all the way through.

A group of travelers are stranded at Rebel Corners. They have presumably meandered down Highway One from San Francisco and hope Juan Chicoy’s independent bus line will take them east to Highway 101, hence south to San Juan de la Cruz, and to Los Angeles beyond, but that is never really clear. The bus, referred to as Rocinante, El Gran Poder de Jesus or Sweetheart, has broken down, a victim of “rear-end problems.”

Juan Chicoy, born of an Irish mother, “a magnificent mechanic,” is from the mountains of Mexico. His assistant, Pimples Carson, is one of those young men, in a tattered motorcycle sweater, “drawn southward toward Los Angeles and, of course, Hollywood, where eventually all the adolescents in the World will be congregated.” [Little did Steinbeck or fellow Americans know that Hollywood instead would make the rest of us adolescents, eternally so.] Alyce, Juan’s wife, who runs the lunch room, has a drinking problem, is depressed, and feels that she is aging and unattractive. She is helped behind the counter by Norma, a young woman who dreams only of going to Hollywood to meet Clark Gable (just returned from war service with the Eighth Air Force over Europe).

This is the America of just after World War II. Business is recovering from a recession. Young men are flooding back from the Armed Forces. Many women are beginning to strain over Pre-War strictures which are being re-imposed upon them. Teenagers like Pimples Carson want to be called Kit.

And a Babe Ruth candy bar is still a nickel.

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Central among the travelers are the Pritchards, representing the heartland of America. Elliott Pritchard is a Chicago businessman, solidly Republican, who ironically looks like President Harry Truman. His wife Bernice, a dainty, constipated matron, has read somewhere that “travel is broadening.” The couple hate foreigners, but because their daughter Mildred has studied Spanish in college, Bernice has manipulated a wandering vacation to Mexico. Though Steinbeck does not mention it, the idea of utilizing Daughter Mildred as their interpreter anticipates “Togetherness,” which would become a dominant family theme of the era. The elder Pritchards do not know that, before the War, Mildred picketed ships taking scrap iron to Japan, and collected money to buy medical supplies for the Spanish Loyalists.

An ambiguous figure is Ernest Horton, a novelty salesman for the Little Wonder Company, who has two gold teeth, likes practical jokes, and who has been unluckily married — an experience he does not want to repeat. But later, Ernest is revealed as a Congressional Medal winner . . . seems to change character, and attracts Elliott Pritchard as the kind of young man who would be perfect for his company.

A fifth traveler, old Mr. Van Brunt, lives to the southeast, and he immediately establishes himself as hangdog. He does not trust Juan, he does not trust the bus, and he does not trust the weather.

It is spring in California, and it has been raining for a day and a night. Worries about two bridges between them and the Highway drive the action. Those worries are compounded by the entrance of Camille, who is brought by way of Greyhound and a superfluous subplot from San Ysidro to Rebel Corners. She is the sort of girl who immediately attracts the men under eighty, and polarizes most of the women.

By the time the bus at last pulls out of the Corners with nearly all the characters on board, over a third of this 312 page novel has been consumed.

The novelistic device of the doppelganger is much in evidence. There are two bus drivers, two jealous wives, two ardent swains, etc. The theme which emerges, dear to Steinbeck’s biologist heart, central to much of his work, is the question of how creatures can pull together, cooperate in maintaining their survival. We have seen it in The Grapes of Wrath, his propaganda novel The Moon is Down, and most starkly in his screen scenario for Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT (1944).

THE WAYWARD BUS is well named because it grinds through rain and mud and lupines in the general direction of Hollywood, without saying very much about its symbolic destination. Its social consciousness is preserved by a rather daring for its time) bi-racial sexual encounter (between Juan and Mildred).

Not surprisingly, ten years later, the novel was made into what Leonard Maltin describes as a “low-brow” Cinemascope movie, directed by an obscure Franco-Russian director, Victor Vicas, with Joan Collins, Jayne Mansfield, Dan Dailey and Rick Jason. The movie was no more successful than the novel.

I am glad I re-read THE WAYWARD BUS. The experience showed me that my critical faculties have developed considerably in forty years, but I would not recommend the novel to anyone else.

However, I found that The Abandoned Planet Book Shop at 518 Valencia was, in its laid back way, quite a lively place.

All was not lost.

©2002, Alex Fraser

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John Steinbeck’s Second Novel

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.

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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.”

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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.

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

James Franco’s “In Dubious Battle,” and John Steinbeck’s

James Franco clearly has a high regard for 20th-century American literature, having directed himself in a biopic about Hart Crane and Josh Peck in one about Charles Bukowski, and adapted not only As I Lay Dying but The Sound and the Fury to the screen. Until I saw his adaptation of In Dubious Battle, I thought that, like John Huston, his literary taste exceeded his directorial grasp.

It had been been half a century since I read the 1936 strike novel In Dubious Battle, and I doubt I understood the politics when I read it for an 11th grade term paper on Steinbeck’s writing, though I retained a vague respect for the least well-known of “the Dust Bowl trilogy” novels (the better known ones are The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men).

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The movie looked really good (credit Bruce Thierry Cheung, who also shot “Bukowski” and “The Sound and the Fury” for Franco and directs him in the forthcoming “Kill the Czar”), sometimes beautiful, sometimes gritty. Franco had a very strong cast including himself as Mac, the unionizing agitator, Nat Wolff (who was in Franco’s “Palo Alto”) as his protégé who goes beyond Mac in ruthlessness, Vincent D’Onofrio as the bearish leader of the local workers, Robert Duvall (who played Franco’s gay character’s father in “Wild Horses”) as the owner whose apple orchard is being struck, Sam Shephard as a hard-bitten small grower who agrees to let the strikers stay on his land, Ed Harris as a punchdrunk labor activist, Bryan Cranston as the sheriff (in one scene), and Selena Gomez as the new mother and love interest whose baby Mac and Jim deliver upon arrival at the fruitpickers’ camp.

Book and movie can be labeled “agit-prop,” but the villains (Duvall and the thugs he employs) are not fantasy bad guys but representations of the rapacious industrial agricultural elite licensing goons to campaigns and acts of terrorism against workers seeking to make a living (and not just during the Great Depression: see the would-be strikebreakers in 1972 in “Harlan County, USA”).

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Steinbeck’s 1936 novel In Dubious Battle (which I reread after seeing the movie) is the story of an experienced labor organizer, Mac, and Jim, a trainee who proves himself more cold-blooded in sacrificing individuals to future victory than Mac. They latch on to a strike against apple growers who cut the pay they advertised in half after fruitpickers made their way to the orchards.

I thought the location might be in Oregon, in that the California Central Valley is too hot for apples, but apparently the main model was a 1933 peach-pickers’ strike in Tulare County (south of Fresno) and a cotton-pickers’ strike. Steinbeck himself went on record that “as for the valley in In Dubious Battle—it is a composite valley as it is a composite strike.” (The movie looks pastoral, but not Californian; it was filmed in Bostick, Georgia and Yakima, Washington, the latter being real apple country.)

He also did not specify “the party,” though his initial intent was to write about a communist organizer. There is reference to early IWW (Wobbly) actions in ways that seem to me to make it another, more specifically laborer organization.

Franco’s movie stuck quite close to Steinbeck’s story though the first three quarters (though adding a female sympathizer), and deviates most in the ending (particularly in whom is killed). The movie dramatizes incidents that are told about rather than directly narrated by Steinbeck, and the philosophical discussions between Mac, Jim, and Doc Burton mostly were left in the source material. It’s not clear to me how much Steinbeck accepted treating particular working people as means rather than ends in the larger struggle against capitalist agriculture. Over the course of the novel and of the strike, Jim is hardened, Mac somewhat softens, and Doc expresses skepticism about what would happen if the party triumphed (the Soviet show trials were only beginning in 1936, when the book was published; presumably it was written before them).

The title from Milton indicates that the struggle is doomed to failure, but what seems dubious to me is that success in overthrowing one set of oppressors creates new ones, as in the Soviet Union. But the clear and present danger in the book is the encouraging by the overlords, the three families that run the valley, of vigilante violence against those seeking a living wage to provide for the families. Mac has plenty to say about the bullies and chicken hawks, notably American Legion members who were in the armed services but not in WWI combat.

(on earlier adaptations to the screen of Steinbeck fiction see here)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Edward Weston’s color photographs

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For me Edward Weston (1886-1958) was the photographer most responsible for photography coming to be considered a fine art (rather than a craft). He was one of the founders of the f64 group, championing ultra-sharp images rather than the soft-focus impressionism of some earlier art photographers (f64 was the smallest aperture on the bulky cameras he and Ansel Adams and others used, circa 1932).

Weston’s most famous images are quasi-abstract peppers and artichokes, female nudes (often body parts rather than the whole body); shells, pebbles, and rocks on the northern California coast (Point Lobos, in particular). That he wrote interestingly (I read his Daybooks at an impressionable age) and spent several years (1923-26) among the post-revolutionary Mexican avant-garde increased his appeal for me. He was a theorist about composition and photographic art (who definitely practiced what he preached).

The bulk of Weston’s work—and all of that included in his selection of his legacy, 800 images known as “the project”—were in black-and-white. I knew that he took some color photographs during the late-1940s, having seen some in an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art of his Carmel-area photographs. The Center for Creative Photography (at an alma mater of mine, the University of Arizona) houses a Weston archive and put on a show of his photographs in color in 1996.

Color Photography is the catalog from that show, also including an essay “Color as Form” that Weston wrote, comments by Nancy Newhall from 1953 on Weston’s color photography, and a substantial introduction by Terence Pitts that includes reproductions of the ads Kodak ran using Weston color photos to publicize Kodachrome (aka, ektachrome) in 1947-48.

Dr. George L. Waters, Jr., of the Kodak advertising department invited Weston, Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, and Ansel Adams to try the new color film stock and offered the then lordly sum of $250 per image (from transparencies) for resulting photos, Weston, who was very depressed about divorce and the onset of Parkinson’s disease, surprised himself by taking to what he considered the new medium and to thinking in color.

In 1947 fellow f64-founder Willard van Dyke made a documentary about Weston, and Weston decided to return to photograph places in the Big Sur area, Death Valley, and Lake Tenaya that he had made black-and-white photographs before—so as not to repeat himself.

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The results, particularly the pastel buildings of Cannery Row in Monterey (doubled by reflection) met with some skepticism from purists. It and a chambered nautilus on pebbles (the cover photo) are the only ones that seem to me to have vivid color. By artificial light, I didn’t immediately see the color(s) in some of the others (the book includes face-to-face color/black-and-white images)—particularly a cypress root close-up. Some of those with skies look too cobalt-blue to me and others emphasize black shadows on light rock (I can see some brown in the shot of Death Valley #14, but it still seems a black-and-white photo too.) Color is not desaturated in some other Death Valley photos, and the severity and control of compositions of those that use more of the color palette are consonant with the severity and control of Weston’s black-and-white photos. (This extends to the photographs with people, including his son Cole against an automobile body.)

By 1948, Weston’s Parkinson’s disease had advanced so much that he did not take any more photographs—color or black-and-white. Had he been able to, it seems likely he would have experimented more, though no one can know in what directions he might have taken color photography.

One of my favorites (#35) is a photo across some hills above the Big Sur coast with the Pacific Ocean reflecting light in the top half of the image. The image was used in a Kodak ad—reversed and printed in warmer (yellower) color with increased brightness. I didn’t realize they were the same image at first, though am not surprised that his print was more austere.

Although Weston’s brief exploration of color film has not been as influential as his earlier black-and-white work, he made some striking images. The book puts them in biographical and commercial context, including his own articulate reflections on the difference between black-and-white and color art photography. I like the subject matter as well as the technique and am pleased to have the book (the dimensions of which are 10.2″ x 9.5″).

 

©2007, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

Ric Burns’s Ansel Adams documentary

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I’ve seen film documentaries of a number of photographers from the heroic age (between the world wars), including Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-BressonDorothea Lange, and Rondal Partridge. The 2002 “American Masters” one about Ansel Adams (1902-84), directed by Ric Burns, is the most revealing one, detailing an unusual childhood on the northwestern edge of the San Francisco peninsula, being injured in the 1906 earthquake, being what was not yet labeled “hyperactive,” spending a year at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, and throwing himself into playing the piano before taking up photography. His courtship was prolonged and the documentary delves into a major marital crisis involving a darkroom assistant. And lots of self-doubts, ending in years in which he stopped taking photographs, but was a Sierra Club activist, especially involved in getting King’s Canyon set aside as a National Park.

There is footage of him playing the piano. I recall only one video interview of him, though there are ones of his son and daughter (and Carl Pope, longtime head of the Sierra Club).

There are also a lot of striking Adams photographs. My unease is that a whole photograph is rarely on display. The Burns brothers (Ken and Ric) style of panning in and out and back and forth means that the composition Adams made (often as much in the darkroom as choosing a shot) are pretty much not available in the documentary. (I have seen prints on museum and other walls, and reproductions in books, but…).

The narration is pessimistic about the preservation of wilderness. Some of the access to the Yosemite Valley has been rolled back and I think there are still remote, quite wild areas in Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks (if not in Sequoia).

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The standard Burns mix of interviews and actors reading letters (plus some home movies) also typifies this documentary. With even less criticism by anyone of the person considered (there is mention of criticisms of Adams and Weston during the Depression for not making socially “relevant” photos, and, oddly, no mention of the photographs Adams took of the Japanese-American concentration camp a Manzanar, east of Mount Whitney, that Adams took).

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(1947 photograph of Adams, probably taken by J. Malcolm Greany that first appeared in the 1950 Yosemite Field School yearbook and is in the public domain)

Also, other than chronicling encouragement from Alfred Stieglitz, there is little about other photographers (mention of advice from Strand and the apolitical rap made of Weston and Adams), though Adams was involved (founded) a group, f64 (named for sharp focus).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony”

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John Steinbeck‘s “The Red Pony” is far from being a heartwarming book for children. It is, rather, a chilling book partly about an only child on a meso-California farm early in the 20th century and almost as much about old people whom middle-aged people are impatient to be rid of.

It is an indicator of American values that the death of a pet rather than the despair of human elders is what is remembered of this pseudo-novel. It is actually four stories that Steinbeck did not bother to edit for continuity (reintroducing the characters in each). The first three stories originally appeared together in what must have been a very short book, a 1937 limited edition. The sequence of four stories end the one collection of short stories Steinbeck published, The Long Valley(1938). The first one, “The Gift” was filmed as “The Red Pony” in 1948 (with a young Beau Bridges).

The boy Jody Tiflin gets ponies in the first and third stories (The Gift, The Promise). The red pony of the title does not survive the first story. And Jody takes out some of his anguish at the loss on a “buzzard” (a turkey vulture). The hatred of carrion-eaters is foreshadowed, but the scene is very powerful. Jody’s stern father, Carl, chides Jody: “The buzzard didn’t kill the pony. Don’t you know that?” The wise ranch-hand and horse expert, Billy Buck, sticks up for him. “Can’t you see how he’d feel about it?” is the last line of the story. The answer to the question is no. The father gives no indication in any of the stories of having any inkling of what his son is feeling. The father recurrently belittles the boy and is none too considerate of the feelings of others, either.

The relatively inconsequential third story, “The Promise” concerns waiting for a replacement colt to be born. It also ends in pools of blood, the old (mare) being sacrificed for the young (colt).

“The Great Mountains,” the second story centers on an old Mexican who was born on what is now the Tiflin farm who comes back to die where he began. This is not an idea that meets with Carl Tiflin’s approval. Jody has been very curious about the back-country and wants to know from Gitano what it is like. Gitano decides to go up into the mountains to die and rides off on the old horse (Easter) Carl has been using as an example of the useless old who should be shot.

The final story, “The Leader of the People,” provides a variation on the theme of the second story. Again, Jody is interested in hearing about the wild(er) past and listens to an old man to whom no one else pays any attention. This time it is not a stranger with heretofore unknown connections to the Tiflin ranch, but Jody’s maternal grandfather.

Carl is unhappy to learn that his father-in-law is coming for a stay. Carl knows that the old man will tell the same stories in exactly the same words for the umpteenth time. Jody can see that his mother is not listening to her father’s stories of leading a wagon train, fighting Indians, and whatnot. Jody is balanced between his childish interest in the adventure stories and compassion for the old man. Jody knows what it is like to be crushed by harsh words from Carl.

Carl is brusque, trying to block the old stories after dinner, but failing. In the morning, before Grandfather has emerged, Carl is complaining to his wife, “Why can’t he forget it, not it’s done. Why does he have to tell them over and over? He came across the plains. All right! Now it’s finished. Nobody wants to hear about it over and over.” He has the grace to be ashamed of the pain he has inflicted.

Grandfather tries to explain to Jody, “I tell those old stories, but they’re not what I want to tell. I only know how I want people to feel when I tell them.” Whether or not Jody understands that, he has advanced from self-absorption to recognizing and want to provide balm for wounds inflicted by his father on others. This is more of a happy ending than the other stories, either the others in The Red Pony, or those in The Long Valley.

Jody grows up a bit between the first story and the last, at least in terms of thinking and caring about others. I don’t think the totality is a “coming of age.” Nor do I think that the four stories form a novel. More variations on two themes.

The Red Pony strikes me as being more suitable for young readers than Of Mice and Men is. I think that young readers can understand and identify with the longings of the very young and the very old as portrayed in The Red Pony and also the idealization of Billy Buck, the noble cowboy who understands Jody better than his father does. The deaths of horses and of one unlucky vulture are gruesome.

For adults there is the conflict of the generations and, especially in “The Leader of the People” a representation of conjugal tension. There is less of a sense than in many other Steinbeck writings that the males would be happier if there was no woman around. The character of the mother is little developed—less so than the elders who appear in only one story each. Other than defending her father’s prattling she does very little other than nag Jody about stocking the kitchen woodpile. She does not appear to have any trouble managing three or four males of three generations.

In Steinbeck, there are loving mothers and there are dangerously sexual women. The only sex in Red Pony is equine—and violent. Elsewhere in The Long Valley are slightly veiled panics about female sexual desire (“The Snake,” “The Chrysanthemums”) and portrayal of women all but killing men’s spirits (“The Harness”; also the novella Of Mice and Men).

©2001, 2016

I spent the last week in “Steinbeck country” (Monterey County, California) and interrupted my voyage into the most harrowing Kobayashi films. I’ll get to the “Human Condition” trilogy soon. Steinbeck’s hometown, Salinas, is celebrating its annual Steinbeck festival and I visited the house in which he was born and the National Steinbeck Center on Thursday (see photo atop my reflections on films adapted from his fiction here).