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Author Topic: [Not on the list] Pastures of Heaven--John Steinbeck  (Read 646 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: August 07, 2016, 05:42:26 PM »

What's a Little Curse Among Friends?

August 7, 2016

A while back I read a short work by Steinbeck from the Decade list, Of Mice and Men, and somehow got seduced by the idea of reading all of Steinbeck. This I did but not by speed-reading. I have a multi-volume collection of his works from the Library of America, and I set about reading everything in that collection in chronological order. Having completed that task about a year ago, and feeling the urge to reflect again on literature, I take up the task of speed-reading all these books and writing about them as a good way to slip back into the Project.

Pastures of Heaven was not the first book Steinbeck wrote, but it is the first in my collection. His first book was Cup of Gold (written at age 27), which I now have on order and plan to read soon. But Pastures is a great place to begin. For this work, Steinbeck wrote nine intriguing stories about the citizens of the small fictional California town, Las Pasturas del Cielo. (Secondary sources claim this town is a fictionalized version of the unincorporated township of Corral de Tierra, between Salinas and Monterey.) A short history of the town's origin, an introduction to the Munroe family, the nine stories, and an ironic epilogue make up the book's twelve chapters. Each story could well stand on its own, some sad, some funny, some grotesque, and often told in distinct styles and moods. In Steinbeck's later works he would experiment, too, but even at this early stage he was trying out different narrative approaches within the same work.

The stories each deal with a failure or a loss afflicting one of the townspeople. Commonly, what starts out as a good prospect or a hope-filled venture collapses into disappointment. Steinbeck cleverly introduces this theme in Chapter II, where we meet the Munroes. Bert Munroe came to Pastures of Heaven after having failed at so many businesses he felt he must be cursed. A small farm was his way of leaving that commercial world behind. However, as we learn, the farm he bought had its own curse. At the end of the second chapter, as Bert tells others about his decision to run away from his personal curse, Steinbeck concludes with this.

… Suddenly he laughed delightedly at the thought that had come to him. “And what do I do? First thing out of the box, I buy a place that's supposed to be under a curse. Well, I just happened to think, maybe my curse and the farm's curse got to fighting and killed each other off. I'm dead certain they've gone anyway.”
    The men laughed with him. T. B. Allen whacked his hand down on the counter. “That's a good one” he cried. “But here's a better one. Maybe your curse and the farm's curse has mated and gone into a gopher hole like a pair of rattlesnakes. Maybe there'll be a lot of baby curses crawling around the Pastures the first thing we know.”
    The gathered men roared with laughter at that, and T. B. Allen memorized the whole scene so he could repeat it. It was almost like the talk in a play, he thought.

And so the stories play themselves out. One man's reputation as a sharp investor evaporates; another's scheme to attract a lady by remodeling his house comes to naught; a poverty-stricken family who escape into literature and imagination become ashamed of their poverty; and so forth. Every townsperson who values something or thinks something good is either ruined or disillusioned. Never after the second chapter do we hear again about any curse, but the theme, once stated, nicely ties all the lives together. But, we soon realize, none of these stories amount to a true tragedy. As sometimes happens in Steinbeck's later works, a painful loss of one imagined good opens up the possibility of other goods. Illusions collapse as well as dreams. The phony investor could now turn his talents to shaping a real portfolio; the remodeler has a much nicer house; and the shamed lotus eaters have entered a social phase of their lives. Few of the stories end in pitch black.

In Steinbeck's later comic novels bad guys are noticeably missing, while in his serious or tragic works evil always has a face. In Pastures of Heaven, though, all the townsfolk mean well; there are no bad guys. No malevolent schemer destroys anyone's life. As in comic tales, vain ambitions collapse merely of their own instability. But the book is not comic—at least not like Steinbeck's more famous comic novels will be. We are left wondering whether each failure has been a good thing or a bad thing. Thus, while in some ways resembling his later comedies, Pastures of Heaven is more like a microscopic La Comédie Humaine, an indulgent stroll through human frailty with no belly laughs (excepting the fates of Rosa and Maria Lopez, as told in Chapter VII).

So already we find a theme that will permeate all of Steinbeck's writing: The instability of mortal enterprise. Plans, ambitions, noble or praiseworthy goals, at least in the hands of good or sympathetic people, must fall apart. Life is ever in flux, with its natural ups and downs, but when people we care about launch themselves on ambitious paths, they may rise for a while, just enough to fool them, but the wheel always turns.

Two other Steinbeckian characteristics appear in these stories: a tender sympathy for humanity and the ever-present awareness of nature. I've always loved Steinbeck's descriptive ability, as it appears both in his humanism and in his naturalism. He started out with this ability and it only matured with age. Here's a simple line that illustrates what I mean. “Katherine was not pretty, but she had the firm freshness of a new weed...” How can one not care what happens to such a person? And how can one ever look at weeds the same way again?

I enjoyed Pastures of Heaven the first time I read it and I enjoyed it even more the second time. Sly connections among the characters and themes only emerged upon rereading, and these were among the little gems that made the book such a delight. While no masterwork, it nonetheless boded well for the future author of Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath.

« Last Edit: August 07, 2016, 05:55:33 PM by Robert Skipper » Logged
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