John Steinbeck: To A God Unknown
Long ago I’d expressed an interest in reading the works of John Steinbeck in chronological order, starting with Cup Of Gold, his account of Sir Henry Morgan’s piratic life, and then immediately lost track of that aim. I’ve returned to it now, albeit with a slight ‘administrative’ error, in that I’ve come next to To A God Unknown (1933), rather than The Pastures Of Heaven, published the prior year.
Year of publication aside, To A God Unknown took Steinbeck the greatest number of years of any of his works to write, so if the year of publication doesn’t precede The Pastures Of Heaven, the idea certainly does. In fact, as Robert DeMott makes clear in his lengthy introduction, the novel has its origins in an unfinished play by one of his classmates, and over the years saw many drafts and titles as Steinbeck toiled to get it under wraps. It may not be the best of the books he wrote, but it was the one that, through the toil of writing it, made him as a writer.
The novel begins on the Wayne Farm in Vermont, where Joseph Wayne expresses to his father an interest in following the westering crowds and claiming himself some land. (“If I wait, the good land might all be taken.”) where it’s preferred that he stay home a while and find a wife.
“If you could wait a year,” the old man said at last, “a year or two is nothing when you’re thirty-five. If you could wait a year, not more than two surely, then I wouldn’t mind. You’re not the oldest, Joseph, but I’ve always thought of you as the one to have the blessing. Thomas and Burton are good men, good sons, but I’ve always intended the blessing for you, so you could take my place. I don’t know why. There’s something more strong in you than in your brothers, Joseph; more sure and inward.”
In a Joseph, with brothers, singled out by his father there’s an nod to the Joseph of Genesis (no coat of many colours, though), enhanced by the skill of interpreting symbols and later incidents pertaining to the land he settles. On reaching this new pasture, verdant and teeming with life, Steinbeck foreshadows Joseph’s path and gives a first real taste of his intuitive ability:
The past, his home and all the events of his childhood were being lost, and he knew he owed them the duty of memory. This land might possess all of him if he were not careful. To combat the land a little, he thought of his father, of the calm and peace, the strength and eternal rightness of his father, and then in his thought the difference ended and he knew there was no quarrel, for his father and this new land were one. Joseph was frightened then. “He’s dead,” he whispered to himself. “My father must be dead.”
With his father indeed dead, the remainder of his brothers uproot their families to join him and together they farm this new promised land, raising cattle, breeding pigs. Joseph takes a young wife, an educated schoolteacher, and it’s all happy families for a time. Tensions rise, however, as one of the brothers, Burton, confronts Joseph on his pagan beliefs, namely his attitude toward a large tree that looms over the farmhouse:
“My father is in that tree. My father is that tree! It is silly, but I want to believe it.”
Through Joseph Wayne, almost shamanlike in his understanding of the land, we follow an exploration of man’s relationship to nature, for better and for worse. In he good days the livestock breeds, the crops grow, and the rains come; in the bad days, the opposite, and the land dries. When, knowing the harshness of the land, sticks are upped and people move to pastures new, all that remains is Wayne, stubborn to the last, which leads to a wonderfully ambiguous conclusion that leaves open a number of possible readings.
At times the abundance of description can, though evocative, be laid on thick, and the dialogue comes across as wooden, but there are still moments when Wayne reflects on the world around him that raise the book above mere catalogue of events and add a further depth to what could otherwise be a flat character:
High up on tremendous peak, towering over the ranges and the valleys, the brain of the world was set, and the eyes that looked down on the earth’s body. The brain could not understand the life on its body. It lay inert, knowing vaguely that it could shake off the life, the towns, the little houses of the fields with earthquake fury. But the brain was drowsed and the mountains lay still, and the fields were peaceful on their rounded cliff that went down to the abyss. And thus it stood a million years, unchanging and quiet, and the world-brain in its peak lay close to sleep. The world-brain sorrowed a little, for it knew that some time it would have to move, and then the life would be shaken and destroyed and the long work of tillage would be gone, and the houses in the valley would crumble. The brain was sorry, but it could change nothing.
While To A God Unknown is a minor Steinbeck, it’s important in light of the works that would come later. In its California setting, the hardship of a devastated land, and Biblical allusions we are given a dress rehearsal of major Steinbeck novels. Apparently less than six hundred copies of the novel sold on its initial release. Dress rehearsals were never meant for the public anyway.
February 4, 2009