“The Leader of the People” is best known as a chapter in John Steinbeck’s novella The Red Pony (1937), in which Jody Tiflin comes of age on his parents’ ranch. Considered on its own, “The Leader of the People” is an initiation story. Early in the story, for example, Jody utters “those damn mice” in front of a hired man, then turns to see if the man has noticed his “mature profanity.” From his grandfather, Jody learns that human beings are fallible and have limits. In the course of this story, he develops a more mature sensitivity, expressing it in the simple act of offering his grandfather lemonade. He has learned to feel and to reach out beyond himself to try to deal with the feelings and needs of others. For the first time, his request for lemonade is not just an excuse to get some for himself.
A second major theme developed in the story concerns the concept of the spirit of “westering.” Through the grandfather, Steinbeck explores the place and meaning that the nation’s pioneer heritage—the western movement—has for later generations. The old man’s repetitious accounts of leading the “crossing” merely irritate Carl, but Jody—who is of yet another generation—can sense what his grandfather is really talking about. Jody understands that the important thing is not that his grandfather led a group across the plains—someone else could have done that—but the whole concept of “westering,” participating in a mass movement eager for new experiences that forever changed the course of national history. The western frontier was not merely a geographic line but a mental outlook. The closing of the frontier signaled an end to a spirit of possibility and a view of humankind as a vital moving force. As a “leader of the people,” Grandfather concludes that the spirit of “westering” has died and that, for those without that spirit, all is indeed “finished.” It may be that Jody’s generation will recapture something of that vision that his father’s generation has lost.