Crossing the Plains to California
Many of the trails that lead across the Plains to the West Coast began along the Missouri River in such places as Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri. From here, pioneers heading either to Oregon or California would begin their long and treacherous treks across the wild lands.
The major routes followed the Platte River in Nebraska to the Sweetwater River in Wyoming, a nearly eight-hundred-mile-long section of the trail and a halfway mark for many of the pioneers. At the Sweetwater, the trails split, one taking a more northern route (like the Mormon Trail) and others taking a southern route.
The next major junction was the Snake River, which many people picked up at the Fort Hall trading post in Pocatella in southern Idaho. At this point, those people interested in going to California broke away from the groups that were crossing the mountains to Oregon.
Before the gold rush in 1849, the majority of people took the trail to Oregon to the Willamette Valley. Between 1841 and 1848, it is estimated that over eleven thousand people immigrated to the Oregon valley, with less than three thousand continuing south to California. However, during the peak of the gold rush, almost two hundred thousand people are estimated to have taken the southern route to California, while only thirty-five hundred crossed over to the more northern territories.
Despite Jody's grandfather in...
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Linked Short Stories
Three of the four stories in this book were published as separate short stories. What holds these stories together so that they can be considered a book is the elements that they have in common. These are common characters, setting, and themes. Linked short stories are not as tightly connected as the chapters in a book. First of all, they stand on their own, each section completing a thought. Second, the connections between the sections are rather loose. There is no explanation of anything that was left unresolved in the previous section. For example, when Billy delivers the colt in the third section, there is nothing said about Jody's reaction or the care of the colt in the fourth section. It is almost as if the colt did not exist in the final chapter of the book.
However, there's enough of a connection between the sections that the reader gets a sense of continuation. Jody continues to have similar experiences that move him forward into the world of adults. Personality traits of Carl, Jody's father, remain consistent from first section to the end. Billy feels sorry about Jody having lost the red pony in the beginning of the book and remains sensitive about this through the third portion, when he must decide to kill the mare in order to save the newborn colt.
Linked short stories might have been used in order for Steinbeck to publish each section separately and thus gain an audience for the novel....
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The techniques in The Red Pony typify the style that won Steinbeck immense popularity. Rising to prominence at the height of the Depression, Steinbeck seemed to reflect the mood of the era with his bare lines of simple prose.
Steinbeck derives his literary power from his use of symbolism for ironic effect. The symbolic images in the plot allow the reader to perceive the significance of an event on a much deeper level than do the characters. The pony in The Red Pony, for example, functions as a symbol of Jody's boyhood and innocence as well as a symbol of his future. When the pony dies, the reader experiences a sense of loss, because the pony's death represents Jody's loss of innocence. But while the reader understands that Jody's life has been dramatically altered by the death of the pony, Jody, ironically, grieves for his pony without the ability to fully see the death in a larger context.
During World War II, when people began to realize how complicated the world had become, Steinbeck's development as a novelist faltered, and he never recovered his artistic momentum. Even East of Eden (1952), the work he thought his masterpiece, proved a critical failure although a popular success. Since his death, Steinbeck has remained widely read, both in America and abroad. His critical reputation has enjoyed a modest revival, and will most likely continue to develop, for few writers have better celebrated the American dream or...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Steinbeck began The Red Pony fairly early in his career; his letters indicate he was working on a pony story in 1933, and the first two sections of the story sequence, "The Gift" and "The Great Mountains," were published in the North American Review in November and December of that year. The third section, "The Promise," did not appear in Harpers until 1937, and these three parts were published in a slim volume in 1937. "The Leader of the People," the final section, was not added until the publication of his story collection The Long Valley in 1938, But manuscript and textual evidence suggests that the later sections were written some time before their publication, not very long after the first two stories. The four sections are connected by common characters, settings, and themes, forming a clearly unified story sequence, which was published separately as The Red Pony in 1945. A modestly successful movie version, for which Steinbeck wrote the screenplay, followed in 1949.
The Red Pony is among Steinbeck's finest works. This story sequence traces Jody's initiation into adult life with both realism and sensitivity, a balance that Steinbeck did not always achieve. The vision of characters caught up in the harsh world of nature is balanced by their deep human concerns and commitments.
1. The name Jody gives his red pony, like many of the names in the book, proves important. Why does Jody choose Gabilan, a...
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A writer of great talent, sensitivity, and imagination, John Steinbeck entered into the mood of the country in the late 1930s with an extraordinary responsiveness. The Depression had elicited a reevaluation of American culture, a reassessment of the American dream; a harsh realism of observation was balanced by a warm emphasis on human dignity. Literature and the other arts joined social, economic, and political thought in contrasting traditional American ideals with the bleak reality of bread lines and shantytowns. Perhaps the major symbol of dislocation was the Dust Bowl. The American garden became a wasteland from which its dispossessed farmers fled. The arts in the 1930s focused on these harsh images and tried to find in them the human dimensions which promised a new beginning.
Incidents such as the killing of the mare in The Red Pony are powerful and may upset young readers. But few writers have better exposed the dark underside of the American Dream, while simultaneously celebrating the great hope symbolized in that dream: the hope of human development. Steinbeck's best fiction depicts a paradise lost but also suggests a paradise to be regained in the future. Despite Steinbeck's faults and failures, his best literary works demonstrate a greatness of heart and mind rarely found in modern American literature.
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Compare and Contrast
1930s: Migrant farm workers, most of them coming north from Mexico are subject to the dictates of the farm owners and suffer poor wages and working and living conditions. In 1936, some of them go on strike for better wages, employing a former colonel of the army to lead them. They are equipped with machine guns and steal red flags from a highway crew, threatening the residents of Salinas by telling them that a communist army is about to take over the city.
Today: Although working and living conditions still remain difficult for migrant workers, there are many support groups who have rallied for better wages, health facilities, and educational opportunities for those who work on California farms.
1930s: Salinas, California, is still mostly a cattle-raising land, with wheat and lettuce grown on some farms. The population of Salinas is about fifty thousand people.
Today: Salinas is known as the salad bowl of America, providing most of the states with salad greens. The population has increased to almost five hundred thousand people.
1930s: Steinbeck irritates most of the population of his hometown of Salinas by his proletariat views of workers' rights in his novels, such as The Grapes of Wrath. His books are burned in protest.
Today: The citizens of Salinas have...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the California trail across the plains to the West Coast. Draw a map of one of the major routes. Provide a mileage scale; highlight major natural formations that the pioneers might have seen along the way; mark major intersections and supply points; locate major tribes of Native Americans. Accompany this map with short diary excerpts from actual pioneers, to give a fuller understanding of the intensity of this trip.
Write a coming-of-age short story of a young girl or boy who must face a specific challenge that changes her or him forever. This could be written as fiction or taken from your own experience.
Shortly after writing The Red Pony John Steinbeck left his hometown of Salinas, California, and moved to New York. Find out why Steinbeck became disgruntled about Salinas, and then write a story as if you were a local journalist covering his move to the East Coast.
The last chapter in The Red Pony, "The Leader of the People," centers a major portion of its action on the decaying haystack. Reread this chapter and find as many symbols as you can that are contained in the haystack and Jody's insistence in wanting to kill the mice that he finds there. How is the haystack connected to the grandfather? What is the significance of Jody wanting Grandfather to help him? Why do you think Steinbeck used the haystack in this chapter?
Pretend that you...
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The stories take place on the Tiflin ranch in the Salinas Valley, California. Steinbeck's evocation of the vital beauty of the ranch setting matches his work in Of Mice and Men (1937), and his symbols grow naturally out of this setting. The setting stresses the end of the frontier and of the American dream; in a sense Jody's maturation matches that of modern America. In its depiction of an American variation of a universal experience. The Red Pony deserves comparison with the finest of American fiction, especially initiation tales such as William Faulkner's The Bear (1942) or Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams stories.
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Although its attitude toward Hispanic-Americans seems patronizing, Steinbeck's comic Tortilla Flat (1935) provides entertaining reading, as do its sequels, Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954). Several stories in The Long Valley (1938) are often collected in anthologies, most notably "Flight," a harsh story of initiation. Of Mice and Men is also harsh and realistic, but its beautiful evocation of friendship and dreams makes it a timeless American classic. Another classic is Steinbeck's symbolic tale of a Mexican fisherman, The Pearl (1947).
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Steinbeck wrote the screenplay for the successful 1949 film treatment of The Red Pony, and Lewis Milestone produced and directed the film, which starred Robert Mitchum and Peter Miles. A 1973 production of The Red Pony, directed by Robert Totten and starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara, received favorable reviews.
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Steinbeck wrote a screenplay for The Red Pony, and it was produced in 1949, starring Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum. Noted American composer Aaron Copeland wrote the musical score. The story was rewritten for television in 1973 and starred Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara.
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What Do I Read Next?
Steinbeck wrote The Pearl (reissued in 2000) in a fable form, in which he relates the woes of a poor Mexican fisherman who finds a pearl one day and decides that it will change his life for the better. Unfortunately, the fisherman finds out that life is not so simple.
Coming-of-age stories abound, and some of the best were written by Ernest Hemingway. His stories about Nick Adams have been collected as The Nick Adams Stories (1981) and follow the development of the main character from childhood to adulthood.
In her book Mona in the Promised Land (reissued in 1997), Gish Jen writes her interpretation of adolescence, complicated by her Chinese-American teenager's decision to convert to Judaism.
The setting of William Saroyan's novel The Human Comedy (reissued in 1991) is wartime America, and its protagonist is a young boy who is determined to become the fastest deliverer of telegrams. What he does not foresee is the effect that the telegrams will have upon the receivers, as wartime brings news of many deaths.
Steinbeck's classic The Grapes of Wrath (reissued in 2002) was burned in his hometown because of its pro-labor elements. Most critics believe this was...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
French, Warren. John Steinbeck’s Fiction Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994. Thoroughly revises French’s two other books in this Twayne series. Chapters on Steinbeck’s becoming a novelist, his relationship to modernism, his short fiction, his wartime fiction, and his final fiction. Includes chronology, notes, and annotated bibliography.
Hughes, R. S. John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Divided into three sections: Steinbeck’s short stories, the author’s letters exploring his craft, and four critical commentaries. A good study of some of his lesser known works which includes a chronology, a lengthy bibliography, and an index.
Lisca, Peter. The Wide World of John Steinbeck. New York: Gordian Press, 1958. An indispensable guide to Steinbeck’s work, published in 1958 and then updated with an “Afterword” examining the writer’s last novel The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). Admired and imitated, Lisca’s work set the standard for future Steinbeck studies.
McCarthy, Paul. John Steinbeck. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. A short biographical approach to Steinbeck’s work that examines each novel against the forces that shaped his life. Includes a useful chronology, notes, a bibliography, and an index.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
French, Warren, "Steinbeck, John," in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3d ed., edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.
Review of The Grapes of Wrath & Other Writings, 1936-1941, in Library Journal, September 1996.
Review of Novels & Stories, 1932-1937, in Library Journal, November 1, 1994.
Benson, Jackson J., John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography, Penguin USA, 1990.
To better understand the writings of Steinbeck, it helps to understand his life, as much of the material of his books comes from his personal experience. Benson offers a comprehensive look into the life of Steinbeck.
Hill, Cherry, The Formative Years: Raising and Training the Young Horse, Breakthrough Publishing, 1988.
This definitive study of what it takes to raise a colt provides the information required to take on this task.
Steinbeck, John, Working Days: The Journals of "The Grapes of Wrath," 1938-1941, edited by Robert Demott, Penguin USA, 1990.
While creating the novel, Steinbeck kept a daily journal of his accomplishments and his frustrations. For an insider's look into the mind of an author, this book provides not only interesting background material for the novel but also a lesson for would-be writers.
Wallsten, Robert, ed., with Elaine...
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