John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California. His best books concern his idyllic youth and turbulent young adulthood in California.
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.
All four stories involve the maturation of Jody Tiflin, a boy of about ten when the action opens. He lives on his family’s ranch with his father, Carl, his mother, Ruth, and the hired hand, a middle-aged cowboy named Billy Buck. From time to time they are visited by Jody’s grandfather, a venerable old man who led one of the first wagon trains to California.
The literary qualities 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.
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 breadlines 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.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The name Jody gives his red pony, like many of the names in the book, proves important. Why does Jody choose Gabilan, a Spanish name?
Steinbeck’s fiction was intended primarily for adults, but young adults often read his books as high school assignments. Although its attitude toward Hispanic-Americans seems patronizing, Steinbeck’s comic Tortilla Flat provides entertaining reading, as do its sequels, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday (1954). Several stories in The Long Valley 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. Although Steinbeck’s epic, The Grapes of Wrath, is somewhat long and complex, the mature young person will enjoy and profit from reading it. Steinbeck also wrote some fine works of nonfiction, such as Log from the Sea of Cortez (1941) and Travels with Charley in Search of America.