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.
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, 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.