The Pastures of Heaven

Because I needed a break from the final volume of The Search
and because I wanted to read a small book and, lastly, because I love Steinbeck as a child a parent and mark The Grapes of Wrath as the novel that awakened in me a reverence for the grace and beauty of words, I sauntered through the lush valley of The Pastures of Heaven. A series of overlapping short stories, The Pastures of Heaven, like Winesburg, Ohio, features a common narrative thread that unifies the vignettes. But unlike Winesburg, Ohio, the common thread isn’t a character (a George Willard, for instance), who drifts in and out of the stories, but the setting, a gorgeous stretch of country in central California, “…a long valley floored with green pasture.., and the hills hugged it jealously against the fog and the wind.” Place and landscape, so characteristic of Steinbeck’s writing, figure prominently in The Pastures of Heaven, in particular the influence of the fertile valley floor upon its richly variegated denizens. Plant and animal metaphors abound: a young women has “the firm freshness of a new weed” or skin “as lucent and rich as poppies,” and a man has hands “hard and black and covered with little crevices, like the pads of a bear.” And questions “buzz like mosquitoes.” Each story in the cycle presents an unforgettable character who has a specific relationship to the land, to alfalfa, kale, and strawberries, to oak trees, willows, and sycamores, to geraniums, lavender, and flowering sage, and to meadows, streams and rivers. Firmly rooted to the landscape, each character cultivates a conception of himself, the world, and his place in the world. This unique mode of life works well enough for him until a neighbor unravels his carefully wrought conception with a careless word or even a designed intervention. Unravellings are poignant affairs, so each story ends on a profound note of disillusionment.

Postscript. One of the finest things about Steinbeck is his voice. Often I find myself reading his sentences aloud and am pleased to learn that Steinbeck was aware of this quality himself. In a letter from his vast output of correspondence, he expresses disdain for “collegiate stenographers” who fret about “every nasty little comma.”

I have no interest in the printed word. I would continue to write if there were no writing and no print… They are more to be spoken than to be read. I have the instincts of a minstrel rather than those of a scrivener.

Yes, he does.


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