As I reread Thoreau, my thoughts migrate to an author whose prose, humanity, and politics I admire: John Steinbeck.
While Steinbeck was particularly interested in people mired by struggle, his characters seem to want exactly what Thoreau calls a mechanical existence as workers. But Steinbeck’s characters want work precisely because their substance exceeds mechanization. They are so much more than mere automaton – they are families. They are fathers and mothers and daughters and sons with complex and happy and difficult histories, trying to get a leg up so they may live secure and joyful lives together. That all existence seems against them is the result of hoping so much and so hard. As with most great tragedy, time, fate, circumstances, whatever you call it, “produces from them forms which their youth gave no grounds for anticipating” (Auerbach “Odysseus’ Scar” 18).
The same description of change can apply to nations, too. It applies to the United States. I say this because, as I mentioned, I’m reading Thoreau again. I’m contemplating his politics.
It’s an ambivalent experience, reading Walden. I want to agree with a lot of Thoreau’s politics: his ideas about deliberate and necessary civil disobedience, about defying a mechanized life, but I can’t say I see much in his writing about community. I suspect he would disparage such things as Universal Healthcare and a social safety net, things I consider essential, because life guarantees nothing and if we want to live among each other, benefiting from the existence of other humans (in business and in culture, et cetera), than we owe it to each other, as with family, to look out for one another.
(Also – and this is where thoughts of Steinbeck sidle up alongside those of Thoreau – I am a young man nearing completion of a degree, an experience that, these days, feels less like approaching possibility and freedom and more like being thrust by a linebacker toward a cliff before all nothingness.)
Thoreau and Steinbeck distill ideas, ideals, and failures central to the United States of America and, as such, ideas, ideals, and failures consistently cherishes and mourned by writers produced inside that culture, whether romantic or realist or, let’s be real here, both.
The glorification of a pastoral existence is as old as our species. It’s as old as storytelling. We want better. We have always wanted better. Wanting better, whatever better may be and no matter how many betters exist, is human. With Waldon, Thoreau is thinking toward his idea of better. His pastoralia (if I may appropriate terminology from George Saunders) is intensely remote and isolated, “as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers. We are wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial corner of the system…far from noise and disturbance.” It’s a nice idea. It’s a downright beautiful slice of prose. Who wouldn’t like such space, and described so expertly? But, I doubt the idea and such solitude are tenable to the extent suggested by Thoreau’s hyperbole.
Steinbeck, on the other hand, is also concerned for the wellbeing of individuals, though his concerns are grounded in healthier ideas of community. In the introduction to the Penguin edition of The Grapes of Wrath, Robert Demott acknowledges the novel’s lasting significance: “Wherever human beings dream of a dignified and free society in which they can live in right relationships with the environment and other human beings, and harvest the fruits of their own labor, The Grapes of Wrath is still applicable” (2006). Louis Owens (1948-2002) says The Grapes of Wrath operates across multiple narrative and hermeneutic planes, culminating in ideas of community: “On one level it is the story of a family’s struggle for survival in the Promised Land. On another level it is the story of a people’s struggle, the migrants. On a third level it is the story of a nation, America. On still another level, through the allusions to Christ and those of the Israelites and Exodus, it becomes the story of mankind’s quest for profound comprehension of his commitment to his fellow man and to the earth he inhabits.” In his final point – not necessarily the exact religion and tradition he speaks of – Owen identifies a Steinbeckian paradise that resonates with me. One that nurtures my admiration of, not just his prose, but his politics.
There’s humility in Steinbeck that’s absent from Thoreau.
There’s also a beauty to his prose and his commitment to storytelling that dignifies his tragic subject matter. Not unlike Melville’s intentions in Moby-Dick, Steinbeck regarded The Grapes of Wrath as “symphonic.” Its “intimate narrative and panoramic editorial chapters enforce the dialogic concept,” and its “salty language” and “catchy eyewitness quality,” and its “vivid biblical, empirical, poetic, cinematic, and folk styles” demonstrate Steinbeck’s “tonal acuity” as well as his ear and eye for melding “experience and rhetoric, oral and literary forms” (Demott).
I’m partial to Of Mice and Men (lover of brevity that I am). You want to talk about the imaginative possession of a pastoral dream held by men living in quiet desperation? I challenge you to find a better example than that of George Milton and Lennie Small.