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John Steinbeck Project #2: Pastures of Heaven

Posted: 2008-08-21

After the painful slog through Cup of Gold, I despaired a little for what might await me in Pastures of Heaven. Although I’m reading it in the Library of America collection Steinbeck: Novels and Stories: 1932–1937 which should have been a tip-off that Pastures… is on a higher shelf than Cup of Gold.

And it is. Pastures… is a collection of related stories on a scale similar to Tortilla Flat or the Long Valley. It sort of reads like a less-depressing version of Winesburg, Ohio: small-town vignettes, each focused on a single character who has a remarkable adventure. Each story follows a predictable arc (which I won’t spoil), but delivers a satisfying read altogether.

Steinbeck, like most early-to-mid–twentieth century writers, doesn’t make small town life seem particularly nice. And Steinbeck clearly had a great love of rural lifeways and landscapes ... and still makes the Pastures of Heaven valley seem like a social straightjacket. If this accurately reflects the contemporaneous feeling toward rural life, it goes a long way toward explaining the great urbanization of the early 20th century, and the allure of the suburbs in the last half of the century. Steinbeck underlines the particular haze through which American view country life; the final chapter is a sharp coda that eerily presages the exurban developments of the the early 21st century.

The fictional Pastures of Heaven seems to be based largely on the real-world valley of Corral de Tierra. A quick trip to Google Maps makes that coda seem especially eerie.

Next: 1933’s The Red Pony, the Steinbeck book (other than Grapes of Wrath that it seems everyone has read. Except, apparently, me.