Saturday, March 6, 2021

John Steinbeck’s Epiphany in the Redwoods

Man against Nature—that was one of the great themes of literature that Ms. Weiss taught us to appreciate in eleventh grade English at the Bronx High School of Science. And that theme was certainly recognizable in many of the books we read that year, among them John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 when the author was thirty-seven.

Steinbeck opens The Grapes of Wrath with an unforgettable chapter on the cataclysm that hit the Dust Bowl in the U.S. prairies in the 1930s:

The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air.…

In The Grapes of Wrath, nature feels like a force trying to thwart or obstruct human well-being. What Steinbeck doesn’t mention is that these dust storms were made worse by human factors. Before the region was developed for agriculture, it was filled with tall, deep-rooted prairie grasses. Unsustainable farming practices resulted in an ecosystem with little defense against drought and winds.

Dust storm, U.S. Dust Bowl, 1930s

The Man against Nature paradigm that Steinbeck used in The Grapes of Wrath began to shift in the period after World War II, when the impact of the industrial economy on nature and on human life became more immediate and clear. It’s intriguing that Steinbeck lived long enough to experience and actually influence this shift himself.

At the start of the 1960s, not long before his death at age 66, Steinbeck set off on a quest. “I discovered that I did not know my own country,” he wrote in Travels with Charley, the book where he recounted his trip in an RV with his dog, across the United States. 

John Steinbeck with Charley

At the start of his journey, Steinbeck still looked on America as something of an obstacle: “I was determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land.”

Steinbeck did look again, particularly when he revisited the redwoods of his native California. 

Redwoods, Northern California, USA

This time he saw with new eyes: “The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always,” he wrote. “From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.… The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect.”

Steinbeck’s new encounter with the redwoods towards the end of his life was part of a major shift taking place at this time. In 1962, the same year that Travels with Charley appeared, biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, causing a storm of controversy about the impact of pesticides on the environment and human health, and helping to launch the environmental movement. At the same time, John Steinbeck, in his final years, experienced among the redwoods an epiphany that shifted his way of looking at nature—not as humankind’s opponent, but as the domain of revered elders in the family of living things.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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