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P H I L I P J. W E S T Skidmore College Steinbeck’s “The Leader of the People’’: A Crisis in Style “The Leader of the People,”1the last short story in Steinbeck’s The Long Valley, is a diminutive epic. In one sense, it is meta-epic: the structure of its stylistic variety implies a shifting sense of decorum as the heroic gives place to the petty. Steinbeck’s style and tone are not, however, controlled so much by a sense of genre as by the theme: the passing of the frontier and with it the American heroic age. Though Carl Tiflin is well aware how much less a man he is than Grandfather (and than Billy Buck, in Grand­ father’s eyes [205]), his complaints against Grandfather are super­ ficial; Carl objects to his endless, repetitive tales of the frontier. Grandfather’s style, which Carl attributes to senility, Jody per­ ceives as answerable to his subject; a medievalist recognizes it as the oral formulaic style. The crisis of the story focuses on Grand­ father’s acknowledgement that the western heroic age has passed. Hence he changes genres, revising his formulaic materials from the epic into the lyric mode. The decline of the frontier and its heroes and the shift in style and tone to a lesser mode also suggest reasons for the story’s position at the end of The Long Valley. The most obvious symptom of the decline of the heroic in the Salinas Valley is the conflict between Grandfather and Carl. Erik Erikson classifies this common sociological phenomenon among the manifestations of Puritanism on the American frontier; he designates it the Myth of the Grandfather. Their daughters marry “a weak but safe man.” The daughter’s son will rarely take his father as a male ideal, but instead emulate an uncle or a friend of the family or the grandfather himself. The mother, who fre- ^John Steinbeck, The Long Valley (New York, 1967), pp. 293-313. Subsequent page numbers will be in the text. 138 Western American Literature quently even talks like her father,2 “has a male ideal, derived from the history of her family; it usually comes from her father’s side, and she indicates to the son that she believes he has a chance to come close to this ideal.”3 Thus, by the time “The Leader of the People” ends, we find Jody, his mother, and Billy Buck ranged with Grandfather opposite Carl Tiflin, a man utterly shamed before the whole family [211]. Though Carl’s antipathy to Grandfather involves the substance of the old man’s life, Carl expresses it as a surface objection to the style of the old man’s stories. He “just goes on and on,” says Carl, “and he never changes a word in the things he tells” [201]. Grand­ father’s voice falls into “a curious low sing-song, . . . into a tonal groove the story had worn for itself” [206]. He shows signs which Carl prefers to interpret as bothersome old age but which in the societies of the heroic ages, indicate that the poet as seer or as conservator of unwritten tradition is about to perform.4 Jody re­ ceives the indications that Grandfather is about to tell a story in this spirit. Jody anxiously watched Grandfather. He saw the signs he knew. The bearded head leaned forward; the eyes lost their sternness and looked wonderingly into the fire; the big lean fingers laced them­ selves on the black knees. “I wonder,” he began, “I just wonder whether I ever told you how those thieving Piutes drove off thirtyfive of our horses.” [207] The impersonality of the description suggests Grandfather’s as­ sumption of a social role. Carl’s interruption, “I think you did,” rejects the role and the tradition; Carl backs down beneath his wife’s silent stare, and Grandfather continues at Jody’s request. Grandfather’s tone dropped into its narrative groove again. Jody knew in advance exactly what words would fall. The story droned on, sped up for the attack, grew sad over the wounds, struck a dirge at the burials on the great plains. [208] Grandfather modulates his narrative...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 137-141
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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