- John Steinbeck's Promised Lands
Yaron Perry's recent essay, "John Steinbeck's Roots in Nineteenth-Century Palestine," published in these pages, provides fascinating evidence of the persistent interconnection between America and the Holy Land, both in official archival sources and in ideological or religious tracts.1 The settlement of Mount Hope (1853) by German and American Protestants in what is now Tel-Aviv, Israel, is just one strand in an intricate web of historical, political, eschatological, and psychological interrelationships that almost beg for further development. The strands of this complex web are crossed and recrossed by additional strands, including national interest, foundational religion, human behavior, and community dependency.
The Mount Hope community described by Perry touches on a variety of contexts: among them, history, cultural rhetoric, and, as we shall see, the psychoanalysis of narrative. First, important parallels can be traced between the activist communitarianism of the Mount Hope group and the larger, equally fervid, expansionist ethos prevalent in mid-nineteenth-century America, an ethos grounded in biblical and millennialist views of America's role in the world. The history of Mount Hope brings to light a component of cultural rhetoric that has endured from the very beginnings of the European settlement of America: the union of the Steinbeck and the Dickson families, their separate journeys from Massachusetts and Germany to the Holy Land and then to the United States, and ultimately—one is tempted to add, "of course!"—California, is almost an allegory of America's primal scene, the search for a [End Page 75] Promised Land, a new world, new earth.2 At the same time, however, Mount Hope is more than an unusual nineteenth-century story of quasi-biblical return to a particular place. It is also the story of the return of ghostly presences within a family history, and of the ways in which these presences may re-turn literary texts and our readings of them. For, as we learn from Perry's detailed account, the first settlers of Mt. Hope, Johann and Almira (Dickson) Grossteinbeck and Friedrich and Mary (Dickson) Grossteinbeck were the grandparents and the great-uncle and aunt of John Steinbeck.
Mount Hope begins, however, with nineteenth-century American historiography and the westward pull of the American continent. The discovery of gold in California, the safety valve of the frontier, the vast spaces of the American continent waiting for successive waves of settlers and immigrants, all comprise a familiar map that seems to draw the eye firmly and unquestionably in one direction only. At the same time, however, overshadowed by both the rhetoric and the fact of western expansion, a simultaneous pull eastward was taking place, a return to an originary Holy Land and to one of America's mythopoetic transformations that has not yet lost its hold on the national imagination.
American involvement in the Middle East did not begin, in other words, with the war in Iraq or with the maneuvers of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century texts reveal elaborate metaphorical and typological connections with the Holy Land, further imbued with a millennial belief in America as the new focus of God's activity on earth. Thomas Morton's "New English Canaan" (1634), Thomas Tillam's panegyric "uppon the first sight of New-England" (1638) ("Hayle holy-land wherein our holy lord/Hath planted his most true and holy word"), as well as William Bradford's description of the numerous trials of Plymouth Plantation (1630-1650), all used the biblical account of the Israelites' flight from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land not merely as a rhetorical device but as a way to define the lofty role granted to the new Children of Israel.
Eighteenth-century writers extended and intensified the terms of this parallel. In the Magnalia Christi Americana [End Page 76] (1702), Cotton Mather envisioned "Golden Candlesticks" of New England ("our American Jerusalem") as having risen to light the way for "the upright Children of Abraham" (64, 8). "The New Jerusalem...has begun to come down from heaven, and perhaps never were more of the prelibations of heaven's glory given upon earth," declared Jonathan Edwards in "Some...