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  • The Steinbeckian Land Ethic:Environmentalism and The Red Pony
  • Derek Gladwin (bio)

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Tom (Jody) played by Peter Miles in the 1949 film production of The Red Pony. [End Page 64]

John Steinbeck integrated his study of nature and the environment into his fiction and embodied his ecological observations in his characters and settings. By incorporating his theories of holistic thought and the environment into his writings, Steinbeck created his own ecofiction—fiction with an environmental subtext. A prime example of Steinbeck's ecofiction is The Red Pony—the four stories originally published in The Long Valley (1938). Scholarship has focused on The Red Pony as a bildungsroman in its depiction of Jody's initiation process. As John H. Timmerman states in The Dramatic Landscape of Steinbeck's Short Stories, it is the story of "a young boy's initiatory experiences [into manhood]" (122). But another kind of initiation story is told here—Jody's initiation into an environmental consciousness. We can see this most clearly if we view the story through the lens provided by biologist, ecologist, and preservationist Aldo Leopold, Steinbeck's contemporary and a proponent of the ethical perspective on the environment that he called "the land ethic." An environmental explication of Jody's development in The Red Pony leads us to an understanding of him as a boy who is learning, analyzing, and reflecting upon his own biotic community.

Recent scholarship has recognized Steinbeck as an author who "provides a fine description of ecological field biology" and whose "works speak strongly to biologists" (Tiffney 5). His ecological perspectives have been recognized with increasing regularity because of the growing interest in the environment, environmental writing, nature writing, and ecocriticism. Arguably, the term "ecocriticism" was created in 1978 by [End Page 65] William Rueckert in his essay "Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism," and has developed into a significant branch of cultural studies. Literature and the environment has been gaining critical momentum in the last thirty years, since the formation of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) in 1992 and the subsequent publication of The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology in 1996. Thus, the relationship between literature and the environment has become more recognized, providing scholars with a growing number of texts dealing with issues of the land, ecology, and overall interconnectedness of the environment.

Steinbeck criticism was also affected by this movement. Numerous articles have been written about Steinbeck and the environment over the past thirty years, and a number were published in Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches in 1997. Louis Owens' 2001 essay in Steinbeck Studies entitled "Two Fishes with One Hook: The Ecological Perspectives of John Steinbeck and John Joseph Matthews" recognizes Steinbeck as an ecologist and challenges readers to consider this connection. Owens believed that

John Steinbeck, commonly misunderstood as a social critic glorifying the proletariat or as the quasi-romantic novelist found in misreadings of East of Eden, spent a lifetime attempting to bring about an alteration in the way Americans conceive of our relationship with the place we inhabit, attempting to help us 'grow up' and learn to live responsibly and holistically.


Co-editor Susan Shillinglaw also emphasizes the importance of Steinbeckian holism in the introduction to Steinbeck and the Environment, where she asserts, "'the problem' of unity found focus in [Steinbeck's] stories about group man and the potential of the whole," which can be most readily seen "in the biological holism articulated in Sea of Cortez" (12). In the Log Steinbeck mentions that "all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string to time" (Log 218). Holistic and ecologically informed writing is explicitly theorized in The Log From the Sea of Cortez, and we may also see how what seems peripheral is also central to The Red Pony [End Page 66] .

Though the term "holistic thinker" has often been applied to Aldo Leopold, it is equally appropriate for Steinbeck. In Leopold's case, his lifelong work incorporates holistic thought into...