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D O N A L D E. H O U G H T O N Sacramento State College “Westering” in “ Leader of the People” John Steinbeck’s “The Leader of the People” is about a boy’s discovery of how quickly and casually one generation forgets the concerns and accomplishments of another. Although the story is often published as a separate work, it is also considered to be a part of The Red Pony and was published in 1938 as a kind of coda to The Red Pony. Viewed as part of The Red Pony, Jody’s discovery in “The Leader of the People” that his parents’ generation attaches little importance to Grandfather and his past life must be seen as another in a series of psychic shocks which Jody ex­ periences throughout The Red Pony. These shocks reveal to Jody many basic truths about the natural cycle of life and death as it manifests itself in both the world of animals and the world of men. In “The Leader of the People” Jody is saddened to find that his own family, even the good Billy Buck, seems to view Grandfather in much the same way that Carl viewed the old horse and unknown old man in “The Mountains.” The life-death cycle of nature, so important in earlier parts of The Red Pony, is sug­ gested again in “The Leader of the People” in Grandfather and Jody, the one nearing the end of his life while the other is only beginning his. But some other matters are suggested as well. Near the end of “The Leader of the People,” Steinbeck introduces something which has given interpreters of this story considerable difficulty. I refer to Grandfather’s talk about the meaning of westering. In­ stead of letting the reader feel at the end of the story much the same as Jody feels about Grandfather and the transient nature of life and man’s accomplishments, Steinbeck apparently wants the reader at this late moment in the story to do some serious thinking about westering. After overhearing what Carl says about him at breakfast, Grandfather is not allowed to retreat into a dignified 118 Western American Literature silence with his humiliation. Steinbeck instead lets Grandfather talk on some more, apparently in one last attempt to explain to Jody, and presumably to the reader, what westering was all about. Determining what Grandfather is trying to tell Jody and what Grandfather’s views on westering have to do with the story as a whole has given Steinbeck critics considerable trouble. Peter Lisca, for example, distracted by Grandfather’s talk about westering, says that “The Leader of the People” is not about Jody in the sense that the other stories in The Red, Pony are about him. The story is about Grandfather, Lisca says. But Lisca returns to Jody’s educa­ tion, nevertheless, and says that instead of learning from nature, as Jody does in the other stories, in this one he learns from Grand­ father, “who represents history, a sense of the past.” After struggling manfully to explain to his readers what Grandfather means by westering, Lisca finally says that despite his garrulousness, Grand­ father does not succeed in communicating to the new generation what westering was all about. Lisca then turns to Billy Buck and concludes that Jody learns his lesson of history from Billy Buck when Billy tells Jody that the mice “don’t know what’s going to happen to them today.” Lisca says “This is Jody’s lesson in history” and ends with this rhetorical flourish, “Life is always a risk. The call for heroism is heard today as it was yesterday. The need for a leader of the people is still real, for we are all pioneers, forever crossing the dangerous and unknown.”1 In his book on Steinbeck, Joseph Fontenrose begins as if he is going to explain what westering is, but after quoting some of Grandfather’s speeches, he suddenly abandons his brief account of the story with this: “We gather that if the ocean had not [stopped it], the big beast would have gone on westering forever. That may be overstatement, but it matters little. The...


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pp. 118-124
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