The Red Pony (1933) by John Steinbeck is described as an episodic novella, or interconnected short stories. “The Leader of the People” is one of those stories.
I really enjoyed this story from The Golden Argosy collection (as recommended by Stephen King), as it still feels fresh. The viewpoint of the young boy is great, and when the ‘camera’ zooms out, there’s a real sense of place. The descriptions of the boy’s body language beats and play are very well done.
Also, Steinbeck is making wonderful use of a technique all writers can use: The miniature in storytelling. In fact, this is your archetypal example of it.
STORYWORLD OF “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”
Set on a farm.
High in the air small clouds like puffs of cannon smoke were driven eastward by the March wind. The wind could be heard whishing in the brush on the ridge crests, but no breath of it penetrated down into the ranch cup.
White pigeons, a cypress tree, haystacks full of mice, barbed wire fences, surrounded by mountains. Dogs, squirrels, road runners and at night, large moths throw themselves at the windows. In the daytime, the heavy smell of sage. Ants and flies.
There’s a Pied Piper feel about this storyworld:
Those plump, sleek, arrogant mice were doomed. For eight months the had lived and multiplied in the haystack. they had been immune from cats, from traps, from poison and from Jody.
This is a bifurcated storyworld — the mountains seem ominous. Billy glances towards them as if there may be trouble. This juxtaposes against the utopian description of the side-hill:
Jody turned back and looked at the side-hill where the road from the outside world came down. the hill was washed with lean March sunshine. Silver thistles, blue lupins and a few poppies bloomed among the sage bushed.
Nearby we have the Horseshoe Club in Pacific Grove, which tells us this is in California. (East of where the father-in-law has settled.) By climbing the little cleft where the road comes through, Jody can see the huge green Salinas Valley.
Inside, the mother prepares beans, they eat steak and beans at a white oilcloth table, the room lit by a lamp with a tin reflector. Mother rings a triangle to alert the farmworkers when their meals are ready. They eat sugared mush for breakfast.
The parents are harsh on Jody by modern standards. Jody expresses excitement that his father has arrived home carrying a letter, so he runs inside to spread that excitement to his mother. But he is chastised and humiliated for failing to mind his own business. A modern parent would encourage the kid’s enthusiasm — after all, this is his own grandfather coming to stay. This is his business. Are these parents typical of the era, or are these especially harsh characters? In any case, they’re training him into a certain variety of masculinity, in which a boy expresses no emotion apart from anger and disapproval.
This is a time when kids are supposed to be kept busy, or else they’ll turn out lazy or get themselves into trouble. The mother admonishes the father for not giving him enough jobs to do. Today, we consider play the main job of children. And that is shown here — only by trying to engage the grandfather in play does Jody have the Self-revelation and grow up a little.
THE MINIATURE IN STORYTELLING
It becomes clear that Steinbeck is using a tried and tested writing technique — he’s playing with our perception of scale to encourage us to consider what’s really important in life. First he gave us the mountains juxtaposed against the much smaller (and pleasant) side-hill. The small boy’s enthusiasm juxtaposes against the solemn, grim demeanour of his parents, and when the boy meets his grandfather the mice are coming in handy, symbolically:
Jody explained, “The dogs eat them, sir. It wouldn’t be much like hunting Indians I guess.”
“No, not much-but then later, when the troops were hunting Indians and shooting children and burning tepees, it wasn’t much different from you mouse hunt.”
Later, when Jody is lying in bed, Steinbeck expands upon the idea that the Wild West, with heroic Cowboys and warring Indians looms large in contemporary (1930s) minds:
Jody lay in his bed and thought of the impossible world of Indians and buffaloes, a world that had ceased to be forever. He wished he could have been living in the heroic time, but he knew he was not of heroic timber. No one living now, save possibly Billy Buck, was worthy to do the things that had been done. A race of giants had lived then, fearless men, men of a staunchness unknown in this day. Jody thought of the wide plains and of the wagons moving across like centipedes. He thought of Grandfather on a huge white horse, marshaling the people. Across his mind marched the great phantoms, and they marched off the earth and they were gone.
Later, after Jody’s father dismisses the grandfather, the old man looks literally smaller in Jody’s young eyes:
Jody turned disconsolately away, and walked down toward the old haystack. He tried to whip up his enthusiasm with thoughts of the fat juicy mice. He beat the ground with his flail. the dogs coaxed and whined about him, but he could not go. Back at the house he could see Grandfather sitting on the porch, looking small and thin and black.
Notice also how Steinbeck has listed the animal life all the way through the story, starting with the large animals (the horses, the dogs, the squirrels) and working his way down to the moths (last night) and now he describes the flies, then the ants. Everything is shrinking in Jody’s eyes as Jody grows more mature, by observing the interaction between the men, especially.
CHARACTERS IN “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”
Billy Buck — The middle-aged ranch-hand. Black hat. His father was called Muletail Buck because he packed mules. Though a ranch hand wouldn’t normally shave mid week, he has shaved to meet the Grandfather, because the Grandfather holds him in high esteem. The Grandfather admires that he’s one of the few men who has not ‘gone soft’. (This feels like an accusation every older generation levels against every younger generation of men.)
Jody Tiflin— A spirited, enthusiastic little boy who finds excitement in small things. He tries to do the right thing.
Carl Tiflin — Jody’s father. At the start of the story he is away riding up the ridge of one of the surrounding mountains. Left after dinner (probably the midday meal).
Mrs. Tiflin — Jody’s mother. Inside shelling or chopping beans into a pan. Steinbeck doesn’t give her a first name. She is important to the story only as the mother, daughter and wife.
Mrs. Tiflin’s father — Steinbeck makes us curious about this old man by showing characters talking about him before he arrives on the scene. We learn that he talks only of Indians, and crossing the plains. He repeats the same stories about how the horses got driven off. Earlier in his life he led a wagon train across the plains to the coast. That was his life’s achievement. He was born for that job. But once he got to the ocean there was no more West left. So he settled by the ocean in Monterey.
Then he does turn up and we get the following description:
The grandfather was dressed in a black broad cloth suit and he wore kid congress gaiters and a black tie on a short, hard collar. He carried his black slouch hat in his hand. His white beard was cropped close and his white eyebrows overhung his eyes like moustaches. the blue eyes were sternly merry. About the whole face and figure there was a granite dignity, so that every motion seemed an impossible thing. Once at rest, it seemed the old man would be stone, would never move again. His steps wee slow and certain. Once made, not step could ever be traced; once headed in a direction, the path would never ben nor the pace increase nor slow.
Double-tree Mutt — the black dog. Likes to dig in squirrel holes. Doesn’t realise that dogs don’t catch squirrels by digging holes. There’s another dog as well. They have fleas.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”
A little boy is excited to learn that his grandfather is coming to say. His father, not so much. The old man goes on and on about the short time in his life when he was in his element — leading a band across the prairie to California.
The old man turns up, and sure enough, tells the same old stories. Only the little boy is interested, though he, too, has heard all these stories before. Steinbeck doesn’t bother telling us much of the stories, on the understanding that everyone coming to this short story in 1933 knows the basics of Western expansion. So he summarises:
Jody knew in advance exactly what words would fall. the story droned on, speeded up for the attack, grew sad over the wounds, struck a dirge at the burials and the great plains.
At breakfast, the old man overhears his son-in-law complaining about him telling the same old stories, so he takes a moment outside to reflect. He talks to the grandson, and explains the reason for telling the stories — to underscore the importance of collective spirit, not to revel in the glory of it.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”
The shifting third-person narration does the rounds, but settles most often on the highly empathetic young Jody. Much of the story is filtered through his point of view. Even when it isn’t, directly, the narrator describes things Jody would notice. In this way, “The Leader of the People” is a bit like “What Maisie Knew”, a novel by Henry James first published 1897. I suspect Steinbeck was influenced by James.
It seems Jody is quite isolated on that farm — there are no other kids to join him in his games, so his best hope is persuading an old man to join him.
Jody isn’t especially empathetic, either. He sees the mice purely as opponents to be conquered. Though is father has a more nuanced and grim view of the wars between the whites and the native peoples, Jody is yet to learn any of it. He’s all about the sticks and the guns. By the end of the story he’ll have a slightly more nuanced view on American history.
Jody wants to listen to his grandfather tell exciting stories about cowboys and Indians. then he wants to engage him in his own farm-sized Battle between himself and the mice, though the mice are only into haystacks that are no longer any use, and hurting no one.
The mother is positioned as Jody’s opposition because she is not playful and she also sees through his motivations.
The father is an even bigger opposition because, as Steinbeck describes, everything Jody does has to be run by him first.
As far as Jody’s concerned, his play opponents, in his miniature world, are the mice.
Jody will encourage his grandfather to tell stories, then coax him into the mouse hunting game.
This is an interesting technique I’m noticing a lot–the Battle promised is not the Battle we get. In this story, Jody is all about the big fight between himself, the dogs and the mice in the haystacks. Ostensibly, Steinbeck leads the story towards that. First the cast members turn up, then Jody finds a stick… we see the dogs on a mission for squirrels, so we know the actors involved.
But there is no mouse catching scene. That Battle is purely symbolic. Instead we get the awkward scene at the breakfast table, where the old man overhears his son-in-law. (The exact same plot point is used in “Old Man Minick” by Edna Ferber). We know this is the real, structural Battle because the Self-revelations follow swiftly after.
Both the old man and the little boy have their own Self-revelation, in keeping with the gigantic/miniatures theme Steinbeck’s got going on.
The old man overhears his son-in-law and realises the time for those stories is gone, or rather, people mistake his reason for telling those stories. He doesn’t mean to turn himself into a hero. He means to convey the idea that ‘It was a whole bunch of people make into one big crawling beast.’
Here’s Jody’s more naive Self-revelation:
Jody changed his course and moved toward the house. He leaned his fail against the steps. “That’s to drive the mice out,” he said. “I’ll bet they’re fat. I’ll bet they don’t know what’s going to happen to them today.”
“No, nor you either,” Billy remarked philosophically, “nor me, nor anyone.”
Jody was staggered by this thought. He knew it was true. His imagination twitched away from the mouse hunt. Then his mother came out on the back porch and struck the triangle and all thoughts fell in a heap.
The Self-revelation for the reader is that Western expansion was expansion for the sake of expansion. Pretty much every ‘Western’ since WW2 has been ‘anti-Western’ rather than Western — highlighting the fruitlessness and misery of American expansionism rather than the glory. So Steinbeck is slightly ahead of his time in writing a Western story (story within a story) in which an old man looks back on his life as a pioneer and sees it in a deterministic, pessimistic way:
But it wasn’t getting here that mattered, it was movement and westering.
Then, in case we missed it, Steinbeck gives us some dialogue which directly compares the futility of human expansionism to the industry of ants.
We carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs.
I’ll argue the mother and father have their own minor revelations as well: Carl learns that he’s better off letting the old man speak; the mother learns that her little boy has matured somewhat overnight, asking for a lemon for Grandfather’s lemonade, when previously he used the excuse of Grandfather to get away with doing things he might not ordinarily be allowed to do.
Everyone in this extended family has changed a little, and they’ll probably get along a little better now.