Friday, February 20, 2015

Adventure classics -- Mountains beyond mountains

The Red Pony

by John Steinbeck


The family of John Steinbeck was obsessed with the legend of his maternal grandfather, Irish immigrant Samuel Hamilton. Steinbeck would transfer Hamilton almost completely (including the name) into his late novel, East of Eden, and fill the earlier stories of The Red Pony with nostalgic memories of visits to the Hamilton family farm in Salinas Valley.

But before Hamilton was the shadowy paternal grandfather, John Adolph Grossteinbeck, who shortened the family name after immigrating to the United States. John Adolph was the fierce-looking, ill-fated wanderer who was the source, Steinbeck believed, of his own sense of adventure.

As a young man, John Adolph had journeyed from his native Germany to Jerusalem with the avowed intention of converting the Jews. Whether this bizarre mission was serious or only an excuse for adventure, it ended tragically, with John Adolph’s brother killed by bandits. Fortunately for literary history, John Adolph lived, married, and immigrated to the United States. Dogged by a strain of bad luck worthy of a Steinbeck story, the family arrived just before the Civil War in Florida, where John Adolph was drafted into the Confederate army. Surviving the war, the family wandered to New England, then across the continent to California.

Steinbeck would draw on both these grandfathers for two of the stories in The Red Pony collection. The first of these “grandfather” stories is “The Great Mountains,” placed in the collection between the two “horse” stories of “The Gift” and “The Promise” discussed last week.

In “The Great Mountains,” the grandfather figure is an old paisano, Gitano, whose family once owned the land where young Jody Tiflin’s family lives. When asked his business, the man only says, “I am Gitano, and I have come back.” What he has come back to do is die on the land of his birth.

He is also the only person who can tell Jody about the mountains that rim the far side of the family ranch, the “great mountains where they went piling back, growing darker and more savage until they finished with one jagged ridge, high up against the west. Curious secret mountains; (Jody) thought of the little he knew about them. “What’s on the other side?” he asked his father once. “More mountains, I guess,” was the only reply. Those are the mountains Gitano both fears and longs for.

Jody’s father refuses the old man more than a single night’s lodging on the ranch, and compares him clumsily to the ranch’s old, past-work horse, Easter. “Old things ought to be put out of their misery¼ one shot, a big noise, one big pain in the head maybe, and that’s all.”

But Jody wants to know more. He visits Gitano in the bunkhouse, to find the old man polishing a weapon, “a lean and lovely rapier with a golden basket hilt. The blade was a thin ray of dark light.” The next morning, Gitano is gone, and so is the old horse, only seen by a passerby, “an old man on an old horse¼ (with) something shining in his hand.”

“(Jody) looked searching at the towering mountains -- ridge after ridge after ridge until at last there was the ocean. For a moment he thought he could see a black speck crawling up the farthest ridge. Jody thought of the rapier and of Gitano. And he thought of the great mountains¼

(Next Friday, Adventure classics concludes a February of animal adventures with a last look at The Red Pony.)

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