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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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Review: The Pastures of Heaven

The Pastures of Heaven - James Nagel, John Steinbeck

In 1919, Sherwood Anderson published a collection of short stories centering around a town. The book was called Winesburg, Ohio. It remained popular into the 1930s. Around this time, a young journalist named Elizabeth Ingels developed an idea of interconnected stories similar to Anderson's work, but based in California. She mentioned the idea to a young writer named John Steinbeck. At the time, Steinbeck was struggling with his first novel (the later published To a God Unknown) and had managed to publish his second (the cringe-worthy Cup of Gold). He had yet to find his voice and his readers. So he did what any young, unappreciated artist has at least struggled with—he borrowed a good idea.

Now I've heard the argument from some of Steinbeck's devoted fans and scholars: Steinbeck's idea was unique from Ingels' original concept... Ingels wasn't ever going to do anything with the idea anyway... whatever. It doesn't matter and here's why: this book kind of sucks (relatively speaking, anyway). No, some people love it. Many do in fact. I didn't. I consider this one of the author's worsts. This is the twenty-second book I've read of Steinbeck's and, well, personally,Burning Bright made a bigger impact on me. Burning Bright? The experimental one about circus clowns and farmers and sailors? Yes, that one.

What the casual reader of Steinbeck may not know is that the author's earliest works are often far from the realism that Steinbeck is generally known for. The author repeatedly tried to separate himself from this label, a categorization that was cemented with works such as In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath. This spiritual, magical Steinbeck is most evident in the author's earliest books and latest books. Sometimes these subtle elements of magic worked for the author, other times they didn't; largely, they're either missed or ignored.

The Pastures of Heaven holds some of this early Steinbeck magic. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn't. Either way, the collection as a whole has a rather absurd feel to it. Curses, gnomes, and sex-dealing proprietors of a Mexican restaurant who take “buy one, get one free” to a new level... yet, it's all Steinbeck. The author didn't spend as much time with the setting as he did in later works, but his signature style of laying out the scenery and breathing life into it is intact.

But where The Pastures of Heaven succeeds most is in its characters. I would argue that, amongst Steinbeck's earliest works, this is one of his most character-centric books. These are brief character studies of the people who populate the valley. In these short pieces, no character is given the time to be developed fully, however. Aside from some of the characters, and a couple stories, there's nothing horribly exciting about this collection. Compared to Steinbeck's greatest works, nothing in these stories stands out. Compared to the town of Winesburg, Ohio, however, Las Pasturas del Cielo, California, is much more spellbinding.