Random Thoughts

A deadly take on manhood

... amazed at what I find

by Ed Boyd


                                    
I found on my shelf a book of essays by Wallace Stegner, “Where the Bluebird Sings
to the Lemonade Springs” that I was surprised to find. After my stroke a few years
ago, I keep finding books of mine that I never knew I had.

One of Steger’s essays, “On Steinbeck’s Story ‘Flight’” captured my attention as I
am a long time fan of John Steinbeck. Steinbeck could never publish “Flight” so he
published all of his short stories in “The Long Valley” in 1938. Stegner speculates
about why this story was never published. He says it was a little long compared to
other stories of the time, but Stegner is not satisfied with that explanation. My
thought is that the short form just was not popular at that time. It was not until
the ‘60’s that Raymond Carver revived the short story.

I went to the library and found a Penguin copy of “The Long Valley”. I wanted to see
for myself if I liked “Flight” as much as Stegner did. Stegner says that these short
stories where all written between the fall of 1933 and the summer of 1934.

Apparently Steinbeck set up a table outside his mother’s room and wrote at odd hours
anticipating his mother’s death. Stegner says, “…little wonder that he wrote short.”
“Flight” is a story about Pepe, a nineteen year old who wishes to become a man.
Stegner offers, “Steinbeck always tried to become the character he was writing
about, and the change of title from ‘Manhunt,’ which suggests an exterior view, to
‘Flight,’ which expresses how it feels from within, demonstrates that tendency.”   

In the very first pages we learn of Pepe’s knife. “Pepe’s wrist flicked like the
head of a snake. The blade seemed to fly open in mid-air, and with a thump the point
dug into the redwood post, and the black handle quivered.” Someone said way back
that if a gun appears in the first scene you can
bet it will get used, shortly.

Meantime, Mama decides that she needs Pepe to go to Monterey for medicine and salt.
Pepe says, “Si, Mama. I will be careful. I am a man.” “Thou? A man? Thou art a
peanut.”

In these two sentences Steinbeck seems to infuse the bravado of a boy with mother’s
denial.

Pepe goes to Monterey and is supposed to stay with Mrs. Rodrigues but instead
returns to Mama. “Pepe drank wine. The little quarrel - the man started toward Pepe
and then the knife - it went almost by itself. It flew, it darted before Pepe knew
it.” “I am a man now, Mama. The man said names to me I could not allow.” This is an
impulse act of an adolescent for which he will be hunted down as we will see.

Mama realizes immediately that Pepe will have to leave as men will be looking for
him. “Go now”, she said. “Do not wait to be caught like a chicken.” “Pepe pulled
himself into the saddle. I am a man, he said.” I take this to mean that Steinbeck
intends to give Pepe bravado, an inflated sense of self.

Pepe's journey takes us through dazzling, transcendent sense of place in the Santa
Lucia Mountains: “Soon the canyon sides became steep and the first giant sentinel
redwoods guarded the trail, great round red trunks bearing foliage as green and lacy
as ferns. Once Pepe was among the trees, the sun was lost. A perfumed and purple
light lay in the pale green of the underbrush. Gooseberry bushes and blackberries and tall ferns lined the stream, and overhead the branches of redwoods met and cut off the sky.” Steinbeck fills these gorgeous
descriptions of scenes through out Pepe’s journey. Such spectacular scenes might
have warranted publication.

The journey goes on toward Pepe’s doom. He loses his hat, his knife, his gun and his
horse is shot out from under him. Stegner says, “Now begins the divestiture of
everything that he had acquired in the first stage of his manhood.” Forgive me, but
I think this is a misreading of what Steinbeck intended. Steinbeck is too wise to
suggest that Pepe has somehow become a man. Most of Pepe’s claims to be a man are
sheer boastfulness. Pepe is still an impulsive teenager and nothing in Steinbeck’s
writing suggests otherwise.

Consider the ending where Pepe is finally gunned down: “His body struck and rolled
over and over, starting a little avalanche. And when he at last stopped against a
bush, the avalanche slid slowly down and covered his head.”  



July 6, 2012


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