Random Thoughts

Reprising Wallace Stegner's book

... or two

by Ed Boyd

When I retired twenty-one years ago in 1995, I was the Clinical Director of Mental Health Services
in Newburyport and Haverhill, I often went to the Book Rack in Newburyport. In a spare moment with
lots of cash in my pockets, I came out of the Book Rack with a whole bunch of books. My taste ran to
short stories and essays. I put these books away to look at later and never did.  So it was not too
surprising to find a book I had overlooked Or,,,?
                                    

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 Stegner’s essays, on Steinbeck’s Story “Flight” captured my attention as I am a long 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 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 looses 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 he 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.”  



April 1, 2016


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