Summary and Analysis
The Red Pony - IV. "The Leader of the People"
The first edition of The Red Pony (1938) contained only the first three stories. The final story was originally published later under the title "The Grandfather." When The Red Pony was reissued in 1945, Steinbeck included this story under the title of "The Leader of the People" as the last story of the volume. The inclusion of this story in the 1945 edition shows Steinbeck's intention to round out and to complete a thematic structure for this work.
This final story is interrelated with the first three stories by a symbolic confrontation with death. In the first three stories, we witnessed a type of physical death — the deaths of the red pony, of old Gitano, and of Nellie the mare — and in the final story we not only witness the death of "westering" and of the past, but also the emotional death of the grandfather who realizes that his life is over and also that he is unable to communicate what his life has meant in terms of the settling of the west.
The final story is also subtly connected with the preceding story because at the end of "The Promise," Jody had heard his first swearword and, for the first time in the entire Red Pony, he practices his new swearword now when he refers to the "damn mice" and then "looked over his shoulder to see whether Billy Buck had noticed the mature profanity."
More important, "The Leader of the People" fits neatly as a thematic affinity with "The Great Mountains." Whereas stories one and three have a similar unity in that each deals with a boy's relationship with a horse, stories two and four have a direct thematic unity, as well as distinctive narrative connections.
As in the opening story of this volume, we encounter Billy Buck. He is at work again. The Tiflin ranch is always a place of activity, as we have seen. There is a reference to his raking the last of the old year's haystack and, especially on a farm, one is constantly reminded of harvesting, renewing, and readying for yet another season. And, as in the other three stories of The Red Pony, this story opens quietly: The cattle are calm and disinterested and the air is quiet, so quiet in fact that it can be heard only high above the Tiflin ranch, cupped between the Great Ones and the Gabilans.
Despite the fact that we have seen Jody endure and mature during the agonizing death of his first pony Gabilan, the bloody death of Nellie and the birth of Black Demon and also the mystical appearance and disappearance of old Gitano, Steinbeck still refers to Jody as "the little boy, Jody . . ." as he begins this story. And the epithet is deserved. Steinbeck is far too fine an author to take us through a series of "growing up" exercises in the short story and then end his quartet of tales with a young man almost full-grown in his maturity with one last challenge to master.
Jody scuffs his shoes, defying old admonitions to save good shoe leather, then picks up a stone and startles some white pigeons who are being pestered by a sly cat. He is bored and defiant again, as in the earlier story, "The Promise," and he looks for some animal or something to relieve his boredom; even mice will do. And, as in "The Great Mountains," there is also the anticipation and the arrival of an older person — Gitano in the first story and now the grandfather in this story. Both stories deal with youth and old age and the rapport that is established between a young person (Jody) and an older person. In both stories, the father's personality is emphasized and his failure to understand the older person emphasizes the young boy's ability to both understand and to empathize with the older person.
After establishing in the first part of the story a sense of the boredom and tedium of ranch life, Jody plans for a full-scale war on the mice: He makes plans to kill all of the mice which have grown "sleek, arrogant" and "smug in their security" for eight months now. The mice hunt will later be denigrated when Grandfather compares it to the crossing of the Great Plains.
The only thing delaying the mouse war is Carl Tiflin. Billy is strong to caution Jody not to begin hunting the mice until Carl has given him his permission. Like ourselves, Jody needs no reminder: "Carl Tiflin insisted upon giving permission for anything that was done on the ranch, whether it was important or not."
For lack of anything better to do on a lazy March afternoon, Doubletree Mutt is busy trying to rout a squirrel from a hole and, while waiting for his father, Jody is idly watching. It is the dog that alerts Jody to the distant figure on horseback, moving down the road toward the house. Carl Tiflin carries a letter, and after Steinbeck has established the tedium of activity on the farm for a young boy, the rest of the story is built around the impending visit of Jody's grandfather, Carl Tiflin's father-in-law, to the farm. In those days, to a young boy any visit would have been something to be greatly anticipated, but the visit of his grandfather is a special event because it was he who led a vast group of pioneers across the prairie, through Indian country, into this valley. But as much as Jody looks forward to the visit, his father dreads the visit because the grandfather, he knows, will continue to tell the same stories over and over again, using the same words, the same pauses, the same phrases, and the same tedium. Mrs. Tiflin, however, recognizes that the wagon train trip across the prairie was the single most momentous thing in her father's life. And for a change, she isn't "looking up from a pan of beans," "pouring boiling water," "working at the stove," or sending blankets to old Gitano. For the first time in this novel, she visibly disapproves of her husband's attitude. She halts what we have seen to be dutiful acquiescence and "her face darkened angrily."
Even when Carl looks away from her, she demands to know the reason for his resentment of her father. At last Mrs. Tiflin has taken on new color as a character and aroused our interest in what has largely been a male-oriented piece of western fiction.
Even Jody is aware of the change within his mother. At one point in the altercation, he is as excitedly explosive as one of his dogs after a rabbit when he hears that Grandfather will be soon telling stories about Indians, but Carl dismisses his son with a verbal ousting. Later, outside the house, the young boy hears his mother become logical and compassionate without yielding to whining or complaining. She had a vague sense of why old Gitano felt the need to "come home"; now she feels it even more clearly in her own father's desire to rejoin his blood kin and relive his youth and his last days with them. There is nothing else. The old man forged ahead years ago; he was stopped only by an ocean -otherwise, he'd still be pioneering new frontiers.
Carl is stubborn and so it is Jody who goes to meet his grandfather. His joy is so expectant that he does his chores thoroughly and quickly and whistles for the dogs.
As in so many of Steinbeck's stories, the emotional impact of this story comes from the pathos created by the position that the grandfather finds himself in, a position similar to that of old Gitano — but whereas Gitano was quiet and mysterious, Grandfather is ready to share his legacy of folklore. Thus various attitudes toward him are all early established in this story. Jody, as with all young boys, is fascinated by stories of the old west — the wagon trains, the Indians, the fighting, the crossing of the plains, and the men and women who lived and died during those days. Billy Buck, whose own father lived in those exciting days of the past and who was known to Grandfather, is a respectful listener. Mrs. Tiflin, being the daughter of the man who was a leader of the people, is very tolerant and defensive about her father's stories. Only Carl seems to be bored and angered with hearing the same stories time and time again. And again, Carl is not being deliberately cruel. It is, instead, his view that the great crossing is completed: it is over and the west is conquered and the new task before man is the settling of the new frontier. Carl is a man who fashioned the west from a frontier into a settled place for civilization. But, now, he must renounce his aims for a time and return to another time; now the emphasis is upon the grandfather and his relationship to the past and also his influence upon Jody.
When Jody wants his grandfather to join in the upcoming mouse hunt, Grandfather asks, "Have the people of this generation come down to hunting mice? They aren't very strong, the new people, but I hardly thought mice would be game for them." The mice have replaced the Indians, but so have ranches replaced the wild untamed prairies. And the grandfather who cannot participate in a mouse hunt can also find no more frontiers to conquer. At the end of the story, he has to try and evaluate his position and his relationship to the past. To him, the mere idea of westering was important, and had the prairie continued farther, he would still be westering; but with the ocean facing him, it all had to stop, and civilization had to begin.
Thus the grandfather no longer fits into today's society, a society which puts little or no emphasis on the westering of the past.
The dilemma of the grandfather is thus not that there is no more land to conquer — no more westering to be done — but that somehow he cannot discover how to communicate the spirit of westering: the feelings, desires, and motives that brought a group of people together to form a strong single unit to cross the endless prairies. The grandfather knows that what he did had to be done and he is proud that he was a leader, but he also knows that if he had not done so and had he not been the leader, there would have been others to fill his place. His confusion, therefore, stems primarily from his inability to communicate his feelings to the younger generation.
The climax of the story comes when the grandfather inadvertently overhears Carl Tiflin say in irritation: "Why does he have to tell the stories over and over? He came across the plains. All right! Now it's finished. Nobody wants to hear about it over and over." The old grandfather is not visibly hurt by the reality of Carl's statements, but goes to the porch to try and sort out the place that westering had had in his life and in the settling of the west.
Even though the grandfather thinks that he isn't telling the stories correctly, yet he does manage to communicate with Jody. In this final story of Steinbeck's quartet, Jody approaches perhaps his finest moment of maturity as he puts aside his own desires and, instead, devotes his energies to his grandfather. After hearing his grandfather's long story, Jody asks for a lemon to make his grandfather a lemonade. Jody's mother automatically assumes that he is doing it only so that he can also have a lemonade and sarcastically says, "and another lemon to make a lemonade for you." When he refuses for himself, she at first assumes that he is sick, then realizes, as does the reader, that Jody has reached a state of selfless maturity which will allow him to feel deep compassion for another human being. Thus, in each of the stories — "The Gift," "The Great Mountains," "The Promise," and "The Leader of the People" — Steinbeck shows us unique ways in which young Jody undergoes certain experiences and, as a result, comes closer to a realization of true manhood. In addition, each of these stories has carried as its theme the conflict between the old and the new. This story, in particular, began with Billy Buck's raking together what was left of the old hay stack to make room for the new and focused on the mice ("smug, sleek, arrogant") Grandfather's concept of many twentieth-century men.
To Grandfather, men today have grown soft and lost the pioneering spirit which required strength and courage. Grandfather says: "They aren't very strong, the new people . . . Me carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs." His generation was persistent and indefatigable, like the ants.
Furthermore, Grandfather tells Jody that he served as head of this "one great crawling beast." Like the crawling beast, the frontiersmen hungered for land and excitement and courageously frolicked with death and danger as they lumbered across the west.
Now there is no longer any demand for the group who welds people together in order to enhance their chances for survival. The narrator metaphorically underscores the demise of the old hero, for as Grandfather speaks, the narrator tells us "his eyes moved up the side-hill and stopped on a motionless hawk perched on a dead limb." Relating Grandfather with this immobile bird on a dead branch suggests the end of the frontier spirit. But this does not necessarily mean that modern man has become totally lax and debilitated. Grandfather, so caught up imaginatively with his own glorious past, fails to realize the strengths of the present age. Life with nature still demands hard work and the emotional and mental stamina necessary to cope with uncertainty and failure, so much a part of farm life. Gabilan, the show pony, was beautiful and lovable, but he could not endure the hardships of the rugged ranch life. Black Demon promises to survive in this kind of environment because he possesses the vital spirit of nature itself; his conception was strong and vigorous and he was faced with the death of his mother at birth, a loss to which he has to adjust with his own determination and physical stamina. Yet he will most likely grow up to be a pet horse — gentle, playful, and considerate — a domesticated rather than a wild animal.
If this assumption is correct, Black Demon resembles the leader of the new generation, Jody Tiflin. Jody too displays a sympathetic and magnanimous attitude toward his grandfather that the other members of the family do not do. And in so doing he breaks down the barriers between the generations. Jody gives up his mice hunt to visit with Grandfather, and Grandfather in return doffs his old feeling of superiority. He agrees to drink a lemonade, an act which symbolizes his communion with the present age. Thus the old and the new orders abandon their differences and merge into one endless stream of time just as the old haystack makes way for the new one.