John Steinbeck's "The Leader of the People": A Story of Loss?
America, in its infancy, was like a spirited child, eager to explore, discover, and grow. Men, women, and children, fearless and heroic, marched across miles and miles of uncharted territory, drawn by the mystique of the new and unfamiliar. Men like Jody's grandfather in John Steinbeck's "The Red Pony" led people, horses, and wagons across seemingly endless plains to the majestic mountains and fertile valleys of the West.
Imagine the pioneers' feelings of triumph when at last they reached California or Oregon and saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time! But the movement westward ended there, and the enchantment soon ended. "There's a line of old men along the shore," says Jody's grandfather, "hating the ocean because it stopped them." America had flexed its muscles and stretched its seams to the limit. The "Wild West," the American frontier, was relegated to storybooks and children's games.
Like America, Jody of "The Red Pony," was beginning to outgrow his childhood clothes which brought feelings "of change and of loss and of the gain of new and unfamiliar things." Whether by instinct, experience, or both, he knew that once he crossed the plains, once he took on the responsibilities of a man, there would be no turning back. The wild days of boyhood-days that Jody's father only spoke of when his tongue and authority had been relaxed by brandy-would be relegated to childhood memory.
This sense of loss is keenly felt by Jody's grandfather, Mrs. Tiflin's father, who is the "Leader of the People" in the final chapter. Since the time he reached the edge of the continent and could go no further, he has been telling and retelling his stories of "Indians and crossing the plains." For Jody's grandfather, "it was the movement and the westering" that had mattered.
Grandfather is conflicted about "the crossing." He tells Jody that he feels as though it wasn't worthwhile. "I tell those old stories," he continues, "but they're not what I want to tell. I only know how I want people to feel when I tell them." Grandfather decides that what he wants to communicate is a sense of loss: "Then we came down to the sea, and it was done," he said. "That's what I should be telling instead of stories."
Moving, discovery, westering, is that man's ultimate purpose? Jody felt it. He "knew something was there," in the mountains to their west, "something very wonderful because it wasn't known, something secret and mysterious. He could feel within himself that this was so." Grandfather said that "westering had died out of people," but has it?
Grandfather let the ocean strip him of his purpose. He said, "There's no place to go, Jody. Every place is taken." But the American frontier is not lost! It has merely changed. Grandfather hadn't the imagination to see the new American frontiers: the oceans, the planets, the universes. Man's purpose must now reach beyond the mountains and plains; for without a purpose, man is nothing. Westward ho!