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The Long Valley by John Steinbeck
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The Long Valley (1939)

by John Steinbeck

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I tried a couple of stories from this anthology, but Steinbeck and I have grown apart so much over the years, that I just didn't want to read any more of them. ( )
  aulsmith | Aug 7, 2015 |
Absolutely marvelous collection of short stories! Themes are not always easy to pinpoint, but the details and the story dynamics show the hand of a true master. He wrote this before he wrote the ‘Grapes of Wrath’, and you can even find one scene from that novel as a short story in this collection! In any case, I liked it a lot better than his ‘East of Eden’ and ‘The winter of our discontent’. Grapes of Wrath, of course, remains his masterpiece, due to the potent theme that shows what penury can do to human dignity. He showed this for the migrant workers, but we can see that everywhere today, among the bankers, the consultants, even the players of the publishing sector. ( )
  CorinneT | Jul 31, 2015 |
I've read about half of this collection before in various places. And I would agree that the best stories in The Long Valley are those which have been heavily anthologized. But reading them again in the context of the whole collection was surprisingly enjoyable. Here you get a wide range of Steinbeck's tone with a single theme throughout: violence.

As with all collections, some stories were weaker than others. In particular, I wasn't a fan of “The Murder,” a story which seemingly justifies the abuse of a wife. Having never seen Steinbeck as a raging misogynist, I chalk this story up to an objective portrayal of the culture at the time. Other stories in this collection may imply I'm wrong, however. We'll leave it at that.

Certainly, Steinbeck was primarily a novelist. He wasn't a masterful short story writer, but that doesn't mean he couldn't write a short story. Obviously, he could. I enjoyed this collection despite its limitations. Steinbeck fans should definitely get around to reading this one. Others may just wish to stick with the more heavily anthologized stories (e.g. “The Chrysanthemums,” “Flight”). ( )
  chrisblocker | Jul 23, 2015 |
John Steinbeck

The Long Valley

Book-of-the-Month Club, Hardback, 1995.

8vo. 303 pp.

First published, 1938.

Contents*

The Chrysanthemums [October 1937, Harper’s Magazine]
The White Quail [March 1935, North American Review]
Flight
The Snake [June 22, 1935, Monterey Beacon]
Breakfast [November 9, 1936, Pacific Weekly]
The Raid [October 1934, North American Review]
The Harness [June 1938, Atlantic Monthly]
The Vigilante [October 1936, Esquire, as “The Lonesome Vigilante”]
Johnny Bear [September 1937, Esquire, as “The Ears of Johnny Bear”]
The Murder [April 1934, North American Review]
Saint Katy the Virgin [1936, New York: Covici-Friede]
The Red Pony:
I. The Gift [November 1933, North American Review]
II. The Great Mountains [December 1933, North American Review]
III. The Promise [May 1937, Harper’s Magazine]
Leader of the People [August 1936, Argosy]

*In square brackets, details of the first publication. “Flight” was first published in this collection.

==================================================​

Four of the fifteen stories in this collection (“The Chrysanthemums”, “The Murder”, “The Harness” and “The Gift”) I had known from anthologies. I have nothing more to say about them except that I found them even more compelling studies of monotonous existence and lost youth (“The Chrysanthemums”), the ultimate bondage of marriage (“The Harness”), homicide as the road to marital happiness (“The Murder”), and childhood sensitivity, parental callousness and equine psychology (“The Gift”) than when I read them for the first time.

The other eleven stories were all new experiences. Some of them didn’t leave much of a trace. “Flight” starts off well as an unconventional coming-of-age tale but wears out its welcome very quickly; the “flight” itself is much too long and not terribly exciting. “The White Quail” is a subtle portrait of a woman with overactive imagination and fetish for gardens, but I found the ending incomprehensible enough to ruin the whole story. If you know why the husband did what he did, please let me know too. “The Breakfast” is not a story but a sketch for one. Even with the benefit of some background about the working conditions of cotton pickers in California of the 1930s, the “story” remains too slight to be engaging. The bizarre plot of “The Snake”, as Steinbeck admitted himself[1], was firmly based on a real story. The rather crude hints about “sexual symbolism” towards the end do nothing to elevate the piece. Many readers may also find the details about animal experiments very unpleasant.

None of these stories is unreadable or tedious. All of them are written with exquisite simplicity and deal, or attempt to deal, with deeper issues than mere entertainment. All of them, however, give me the impression of first drafts that were never fleshed out. The rest of the stories, seven pieces altogether, are a mixed bag, too, but on the whole they are worthier to stand besides the quartet that made it to anthologies.

“The Raid” is an atmospheric and surprisingly suspenseful tale that deals very much with the same subject as In Dubious Battle (1936), one of Steinbeck’s lesser known novels. Two “red rats”, one veteran and one newcomer, are trying to preach against “the System” and for “the Principle”. Predictably, they end up busted in the prison hospital. I cannot help wondering if the world wouldn’t be a better place if such people used their tremendous courage and resourcefulness for the promotion of less dubious notions. Note Steinbeck’s persistent use of sounds (leaves rustling, dogs barking) to create an atmosphere of anxiety and impending disaster and the touching hints of master-student (father-son even) relationship between the two characters.

“Johnny Bear” is a humorous story with tragic overtones. You know Old Sam, the halfwit who could play any tune on the piano once he heard it? Well, Johnny Bear could do pretty much the same with human voices once he overheard them. You buy him a drink and he’ll make a great show for you, or as beautifully described by the first-person narrator: “He’s just a kind of recording and reproducing device, only you use a glass of whiskey instead of a nickel.” I don’t want to give away any of the plot twists or the slightly contrived but still effective ending. I only want to note that, in between Johnny’s show and the moving tragedy in the background, the story also contains some of the best descriptions of quiet bar conviviality I’ve ever read and even a social dimension as regards a small town’s ideas of respectability. Not bad for 25 pages!

“The Vigilante” is a shocking story shockingly based on true events. On November 16, 1933, in San Jose, California, John Maurice Holmes and Thomas Harold Thurmond were lynched.[2] What makes this little, told mostly in retrospection and rather plotless story much more than a cheap shocker is the perspective. It is one of the most active members of the lynch mob who is sort of protagonist. He’ll tell you rather smugly that he was one of the first to rush in the jail and he helped to pull on the rope in the park. And yet Steinbeck manages to invest this character with dignity and even pathos. The revolting crime is presented as his way – his only way – to escape the horror of loneliness. Nobody can help him there: only the bloodthirsty mob, only for a short while. The original title is more accurate and arresting, but even that can hardly prepare you for something so haunting, so disturbing and so gorgeously written:

The moment he left the outskirts of the mob a cold loneliness fell upon him. He walked quickly along the street wishing that some other man might be walking beside him. The wide street was deserted, empty, as unreal as the park had been. The two steel lines of the car tracks stretched glimmering away down the street under the electroliers, and the dark store windows reflected the midnight globes.

“Saint Katy the Virgin” is the maverick here. It is a completely unexpected thing to come from the pen of John Steinbeck. France in the fourteenth century is a far cry from California in the twentieth, to begin with. A hilarious fable about a vicious pig turned saint under the benevolent influence of Christianity is rather different stuff from the harrowing tales of human unhappiness that occupy the rest of the collection. I can’t imagine how this story could be filmed, but it would make a delightful cartoon.

“The Red Pony” is a strange but powerful work. The first three stories were published in book form as a limited edition in 1937; “The Leader of the People” was added for the 1945 edition. Apart from recognisably the same characters and the same farm, the links between the stories are loose; only the first piece features a red pony and only the third refers to it. The four stories hardly form a cycle, let alone a novel (as some misguided readers are apt to call them). They are perfectly self-sufficient and best appreciated separately.

I was not surprised to find out that “The Gift” is far and away the finest story of the bunch. It sets impossibly high standards. “The Promise” feels like a variation if not repetition, but it is less intense and less affecting, including the rather gruesome ending. “The Great Mountains” and “The Leader of the People” also explore common idea, the coming of an old man and the burden of his memories, but the latter story is much the better one. The old man in this case is Jody’s grandfather, once “The Leader of the People” who were “westering and westering”, but today just a store of old stories nobody wants to listen to. Some of his lines have symbolic poignancy that is really shattering:

“We carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs. And I was the leader. The westering was as big as God, and the slow steps that made the movement piled up and piled up until the continent was crossed.
“Then we came down to the sea, and it was done.”

[…]
“There’s no place to go. There’s the ocean to stop you. There’s a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them.”
[…]
“No place to go, Jody. Every place is taken. But that’s not the worst—no, not the worst. Westering has died out of the people. Westering isn’t a hunger any more. It’s all done. Your father is right. It is finished.” He laced his fingers on his knee and looked at them.”

Jody himself, ten-years-old in the first story and not much older in the last, with his joy of life and youthful arrogance, his self-conscious shyness and half-conscious cruelty, his vividly described fears, doubts and yearnings, his troubled relationships with a domineering father, a surreptitiously affectionate mother and the “ranch hand” Billy Buck, is a superb feat of characterisation that makes even the worst of these stories (“The Great Mountains”, by far) worth re-reading. “The Gift”, which I found almost unbearably painful on this re-reading, remains one of the finest pieces of short fiction ever penned by anybody.

I don’t quite understand why The Long Valley is among the least reviewed works by John Steinbeck. Certainly, the stories are uneven and, with the exception of “The Red Pony” and unlike his first collection, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), not thematically related. Then again, nearly all short story collections are uneven, and thematic unity is by no means an obligatory condition (rather to the contrary, I should think) for greatness. It may be argued convincingly that Steinbeck is a better novelist than he is a short story writer. This is not to say that he didn’t produce masterpieces of short fiction. He sure did. Some of the stories in The Long Valley may not bear another reading, but the collection on the whole demonstrates Steinbeck’s artistic versatility, enviable powers of description and characterisation, and, above all, compassionate humanity.

__________________________________________________​

[1] See “About Ed Ricketts” from The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). The essay was originally a preface, but nowadays it is usually relegated to the ungrateful role of appendix. The biologist from “The Snake” was, of course, based on Ed Ricketts. Steinbeck describes the real-life inspiration for the plot – spoiler ahead! – like this:

Mysteries were constant at the laboratory. A thing happened one night which I later used as a short story. I wrote it just as it happened. I don’t know what it means and do not even answer the letters asking what its philosophic intent is. It just happened. Very briefly, this is the incident. A woman came in one night wanting to buy a male rattlesnake. It happened that we had one and knew it was a male because it had recently copulated with another snake in the cage. The woman paid for the snake and then insisted that it be fed. She paid for a white rat to be given it. Ed put the rat in the cage. The snake struck and killed it and then unhinged its jaws preparatory to swallowing it. The frightening thing was that the woman, who had watched the process closely, moved her jaws and stretched her mouth just as the snake was doing. After the rat was swallowed, she paid for a year’s supply of rats and said she would come back. But she never did come back. What happened or why I have no idea. Whether the woman was driven by a sexual, a religious, a zoophilic, or a gustatory impulse we never could figure. When I wrote the story just as it happened there were curious reactions. One librarian wrote that it was not only a bad story but the worst story she had ever read. A number of orders came in for snakes. I was denounced by a religious group for having a perverted imagination, and one man found symbolism of Moses smiting the rock in the account.

[2] John Steinbeck, The Long Valley, Penguin Classics, 1995, ed. John H. Timmerman, "Explanatory Notes", p. 229. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Oct 22, 2014 |
Steinbeck's works include several collections of short stories, some connected by a discernible narrative thread, others more traditional in organization. The Pastures of Heaven depends on a particular locale with some stories using recurring characters, others not. Tortilla Flat is really a collection of more coherent short stories using a recurring cast of characters in a particular locale rather than the usual "plot."

The Long Valley is even more loosely organized than The Pastures of Heaven. The commonality is the location--the Salinas Valley of California. In the thirteen stories that make up this work, only the final two have the same characters, The Red Pony and Leader of the People.

The Long Valley is a disturbing work, because in it, Steinbeck, who clearly loved the land, just as clearly reveals that while he does not sit in judgement, he is at best neutral towards his characters; there is nothing like the affection he has for Danny and his friends and the ne'er-do-wells like Mac and the boys of Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, respectively. Almost without exception the people who live in the Long Valley are driven by loneliness, despair, fear, shame, or a grim sense of duty that seems to render any kind of happiness impossible. In his most famous story, The Red Pony, he extends that viewpoint towards children. Jody has the spirit of any small boy, but his parents, particularly his father, place severe restraints on the natural exuberance of childhood. We all know that children can be cruel, but Steinbeck turns that remorseless eye of his on the way that cruelty can be expressed in actions towards animals that are either tolerated or actually encouraged as a way of dealing with farm problems. In today's world, it's not pretty.

Concerned all his life with social justice issues, especially that of agricultural labor, The Raid is a continuation of the sort of story about Communist labor organizers that he pursued at much greater length in the novel In Dubious Battle and later in The Grapes of Wrath. However, as In Dubious Battle, the characters in The Raid are wooden--stereotypes that never really come to life, living a life of hard-to-believe idealism when faced with acknowledged insurmountable obstacles. They simply are not real.

I have a real quibble with the organization of the book. Whoever determined the order of the stories made the final impact anticlimactic, ending with Leader of the People instead of The Red Pony. The innocent Jody of the first story is not the emotionally battered, distrusting Jody of the end of The Red Pony. The entire work would have been greatly improved by reversing the order of the two stories.

This was not an easy read. It is one of Steinbeck's darker works, revealing underneath gorgeous descriptive prose of his beloved Salinas Valley a view of the people in it that is not the easy affection of the Monterey stories, but a very somber look at the dark underside of Paradise. ( )
1 vote Joycepa | Jan 4, 2009 |
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John Steinbeckprimary authorall editionscalculated
Timmerman, John H.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Includes: The Chrysanthemums; The White Quail; Flight; The Snake; Breakfast; The Raid; The Harness; The Vigilante; Johnny Bear; The Murder; Saint Katy the Virgin; from The Red Pony: The Gift, The Great Mountains, The Promise; and The Leader of the People.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140187456, Paperback)

Today, nearly forty years after his death, Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck remains one of America?s greatest writers and cultural figures. We have begun publishing his many works for the first time as blackspine Penguin Classics featuring eye-catching, newly commissioned art. This season we continue with the seven spectacular and influential books East of Eden, Cannery Row, In Dubious Battle, The Long Valley, The Moon Is Down, The Pastures of Heaven, and Tortilla Flat. Penguin Classics is proud to present these seminal works to a new generation of readers?and to the many who revisit them again and again."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:53 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

These 12 short stories set in Steinbeck's birthplace of Salinas Valley California, reflect his persistent themes, including the tension between town and country and the struggle of ordinary people trying to find their way in the world.

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