Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Eric B. Doesn't Want This Book To Be Forgotten
Ancient pagan beliefs, the great Greek epics, and the Bible all inform this extraordinary novel by Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, which occupied him for more than five difficult years. 

While fulfilling his dead father’s dream of creating a prosperous farm in California, Joseph Wayne comes to believe that a magnificent tree on the farm embodies his father’s spirit. His brothers and their families share in Joseph’s prosperity, and the farm flourishes—until one brother, frightened by Joseph’s pagan belief, kills the tree, allowing disease and famine to descend on the farm. Set in familiar Steinbeck country, To a God Unknown is a mystical tale, exploring one man’s attempt to control the forces of nature and, ultimately, to understand the ways of God and the forces of the unconscious within.

Eric B. says:
"First let me say that I in no way presume to produce a critical essay of Steinbeck’s work. I am simply not worthy of the task. What I intend here is to stimulate interest in a somewhat forgotten work that I think has much to offer the modern reader. I believe it is an especially fruitful source of discussion material for reading groups, especially those concerned with the classics. I’ll explain.

Not having read all of the author’s works, I cannot say that this is a unique, but it is in my experience. So far, all of his books that I have read have been radically different, in my admittedly limited reading. I have not been able to discern to clear pattern of form that unites his work, a trait I admire and enjoy. This has elements that frankly surprise me, both coming from an author I thought I was beginning to know, and that it was, if a limited one, a commercial success at its publication. Particularly if you consider the time, 1933, themes like Steinbeck examines here are slightly shocking to the modern sensibility. Before I go on, please take my advice to read the rather lengthy introduction which will explain much of the sturm and drang of the novel’s creation and the author’s state of mind during the writing of it.

Joseph Wayne is an older son of a Vermont farming family of long tenure. His elderly and somewhat otherworldly father is dying and Joseph can see the end coming for the agricultural life in an increasingly crowded landscape. He wants to go to California where property is free or next to free, growth burgeons and he can establish his own dynasty and legacy. Given a deathbed blessing he embarks on a new life, one of his own crafting and with his hereditary beliefs in powers other than those conventionally acknowledged. The old gods remain in the face of new ones."

He finds the perfect place, southwest of the grand valley in which Salinas resides, in the intermountain valleys just one ridge inland from the sea. The grass is abundant, the forest thick and mysterious. A great oak dominates the space he intends for his home, and he imbues the tree with the spirit of his deceased father and communicates with it intimately, asking favor and seeking forgiveness in much the same way many people relate to the Christian church. The bounty pours forth in the next few years, but darkness hovers and as a result of an especially devout younger brother, it is manifested.

What follows is nothing less than a spellbinding account of a descent into tragedy, classic references abounding, touching on sacrifice, willing and unwilling; devotion; delusion; filial, carnal and spiritual love, and themes that are much larger than ourselves. It is an altogether astounding work of art, carefully crafted (he worked more than 5 years on the manuscript through numerous revisions and it shows) and a profound comment on the human creature’s ability to believe and effect change for good and ill.

I will say without reservation that it is worthy of anyone’s reading list and should not be neglected while one can still turn the page. It deserves a resurrection into the modern list of 'bucket reads'”.

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