Writing to a friend shortly after sending The Pastures of Heaven to his agent, John Steinbeck offered a window into his thoughts on the newly-finished book:
If the reader will take them for what they are, and will not be governed by what a short story should be (for they are not short stories at all, but tiny novels) then they should be charming, but if they are judged by the formal short story, they are lost before they ever start. I am extremely anxious to hear the judgment because of anything I have ever tried, I am fondest of these and more closely tied to them. There is no grand writing nor any grand theme, but I love the stories very much.
Before penning the tiny, interconnected novels that would become The Pastures of Heaven, the young Steinbeck had struggled: his quest to become a writer in New York City had failed; his debut novel, Cup of Gold, was neglected by his publisher’s marketing department and subsequently by readers; and the long, hard slog of writing To a God Unknown was taking a toll.
And although the publication of The Pastures of Heaven would not mark Steinbeck’s breakthrough as a popular writer, the book heralded the great things that were on the horizon.
In his short story cycle The Pastures of Heaven, John Steinbeck plays the role of a journalist of sorts. But whereas journalists nearly always strive to document and recreate external events, Steinbeck—somehow, miraculously—covers the inner workings and the private happenings of minds and motives, hearts and hurts. He draws out and dissects the silences that abound in relationships healthy and toxic, and he does so with deadly accuracy.
The Pastures of Heaven marks the first time Steinbeck worked with material that was squarely in his wheelhouse as a writer. Setting aside the prodigious struggle of writing his novel To a God Unknown, which would take him nearly five years to finish, Steinbeck lighted upon a sweet spot with The Pastures of Heaven that he would turn to time and again throughout his writing life: telling the stories of the people sharing a small valley community set Steinbeck the writer on fire. Hanging his fiction upon this backdrop freed him up to write what is undoubtedly some of his finest work.
The fluctuations of mood, of possibility, even of quality of life, with the entrance or exit of a certain person or persons from a given space, is a common phenomenon, and a universal experience. The air of the day itself seems to change when that paramour knocks on the door, or when that co-worker with the negative attitude calls in sick. Driving around the summer countryside late at night listening to the radio amounts to nothing without my cousin and best friend there to spin such aimless excursions into the good, golden memories I will later turn to when times turn brutal and scary. I know—I’ve tried. I have felt the absence. As have you.
In The Pastures of Heaven, John Steinbeck introduces the Munroe family to his valley setting, Las Pasturas del Cielo, and, sometimes quietly, sometimes boomingly, but always devastatingly, tragedy follows the Munroes’ interactions with their neighbors. The Munroes were actually based on a real family, the Morans. As Steinbeck wrote to his agent:
The valley was for years known as the happy valley because of the unique harmony which existed among its twenty families. About ten years ago a new family moved in on one of the ranches. They were ordinary people, ill-educated but honest and as kindly as any. In fact, in their whole history I cannot find that they have committed a really malicious act nor an act which was not dictated by honorable expediency or out-and-out altruism. But about the Morans there was a flavor of evil. Everyone they came in contact with was injured. Every place they went dissension sprang up. There have been two murders, a suicide, many quarrels and a great deal of unhappiness in the Pastures of Heaven, and all of these things can be traced directly to the influence of the Morans. So much is true.
Steinbeck juggles and tracks and nails down the psychological complexities of everyday exchanges all over the valley in his collection of ten stories, which are bookended by a pair of vignettes. Like an omniscient journalist covering the heartbreaks that happen behind closed doors, Steinbeck is there to tell us the truth about the simple handshake that will lead to a huge disaster, the missed glance and the years of needless yearning that follow in its wake. Denial plays a huge role in the lives of the valley people. Fear plays the biggest part of all. It’s every man for himself, wrestling only with himself. And Steinbeck is there in the sky looking down, all the way down into men’s hearts, and recording everything, the sun his flashbulb, his razor-sharp pen pegging the flaws of his characters and of course all of us. This is what makes us human, these stories say. Isn’t it terrible? Isn’t it wonderful?
The Pastures of Heaven is an uncomfortable, sometimes shocking read. And it’s exhilarating, too, as the pages explode before our eyes with the marriage of a magnificent writer and his strongest subject on the occasion of their consummation. We turn the pages and nod our heads and say, “Yes, that’s the way it is. That’s exactly the way it is. He’s right. I know, because I’ve made these mistakes myself. I have been fearful. I have hurt others at times, even when trying to do good.”
But instead of alienating us, instead of making us feel we’d all be better off if we just let each other alone and stayed home and lived in fear of adding to the clutter and confusion of each other’s lives, The Pastures of Heaven has something else to show us in the end. The sum of all that has come before presents itself in the book’s final piece: When the tourists climb off the bus and stretch their legs and gaze down from the mountain into the beautiful valley and judge that this place, so marvelous to the eye, would be better, would be different, would be like living in heaven on earth, we the readers know better. That valley is populated by men, our equals. We have been given long looks under rugs and behind closed doors, and we have recognized our homes, our families. It’s so easy to forget, but Steinbeck has given us a hard, sharp reminder. For now, we know. Now we see.