Originally posted in March, 2012
I have just finished this, beginning it many months ago, and don’t know why it has taken so long – having been quite gripped by its portentous narrative – apart from the rather feeble reality that I like reading outside in the sun and it has just returned after a long and grey absence.
It is a novella and Steinbeck’s second significant book, completed in 1933 and having taken, apparently, five years to write. It is the polar opposite of Of Mice and Men being laden with language and philosophy. What is does share, however, is a tragic inevitability as the protagonist Joseph Wayne is consumed by his love and worship of the land and eventually sacrifices himself to it, literally, when that land finally rewards him for his gift – not that he can then benefit. But others do, and that is perhaps crucial.
I sound like I am saying Of Mice and Men has no philosophy which would be inaccurate. But To A God Unknown is heavy-handed in this respect, not that this weight in any way dissuaded me – indeed, this and the voluptuous language Steinbeck was exploring to encapsulate such early literary and philosophical preoccupation is the book’s strength. There are times when Joseph’s communing with nature is so intensely realised that you want to partake wholly in its pastoral ideal, though that makes it sound more cerebral than acknowledging the primacy given to the physical commitment required in achieving that spiritual attainment.
It is above all, I think, a humanist attainment too. There seems to be an undercurrent of rejecting Christian precepts of humbling oneself before God in gratitude for what is given through the natural world, and Steinbeck offers a pantheism of which even Coleridge couldn’t conceive. Perhaps it would have been too pagan for someone like Coleridge too.
I am intrigued by the cover of the book that will end this posting and its notion of a ‘lust’ for the land – which is quite appropriate – but is quite inappropriately [if comically] represented by the near-naked female. There is a strong and powerful quest for love through Joseph’s marriage to Elizabeth in the story, but this too has its tragic conclusion.