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Exploring The Red Pony

“Exploring The Red Pony
by Dr. Susan Shillinglaw, San Jose State University

The Red Pony was written at a time of profound anxiety caused by the incapacitating illness of Steinbeck’s mother. Steinbeck started writing the story while tending her in the hospital, thus testing his ability to focus and create under any circumstances. As he writes in a 1933 letter: “[…] if I can write any kind of story at a time like this, then I can write stories”(A Life in Letters).

The first two stories of The Red Pony, “The Gift” and “The Great Mountains,” were published in The North American Review in 1933, and were quite successful. He wrote the last two stories, “The Promise” and “The Leader of the People” in 1934, but the four stories would not be published together until 1945, when they were included in Steinbeck’s short story collection The Long Valley.

Steinbeck’s own life came to be a source of inspiration for The Red Pony. The Tifflin Ranch was modeled after the ranch of the Hamiltons, Steinbeck’s relatives on his mother’s side, Carl Tifflin’s relationship with his son Jody echoed some of Steinbeck’s own childhood frustrations, and even the red pony had a real life counterpart, the Shetland pony Steinbeck received when he was four years old. But the story does more than to capture familiar people and events. Its function becomes cathartic, in that it allows the writer to deal with his own sense of loss and pain, to come to terms with his own inevitable passage into adulthood.

The Red Pony is a story written from a child’s perspective, the eyes through which we see the events unfold are Jody’s, Steinbeck’s intention being “[…] to make the reader create the boy’s mind for himself”(A Life in Letters). Thus the prose becomes participatory, a technique he will use in mature novels like The Grapes of Wrath(1939) and East of Eden(1952). Even though the four stories do not seem to be connected other than by setting and characters, they are in fact an organic whole, for they all follow Jody’s transformation from an innocent “little boy”, living a carefree and sometimes even careless life, into a young man capable to make mature choices, and to accept fallibility as an inherent part of human nature.

The Red Pony was adapted for the big screen by Milestone in 1949, with Steinbeck as the screenplay writer. He talks about the plans for the movie as early as 1939, in a letter to his publisher Elizabeth Otis: “[Victor] Fleming the director [Gone With the Wind] and Spencer Tracy have wanted to make The Red Pony […]. I don’t know whether anything will come out of it, but here is what I suggested. They were to make the film – no salaries. […] I would not only give the story for nothing, but would work on the script. When finished, it would be distributed to any town or city which would guarantee to use the proceeds to endow one or more children’s beds in the local hospitals”(A Life in Letters 196).

When the movie was finally released in 1949, Steinbeck thought it was quite good. He saw the movie in Los Angeles, where he spent the New Year’s, and seemed please with the cinematic techniques capable to realistically convey the landscape of a certain region: “I think it is good. It will be no smash because of its pace but I think it will play for a long time. Surely it is faithful to the script. And it is the first color film that has looked like this country to me”(A Life in Letters).