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Critical Essay by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
SOURCE: "Natural Wisdom: Steinbeck's Men of Nature as Prophets and Peacemakers," in Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., University of Alabama Press, 1997, pp. 113-24.
In the following essay, McEntyre discusses the self-knowledge and compassion acquired by Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath and Doc in Cannery Row through solitary communion with nature. According to McEntyre, "In these two figures, Casy and Doc, Steinbeck incorporates a complex vision of wisdom derived from attentiveness to the natural world."
Steinbeck's prophets, men of broad understanding and acceptance, draw their vision from the natural world. Jim Casy, a lapsed preacher and wise counselor to the Joad family, finds new faith in love of nature and renewed purpose through his involvement with the people of the earth. At the center of Cannery Row, is Doc, marine biologist, whose holistic vision and compassionate attention to human needs are similarly drawn from close observation of his environment and nature. Through a nonteleological acceptance of what is, both the rigorous scientist and the intuitive preacher recognize the interconnectedness of creation.
Steinbeck's indebtedness to the American transcendentalists, particularly Emerson and Whitman, has been noted frequently. That relationship lies partly in his way of looking upon the natural world as a source of knowledge, a text to replace or expand upon Scripture, which teaches those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. For Steinbeck, as for his predecessors, the wise man was above all else defined by his discerning relationship to the natural world, allowing it to inform his understanding of human relations and enterprises.
In several of Steinbeck's novels we encounter variations on the type of the wise man—a character whose self-knowledge, compassion for human frailty, and sharp intuitions come from close association with the natural world. Two of the most notable of these are Casy, the preacher in The Grapes of Wrath, and Doc in Cannery Row. Both are solitaries who take frequent "flights into the wilderness" but who live among people who rely upon them for guidance. Both understand themselves and others with an insight that at times seems prophetic, and indeed in the motley circles they frequent they are accorded special status as counselors and wise men. Both are more educated than those around them, but each in his way has rejected the institutional forms and frameworks that endowed him with professional credentials and lives as a maverick of sorts, moving easily among circles of people to none of which he belongs. Both are explicitly linked with images of Jesus, though neither is conventionally religious. Both are "nonteleological thinkers" in the sense in which Steinbeck claimed that he himself viewed the world: not in terms of defined purposes, but with what he called "is thinking"—acceptance without second-guessing of the divine plan.
For each, the source of wisdom and virtue appears to lie in communion with nature. And each, communing with nature, assumes the status and role of prophet in his community. Indeed it might be said that in these characters Steinbeck is working out a definition of prophecy and the importance of the prophet in modern life, not as one who calls for specific acts of repentance and return to a convenantal tradition, but as one who sees into the heart of nature and speaks forth what lesson it teaches. In doing so he, in effect, issues a warning call to turn away from those forms of civilized life that remove us from what Robinson Jeffers, Steinbeck's contemporary and fellow Californian, called "the great humaneness at the heart of things." And like Jeffers, he writes as one who is himself a visionary trying to find a language for the ultimate interconnectedness of all creation as a means for understanding what as humans we must do.
Steinbeck's most explicit articulation of this vision is given in Sea of Cortez, where he describes "nonteleological thinking" as a way of understanding the natural and thence the social world independent of the causal relations and presumed purposes we so readily posit to satisfy our need for comprehensible meaning. Freeman Champney sums up nonteleological thinking as "a mixture of philosophical relativism, the rigorous refusal of the scientist to be dogmatic about hypotheses, and a sort of moral fatalism." Steinbeck himself explains, "Nonteleological thinking concerns itself primarily not with what should be, or could be, or might be, but rather with what actually 'is'—attempting at most to answer the already sufficiently difficult questions what or how, instead of why."
To think in such a way entails a kind of humility related to Jeffers's idea of "unhumanism"—a rejection of the myopic anthropocentrism that distorts our understanding of the functioning of whole systems, the large patterns of evolution, the nature of natural and human communities as organic wholes that transcend the life and purposes of any individual within them. This capacity for "whole sight," as well as what Champney sees as relativism, antidogmatism, and ultimate acceptance of what is, defines the prophet in Steinbeck's world. In The Grapes of Wrath it is Casy, the unpretentious fellow traveler in the Joads' pilgrim band and maverick Christian in self-imposed exile from institutional religion, who embodies the nonteleological or "is" thinker capable of prophesying and ultimately enacting a larger truth than those around him are able to grasp.
Casy, who was once a preacher, now makes it a point of honor to reject his status and its privileges, assuring the Joads, who receive him as a kind of family chaplain, that he doesn't pray any more. But the habit of prayer is as ingrained in him as the way of life he leaves behind on the road to California: "'Fella gets use' to a place, it's hard to go,' said Casy. 'Fella gets use' to a way a thinkin', it's hard to leave. I ain't a preacher no more, but all the time I find I'm prayin', not even thinkin' what I'm doin.'" His prayer is no longer a petition to an omnipotent God but a way of being and a largeness of awareness that comes to him in moments of solitude in the wilderness. He recognizes in himself a natural kinship with the Jesus who fled the crowds and went up into the high desert to pray:
I been in the hills thinking, almost you might say like Jesus went into the wilderness to think his way out of a mess of troubles. I ain't sayin' I'm like Jesus,… But I got tired like Him, an' I got mixed up like Him, an' I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin' stuff. Nighttime I'd lay on may back and look up at the stars; morning I'd set and watch the sun come up; midday I'd look out from a hill at the rollin' dry country; evenin' I'd foller the sun down. Sometimes I'd pray like I always done. On'y I couldn't figure what I was prayin' to or for. There was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't separate no more. We was one thing. An' that one thing was holy.
The idea of the holy has expanded for Casy since his rejection of the church. It springs from an awareness of nature honed and trained by his frequent retreats, his attitude of receptivity, and a habit of mind that links what he knows of the unconscious natural world to a deepening intuition about the ways of human nature. To be in the wilderness "without no campin' stuff" is to be in more direct sensual contact with the earth than those for whom the multilayered insulations of clothing and shelter dull the raw sensate experience of nature. Casy's reflection here also traces a line of thinking that begins in Christian typology and ends in a rejection of that tradition in favor of a universalistic mysticism removed from the claims of any institution. Like Emerson, the transcendentalist who left his pulpit and went out among the people, and like Thoreau, who turned eccentricity to high purposes, Casy opens his heart to a wider calling than the pulpit afforded—to return to the earth and live close to it and the people who till the soil and to learn from them:
I ain't gonna baptize. I'm gonna work in the fiel's, in the green fiel's, an' I'm gonna be near to folks. I ain't gonna try to teach 'em nothin'. I'm gonna try to learn. Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear 'em talk, gonna hear 'em sing…. Gonna lay in the grass, open and honest with anybody that'll have me. Gonna cuss an' swear an' hear the poetry of folks talkin'. All that's holy, all that's what I didn' understand'. All them things is the good things.
In both these speeches there are echoes of transcendentalism, Protestant theology, and Whitmanian democracy. Frederick Carpenter points out the rich soil and deep roots that underlie Casy's philosophical statements as he "translates American philosophy into words of one syllable." And Peter Lisca comments that in these same articulations, Casy moves "from Bible-belt evangelism to social prophesy." As a social prophet, however, his task is to prophesy to a particular and peculiar people. It is in his shared life with the Joad family that he works out his destiny and mission, often in terms reduced to their own simpler way of understanding what he is about.
Despite Casy's protestations, the Joads and others continue to take him for a preacher. The title sticks, and in that assigned role Casy assumes a place in but not of the Joad family, increasingly committed to a vision of things and a version of action that might be described as natural Christianity. His models for prayer and action come from Jesus, but his epistemology emerges not from any organized doctrine but from observation of, trust in, and love for the natural world and the people who live close to the earth.
"I can see it like a prophecy," Casy says, prognosticating about the fate of the people when tractors have made work "so easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of the land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation." Like his Old and New Testament prototypes he sees the broad connections among things, understands the ominous signs of destruction of the natural order, and longs to save "the people" from the legal and economic machinery that is devouring their lives and driving them off their land. "If ya listen," he says, "you'll hear a movin' an' a sneakin', an' a rustlin', an'—an' a restlessness. They's stuff goin' on that the folks doin' it don't know nothin' about—yet. They's gonna come somepin onto all these folks goin' wes'—outa all their farms lef' lonely. They's gonna come a thing that's gonna change the whole country."
Casy knows these things because he watches and listens and understands signs and portents. He stays awake nights, watching the stars and listening to the sounds of animals in their burrows. He frequently speaks what he knows in parables drawn from nature:
But they's somepin worse'n the devil got hold a the country, an' it ain't gonna let go till it's chopped loose. Ever see one a them Gila monsters take hold …? Grabs hold, an' you chop him in two an' his head hangs on. Chop him at the neck and his head hangs on. Got to take a screwdriver an' pry his head apart to get him loose. An' while he's layin' there poison is drippin' an' drippin' into the hole he's made with his teeth.
Casy's sense of the enormity of the evil coming upon the people is commensurate with his great reverence for creation. At Grampa Joad's funeral he quotes, "All that lives is holy." He has little respect for the laws of man, returning repeatedly to simple expressions of natural law as the only reliable guide for human action: "Law changes," he says, "but' got to's' go on. You got the right to do what you got to do."
His understanding of human nature as well as his rudimentary awareness of the profound involvement of human emotions and desires and needs in the life of the physical body as well as the body politic make him a healer. When Grampa falls sick, Ma finds Casy and asks him simply, "You been aroun' sick people…. Grampa's sick. Won't you go take a look at him?" Significantly enough, he can't fix a car, though he can administer comfort, healing, and leadership. All he can do when the car breaks down is shine the light for Tom and Al to see by. His work is with matters of "the sperit."
As the awareness of evil grows on Casy, so does his sense of mission. "I hear the way folks are feelin'," he says. "Goin' on all the time. I hear 'em an' feel 'em; an' they're beating their wings like a bird in an attic. Gonna bust their wings on a dusty winda tryin' ta get out." Casy eventually dies by the principle of natural law, leading a strike, telling his attackers, "You got no right to starve people," and then, "You don' know what you're a-doin'"—final words that powerfully recall Jesus' words, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Casy's homegrown natural theology has been the subject of much critical comment, especially the Emersonian echoes in his much-cited insight that "maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of." It is from this essentially pantheistic vision that his politics derive. Ownership makes little sense to him beyond the natural claim to what one needs. The arbitrariness of man-made boundaries seems not simply to ignore but to violate natural laws of distribution and interdependence. Frederick Carpenter in his essay "The Philosophical Joads" sums up Casy's story in this way: "Unorthodox Jim Casy went into the Oklahoma wilderness to save his soul. And in the wilderness he experienced the religious feeling of identity with nature which has always been the heart of transcendental mysticism … the corollary of this mystical philosophy is that man's self-seeking destroys the unity or 'holiness' of nature."
Casy's cosmic perspective on human affairs, his involvement in the immediacies of human needs, and his deep attention to the natural world as a source of wisdom are all reiterated in a new key in the character of Doc, the wise man of Cannery Row. Robert Benton has pointed out that the "ecological" cast of Steinbeck's thinking is reflected in his characterization of Doc—a way of thinking that "causes him to see man as an organism related to a vast and complex ecosystem." In chapter 2 of that book, the narrator pauses characteristically to take a step back from the canvas on which he is painting the colorful local scene and take a cosmic perspective. He sees Lee Chong the grocer and Mack and the boys "spinning in their orbits." The short chapter ends with a prayer: "Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature."
In light of this presentation of natural religion as the ideological backdrop to the narrative, Doc's close and attentive knowledge of nature endows him with not only professional but also prophetic credibility. In subsequent chapters the virtues of a good naturalist, as attributes of Doc's character, are manifestations of virtue in a much larger sense; Doc's patience in observing and collecting specimens for study, his steady commitment to objectivity, and his curiosity itself are seen as forms of compassion. He answers Hazel's desultory questions with more seriousness than they deserve because "Doc had one mental habit he could not get over. When anyone asked a question, Doc thought he wanted to know the answer. That was the way with Doc. He never asked unless he wanted to know and he could not conceive of the brain that would ask without wanting to know." The simplicity and straightforwardness of his scientific habit of mind appear as an almost child-like innocence, a quality of guilelessness that wins him universal trust among the ragged crowd who surround him.
At times Doc's steadiness of focus is broken by a kind of whimsy, itself related to wider spiritual vision. When Hazel, observing a crowd of stinkbugs on the ice plant, asks "What they got their asses up in the air for?" Doc's first answer is, "I looked them up recently—they're very common animals and one of the commonest things they do is put their tails up in the air. And in all the books there isn't one mention of the fact that they put their tails up in the air or why." Pressed further with "Well, why do you think they do it?" Doc answers, "I think they're praying," and to Hazel's shocked response adds, "The remarkable thing … isn't that they put their tails up in the air—the really incredible thing is that we find it remarkable. We can only use ourselves as yardsticks. If we did something as inexplicable and strange we'd probably be praying—so maybe they're praying." The exchange speaks volumes about the way Doc brings together observation, research, deductive and inductive reasoning, contemplation, and a gentle humor that seems to proceed out of a detachment from the entangled human perspective that few men achieve.
Steinbeck's narrators take whole chapters to give voice and color to the natural environments the characters inhabit, embedding in those descriptions much philosophy about the right relation between earth and its creatures. But it is in these small exchanges that draw attention to the minute designs of the natural world that the novels reveal how nature shapes vision and character, how a place known intimately—a farm, a field, a tidepool—can become, as Casy puts it, "a way of thinkin'."
Doc's general wisdom, like Casy's spills over the boundaries of professional definition. At various times he has to remind petitioners that he is neither a medical doctor nor a veterinarian nor a psychiatrist. Like the Joads with their proprietary expectations of Casy as personal chaplain, Doc's cohorts expect him to be all of these things as well as spiritual counselor, confessor, and source of ready money:
Now Doc of the Western Biological Laboratory had no right to practice medicine. It was not his fault that everyone in the Row came to him for medical advice. Before he knew it he found himself running from shanty to shanty taking temperatures, giving physics, borrowing and delivering blankets and even taking food from house to house where mothers looked at him with inflamed eyes from their beds, and thanked him and put the full responsibility for their children's recovery on him. When a case got really out of hand he phoned a local doctor and sometimes one came if it seemed to be an emergency. But to the families it was all emergency. Doc didn't get much sleep. He lived on beer and canned sardines.
Doc maintains his own spiritual and mental health by means of frequent retreats into music, poetry, and nature. His scrupulously scientific habit of mind is a counterpart to Casy's broadly intuitive epistemology but expresses the same deep reverence for what can be learned from the natural world.
Doc had to keep up his collecting. He tried to get to the good tides along the coast. The sea rocks and the beaches were his stock pile. He knew where every thing was when he wanted it. All the articles of his trade were filed away on the coast, sea cradles here, octopi here, tube worms in another place, sea pansies in another. He knew where to get them but he could not go for them exactly when he wanted. For Nature locked up the items and only released them occasionally. Doc had to know not only the tides but when a particular low tide was good in a particular place. When such a low tide occurred, he packed his collecting tools in his car, he packed his jars, his bottles, his plates and preservatives and he went to the beach or reef or rock ledge where the animals he needed were stored.
Doc doesn't even need a clock but lives by a tidal pattern: "He could feel a tide change in his sleep." His knowledge has penetrated to his very body and bones. This kind of knowledge depends on humility, attentiveness, and long fidelity to the habit of patient contemplation—qualities that are also the basis of Doc's legendary compassion. But committed as he is to scientific accuracy and truth-telling, he has also had to learn that "people didn't like you for telling the truth." Once, he recalls, on a walking trip through the South, he repeatedly encountered people who asked him why he was walking through the country but were disturbed by his honest answer:
Because he loved true things he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot. And people didn't like him for telling the truth. They scowled, or shook and tapped their heads, they laughed as though they knew it was a lie and they appreciated a liar. And some, afraid for their daughters or their pigs, told him to move on, to get going, just not to stop near their place if he knew what was good for him.
And so he stopped trying to tell the truth. He said he was doing it on a bet—that he stood to win a hundred dollars. Everyone liked him then and believed him. They asked him in to dinner and gave him a bed and they put lunches up for him and wished him good luck and thought he was a hell of a fine fellow. Doc still loved true things but he knew it was not a general love and it could be a very dangerous mistress.
The recognition in this passage that the solitary poses a subtle but vividly felt threat to the community recalls some of well-known stories about the suspicions Thoreau encountered among his fellows in Concord or, more dramatically, the association of intimacy with nature with witchcraft and occultism. Hawthorne's Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter illustrates this latter point; an herbalist whose compendious knowledge of the healing powers of herbs derives from long association with Indians and a solitary life dedicated to this study appears as a practitioner of "dark arts." More benevolent images like that of "Johnny Appleseed" still mark as an eccentric the individual who forsakes community life and communes with nature.
Doc understands this common suspicion, and with a diplomacy that is the measure of his great charity he takes care to foster his own needs in a way that does not threaten or alienate him from the community that depends on him. His understanding of the natural order, like Casy's, informs his social behavior. Much of Doc's activity among his cohorts on Cannery Row is a kind of pastoral subterfuge. Like Casy he is a shrewd assessor of human nature and calculates his demands and concessions accordingly. He also serves as a hub that draws people together in a way that makes community possible. He understands, like Casy, the wide web of interdependency that binds the things of this world and makes a mockery of short-sighted ideas of ownership. His generosity has a character of matter-of-fact common sense to it; it is simply the way of nature.
We do get an occasional ironic comment on the effects of such natural sanctity on the more commercially minded: "Lee was indebted to Doc—deeply indebted. What Lee was having trouble comprehending was how his indebtedness to Doc made it necessary to give credit to Mack." But Doc knows that somehow things even out, like water seeking its own level. He trusts some principle of natural distribution as a basis for all moral action: people do what they can do, they act on what they can understand, and as long as they act in harmony with their nature things even out and we learn from one another. Thus his admiration for Mack and the boys escapes condescension because he understands the necessity of their presence in a world that needs just such a corrective. "Look at them," he says:
They are your true philosophers. I think … that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.
Chapter 31 of Cannery Row, which details the life and frustrated enterprises of a gopher, serves as a parable to describe Doc's solitary, industrious life in the face of the social changes and chances that defeat his human ambitions. The gopher, like him, is busy, solitary, in the prime of life. He burrows into rich soil "on a little eminence" where he could watch Mack and the boys. He prepares an elaborate place for a female to join him and raise a family, but no female appears. He goes out to court one but comes back bitten. Finally, "he had to move two blocks up the hill to the dahlia garden where they put out traps every night." Doc is, finally, the gopher in the dahlia garden. He adapts to an environment diminished in natural richness, unsympathetic to his higher ends but livable. He is a prophet unhonored by a mechanized, commercialized, secular culture, quietly, stubbornly cherishing ideals that culture has begun to threaten.
In these two figures, Casy and Doc, Steinbeck incorporates a complex vision of wisdom derived from attentiveness to the natural world. The best of what we call human virtue—compassion, forgiveness, clarity, flexibility—comes from the habit of attention. And in characters like these he would seem to be suggesting that nature teaches us what we need to know—and that our best teachers are those who have learned her lessons.
This section contains 4,434 words
(approx. 15 pages at 300 words per page)