I have not read much by Steinbeck. I read Of Mice and Men three or four years ago, and I am fairly certain that I was assigned The Grapes of Wrath in high school, although I am not certain that I actually read it. The cover of this book caught my eye, before I noticed anything else. It was a painting of a man approaching a large gnarled tree, which stood at the top of a hill. (The picture to the left is the only one on the official Penguin Classics website. I was unable to find the correct cover.) Seeing that it was written by Steinbeck, but not recognizing the title, I flipped the book over and read the first sentence of the summary on the back. It read, “Ancient pagan beliefs, the great Greek epics, and the Bible all inform this extraordinary novel, which occupied Steinbeck for more than five difficult years.” After reading this, I had to read the book.
That one sentence summarizes To a God Unknown very well. Set in the early 20th century, it is a story of four brothers who move from Vermont to California to homestead the land. Joseph Wayne is not the oldest, but he is the leader of the brothers since their father gave him his blessing before he died. Joseph becomes convinced that the spirit of his father inhabits a large tree on his farm. He secretly communes with the tree, talking to it, seeking advice, and even offering sacrifices.
Amongst his brothers and their wives, opinions about Joseph vary. Thomas puts up with it, seemingly amused. Rama, the wife of the oldest brother, reveres Joseph. She tells Joseph’s new wife, “I do not know whether there are men born outside humanity, or whether some men are so human as to make other seem unreal. Perhaps a godling lives on earth now and then. Joseph has strength beyond vision of shattering, he has the calm of mountains, and his emotion is as wild and fierce and sharp as the lightning and just as reasonless as far as I can see or know. I tell you this man is not a man, unless he is all men.” Later the priest of a nearby town mirrors her thinking. As Joseph leaves, the priest thinks, “Thank God this man has no message. Thank God he has no will to be remembered, to be believed in, else there might be a new Christ here in the West.” However others feel about Joseph, Burton, a staunch Christian, thinks that his brother is practicing a kind of devil worship. He fears that he is allowing evil to take root in their land, and voices his disapproval to Joseph on a number of occasions.
Whether as a result of Joseph's actions or not, the Wayne family does prosper. Their crops are bountiful, their livestock reproduce at an alarming rate, and there is never any want for wild game on their property. But it is not long before the ground begins to dry up and the animals begin to die and leave the land. Joseph is certain that he knows what brought on this change, and he knows what he must do.
All throughout To a God Unknown, Steinbeck alludes to and borrows from Greek mythology and a wide range of religious traditions. In so doing, Steinbeck creates a mystical tale of his own, adding to his mythology of California.