‘The Leader of the People’ is a short story by John Steinbeck (1902-68), the final instalment in the longer work The Red Pony. The story is about the son of a ranch owner who looks forward to a visit from his grandfather, the titular ‘leader of the people’ who enjoys regaling people with tales of his role heroically leading a group of people across America to the west coast.
‘The Leader of the People’ deserves close analysis to show how Steinbeck cleverly uses symbolism to summon this clash between the past and the present, between the grandfather’s nostalgic view of the wagon crossing he led decades ago and the here-and-now in which the younger generations live.
‘The Leader of the People’: plot summary
Jody Tiflin, the son of a ranch owner, lives on the ranch with his mother and his father, who is named Carl. The family also have a ranch hand named Billy Buck who works on their land. Billy tells Jody that the haystack is pretty much used up, and Jody wants to lure all of the mice out from under its remains and hunt them. Billy tells him that he’ll have to ask his father first.
The family receive a letter from Jody’s grandfather, his mother’s father, telling them he plans to visit the family on their ranch. While Jody enjoys his grandfather’s tales of leading people out west, Carl is annoyed by his father-in-law’s insistence on repeating the same stories.
When Jody has left the room, he hears his mother quietly berating Carl for complaining about the grandfather’s stories. She tells him that, for her father, leading the wagon across the plains to the west coast was the main event in his life, and after the journey was over, so was the high point of his life. When he reached the ocean, he had to stop travelling west, but he would have carried on travelling, if he could.
After he has completed his chores on the farm, Jody asks his mother if he can go and meet his grandfather before he reaches the ranch. His mother agrees, so Jody sets off. He greets his grandfather and asks him if he would like to join his mouse hunt. The grandfather laughs at such an idea, and Jody concedes that it wouldn’t quite be as exciting as the grandfather’s experience of hunting Indians in his youth. The grandfather responds that when the American troops hunted Indians it actually probably wasn’t that different from the boy’s mouse hunt.
Over dinner, the grandfather reveals that he knew Billy Buck’s father, who rode in the same wagon train when the grandfather led the people out west. The old man has quickly turned the conversation round to his time as leader of the wagon train, and Carl grows impatient as the old man starts telling the same stories he’s told many times before. As the evening wears on, even the old man appears to be bored with the stories he’s telling.
The next morning, at breakfast, Carl grows angry about having to endure the old man’s stories about the wagon crossing, when the grandfather walks in, having heard his son-in-law’s outburst outside the door. Carl apologises, but the grandfather accepts that he may be right. When Carl has left, Jody tries to get his grandfather to come and help him kill the mice, but the old man says he will stay behind and sit for a while.
Jody decides to hunt the mice later, and instead sits with his grandfather, who says he doesn’t really like telling his stories of the wagon train: he does so because he wants to make people feel good when they hear the stories. The most important thing wasn’t that he was the leader of the people but that everyone was part of something bigger: a movement out west. And now it is finished because there’s nowhere left to go, and so the westering instinct has gone.
The story ends with Jody offering to make his grandfather some lemonade. The old man accepts.
‘The Leader of the People’: analysis
‘The Leader of the People’ is about the clash – embodied by Carl and the Grandfather – between the new, modern United States and the pioneers who had headed west in the late nineteenth century, when the country was still developing as a nation. As Carl insists, and as the Grandfather concedes, that old ‘go west young man’ spirit has died out among the newer generations, because there is nowhere else to go: having reached, and populated, California and the rest of the Pacific coast, Americans have stopped moving.
The contrast between the grandfather’s remembered world and the new world inhabited by Carl and Jody is represented through clever symbolism playing off large against small. As he lies awake the night after his grandfather arrived, Jody thinks of the men of his grandfather’s generation as ‘giants’ hunting buffalo and Indians on big white horses. This vanished world stands in stark contrast to the small world of the ranch, which is populated by little animals: those mice Jody is so keen to hunt, as well as the spider and moth which interrupt the dinner, and the flea which the dog scratches in the night.
That said, Jody also likens, in his thoughts, the wagon train to ‘centipedes’ making their way across the plains. This world seems big but also, at the same time, small now it has receded from memory and exists only as stories told by the grandfather. After Carl’s outburst, as Jody watches his grandfather sitting alone, the old man looks ‘small and thin and black’: an insignificant shadow.
At one point, the grandfather is described as having features like granite: tough and durable, but also unmoving and rooted to the same spot. The grandfather’s life has been a life of remembering movement that happened decades ago, but all the old man can do is gaze out longingly at the ocean and wish he could continue his journey west.
One of the themes of ‘The Leader of the People’, as in Steinbeck’s story ‘Flight’, is coming of age: Jody is a young boy who is learning what it takes to become a man. He begins the story believing that his grandfather embodies the values and qualities of masculinity which are required and desired: a leader, a pioneer, a journeyman. But his grandfather came of age at a very different time in America’s history, and his wandering is done. In a sense, every American’s wandering is ‘done’ in the sense that the nation has been settled and populated.
So where Jody starts out by comparing his planned mouse hunt to his grandfather’s youthful fights with Indians (fights which were, as with the mice, hardly fair, to say the least), he comes to reject the mice in favour of the more domestic task of making lemonade. Steinbeck appears to be suggesting he has come of age, not by engaging in traditionally ‘manly’ activity, but by realising that the qualities which defined men of the past are not necessarily the qualities a man requires in the new world.