John Steinbeck’s “The Vigilante,” as the earlier “The Snake”—both appearing in the story collection The Long Valley (1938)—has its roots in an actual event, a tragic kidnapping and murder that occurred in San Jose in 1933. Steinbeck transforms the event into the story of Mike, a participant in a lynch mob who administers arbitrary justice to a black man just as the residents of San Jose lynched two accused white men in revenge for the death of Brooke Hart, the son of a local businessman, whose mutilated body was found in the San Francisco harbor after a ransom plan for his return went wrong. Mike’s account reveals his morally ambiguous feelings at his participation in this event: Dare he think it a crime? His initial feelings, as the story begins after the lynching, include an emptiness at no longer being a member of the mob. Steinbeck’s description of Mike’s gentle pain and dull quality of loneliness is heightened when Mike enters a local bar and relives the event with a sympathetic and empathetic bartender named Welch. Initially Mike describes the emotions that motivated the mob and how it felt right that the local justice system preferred to look the other way.
As he proceeds to recall the actual lynching, however, Mike is struck with the frenzy of the moment. He recounts the way the mob tore the clothes off the victim before stringing him up and attempting to burn his body. Unconsciously Mike has taken a souvenir from the scene—a torn piece of the man’s pants—and he is shocked when the bartender offers to purchase it, thus demonstrating human fascination with death and violence.
Upon leaving the bar, Mike and Welch continue to mull over the event, trying to determine whether the act was justified because of certain circumstances: the implied sexual nature of the crime and the belief of the mob that the black man was a fiend. They also marvel that the town seems relatively unchanged by this monumental occurrence. Mike initially asserts that his participation in the lynching meant absolutely nothing. Shortly thereafter, however, he admits that he had a dual reaction to his involvement—a sense of being cut off and a feeling of satisfaction, as if he had done a good job. Later, when he returns home, his wife upbraids him for his lateness and, because of the self-satisfied expression on his face, accuses him of having a sexual encounter. The tale ends abruptly as Mike realizes that his participation in the lynching offered a somewhat similar pleasure.
The account of the original crime (Timmerman “Introduction”) emphasizes the changes Steinbeck made. The real suspects, John Holmes and Thomas Thurman, were white, and the lynching took place almost two weeks after the crime of which they were accused. Other details seem to be fairly accurate retellings of newspaper accounts of the lynching, including the storming of the jail, the battering down of the doors, and the seizing and stripping of the two men before hanging them in the local park.
No doubt intrigued by mob action as evidence of his own belief in a collective conscience at once subhuman and superhuman, Steinbeck was quick to see the possibilities for this real story to illustrate his theory of the phalanx, an idea he had expressed as early as 1933 to his friend Carlton Sheffield and a concept he was to explore fully in his 1936 novel, In Dubious Battle. In The Long Valley Notebook Steinbeck even delineates the phalanx theory—his belief that individuals at times became cells in a larger organizing group—in a manuscript draft of a piece entitled “Case History,” in which a protagonist, John Ramsy and a newspaper reporter, Will McKay, act as mouthpieces for a similar discussion about a mob lynching. The transformation of this text into “The Vigilante” demonstrates that Steinbeck understood the difference between art and a moralistic expression of his feelings and that in the story he successfully avoids what he derisively called the author’s moral point of view. Instead he records consciousness nonteleologically and demonstrates that there is a dark as well as a positive side to man’s joining together. By recording instead of judging, Steinbeck stresses the duality of the element that unites all the stories in The Long Valley: the theme of isolation resulting from the breakup of brotherhood. Bonding together in a group with all its positive consequences for an individual can have its negative side as well. The actions of Steinbeck’s unsympathetic protagonist in “The Vigilante” offer sufficient proof that there is duality in all human events.
Olivas, Daniel. “Interview with Helena Mar a Viramontes.” April 2, 2007, La Bloga.
Steinbeck, John. “The Vigilante.” In The Long Valley. New York: Penguin, 1995. Timmerman, John H. “Introduction.” In John Steinbeck, The Long Valley. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Viramontes, Helena Mar a. Their Dogs Came with Them: A Novel. New York: Dutton, 2000.