Unearthing a True Feminist: John Steinbeck and His “Chrysanthemums”

Two things come to mind when one hears the word: Feminist.  Firstly, is the fear this person, or woman, is bashing male unmentionables; and secondly, this person enjoys bashing male unmentionables to get better opportunities for themselves (since those opportunities were taken from them).  However, a feminist is someone who cares and who is sensitive towards women’s issues (not boo hoo sensitive, but, culturally aware).  A feminist is a person who wants equality for all ethnicities and sexes– not just a town crier but an empathetic soul.  When one approaches a story they must give it the understanding based on the time (era) it was written.  Many students will look at a story and judge it from today’s standards which takes away from the main idea or the author’s intent. Conceptualizing past prejudices with today’s knowledge creates more misunderstanding.

John Steinbeck’s  “The Chrysanthemums” (1938) was one of those stories I could never let go– it was a story which stayed, like a ghost, and haunted the back of my mind.  Whenever I would think about women suffering in silence, I thought about Steinbeck’s protagonist, Elisa Allen, and her flowers; more importantly, her chrysanthemums.  I thought about a woman’s voice and how important it is to always speak up when one feels their power in a relationship is undermined (or not appreciated or misunderstood).  Although, Elisa longed to live a traveler’s life, she found ‘her heaven’ in planting her chrysanthemums giving her a unique identity even when her husband suggested she use her talent for their apple orchard. The antagonist was a man who was an unwashed grease ball, a man who couldn’t spell the correct words on the side of his dumpy wagon pulled by a “mismatched crew” (one horse, one ass), and a man who owned a dog who couldn’t get started (i.e., fighting) until, “[…] after weeks and weeks.” In all of this, most women can find a time when they wished they had the power of a man not knowing right in their hands is a greater talent they didn’t know they possessed. With that in mind, I was inspired, yet again (since this is an art and poetry forum), to write another poem adding to my love for Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”.

Till now

By C. L. Burdett

This letter that I write for you

Will it matter or put a change in you?

Unearth or inundate

Will the words I give you satiate?

It’s not to take away from you

It’s not to make you into someone new

It’s to add a little bit to what I feel for you

I didn’t tend—till now

I was taught when I was younger

That when we care for someone

We give little by little increments

Of our love and of our kindness

I toss my line in and wait

I put my heart in what I say

I don’t give a damn too much

But when it does happen

It will be like a seed in a planter’s hands

If you see it now—you’re a visionary

If you wait and see—you’re a virtue of patience

If you turn your back—you’re trusting

And in some ways you’re honest

What’s in your hands is what makes you happy

Like Elisa on her hands and knees

Turning dirt and planting her chrysanthemums

Gave her a little place—a sense of belonging

In a world where there are no

Connections to real things she found one

And so did I

This letter that I write to you will be

A letter of our beginning, of the many,

And there will be more….

But consider what I write and keep in mind

If it be now or some-time-tomorrow’s now

To be cherished until some-time-tomorrow’s gone

And lived in today’s arms of two people

Who choose to not lay the real one like a dark heap

On the side of the road

In a world where there are so many people

With so many interests and motives

In a world with so many words trapped

In those many people who want to unfold

Like Elisa, so fierce, and ready to take on the world again

In this story, of many beginnings, she does.

And so do I

I believe John Steinbeck heard Elisa on the ranch in Salinas, California.  He heard her cries and made her into a flower; and, we all know in due season, all flowers, if they are pruned properly, which Elisa was, will rise again.