For decades a leading scholar of American literature taught John Steinbeck using a race-themed Steinbeck short story described as lost in news reports on its recent publication by a colorful short story magazine. Printed in The Strand Magazine for the first time since being read on the radio by Orson Welles during World War II, “With Your Wings”—Steinbeck’s inspiring portrayal of a black pilot returning home to the South as a hero—is written in the idealized style of the author’s World War II book, Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team. But Robert DeMott, Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio University, says that Steinbeck’s short story wasn’t lost—and that Steinbeck’s friend Burgess Meredith, not Orson Welles, probably got first dibs on the story when it was written for broadcast in the 1940s.
John Steinbeck and Orson Welles
According to Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, Gulli discovered “With Your Wings” among Steinbeck’s papers at the University of Texas. In his editorial for the current issue of the magazine, Gulli adds that Steinbeck’s very short story about an African-American’s heroic homecoming was recited by Orson Welles on air in 1943 or 1944, then forgotten until it was recovered from the archives at Austin. Gulli’s version of the story’s provenance provides further evidence of Steinbeck’s role as a World War II propagandist. It also suggests that a relationship existed between Steinbeck and Welles, whose classic feature film Citizen Kane is based on William Randolph Hearst, the right-wing publisher of The San Francisco Examiner and The New York Morning Journal who was disliked by Steinbeck and disparaged (though not by name) in The Grapes of Wrath.
Gulli’s version of the story’s provenance provides further evidence of Steinbeck’s role as a World War II propagandist.
As Robert DeMott notes, more documentation is required before inferring a John Steinbeck-Orson Welles relationship from Gulli’s comments. But the possibility is intriguing, particularly in the context of continuing conjecture about Steinbeck’s connection to American intelligence agencies during and following World War II. Citizen Kane was every bit as controversial as The Grapes of Wrath, and for similar reasons. Steinbeck and Welles were celebrated artists with close ties to the Roosevelt administration. More important, they were political progressives who applauded the aims of the New Deal, decried the excesses of capitalism, and distrusted newspaper reviews of their works—though Steinbeck reported briefly on World War II for The New York Herald Tribune, a competitor of Hearst’s that Steinbeck described in private as reactionary.
Steinbeck and Welles were celebrated artists with close ties to the Roosevelt administration.
Co-written, produced, and directed by Welles—who also played the lead—Citizen Kane portrays Hearst, a Californian, as an eccentric empire-builder in the cut-throat world of New York newspaper publishing. Hearst’s papers boycotted the film, and Welles was accused of being a communist or worse even before the picture was released. Steinbeck’s labor novels In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men—made into a 1938 motion picture featuring Burgess Meredith—had provoked a similar reaction when they were written. The publication of The Grapes of Wrath fueled the fire, which had become a conflagration by the time Welles’s movie appeared two years after Steinbeck’s novel.
Writer and Actor Activists in World War II
Like John Steinbeck, Burgess Meredith, and other left-leaning writers and actors of the period, Orson Welles devoted his time and talent to the American war effort in Europe and the Pacific. Broadcasting proved particularly effective at boosting morale and providing writers and performers a way to entertain the troops at home and abroad. Welles’s World War II radio broadcasts included guest-hosting four episodes of the popular Jack Benny Program in 1943 and producing and hosting several radio series of his own, including Ceiling Unlimited, the program for which Andrew Gulli says John Steinbeck wrote “With Your Wings.” If true, the assertion raises a possibility of special interest to people who think Steinbeck worked for America’s emerging national security establishment in ways not apparent at the time.
If true, the assertion raises a possibility of special interest to people who think Steinbeck worked for America’s emerging national security establishment in ways not apparent at the time.
According to Wikipedia, Ceiling Unlimited was sponsored by the World War II aeronautical giant Lockheed-Vega Corporation “to glorify the aviation industry and dramatize its role in World War II,” much as Steinbeck’s Bombs Away and “With Your Wings” did for the Air Force pilots who flew the company’s planes. If Steinbeck wrote his short story for Orson Welles, was it at the behest of Lockheed, the California aerospace pioneer founded by two brothers in San Francisco? So far evidence is lacking. Wikipedia doesn’t list Steinbeck among the writers—including Arthur Miller—who contributed to Welles’s radio show. Nor does any reference to Orson Welles, Ceiling Unlimited, or Lockheed occur in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (1975), Jackson H. Benson’s biography, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (1984), or Brian Kannard’s Steinbeck: Citizen Spy.
John Steinbeck, Burgess Meredith, and “With Your Wings”
But references to Burgess Meredith abound in the record of John Steinbeck’s life. Like Orson Welles, Meredith achieved success as a New York stage actor before becoming a Hollywood screen star. Steinbeck met Meredith around the time the actor was cast as George in the 1939 movie Of Mice and Men, and the two men hit it off. When MGM refused to let Spencer Tracey narrate the 1941 film version of Steinbeck’s documentary The Forgotten Village, Steinbeck turned to Meredith, whose serene voice was well-suited to Steinbeck’s understated narrative. Like Orson Welles, Meredith and Steinbeck shared a penchant for politics, partying, and multiple partners. For a period they were neighbors, and they remained close until 1958, when a personal quarrel ended their 20-year friendship.
Like Orson Welles, Meredith and Steinbeck shared a penchant for politics, partying, and multiple partners.
Though the John Steinbeck-Orson Welles connection remains conjectural, Steinbeck’s relationship with Burgess Meredith supports Robert DeMott’s version of the “With Your Wings” back-story. The author of Steinbeck’s Reading (1984; 2007) and Steinbeck’s Typewriter (1996; 2012) and the editor the Library of America’s collection of John Steinbeck’s works, he taught generations of students at Ohio University how to read, write, and think with the depth of reason and empathy required to appreciate Steinbeck, his scholarly specialty. In response to my inquiry about “With Your Wings,” he pointed out that Burgess Meredith knew both Steinbeck and Orson Welles and devoted a chapter to each man in his 1994 memoir, So Far, So Good. Most important, he corrected the claim that “With Your Wings” was lost and raised the possibility that it was written by Steinbeck for Meredith, or for Welles through Meredith. His insights into John Steinbeck’s World War II short story about race in America, the Steinbeck-Welles-Meredith connection, and Steinbeck’s “radical humanism” are quoted in full:
“I’ve known about the story for several decades and in fact have a Xeroxed copy of it in my files. On occasion I’ve used it in my classes and seminars when talking about Steinbeck and race and it never failed to elicit strong, positive responses from students. The more ‘politically correct’ among them were surprised that a dead white male author could cross racial boundaries like that! The story is on the feel-good side and surely shows Steinbeck’s idealism and patriotism but even at that Steinbeck was nearly alone among his writing peers in responsibly portraying African-American characters at a time when the Armed Services were segregated. Not just the pilot in this story but the character of Joe in Steinbeck’s original narrative treatment of Lifeboat. For me, these characters link up with Steinbeck’s other cast of down-trodden or marginalized characters who people his work of the 1930s and 1940s. So propaganda or not, it seems of a piece with his radical humanism.
“But I did not know about the Orson Welles connection, and while I am happy to learn of that new thread in the carpet I am not entirely convinced that Steinbeck wrote the piece expressly for Welles and/or the Lockheed-Vega Corporation. Recently, James Cummins, a rare-book dealer in New York, offered for sale a typewritten draft of the Steinbeck story as part of a batch of Steinbeck documents in the Burgess Meredith archive. Cummins quotes a letter (ca. 1943) from Steinbeck to Meredith that accompanied the story and in which the author says, ‘A different version of the following was done for overseas broadcast to the troops by O.W.I.’ [Office of War Information], though I am not certain whether that and the Welles broadcast are the same. Steinbeck went on to offer the piece to Meredith for use in his shows, and stressed that it be read like a ‘pure mood’ piece, to be ‘delivered like soft music.’ For what it is worth, I am inclined to believe that the connection between Steinbeck and Meredith on this subject is perhaps more telling and deeper than that between Steinbeck and Welles, and certainly deserving of more investigation.”