John Steinbeck’s Warning in Playboy about Donald Trump

Image of Donald Trump with Playboy magazine

The long relationship between Playboy magazine and Donald Trump, America’s playboy-in-chief, is old news. But the recent death of Hugh Hefner unearthed some surprising Playboy connections, including a list of major authors—among them John Steinbeck—who wrote for the serious men’s magazine that paid well and reached readers otherwise untouched by serious literature. In light of our president’s tweets and threats to bomb America’s enemies back to the Stone Age, Steinbeck’s satirical “Short Short Story of Mankind,” first published in the April 1957 issue of Playboy, has a message as relevant today as it was 60 years ago, when the golf-loving Dwight Eisenhower was president and the Cold War was on in earnest.

Image of John Steinbeck's Short Short Story of Mankind in Adam magazine

An allegory in the style of Mark Twain, Steinbeck’s account of human progress from savagery to civilization has a cartoon quality picked up by the illustrator for Adam, which republished Steinbeck’s Playboy piece in 1966 (images above and below). But like the “poisoned cream puff” of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row fiction, the mirth of “A Short Short Story of Mankind” is meant to be sobering. At every step, Steinbeck suggests, our progress as a species has faced resistance from a constant and terrifying tribal stupidity which, unchallenged, would lead to our extinction. “It’d be kind of silly if we killed our selves off after all this time,” he concludes. “If we do, we’re stupider than the cave people and I don’t think we are. I think we’re just exactly as stupid and that’s pretty bright in the long run.”

Image of John Steinbeck's Short Short Story of Mankind in Adam magazine

To my knowledge “A Short Short Story of Mankind” has never been anthologized, but it’s time it was. Living in the daily shadow of Donald Trump’s presidency, we need its dark warning and its ray of hope, the somber and uplifting counterpoint that echoes Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech and later writing. Today, six decades after Playboy magazine published John Steinbeck for the first and only time, it’s useful to remember that the author died a month after the election of Richard Nixon, whose dishonesty and demagoguery he deeply distrusted. It’s easy enough to imagine what he’d have to say about Donald Trump if he were still alive. The warning he’d have for a nation under Trump is implicit in the imagery and tone of his Cold War admonition to America under Eisenhower—an incurious president who also preferred golf but, unlike Trump, read the occasional book and avoided Stone Age rhetoric. Read the piece and judge for yourself.

About William Ray

William Ray is a Steinbeck scholar living in Santa Clara, California. He received his PhD in English from the University of North Carolina.

Comments

  1. Bob DeMott says:

    Most timely, Will! Thanks for reintroducing us.

  2. Leaves one with an allegoric hunger for life…

  3. Paul Douglass says:

    It’s a cold dark world of allegories out there. I’m really curious now as to how JS came to contribute this piece–whether it was something he was already incubating, or the magazine invited him to weigh in on DDE, whom he had been warning about since the 1952 campaign against Adlai Stevenson…

  4. Herb Behrens says:

    R. S. Hughes, Beyond the Red Pony 1987. Scarecrow Press, Inc. writes that the original title was “We are Holding Our Own”, published in Lilliput, Nov. 1955. Apparently it was reprinted in The Permanent Playboy, ed. Ray Russell [New York] Crown Publishers, and 1959.

    • Thank you for this information, Herb. I failed to dig deep enough to discover the alternate title or prior publication history of the piece, first published in 1955, not 1957 as I thought. This is also the period of ‘Sweet Thursday’ and ‘The Short Reign of Pippin,’ a satirical work with a similar tone.

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