Is Reading Steinbeck an Antidote to Donald Trump?

 

Composite image of Donald Trump and Christian Bale as American PsychoA rotten egg incubated by reality television and hatched by retrograde thinking about women and the world, the presidency of Donald Trump is creating anxiety, fear, and a growing sense among progressives that an American psycho now occupies the White House. Many, like me, are turning to John Steinbeck for understanding. But that consolation has its limits.

The presidency of Donald Trump is creating anxiety, fear, and a growing sense among progressives that an American psycho now occupies the White House.

As Francis Cline observed recently in The New York Times, one positive result of the groundswell of bad feeling about Trump is that “[q]uality reading has become an angst-driven upside.” Anxious Americans yearning to feel at home in their own country have a rekindled interest in exploring their identity through great literature. “Headlines from the Trump White House,” Cline notes, “keep feeding a reader’s need for fresh escape” and “alternate facts,” when “presented by a literary truthteller” like John Steinbeck, are “a welcome antidote to the alarming versions of reality generated by President Donald Trump.”

‘Alternate facts,’ when ‘presented by a literary truthteller’ like John Steinbeck, are ‘a welcome antidote to the alarming versions of reality generated by President Donald Trump.’

The literary tonic recommended by Cline may or may not have the power to clear the morning-after pall of Trump-facts and Trump-schisms (the two sometimes interchangeable) afflicting our panicked public dialogue, our beleaguered press, and, for those as apprehensive as I am, the American-psycho recesses of our collective mind. Perhaps counter-intuitively, his prescription for mental wellness includes works by a group of novelists with a far darker worldview than that of Steinbeck, who felt an obligation to his readers to remain optimistic about the future whenever possible. The writers mentioned by Cline include Sinclair Lewis (It Can’t Happen Here), George Orwell (1984), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), William Faulkner (The Mansion), Jerzy Kosinski (Being There), Philip Roth (The Plot Against America), and Philip Dick (The Man In The High Castle). As an antidote to Donald Trump, they are bitter medicine. Is Steinbeck’s better?

The prescription for mental wellness includes works by a group of novelists with a far darker worldview than that of Steinbeck, who felt an obligation to his readers to remain optimistic about the future whenever possible.

As the Trump administration pushes plans to litter federally protected Indian land with pipelines (“black snakes”) that threaten to pollute the water used by millions of Americans, John Steinbeck’s writing about the dangers of environmental degradation seems more relevant, and more urgent, than ever. To mark the 100th anniversary of Steinbeck’s birth in 2002, the award-winning author and journalist Bil Gilbert wrote an insightful article on the subject for The Smithsonian entitled “Prince of Tides.” In it he notes that “Steinbeck’s powerful social realism is by no means his only claim to greatness. He has also significantly influenced the way we see and think about the environment, an accomplishment for which he seldom receives the recognition he deserves.”

But Steinbeck’s writing about the dangers of environmental degradation seems more relevant, and more urgent, than ever.

Judging from “The Literature of Environmental Crisis,” a course at New York University, Gilbert’s point about Steinbeck’s stature as an environmental writer of major consequence is now more generally accepted than he thinks. Studying what “it mean[s] for literature to engage with political and ethical concerns about the degradation of the environment” the class will read “such literary and environmental classics as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath” to “look at the way literature changes when it addresses unfolding environmental crisis.”

Judging from ‘The Literature of Environmental Crisis,’ a course at New York University, Steinbeck’s stature as an environmental writer of major consequence is now generally accepted.

“Before ‘ecology’ became a buzzword,” Gilbert adds, “John Steinbeck preached that man is related to the whole thing,” noting that Steinbeck’s holistic sermonizing about nature’s sanctity reached its peak in Sea of Cortez, the literary record of Steinbeck’s 1940 expedition to Baja California with his friend and collaborator Ed Ricketts, the ingenious marine biologist he later profiled in Log from the Sea of Cortez. In it Steinbeck seems to foresee how America’s precious national resources—and collective soul—could one day become susceptible to the manipulations of an amoral leader like Donald Trump:

There is a strange duality in the human which makes for an ethical paradox. We have definitions of good qualities and of bad; not changing things, but generally considered good and bad throughout the ages and throughout the species. Of the good, we think always of wisdom, tolerance, kindness, generosity, humility; and the qualities of cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity are universally considered undesirable. And yet in our structure of society, the so-called and considered good qualities are invariable concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstones of success. A man – a viewing-point man – while he will nevertheless envy or admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities has succeeded economically and socially, and will hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure.

“Donald Trump has been in office for four days,” observed Michael Brune, the national director of the Sierra Club, “and he’s already proving to be the dangerous threat to our climate we feared he would be.” The executive actions taken by Trump in his first week as president (“I am, to a large extent, an environmentalist, I believe in it. But it’s out of control”) appear to fulfill Steinbeck’s prophecy about the triumph of self-interest over social good. That’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone who cares about the planet.

The executive actions taken by Trump in his first week as president appear to fulfill Steinbeck’s prophecy about the triumph of self-interest over social good. That’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone who cares about the planet.

Whether Trump becomes the kind of full-throttle fascist described in It Can’t Happen Here remains to be seen. Sinclair Lewis’s fantasy of a future fascist in the White House appeared the same year as Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck’s sunny ode to multiculturalism and the common man. Unfortunately, I’m not as optimistic about the American spirit as John Steinbeck felt obliged to be when he wrote that book more than 80 years ago. I’m afraid that the man occupying the high castle in Washington today is an American psycho with the capacity to do permanent harm, not only to the environment, but to the American soul Steinbeck celebrated in his greatest fiction.

Truth or Twitter? Why Donald Trump Is No John Steinbeck

Image of Donald Trump

Donald Trump bragged that someone once called him the Ernest Hemingway of Twitter. Unfortunately for us, the new president possesses neither the courage nor the self-control of Hemingway, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature for writing unforgettably about bravery under fire. And as the problems created by Trump-tweets pile up, the source of Trump’s addiction to Twitter has become clear. Eugene Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist, described it in words worthy of John Steinbeck: “Trump’s Twitter tantrums are a message of weakness.”

‘Donald Trump’s Twitter tantrums are a message of weakness.’—Eugene Robinson

When I read Trump’s recent Twitter attack on Congressman John Lewis, the venerated civil rights leader who, despite vivid memories and bloody images to the contrary, Trump had the temerity to write was “[a]ll talk, talk, talk – no action or results,” I was reminded of the lecture Toni Morrison gave when she won the Nobel Prize in 1993. Like the speeches of two previous Nobel Prize-winners, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, her lecture extolled the power of language in explaining and validating human experience. “We die,” she observed. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’—Toni Morrison

Echoing George Orwell, Morrison warned that “the systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forego its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation.” Foreshadowing Donald Trump’s grade school twitter-burns, she described “language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.”

‘Language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.’—Toni Morrison

At her popular blog BrainPickings.org, Maria Popova praised Toni Morrison’s lecture as “perhaps our most powerful manifesto for the responsibility embedded in how we wield the tool that stands as the hallmark of our species.” I agree with this assessment, and with Morrison’s Orwell-like admonition. “Whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities,” she said, “it must be rejected, altered and exposed.”

‘Whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, it must be rejected, altered and exposed.’—Toni Morrison

I also agree with Kyle Sammin, the lawyer and writer from Pennsylvania who advised Donald Trump to delete his Twitter account, quoting Calvin Coolidge: “[t]he words of the President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.” As Toni Morrison noted, Abraham Lincoln provides an even better example of presidential brevity: “When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, ‘The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here,’ his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war.”

‘The words of the President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.’—Calvin Coolidge

By the time Republicans convened in Cleveland last summer, I had already blogged that the Republican nominee for president was the antithesis of Abraham Lincoln. He’s no Coolidge either. Hell, he may not be as good as Dan Quayle, who at least had the sense to stop explaining when he misspelled “potato” at a Trenton, New Jersey elementary school during the 1992 campaign. As Arthur Delaney pointed out in a recent Huffington Post headline, “Donald Trump Can’t Stop Tweeting Mean Things About People.” America’s new president is like a gambler on an all-night binge in Atlantic City, compulsively feeding nickel-and-dime tweets, retweets, and mentions into the slot-machine of his ego.

‘Donald Trump Can’t Stop Tweeting Mean Things About People.’—Huffington Post headline

Since he shows no sign of stopping, Trump would do well to follow the example of John Steinbeck, whose son Thom—also a writer—had this to say about the virtue of authorial self-control during a 2012 interview with Alexander Jaffee. “Ultimately,” he noted, “the greatest amount of time in all writing is spent editing. My father said there’s only one trick to writing, and that’s not writing, that’s writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. Like sculpture. I mean, the first thing off the top of your head isn’t the most brilliant thing you ever thought of. And then when you’re writing about it, when you want others to understand what you’re still talking about, then it really requires that you edit yourself really, really well, so that other people can comprehend it.”

‘My father said there’s only one trick to writing, and that’s not writing, that’s writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.’—Thom Steinbeck

Sadly, Donald Trump has a problem in this area that no amount of self-editing can fix. Describing John Steinbeck’s honesty, Thom wrote: “[e]verything he wrote had truth to it. That’s what he was addicted to. He was addicted to the truth.” As demonstrated by Twitter attacks on true American heroes like John Lewis, Donald Trump has the opposite addiction.

 

Off Limits: Of Mice and Men And the Death Penalty Today

Image of the death penalty surviving in America

Seventy years after its publication John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men continues to stimulate debate, pro and con, about the death penalty. But justifying capital punishment was the last thing on the mind of the author, a liberal thinker who created the character of Lennie to increase our understanding of the mentally challenged and the American underclass. As a defense attorney who admires Of Mice and Men for this very reason, I’m angry that Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Cathy Cochran used Lennie in a 2004 legal opinion about imposing the death penalty when mental capacity is at issue. The “Lennie standard” she proposed continues to have consequences in the courts, and in the lives of the condemned.

Justifying capital punishment was the last thing on the mind of the author, a liberal thinker who created the character of Lennie to increase our understanding of the mentally challenged and the American underclass.

John Steinbeck’s late son Thom, an accomplished writer, was furious about Judge Cochran’s opinion after it was rendered. In a 2012 interview with the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise, Thom’s wife Gail Steinbeck, an attorney, said that “his ears turned red” when her husband first learned of Ex Parte Briseno, in his view a gross distortion of his father’s meaning. In a statement published by The New York Times on August 8, 2012, Thom complained bitterly about the misconstruction of his father’s intentions in writing Of Mice and Men:

I had no idea that the great state of Texas would use a fictional character that my father created . . . as a benchmark to identify whether defendants with intellectual disability should live or die. My father was a highly gifted writer who won the Nobel Prize for his ability to create art about the depth of the human experience and condition. His work certainly wasn’t meant to be scientific, and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability. I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous and profoundly tragic. I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way.

The Supreme Court Considers the Case of John Steinbeck

In 2002 the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for the intellectually disabled, but left it to the states to define what constitutes intellectual disability. Since 2004 courts in Texas have used Judge Cochran’s ill-considered Lennie standard to determine intellectual disability in capital punishment cases. Arguing before the Supreme Court last month in Moore v. Texas, the solicitor general of Texas, Scott Keller, bristled when Justice Sonya Sotomayor asked him about the state’s use of the Lennie standard, an illogical jumble concocted from a sentimental—and incorrect—interpretation of John Steinbeck’s character. “The character from Of Mice and Men was never part of the test,” asserted Keller in the state’s defense: “it was an aside [in Judge Cochran’s] opinion.” Justice Sotomayor replied, “But it informed its view of how to judge [intellectual disability],” insisting that Texas clearly “used the Lennie standard.”

Since 2004 courts in Texas have used Judge Cochran’s ill-considered Lennie standard to determine intellectual disability in capital punishment cases.

Questions about Judge Cochran’s odd Of Mice and Men citation—and the quirkiness of a judge relying on a work of literary fiction to support a legal opinion—had been predicted long before oral argument before the Supreme Court began. M. Todd Henderson, a University of Chicago law professor, pointed out the nature of the incongruity in 2008. “Citations to literature are extraordinarily rare in federal appellate court opinions, appearing in only 1 out of every 10,000 federal appellate cases,” he wrote. When judges do cite fictional works in judicial opinions, he continued, “they are most likely to cite to novels for propositions that are closely related to their own work and job.” That’s why it’s baffling that Judge Cochran was reportedly “unfazed” when she learned of Thom Steinbeck’s outrage over her violation of his father’s purpose in writing Of Mice and Men.

Citations to literature are extraordinarily rare in federal appellate court opinions, appearing in only 1 out of every 10,000 federal appellate cases.

John Steinbeck wrote much of Of Mice and Men at the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove, California. Ironically, Judge Cochran is said to have reread “all of Steinbeck” while living in nearby Monterey, three decades later, in the 1960s. Recently my wife and I traveled to the National Steinbeck Center in neighboring Salinas to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. Driving through John Steinbeck’s beloved Salinas Valley, we saw the still poor, still struggling migrant workers toiling under the California sun, like Lennie and George, for subsistence pay. That evening we left our comfortable bed and breakfast to stroll hand-in-hand along the shore celebrated by Steinbeck in Sea of Cortez and Cannery Row. Nowhere, not even in the turbulent tide pools that Steinbeck explored with his wife Carol, did we perceive the death penalty.

Memo to the Supreme Court On Of Mice and Men and the Death Penalty, With Helpful Hints from Literary Criticism

Image of members of the Supreme Court

The August 22 New York Times story by Adam Liptak—“Supreme Court to Consider Legal Standard Drawn From ‘Of Mice and Men’”—suggests that a book by John Steinbeck, like the Bible itself, is open to misinterpretation whenever there is a point to prove. In response to the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision barring execution of the “intellectually disabled,” reports Liptak, “Texas took a creative approach, adopting what one judge there later called ‘the Lennie standard,’” so named for Lennie Small, the mentally handicapped farmhand who kills and gets killed in Of Mice and Men. “This fall, in Moore v. Texas, No. 15-797,” Liptak continues, “the United States Supreme Court will consider whether the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ highest court for criminal matters, went astray last year in upholding the death sentence of Bobby J. Moore based in part on outdated medical criteria and in part on the Lennie standard.”

The story by Adam Liptak suggests that a book by John Steinbeck, like the Bible itself, is open to misinterpretation whenever there is a point to prove.

John Steinbeck explained that his fictional character was based on fact in a 1937 New York Times interview quoted by Liptak. “Lennie was a real person,” Steinbeck told the Times. “He is in an
insane asylum in California right now.” Responding to the misuse of his father’s novel when the Texas case made news in 2012, Thomas Steinbeck—a novelist very much in his father’s image—objected in the strongest terms. “The character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability,” he said at the time. “I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous and profoundly tragic [and] I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck, were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way.”

Lessons from Literary Criticism for the Supreme Court

Of Mice and Men is popular with middle and high school students, yet legal authorities continue to misread the author’s intention, as noted in Liptak’s story. The Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Lennie standard seems certain to set a precedent for legal debate about the death penalty, so understanding what Steinbeck intended matters. Judges like source citations, and reviewing literary criticism written around Steinbeck’s intention in Of Mice and Men may clarify their thinking. The brief summary of literary criticism that follows is intended to spare Steinbeck from further misreading as arguments over eugenics, euthanasia, and the Lennie standard unfold in the courts.

Of Mice and Men is popular with middle and high school students, yet legal authorities continue to misread the author’s meaning.

Fundamental to the death penalty debate is understanding what Steinbeck meant by having George execute Lennie at the end of the novel. Charlotte Hadella and critics have questioned the inevitability of this ending, the so-called mercy killing carried out by George at Slim’s urging as something that must done to spare Lennie from being lynched. George looks up to Slim, a figure of respect whose word counts among the menon the ranch. But Slim’s motives are murky, and he is associated with earlier killings in the novel—the shooting of Candy’s dog and the elimination of Lulu’s unwanted puppies.

Fundamental to the death penalty debate is understanding what Steinbeck meant by having George execute Lennie at the end of the novel.

Likewise, Louis Owens’s reading of the novel revolves around “the various deaths that punctuate the story,” beginning with Slim’s drowning of four puppies from Lulu’s litter. Carlson takes the opportunity to agitate for saving one puppy for Candy so that they can shoot Candy’s old dog, whose offense is that he “stinks.” In an attempt “to give his argument the kind of humanitarian bent euthanasia proponents prefer,” Carlson tells Candy it’s cruel to keep the dog alive—even though there is nothing to indicate that the animal is suffering or unhappy—and a killing of convenience suddenly seems inevitable. Candy appeals to Slim, who takes what Hadella calls “an enormous ethical leap” by saying he wishes someone would shoot him if he got “old and crippled” like the dog. Or like Candy himself, who Owens suggests may have cause to wonder whether Slim will decide to shoot him too someday. Like Lennie and Crooks, Candy is just the kind of character Curley’s wife calls weak—“unproductive,” “valueless,” inconvenient like his dog.

The Gun: Connecting Eugenics, Execution, and Fascism

Steinbeck makes the parallels between the dog’s shooting by Carlson and George’s shooting of Lennie unmistakable, for both are shot “in exactly the same way with the same gun.” As Owens notes, “Dog and man are both annoyances and impediments to the smooth working of the ranch. One stinks and one kills too many things.” When the body of Curley’s wife is discovered, George’s first impulse is humane, to capture Lennie and lock him up so he won’t be a danger to society. But Slim objects. Using the rationale that justified killing Candy’s dog, Slim argues that Lennie would be better off dead than incarcerated—in Slim’s words “locked up, strapped down, and caged.” Slim, Owens observes, “is playing God.” Significantly, the gun used for these killings is described as a Luger, according to Owens a deftly emphasized detail intended by Steinbeck to associate them with eugenics and fascism in Germany.

The gun used for these killings is described as a Luger, according to Owens a deftly emphasized detail intended by Steinbeck to associate them with eugenics and fascism in Germany.

In support of this point, Owens demonsrates Steinbeck’s familiarity with studies of eugenics whose conclusions were used to justify the forced sterilization of those deemed defective by the Heredity Court in Hitler’s Germany. Their Blood Is Strong, the title of the predecessor to The Grapes of Wrath, shows Steinbeck’s familiarity with when he wrote Of Mice and Men. As Owens points out, the ominous repetition of the word Luger in the novel clearly connects “the supposed ‘mercy’ killings of the novel with the rise of Fascism in Germany.”

Their Blood Is Strong, the title of the predecessor to The Grapes of Wrath, shows Steinbeck’s familiarity with eugenics when he wrote Of Mice and Men.

In the light of literary criticism, then, Of Mice and Men can be understood as a cautionary tale written in response to current events. Accepting Lennie’s and the dogs’ deaths as inevitable, as mercy killings that simply must be done, is contrary to Steinbeck’s meaning, the act of misappropriation pointed out by Thomas Steinbeck in his comments about his father and capital punishment. Furthermore, Slim’s inviting George to have a drink after shooting Lennie is an invitation to accept a worldview in which life is nullified—the Nazi world of eugenics, euthanasia, and extermination. This worldview is reflected in current political rhetoric about racial purity, national identity, and the justification of police violence and mass deportation.

This worldview is reflected in current political rhetoric about racial purity, national identity, and the justification of police violence and mass deportation.

Both presidential campaigns remind us that the sanctity of the Supreme Court depends on the outcome of the election. Both would benefit from understanding the moral questions raised by John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men. Where is our compassion? Who will care for the Lennies of our world today? As for the Supreme Court as presently constituted, I have this advice: read Steinbeck’s novel—closely, slowly, carefully, paying attention to details—and read with your heart, as Steinbeck intended for all his books. Though it may seem so sometimes, America isn’t Nazi Germany. Don’t use Steinbeck’s story as an excuse to execute those who are mentally ill or intellectually handicapped because they don’t pass the Lennie test.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Hadella, Charlotte Cook. Of Mice and Men: A Kinship of Powerlessness. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Heavilin, Barbara A. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men: A Reference Guide. Westport, Connecticut, 2005.

Owens, Louis. “Deadly Kids, Stinking Dogs, and Heroes: The Best Laid Plans in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.” Steinbeck Studies. (Fall 2002), 1-8.

John Steinbeck, Islamic Religion, and the Globalism Of The Grapes of Wrath

Cover image of Turkish edition of The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck grew up in the Episcopal Church during an era when religion, like politics, tended to be insular. But parochial thinking never suited Steinbeck, a freethinker who practiced tolerance, traveled widely, and employed images and ideas from other faiths in his writing. Not surprisingly, Chaker Mohamed Ben Ali finds echoes of Islamic religion in The Grapes of Wrath, the novel that continues to attract attention to Steinbeck’s broad-minded values and ecumenical vision. A teacher in Algeria, Chaker Mohamed Ben Ali delivered his paper on Islam in the The Grapes of Wrath (written in collaboration with Salah Eddine Merouani) during the conference on Steinbeck’s internationalism held at San Jose State University in May. Posting his video presentation now seems especially appropriate in the context of current world events. It is a timely reminder that John Steinbeck’s global perspective is more relevant than ever, and it includes a helpful discussion about how to broadcast conference papers, like this one, to an online international audience.—Ed.

East of Eden Comes Alive at Brigham Young University

Image of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah

Image of Brigham Young University professor Steve LiddleThe information systems professor who heads the entrepreneurship program at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business probably isn’t the first person who comes to mind when thinking about how to explain Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden to an academic audience. But that’s exactly what Steve Liddle—a California native who first read The Grapes of Wrath as a boy—brought off brilliantly in a stirring speech about free will and personal responsibility to Brigham Young University faculty and students on May 3. Non-members of the Mormon Church, with which the Provo, Utah university is affiliated, might consider Latter-Day Saints (the accurate term for Mormons) too conservative for Steinbeck, but Steve Liddle explains timshel better than anyone we’ve heard anywhere. Listen to the address at Brigham Young University’s podcast site to learn how. (To get to the East of Eden part quickly, advance the podcast dial to 20 minutes. But Liddle’s full speech is inspiring, even for non-Mormons.)

Why Steinbeck Matters: Bernie Sanders’s Bill of Rights Speech at Georgetown University Recalls Franklin Roosevelt

Image of Bernie Sanders as a student and Franklin Roosevelt as President

Google “Bernie Sanders-Georgetown University” for proof that John Steinbeck still matters. Sanders, the progressive Senator from the State of Vermont who is running for President of the United States, echoed Steinbeck’s greatest novel and channeled Franklin Roosevelt, Steinbeck’s favorite President, during a passionate speech to students at Georgetown University on November 19. Advertised as “Sanders on socialism,” the hour-long address called for the enactment of an “economic bill of rights” for all Americans, first envisioned in 1944 by Franklin Roosevelt in a speech delivered not long before Roosevelt died. In it Roosevelt said that true freedom requires economic security for everyone: the right to a decent job at a living wage, adequate housing, and guaranteed healthcare. Sanders agrees, adding freedom from corrupt campaign financing to Roosevelt’s litany of change. Steinbeck, a lifelong Democrat, met Franklin Roosevelt on several occasions, and Eleanor Roosevelt became an ally and, later, a friend. But in 1944 Steinbeck felt disappointed with America and depressed about the future. His experience reporting from Italy on World War II shook him badly, his domestic life was a mess, and his best period as a writer of socially conscious fiction lay in the past. His siblings were Republicans and he was trying to go home again.

Bernie Sanders, the progressive Senator from the State of Vermont who is running for President of the United States, echoed Steinbeck’s greatest novel and channeled Franklin Roosevelt, Steinbeck’s favorite President, during a passionate speech to students at Georgetown University on November 19.

Still, Steinbeck’s writing of the 1930s is evidence that, if asked, he would have supported Roosevelt’s economic bill of rights in 1944. Steinbeck’s 1939 masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, dramatizes the same Depression-era America that Roosevelt described in his 1937 inaugural address as “ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.” Sanders quoted Roosevelt’s 1937 line at Georgetown University, building his case on Roosevelt’s policies and employing statistics to back up his assertion that Americans are underemployed, over-incarcerated, and sicker than they should be, despite unprecedented national wealth. Alone among the current crop of candidates in either party, he views the growing gap between rich and poor as a moral outrage equivalent to the Great Depression, one that requires legislative remedy through political revolution. Sanders began his hour-long speech at Georgetown University in anger but closed in hope. He called for political revolution on the Franklin Roosevelt model, but he also gave shout-outs to Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon Johnson, and King Abdullah of Jordan in his position statements on foreign and domestic affairs. Judging by audience response, his listeners got the message, and his biggest applause lines were worthy of John Steinbeck: black lives matter, social injustice is evil, and immigrants make America strong.

Image of Bernie Sanders at Georgetown University

“Corporate media” ranks high on Bernie Sanders’s list of oligarchies to be overthrown by breakup, along with Wall Street banks, drug manufacturers, and the billionaires who buy elections. As a result, the mainstream coverage of his campaign to date has been biased, misleading, and focused on surface rather than substance. Despite its depth and drama, his Georgetown University address—the most detailed articulation of his views so far—was no exception. News stories about the speech the next day were as scarce as copies of The Grapes of Wrath in Kern County, California. When TV talking heads deigned to mention Sanders’s revival of Roosevelt’s economic bill of rights, most mumbled “socialism” before moving on to friendlier content: Hillary Clinton’s emails, Donald Trump’s demand for the deportation of undocumented Mexicans, and Ted Cruz’s call for closing America’s borders to Muslims in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, Bernie Sanders’s campaign has stirred deep animosity within power structures that control the system. They hate being exposed, and as Steinbeck learned they fight back.

Like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, Bernie Sanders’s campaign has stirred deep animosity within power structures that control the system. They hate being exposed, and as Steinbeck learned they fight back.

They called Steinbeck a communist. Sanders, like Roosevelt, they dismiss as a socialist. A plum-toned aristocrat sometimes described as a traitor to his class, Roosevelt fought “economic royalists” from both parties and welcomed their scorn. Sanders, who comes from Brooklyn and faults Democrats for acting like Republicans, admires Roosevelt’s attitude and quotes him frequently, as he did at Georgetown University. Compared with Roosevelt, however, Sanders is a roughneck speaker who still sounds like a New Yorker. He said “crap” early in his remarks at Georgetown University and admitted that, like Steinbeck at Stanford, he didn’t apply himself as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s (see photo). In the 1950s Steinbeck supported Adlai Stevenson, a polished and erudite Illinois progressive who lost two elections to Dwight Eisenhower, a man with a vocabulary so limited that Steinbeck said it disqualified him from being President. During the period Bernie Sanders was demonstrating for desegregation rather than doing his homework at the University of Chicago, Steinbeck’s political affections moved on to Lyndon Johnson, an unpolished President who talked tough while reviving Roosevelt “socialism” in landmark legislation—civil rights, Medicaid, Medicare—that Sanders praised in his November 19 address. The dead no longer vote, but if Steinbeck were alive today I think his big heart would be with Bernie Sanders. Watch the video of Sanders’s Georgetown University speech and see if you agree:

Pope Francis, John Steinbeck, and an Act of Grace in London, England

Image of Pope Francis

The historic visit to America by Pope Francis, which included the canonization of the Spanish-California missionary Junipero Serra, made some right-wing Catholics in Washington angry, though it would have pleased John Steinbeck, a politically progressive Episcopalian with Catholic sympathies. The pope’s call for justice, mercy, and kindness to strangers in his address to Congress inspired the editor in chief of Steinbeck Review to write about her experience with grace during a trip she took with her husband to a city John Steinbeck experienced as a welcome guest in times of war and peace: London, England.—Ed.

In “Republicans Could Have a Pope Problem,” a syndicated column about Pope Francis’s recent visit published in the September 25, 2015, Birmingham, Alabama News, the journalist Margaret Carlson writes, “Pope Francis suffused Washington with what Catholics would call grace and what everyone else—for the crowds aren’t just believers—would call pure, almost childlike happiness.” Concluding that “this is what goodness looks like,” she predicts that certain politicians and vested interests may find the Pope’s message to America—one that is so very much like John Steinbeck’s moral stance in The Grapes of Wrath—problematic, even meddling. Notes Carlson of the Pope’s emphasis on immigration reform, economic justice, and ecological awareness during his speech to Congress:

My God, he’s questioning unfettered capitalism and the worship of wealth. . . . “The son of an immigrant family” said we should welcome those who come to the U.S. Such effrontery. With Republicans watching from lawn chairs, he said that those at the top of the economic heap have a duty to fight climate change on behalf of the millions left behind by the global economic system. “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” he said. Before he leaves, he could very well call for raising taxes.

John Steinbeck would have loved this pope, who chose the occasion of his American visit to canonize Junipero Serra, the 18th century Franciscan missionary to Spanish California. Like Steinbeck, Pope Francis has a compassionate heart for the dispossessed, a dim view of ostentatious consumerism, and an abiding sense of our intimate connection to Mother Earth and the interrelatedness of all things that Casy proclaims in The Grapes of Wrath. Like Francis, John Steinbeck’s novel challenges the status quo, holds out hope for change despite the odds, and calls for love in a world threatened equally by the hatred of enemies and the complacency of friends and allies.

John Steinbeck would have loved this pope, who chose the occasion of his American visit to canonize Junipero Serra, the 18th century Franciscan missionary to Spanish California.

Although not a Catholic, California’s greatest writer was a political progressive who was friendly to Catholicism and saved his criticism of organized religion for the narrow-minded and the hypocritical—characteristics of conservative Catholic politicians such as Senator Marco Rubio, to whom Carlson refers in her article. “As for Rubio,” she suggests, “perhaps the Pope will persuade him to follow Christ’s teachings and not his most conservative followers and donors. Miracles do happen.”

Although not a Catholic, California’s greatest writer was a political progressive who was friendly to Catholicism and saved his criticism of organized religion for the narrow-minded and the hypocritical.

An Anglican who loved to travel, John Steinbeck particularly liked London, England, where I experienced my own minor miracle on the last leg of the European trip my husband Charlie and I took shortly before Pope Francis came to the United States. The date was September 20, the night before our return flight to Atlanta; the place, London’s Mayfair Millennial Hotel. As we finished dessert in the hotel dining room and prepared to pay our bill, my husband reached for his wallet. It wasn’t in his pocket. We knew instantly how someone had taken it earlier in the day—giving me a shove and stealing Charlie’s billfold while we were distracted. Far from home and facing the prospect of having to cancel all of our credit cards, we felt violated, desolate, and a bit desperate.

I experienced my own minor miracle on the last leg of the European trip my husband Charlie and I took shortly before Pope Francis came to the United States.

Thirty minutes before we were scheduled to check out the next morning, our concierge phoned our room with welcome news: “A lady has called to report that she has your billfold. It is being held for you at a hotel not too far away, and you may pick it up any time.” When we arrived at the hotel, we found Charlie’s wallet intact—his credit cards, his driver’s license, even his cash. Details of what happened to the billfold—it had been found by a Good Samaritan on a street far from Regent’s Park, where we had spent the previous afternoon—remained a mystery. As we left for the airport to fly home, everyone at the hotel desk was smiling, agreeing that this warmhearted act of grace was a “London miracle.”

As we left for the airport to fly home, everyone at the hotel desk was smiling, agreeing that this warmhearted act of grace was a ‘London miracle.’

The incident in England made an impact on us that John Steinbeck would have understood and appreciated. Like the presence of Pope Francis in the United States, it restored our belief in the possibility of goodness and honesty, decency and kindness. As Margaret Carlson notes, “Miracles do happen.”

The incident in England made an impact on us that John Steinbeck would have understood and appreciated.

Pope Francis is calling for miracles today, and characters in Steinbeck’s fiction like Ma Joad attest to their possibility. Perhaps we shall see more “miracles” in the future. I hope so, because our own fate and that of the earth we inhabit depend on them. Perhaps “good will,” “the common good,” and sustaining “Mother Earth” will become practical possibilities rather than impossible dreams. Perhaps the impression left by Pope Francis will endure, making life better for the planet we inhabit and for the strangers in our midst, whether on our border or on a side street in London, England.

 

Is Pope Francis a Fan of John Steinbeck? CBS News Reporter Scott Pelley Gives The Popular Pope a Copy of The Grapes of Wrath

Image of CBS News reporter Scott Pelley

Has Pope Francis read John Steinbeck? CBS News reporter Scott Pelley, a big fan of both men, thinks they have much in common in matters of justice, mercy, and conscience. (Barbara A. Heavilin, editor in chief of Steinbeck Review, agrees, relating the pope and the author’s shared hope for suffering humanity to an incident that occurred on a recent trip abroad.) During a 60 Minutes segment that aired on September 20, Scott Pelley previewed the pope’s historic visit to the United States, which included an address on Capitol Hill boycotted by three Catholic members of the Supreme Court’s conservative wing. Earlier, Pelley explained in a 60 Minutes Overtime interview why he handed Pope Francis an Italian edition of The Grapes of Wrath while on assignment in Rome in preparation for the segment. He said he was a descendant of displaced Dust Bowl victims who, like the “Okies” in The Grapes of Wrath, were refugees within their own country during the Great Depression. That connection, he explained, made John Steinbeck and Pope Francis more than news for him. It made them relevant.

Ed Ricketts, Aldo Leopold, And the Birth of the Modern Environmental Movement

Cover image of Leopold's Shack and Ricketts's Lab by Michael J. Lannoo

A bright, breezy book timed for the 75th anniversary of Ricketts and Steinbeck’s famous expedition to the Sea of Cortez traces today’s environmental movement and the modern field of conservation biology to two prophets born ahead of their time, 10 years and 200 miles apart, more than a century ago. As Michael J. Lannoo dramatically demonstrates in Leopold’s Shack and Ricketts’s Lab: The Emergence of Environmentalism, Aldo Leopold and Ed Ricketts approached wildlife biology, marine biology, and the earth’s ecology in a whole new way, the result of intimate observation, original thinking, and lively conversation at Ricketts’s lab on Cannery Row and Leopold’s shack on reclaimed farmland in Wisconsin—apt metaphors for the sociable minds of two unconventional scientists whose parallel paths never crossed.

Image of Ed Ricketts, subject of Michael J. Lannoo's book

The story of Ricketts, marine biology, and the 1940 collecting expedition to the Sea of Cortez is familiar territory for Steinbeck fans and “Ed Heads,” the ardent admirers who consider Doc’s lab a shrine, like Lourdes. A less familiar narrative, equally fateful, was unfolding in the woods of Wisconsin during the same period, the 1930s and 40s, in the shack and mind of Aldo Leopold, the father of professional wildlife biology and author of Sand County Almanac (1949). Like Sea of Cortez, Leopold’s classic took time to gain steam; like Ricketts, Leopold died too soon to see his ideas change the course of science, land management, and the way we think.

Image of Aldo Leopold, subject of Michael J. Lannoos' book

Leopold died of a heart attack on the Wisconsin land he loved in 1948, months before the book that made him an environmental-movement hero was published. Two weeks later Ricketts was also dead, the result of injuries sustained when his car struck a train near his Cannery Row lab. Leopold, 10 years Ricketts’s senior, never met the transplanted Chicago native who made Cannery Row famous, in fiction and in fact. But Ricketts’s mystical thinking about marine biology eventually converged with Leopold’s ethic of wildlife biology to create the field of conservation biology and the holistic vision of today’s environmental movement, a benign way of living with nature minus the impulse to over-farm, over-fish, over-build, and over-populate. Like Steinbeck, Leopold was angered by urban sprawl and consumer waste. Like Steinbeck and Ricketts, he thought science was a saner faith than religion.

Ricketts’s mystical thinking about marine biology eventually converged with Leopold’s ethic of wildlife biology to create the field of conservation biology and the holistic vision of today’s environmental movement.

Leopold and Ricketts, opposites types in personality and behavior, come to life like the parallel protagonists of a Steinbeck novel in Lannoo’s elegant little book. Like all prophets, both men had their problems with power. Though Leopold’s 1933 work on game management became the standard textbook of its time, Sand County Almanac was passed over by publishers who doubted the commercial value of any collection of essays about nature not named Walden. Ricketts’s Between Pacific Tides (1939) eventually become a standard text for teaching marine biology, but not before it was rejected, accepted with edits, then endlessly delayed by Stanford University, its publisher. As for Sea of Cortez, does anyone think Viking Press would have touched that book without John Steinbeck’s name on the byline over “E.F. Ricketts”? True, Steinbeck mourned Ricketts’s death, but he later agreed to republish Sea of Cortez, with an essay “About Ed Ricketts” but without Ricketts’s name as co-author.

Leopold and Ricketts, opposites types in personality and behavior, come to life like the parallel protagonists of a Steinbeck novel in Lannoo’s elegant little book.

Fortunately, Michael Lannoo—a practicing scientist and popular writer about conservation biology—ignores this shameful incident, and other fetishes of what one wag calls the modern Steinbeck-studies industrial complex. Instead, he concentrates on the lives and science of his told-in-tandem subjects without the literary baggage that weighs down books about the anxiety of influence and the pleasures of symmetry by professors of English. He wisely lets Leopold and Ricketts stand on their own, unfolding their parallel stories in alternating chapters with Steinbeckian skill. Robert DeMott, the scholar and fly-fisherman who turned me on to this little gem, accurately describes Lannoo’s book as “blessedly free of cant, jargon, or technical obfuscation.” Read it and rejoice, but hear its message. Like Ricketts (who quit college) and Leopold (who went to forestry school), you don’t need a PhD to enjoy the exciting story or get the scary point. The disappearance of frogs and other species, Lannoo’s primary interest, is our generation’s Dust Bowl—“the defining event,” as Lannoo reminds us, “that made ecology suddenly relevant.”