Why The Grapes of Wrath Still Matters in Oklahoma

Image of Ma Joad from Grapes of Wrath movie

“Legislature may be working toward ‘Grapes of Wrath’ revision,” a November 16 editorial in the Enid, Oklahoma News & Eagle, used this image of Ma Joad from John Ford’s film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel to remind readers that Steinbeck’s angry portrayal of preventable poverty in the Dust Bowl still resonates for residents of a state where education spending cuts have forced some communities to reduce the school week to four days in a region dominated by the wants and needs of the billionaire Koch brothers. The state’s Republican governor recently vetoed the budget delivered to her desk by the anti-tax Republican legislature, which included $60 million more in cuts to health and human services, and the three-term Republican mayor of Oklahoma City has made education an issue in his campaign to succeed her. Like the author of The Grapes of Wrath, the editors in Enid employed dark irony to highlight the human cost of poor public policy, particularly when motivated by willful ignorance and corporate greed: “Perhaps the Legislature is hoping that a modern revision of the John Steinbeck classic ‘Grapes of Wrath’ will be the secret to our state’s future success. Only this time instead of impoverished Dust Bowl-era farmers moving out of state during the Great Depression, it will be school teachers and health care providers leading the exodus.”

Donald Trump and Ajit Pai’s Plan to End Net Neutrality

Image of Ajit Pai, Donald Trump's pick for FCC chairman

Ajit Pai, the former attorney for Verizon who was appointed by Donald Trump to chair the Federal Communications Commission, recently announced that the administration’s plan to deregulate internet providers and end the policy of net neutrality are on the agenda of the next FCC meeting. Pai, a Republican lawyer-lobbyist of Indian heritage who has long advocated the idea, is likely to have his way when the board meets on December 14. Deregulation is a Republican mantra, and Republicans are a majority on the five-person commission, created in 1934 to insure fairness in interstate communications through regulations such as net neutrality, which prohibits internet carriers from making accessibility to some websites faster than others.

Net neutrality prohibits internet carriers from making accessibility to some websites faster than others.

If you’ve ever exceeded the monthly minutes on your iPhone, you already know what ending net neutrality will mean when you sit down at your computer and type SteinbeckNow.com or CommonCause.org into the search box. Once Verizon and other internet providers get the go-ahead to reserve the digital fast lane for commercial sites with cash for the gate keeper, or the right political views, accessing nonprofit websites and those with opposing opinions will be like calling your grandmother back in the old country when pay phones and long-distance operators prevailed: slow, frustrating, and conducive to the infrequency and ignorance that isolates families and cultures. Without net neutrality the online interstate open to all will become a toll road with a fast-lane fee.

 Without net neutrality the online interstate open to all will become a toll road with a fast-lane fee.

Who stands to benefit? Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and other internet providers with the power to charge websites a premium for access, like minutes on your iPhone, plus corporate-friendly politicians like our current president, who is delivering on his promise to reverse the policies of his predecessor, including net neutrality. The surge in online pay-for-placement ads supporting internet deregulation since the 2016 election is unsurprising to close observers. So is the volume of computer-generated bot traffic timed to overwhelm the FCC’s inbox and block complaints about the proposal from actual Americans. Pay-for-play politics produced Ajit Pai, whose chairmanship of the FCC ends in five years, and Russian bot traffic helped elect Donald Trump, whose time as president seems certain to end sooner. But their joint legacy—FCC deregulation and pay-to-play internet access—has lasting potential to harm the free flow of information and ideas along the digital highway. It will certainly hurt this website.

Photograph of Ajit Pai courtesy of The Washington Post.

Cracker Barrel Wisdom on John Steinbeck’s Birthday

Image of Craig Nagel, Minnesota newspaperman

Craig Nagel, author of the biweekly “Cracker Barrel” column in the Echo Journal, a community newspaper near Brainerd, Minnesota, celebrated John Steinbeck’s birthday with a memorable March 3 column written (as Nagel says of Steinbeck) “so simply and cleanly that his sentences seem effortless.” A Midwestern mensch in the style of Garrison Keillor, Nagel praises Steinbeck for displaying personal bravery in the face of public criticism, and for having a Twain-like sense of humor that “often masked the depth of his outrage, gentling the hatred he felt toward those who used and manipulated others.” Pequot Lakes, the Minnesota town where Nagel lives and writes his “Cracker Barrel” column, has a population of 2,200—about the size of Salinas, California when Steinbeck was born there 115 years ago. Like Salinas, it’s a small place harboring a big heart.

An Artful Reminder of Japanese American Internment 75 Years Ago

Image of George Matsasaburo Hibbi's painting from Topaz camp

The forced internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor distressed John Steinbeck, who admired Franklin Roosevelt, the president who signed the internment order. Today, exactly 75 years later, the memory of Executive Order 9066 continues to burden American history. An anniversary article on the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in the January 2017 issue of Smithsonian Magazine leads off with a profile of Jane Yanagi Diamond, a vibrant internment survivor I happen to know.

Image of Dorthea Lange's Photograph of young Jane Yanagi and family

The 1942 photograph taken by Steinbeck’s ally and contemporary Dorothea Lange (above) shows Jane as a sorrowing child holding on to her pregnant mother’s hand, moments before the Yanagi family boards a bus on the way to the emergency assembly center hastily set up by the federal government at a California racetrack. The family was then sent to Topaz, an internment camp in Utah that would also house two exceptional California artists, Chiura Obata and George Matsusaburo Hibi. Obata, an art instructor at UC Berkeley, and Hibi, a prolific painter from Hayward, California, founded an art school at Topaz that uncovered hidden talent and helped internees cope until the war ended and they could go home.

Image of George Matsasaburo Hibbi's painting of Topaz camp

Obata eventually returned to his teaching post at Cal and became famous for his Yosemite scenes. Hibi’s paintings included internment camp scenes like the one shown here. He was also magnanimous, donating 50 of his and his family paintings to the Hayward community before being sent to Topaz. Michael Brown, the author of Views from Asian California – 1920-1965, quotes Hibi as saying this about the gift: “There is no boundary in art. This is the only way I can show my appreciation to my many American friends here.’’ Obata died in 1975, Hibi in 1947, two years after his release from Topaz.

Image of Jane Yanagi Diamond at home in Carmel today

How Creating Art Helped Japanese Americans Survive

Obata and Hibi were part of a remarkable art movement in the Japanese American camps, most of which included professional artists who realized the importance of establishing a creative outlet for the internees. The work they produced–both professionals and students–was so moving, so powerful that in 1992 the Japanese American National Museum, the Wight Art Gallery at UCLA, and UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center assembled a landmark traveling exhibition, “The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps 1942-1945.” Hibi’s colorful painting of four Topaz internees seated at easels is testimony to the spirit of the movement he and Obata helped create.

Obata and Hibi were part of a remarkable art movement in the Japanese American camps, most of which included professional artists who realized the importance of establishing a creative outlet for the internees.

I was a reporter at the time, and I wrote several articles about the exhibition. My interest was initially stirred when I learned that a Japanese American artist named Miki Hayakawa was taken from my town of Pacific Grove, California, to an internment camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I knew Hayakawa was a superb artist because several of her exquisite paintings had come into the art gallery that my wife Nancy and I owned there. Hayakawa lived in Pacific Grove from 1939 until her removal to the camp and may well have known—or known of—John Steinbeck, who was in Pacific Grove off and on during that period. Hayakawa died in Santa Fe in 1953.

I was a reporter at the time, and I wrote several articles about the exhibition, ‘The World From Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945.’

I met Jane Yanagi Diamond (shown above at home) several years ago when she and her husband Tony came into the gallery. They live in Carmel and had a painting by Hibi that had hung at Topaz and that Hibi gave to Jane’s father when the family was released. Jane wanted to find a good home for the work and together we decided that it should return to Topaz, where a museum had been established to memorialize the internment of Japanese Americans like Jane. The piece was dramatic. Painted on four panels, it depicts three tigers stalking a brave antelope or gazelle, head down, determined to hold its ground in the face of an approaching threat. I wondered at the time if Hibi painted it to give children like Jane the courage they needed to go on.

I met Jane Yanagi Diamond when she and her husband Tony came into the gallery. They live in Carmel and had a painting by Hibi that had hung at the Topaz camp.

Jane developed a love of art, favoring the freedom of California plein air painting—work painted out of doors in an Impressionistic manner—and attending frequent art openings in and around Carmel with her husband. When an exhibition of Nancy’s paintings opened at the Pacific Grove Library several years ago, Tony and Jane were there. She recently shared a story about her father. “After Topaz,” she said, “whenever my father would get angry about something–sometimes something I might have done–I could always redirect his anger by mentioning Franklin Roosevelt because it brought back memories.”

Jane developed a love of art, favoring the freedom of California plein air painting and attending frequent art openings in and around Carmel with Tony. She recently shared a story about her father.

The Yanagi family also had the three tigers and the gazelle to help them hold onto a piece of personal history made less painful by art. But Hibi’s painting has now returned to Topaz, where it will continue to tell the story of artful courage and coping from a troubling episode in American history.

Photograph of Jane Yanagi Diamond by Paul Kitagaki Jr. courtesy Smithsonian Magazine.

John Steinbeck’s Road Map For Resisting Donald Trump

Image of "Resist Donald Trump"

A recent blog post of the National Book Critics Circle asked members “at this time of cultural shift” in the dawning era of Donald Trump to identify their “favorite work of resistance literature.” The writer Paul Wilner identified John Steinbeck’s “quietly furious” strike novel In Dubious Battle as his personal choice.

“We may not see the future lying before us,” Wilner explained, “but Steinbeck has provided a valuable road map to the lessons of the past. He may have fought kicking and screaming against the label of ‘engaged’ writer–he’ll never be confused with Sartre, to his credit–but he understood the power, as well as the perils, of resistance.”

‘We may not see the future lying before us, but John Steinbeck has provided a valuable road map to the lessons of the past.’

True enough, but my choice of road map for resisting Donald Trump would be The Moon Is Down, the play-novella John Steinbeck wrote during the early, dark days of World War II about anti-fascist resistance by the citizens of a Nazi-occupied country in northern Europe. Steinbeck’s little book inspired citizen resistance in Nazi-occupied territories from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It contains practical advice for Americans opposed to Donald Trump’s attitudes and actions as president, 75 years after it was written.

The Moon Is Down contains practical advice for Americans opposed to Donald Trump’s attitudes and actions as president, 75 years after it was written.

Set in a fictionalized version of Norway, The Moon Is Down tells the story of what residents do when alien soldiers—never named as Nazis, but unmistakable nonetheless—invade their peaceful coastal mining town by air, land, and sea. Hitler’s forces tried hard to suppress The Moon Is Down in Nazi-occupied lands (possession was punishable by death in Mussolini’s Italy), but contraband copies, printed and passed on by hand, were widely credited with sustaining anti-fascist resistance until Nazi occupation ended in 1945. Once World War II was over, John Steinbeck was awarded the Freedom Cross by King Haakon VII of Norway, that nation’s highest civilian honor.

Set in a fictionalized version of Norway, it tells the story of what residents do when alien soldiers—never named as Nazis, but unmistakable nonetheless—invade their peaceful coastal mining town.

Magnified by an unforgiving winter, the passive bitterness of an occupied people morphs into active rebellion that begins quietly when the town’s mayor refuses to drink with the army officer who—unlike Donald Trump—is a moral man following orders from others. The refusal to cooperate eventually costs the mayor his life, but not before his example inspires numerous acts of rebellion, some violent, by residents of the town. Sanctuary-city mayors around the United States are setting a similar example by signaling their refusal to cooperate with federal orders to round up undocumented residents for deportation. Demonstrations at legislative town hall meetings, by citizens concerned about health care, are following a similar pattern. People are standing up to power.

Demonstrations at legislative town hall meetings, by citizens concerned about health care, are following a similar pattern. People are standing up to power.

When U.S. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis was interviewed on Meet the Press not long ago, he prepared the stage for official resistance by explaining to Chuck Todd why he felt Donald Trump was “not legitimate” and why he refused to attend Trump’s inauguration. “You cannot be at home with something that is wrong,” Lewis told Todd, citing the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”

‘We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.’

John Steinbeck understood this principle but professed to be surprised that The Moon Is Down proved so popular, explaining that he wrote the book “as a kind of celebration of the durability of democracy.” When the mayor in Steinbeck’s story says that he feels the will of the people and acts accordingly, he gives unspoken permission for their resistance, the ultimate result of which is left—in typical Steinbeck fashion—for readers to decide. As Steinbeck makes clear, however, the occupiers are flummoxed because they fail to understand the psychology of people brought together by crisis. Products of a top-down, authoritarian culture familiar to students of Donald Trump, they are unprepared for popular resistance and cannot cope when confronted with democratic dissent.

John Steinbeck understood this principle but professed to be surprised that The Moon Is Down proved so popular, explaining that he wrote the book ‘as a kind of celebration of the durability of democracy.’

As Steinbeck’s mayor explains to the puzzled commandant who is trying to keep order, “Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.” John Steinbeck’s advice couldn’t be clearer: Once a bully picks a fight, resist. You may lose the battle, but you’ll eventually win the war.

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.

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:

Why John Steinbeck Would Support Bernie Sanders Now

Composite image of Bernie Sanders, John Steinbeck, Franklin Roosevelt, and Adlai Stevenson

If John Steinbeck were alive today he would support Bernie Sanders for president.

Why? Because Bernie Sanders is the kind of outspoken progressive the author of The Grapes of Wrath enthusiastically embraced during his controversial career as a prize-winning writer of popular fiction. A passionate believer in fair play, Steinbeck endorsed presidential candidates committed to populist causes, actively campaigning for Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected four times, and Adlai Stevenson, who ran twice but lost both races. More than either man, Bernie Sanders talks straight in plain language about equality and integrity, Steinbeck’s core values—a New England character trait that Steinbeck both admired and inherited. The Sanders movement is about issues, not personality; Steinbeck wanted to be remembered for his books, not his life. But his life was public and political, and a little biography is needed to show why he’d be for Bernie Sanders today.

Why John Steinbeck and Bernie Sanders Would Get Along

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, in 1902, and grew up in the small town during the era of Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican President who busted the big business trusts and moved to curtail private exploitation of public lands by creating parks such as Yosemite. John’s mother was an ex-schoolteacher and tireless civic volunteer. His father was a failed small-businessman who became the elected Treasurer of Monterey County. His mother’s parents emigrated from Ireland, while his father’s people were New Englanders—half-English and half-German. Both parents were Party-of-Lincoln Republicans who believed in social improvement, access to education, and reforming government to make it work better. Steinbeck was proud of these roots, later writing that everybody in Salinas was a Republican back then, and that if he had stayed in Salinas he would have become one, too.

Steinbeck was proud of his roots, later writing that everybody in Salinas was a Republican back then, and that if he had stayed in Salinas he would have become one, too.

Like Bernie Sanders, John Steinbeck grew to distrust the corrupting influence of corporations and how working people were manipulated to vote against their economic self-interest—urban vs. rural, native- vs. foreign-born, small farmers and white laborers vs. Mexicans, Chinese, Filipinos, and refugees from the Dust Bowl. He hated the social snobbery he encountered as a student at Stanford University in the 1920s, working as a field hand and night watchman in summers and off-semesters to help pay his way but quitting before getting a degree. In 1925 he left for New York to find his own way. There, like Bernie Sanders, he failed at more than one job before returning to California to make ends meet as a caretaker-handyman on a rich man’s estate. The Great Depression that resulted from Wall Street’s collapse in 1929 gave Steinbeck the subject he needed to become a politically engaged writer: the brutal suppression of non-union workers by California’s big business interests. The state’s powerful industrial-agriculture complex became the target of his 1939 masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.

The Great Depression that resulted from Wall Street’s collapse in 1929 gave Steinbeck the subject he needed to become a politically engaged writer: the brutal suppression of non-union workers by California’s big business interests.

Also like Bernie Sanders today—and most Americans at the time—Steinbeck believed in gun-rights, but was too tenderhearted to hunt. Instead, he kept a gun for self-protection. Hired thugs threatened to break his legs or worse for what he was writing about workers’ rights, even before The Grapes of Wrath, and the sheriff warned him of a plot to set him up for a rape charge. Threats failed to change his mind, and the celebrity he achieved through his writing changed his behavior but not his character. Like Bernie Sanders, he remained pro-labor all his life and more at ease with working people than with billionaires. He refused to own a Ford because Henry Ford was an anti-union anti-Semite whose cars Steinbeck thought inferior. Steinbeck described another billionaire as so driven by avarice that late-life regret forced him to try buying his way into heaven through philanthropy.

Like Bernie Sanders, he remained pro-labor all his life and more at ease with working people than with billionaires. He refused to own a Ford because Henry Ford was an anti-union anti-Semite whose cars Steinbeck thought inferior.

The greatest influence on Steinbeck’s thinking about politics was probably his first wife, Carol Henning, a progressive activist who suggested the title of The Grapes of Wrath. Together they supported the New Deal programs of President Franklin Roosevelt, whose First Lady became Steinbeck’s friend and ally. Like Bernie Sanders, however, Steinbeck had a wise way of not rejecting those who disagreed with him about party affiliation. He remained loyal to his Republican sisters, though he deeply disliked their fellow Californian Richard Nixon, and he despised William Randolph Hearst, the father of yellow journalism—the Fox News of American politics at the time. Steinbeck died in New York the month after Nixon was elected president in 1968. If Steinbeck and Bernie Sanders had met in the ’60s, unlikely but conceivable, they would have agreed about the movement for desegregation and voting rights and disagreed about the war in Vietnam, an issue that eventually got Steinbeck in trouble with his friends.

John Steinbeck, Franklin Roosevelt, and Adlai Stevenson

When Steinbeck’s enemies accused him of being Jewish because of his surname and his sympathies, he replied that he would be pleased if it were so. In reality his religious roots were Protestant, and he grew up in the Episcopal Church—the church of Franklin Roosevelt, a New York aristocrat of Dutch descent whom detractors also accused of being a Jew. Just as Steinbeck’s parents had supported the progressive policies of Teddy Roosevelt, FDR’s Republican cousin, Steinbeck advocated Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as a way out of the pain and suffering caused by Wall Street in the Great Depression. When world war broke out the year The Grapes of Wrath was published, Steinbeck found himself blackballed by military bureaucrats in Washington and abused by his local draft board. Despite his support for FDR and the fight against Fascism, he questioned the government’s internment of Japanese-Americans and criticized pro-war propaganda created by New York ad men and Hollywood studio warriors. After showing courage under fire as an embedded newspaper correspondent on the Italian front, he was refused the award for valor that many thought he deserved. When he returned to the United States he said the worst thing about war was its dishonesty.

Despite his support for FDR and the fight against Fascism, he questioned the government’s internment of Japanese-Americans and criticized pro-war propaganda created by New York ad men and Hollywood studio warriors.

Doubts about the Cold War, plus Eleanor Roosevelt’s endorsement, motivated John Steinbeck to support Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Stevenson’s cool intelligence and firm grip on fact-based reality appealed to Steinbeck’s intellect, which he developed by dialogue and research. The same traits made Stevenson a target of Cold Warriors from both parties connected to what Eisenhower later called out as the military-industrial complex in his last State of the Union address. Stevenson was an independent-minded politician with a consistent message, an activist following, and an aversion to the kind of character assassination used against him when he ran for president. Like Franklin Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders, he was John Steinbeck’s idea of an authentic progressive.

Adlai Stevenson was an independent-minded politician with a consistent message, an activist following, and an aversion to the kind of character assassination used against him when he ran for president. Like Franklin Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders, he was John Steinbeck’s idea of an authentic progressive.

Along with Eleanor Roosevelt, Steinbeck encouraged Stevenson to run again in 1960 before shifting his support to John Kennedy. After the election Stevenson and Steinbeck grew close, closer than Steinbeck ever was to Franklin Roosevelt. Like Bernie Sanders, Stevenson had a scientific, secular worldview that attracted Steinbeck but invited opponents to characterize Stevenson as an egghead who was unqualified to be president because he read books and liked culture. Steinbeck, who wrote long books, shared Stevenson’s enthusiasm for music and reading. Cool Bach was playing in the background as Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath. So was the edgy music of Igor Stravinsky, a Russian refugee with a wild, insistent sound more like Bernie Sanders than Bach or Adlai Stevenson.

But Couldn’t John Steinbeck Be for Hillary Clinton?

Answer: If Bernie Sanders weren’t running, yes, but with reservations. Here’s why.

John Steinbeck’s third wife was a Texas friend of Lady Bird Johnson, and the Steinbecks were White House guests when LBJ needed help with the intellectuals he thought Steinbeck, like Stevenson, represented. It’s easy enough to imagine Elaine Steinbeck, the first non-male stage manager in Broadway history, favoring a female candidate for president today. But the influence she exerted turned out badly for her husband in the 1960s. Steinbeck’s sense of loyalty to the Johnsons led him to get the Vietnam War very wrong, despite the lesson he learned in World War II. He kept his mouth shut in public after touring Southeast Asia at Johnson’s urging. In private he confessed that the government had no business interfering in the civil war of a country that hadn’t attacked America.

Today John Steinbeck would be for Bernie Sanders, the no-nonsense New Englander with a consistent record on everything that mattered most to Steinbeck: social justice, individual integrity, and saving the people and the planet Steinbeck celebrated in The Grapes of Wrath.

If he’d lived, Steinbeck would have opposed the Bush-Cheney wars for the same reason—plus the deceit and dishonesty used to justify the invasion of Iraq. At the time, Bernie Sanders joined Barack Obama in opposing the Iraq war from the floor of the U.S. Senate. Like a Cold War Democrat in the days of Lyndon Johnson, however, Senator Clinton went along with the crowd and voted yes. Steinbeck paid dearly, in reputation and in conscience, for following the White House line on Vietnam, despite his distrust of Wall Street and warmongering and his understanding of their connection. Given that experience, he’d distrust Clinton—for her Wall Street friends as much as for her flip-flopping on Iraq. In 2008 Steinbeck would have supported Obama—an egghead from Illinois, like Adlai Stevenson—and rejoiced in the result. Today he’d be for Bernie Sanders, the no-nonsense New Englander with a consistent record on everything that mattered most to Steinbeck: social justice, individual integrity, and saving the people and the planet Steinbeck celebrated in The Grapes of Wrath.