Steinbeck Review Invites Papers from Non-Specialists

Image of John Steinbeck at home in Pacific Grove

The new issue of Steinbeck Review, the biannual journal focusing on John Steinbeck’s life and work, includes literary criticism, book reviews, and a change in editorial policy of interest to fans of Steinbeck’s fiction. A Penn State University Press publication, Steinbeck Review was limited in the past to literary criticism, history, and news about Steinbeck from and for teachers and scholars. Acknowledging events in Charlottesville and Alabama and online writing about Steinbeck, the editors invite contributions from non-specialists applying their understanding of Steinbeck to political developments, constitutional rights, and social justice, as well as personal essays about Steinbeck’s impact outside the classroom. Articles of literary criticism in the current issue address formal and thematic aspects of Steinbeck’s writing in To a God Unknown, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Winter of Our Discontent. Literary history and biography are represented by a piece on Steinbeck’s screenplay for the 1944 movie Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and a 2001 letter from Steinbeck’s son Thom about his father’s relationship with the portrait artist William Ward Beecher. Book reviews include a summary and opinion on Linda Wagner-Martin’s 2017 biography, John Steinbeck: A Literary Life.

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.

John Steinbeck’s Warning in Playboy about Donald Trump

Image of Donald Trump with Playboy magazine

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

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

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

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

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

The New Florida Climate of No-Nothing Culture Rejects The Grapes of Wrath: Satire

Composite image of The Grapes of Wrath, intelligent design, climate deniers

Frank Cerabino, the humor writer for the Palm Beach Post newspaper best known for book-length put-downs of condo captains and crooked politicians, seized on The Grapes of Wrath to satirize Sean Hannity, intelligent design, and Florida climate deniers in a July 7 column—“Florida’s evolution to complainer’s paradise for public schools”—excoriating the new Florida law authorizing state hearing officers to consider requests from “any resident, regardless of whether he or she has children in the public school system, to instigate a formal challenge to any textbook, library book, novel, or other kind of instructional material used in a public school.” Here is the letter from an imaginary retiree with too much time on his hands demanding the removal of The Grapes of Wrath from a South Florida school district.

Dear Unbiased and Qualified Hearing Officer:

It has come to my attention that some public school libraries in this district contain the novel “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, a well-known socialist who visited the Soviet Union in 1947 and espoused biased opinions about capitalism.

By allowing students to read Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” you are exposing them to a work of art that shines a harsh light on American history and its ideals.

This is shameful, and obviously part of the school board’s liberal agenda. Which is why me and others in my morning Einstein’s Bagels discussion group hereby demand that unless you balance Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” in school libraries with Sean Hannity’s inspiring book, “Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War over Liberalism” we will be requesting a public hearing.

We’re not putting up with the school district’s Saul Alinsky tactics!

Following the Leader in the Age of Donald Trump

Image of Dorthea Lange's photograph of Japanese internment

The Leader

I believed the leader
when he said I wasn’t free
all because of the people
who didn’t look like me

I followed my leader and became
his tool and helped break the
back of the golden rule

I did nothing when the truth
was murdered by lies and silent
when the children screamed and
died

I did what I was told
I took down names not
knowing someone else was
doing the same

I followed my leader when I
knew it was wrong because I was
afraid of not going along but now
in this room with no door or light
it is me they accuse of not being right

I followed my leader until today when
they walked me up to my freshly
dug grave

Socrates had it right, Will and the Buddha did
too, follow no one, question and to thine own self
be true

Photograph of Japanese internment during World War II by Dorothea Lange

 

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.

Is Reading Steinbeck an Antidote to Donald Trump?

Time cover image of Donald Trump

A 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.

No Room in Donald Trump’s Inn for Arts and Humanities

Image of Donald Trump and daughter at Washington, D.C. hotel groundbreaking

In 1965 John Steinbeck was a member of President Johnson’s council on the arts when Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency charged with “bringing the arts to all Americans” and “providing leadership in arts education.” Steinbeck died before efforts in Congress to kill the infant agency got underway, in earnest, in 1981. Today, 35 years after arts-friendly Reaganites foiled that attempt, the ascendancy of Donald Trump appears to have handed anti-arts Republicans in Washington, D.C. the ammunition they need to finish the job. According to the website The Hill, “the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely” if the radical plan prevails.

In 1965 John Steinbeck was a member of President Johnson’s council on the arts when Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency charged with ‘bringing the arts to all Americans’ and ‘providing leadership in arts education.’

It’s easy to imagine how John Steinbeck would react to the latest threat against the arts and humanities. He supported FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, applied “arts for all” as a principle in his writing, and—brought up on books, music, and art—demonstrated the value of arts and humanities education in almost every aspect of his life. Nearly 50 years after his death, his name and his novels continue to be cited when creativity is under attack by politicians, fanatics, and latter-day Mrs. Grundys. In an op-ed entitled “What Art Under Trump?” the novelist Margaret Atwood gives The Grapes of Wrath as an example of enduring art that outlasts the evils it was created to expose. Colson Whitehead, the 47-year-old author of The Underground Railroad, credited the research he did for his first high school term paper—on John Steinbeck—when he accepted the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction at yesterday’s meeting of the American Library Association.

Image of Donald Trump hotel at Old Post Office in Washington, D.C.

Rationalizing hatred of the arts and humanities of the kind on view in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C. is harder than guessing where Steinbeck would stand. I know—I’ve tried—because at one time my job actually depended on it. Like John Steinbeck, I have an education in the arts and humanities to thank for whatever may be of value in my 35-year career as as a nonprofit executive and fundraiser for organizations in Florida and California. Unlike Steinbeck, I’m a middleman, not a creator. But the Washington, D.C. experience  I had while running the Palm Beach County Cultural Council gave me a preview of the arts under Donald Trump that I’m confident Steinbeck—who honored memory, history, and preservation—would appreciate.

Rationalizing hatred of the arts and humanities of the kind on view in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C. is harder than guessing where Steinbeck would stand.

Image of the Old Post Office Pavilion in 1920When I visited Washington, D.C. during the 1980s and 90s, I usually stopped by the Old Post Office, famous for its soaring atrium, to listen, learn, and lobby. In the 1970s Nancy Hanks, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts under Nixon, saved the century-old building from demolition, and for 30 years—until Donald Trump signed the lease to turn it into a hotel—the Old Post Office served as a symbolically appropriate home for her agency. Some of my appointments were with successors to Nancy Hanks appointed by Republican presidents after Nixon. Frank Hodsoll, chair of the NEA under Reagan, was key to the regional initiative that advanced art creation, education, and marketing in my bailiwick, South Florida. Later on, in Miami, I interviewed John Frohnmayer, George H.W. Bush’s NEA chair, for a weekly public radio program I hosted in West Palm Beach. The subject of our talk was Leaving Town Alive, the book that Frohmayer (a Stanford-educated lawyer) wrote about his fight for survival in D.C.

In the 1970s Nancy Hanks, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts under Nixon, saved the Old Post Office from demolition, and for 30 years—until Donald Trump signed the lease to turn it into a hotel—the historic building served as a symbolically appropriate home for her agency.

Forced out of the home they helped save when it was closed to make way for Trump’s hotel, the NEA and NEH moved to Constitution Center, a modernist monstrosity in Washington, D.C. designed by the architect of the equally hideous Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Today Trump International Hotel occupies the historic building at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, Donald Trump occupies the historic house at 1600, and the agencies evicted from the Old Post Office in 2014 are experiencing the threat of their lives. The dreadful death cycle dramatized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath—eviction and attack followed by extinction—faces the arts and humanities in Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C., where a great public building is now operated for private profit and the public agency responsible for preserving it is about to leave town permanently.

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.