The Hour of the Pearl: John Steinbeck’s America and the Election of Donald Trump

Image of "The Hour of the Pearl," oil on canvas by Ron Clavier

Donald Trump’s upcoming presidential inauguration is seen by many as ushering in a bizarre and unprecedented era, not only for Americans, but also for citizens of other countries. Yet, like similar ceremonies elsewhere, the presidential inauguration is merely a point on a timeline that began decades ago and culminated in the 2016 election. Because the trend is longstanding and disturbing, the outcome at hand threatens to take the course of history in a dangerous direction. Indeed, it might be said that deep beliefs of the American people, and profound principles of American democracy, are at the heart of an evolutionary process which, perhaps inevitably, produced the society reflected in the 2016 election.

For me, chief among the past thinkers who foresaw this most clearly is John Steinbeck, the writer who has most inspired my thinking and my art. For four decades he wrote of his love for America and his hatred of what his countrymen were doing to their country. Though the 2016 election might have been worse, past political campaigns have had their share of ugliness, as Steinbeck wrote in America and Americans, the last book he wrote. In it Steinbeck described the scars left by elections which he observed closely as a citizen, and in which he frequently participated by giving advice and drafting speeches on behalf of Democratic candidates for president. I would like to quote passages from Steinbeck’s writing, starting with America and Americans, to help readers of all cultures and all ages today comprehend Steinbeck’s moral genius in the context of the 2016 election and the upcoming presidential inauguration.

Once the nominations are completed, the campaigns for election begin—hurtful, libelous, nasty, murderous affairs wherein motives are muddied, names and reputations beshitten, families tarred and tawdried, friends and associates mocked, charged and clobbered. . . . In fact, the rules of nonsense are suspended during a Presidential election, as well as memories of honesty and codes of decency. (America and Americans, 1966)

While campaigning in 2015-16, Trump not only bragged about his repeated abuse of women, he also took advantage of campaign speeches to mock and blame women, as stupid men always have, for the infidelities of their men. How any woman could have voted for so misogynistic a man is beyond all reason. But this is only one example of his breathtaking disregard for the necessity and sanctity of societal rules. While insisting on law and order for others, he repeatedly flouted fundamental rules of engagement in past election discourse. In ignoring the traditional imperative of constructive and respectful debate—ridiculing the infirm, insulting opponents, disdaining other races and religions—he highlighted the very worst characteristic of the human species: cruelty.

It is the race, the species that must go staggering on . . . our ugly little species, weak and ugly, torn with insanities, violent and quarrelsome, sensing evil—the only species that knows evil and practices it—the only one that senses cleanliness and is dirty, that knows cruelty and is unbearably cruel. (Burning Bright, 1950)

Over the millennia most of us have learned to obey the rules or suffer punishment for breaking them. But most important, even the rule-breaker knew he was wrong and the others right; the rules were understood and accepted by everyone. . . . Could this be our difficulty, that gradually we are losing our ability to tell the difference? The rules fall away in chunks and in the vacant place we have a generality: ‘It’s alright because everybody does it.’ (America and Americans)

It is a rare morning when our newspapers do not report bribery, malfeasance, and many other forms of cheating on the part of public officials who have used the authority vested in their positions for personal gain. Of course we don’t hear of the honest men, but the danger lies not in the miscreants but in our attitude toward them. Increasingly we lose our feeling of wrong. (America and Americans)

It is probable that here is where morals–integrity, ethics, even charity–have gone. The rules allowed us to survive, to live together and to increase. But if our will to survive is weakened, if our love of life and our memories of a gallant past and faith in a shining future are removed–what need is there for morals or for rules? Even they become a danger. (America and Americans)

In promoting his violent version of authoritarian populism, Donald Trump used outrageous lies, frequently disproved, to foster fear and anger in the American electorate. For example, last August he accused President Obama and Hillary Clinton of “founding” the Islamic State, the same method used by McCarthy to smear citizens and officials he accused of aiding Russia.

. . . as Joseph McCarthy proved, the more ridiculous the charge, the less possibility there is of defense. (America and Americans)

Now for many years we have suckled on fear and fear alone, and there is no good product of fear. Its children are cruelty and deceit and suspicion germinating in our darkness. And just as surely as we are poisoning the air . . . so we are poisoned in our souls by fear, faceless, stupid, sarcomic terror. (Once There Was a War, 1958)

The job insecurity and looming poverty that threatens many Americans has placed real fear in their hearts. Trump succeeded by exploiting this unrest, as well as claims about “illegal immigrants” that are as effective today as they were when Steinbeck used them to plot The Winter of Our Discontent.

Men don’t get knocked out. . . . What kills them is erosion; they get nudged into failure. They get slowly scared . . . It rots your guts. . . . I can’t think beyond next month’s payment on the refrigerator . . . I hate my job and I’m scared I’ll lose it. . . . But I know when you’re sick you need medicine or maybe an operation or maybe a shock. Our people were daring men. You know it. They didn’t let themselves get nibbled to death. And now times are changing. There are opportunities our ancestors never dreamed of. And they’re being picked up by foreigners. Foreigners are taking us over. Wake up . . . . (The Winter of Our Discontent, 1961)

And those who believe that these elements of the 2016 election were without precedent, or are likely to go away soon, are kidding themselves.

Ideas are not dangerous unless they find seeding place in some earth more profound than the mind . . . .they are ineffective without the black earth of discontent to grow in . . . . In each case, the idea is dangerous only when planted in unease and disquietude. But being so planted, growing in such earth, it ceases to be an idea and becomes an emotion. . . . (Sea of Cortez, 1941)

Meanwhile, Donald Trump claimed he was “smart” for avoiding paying taxes without admitting that he did.

If a man has money, he doesn’t ask, ‘Can I afford this?’ but, ‘Can I deduct it?’ Two men fight over a luncheon bill when both of them are going to deduct it anyway—a whole nation conditioned to dishonesty by its laws, because honesty is penalized. (Sweet Thursday, 1954)

There are, I am told, rich men who are willing to be dishonest. I believe I am safe in saying there are none who are willing to admit they are fools. (The Short Reign of Pippin IV, 1957)
We know about our tycoons only when they are giving something away, and their gifts and foundations are usually a means of keeping their money out of the hands of the tax collector. (America and Americans)

Trump also promised to reverse some of America’s most progressive legislation and to “drain the swamp” in Washington, blaming media, political opponents, and intellectual elites for the unrest and suspicion about government that he exploited more effectively than other candidates.

. . . we seem to be in a state of turmoil all the time, both physically and mentally. We are able to believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and at the same time we are deeply convinced that it is the best government in the world, and we would like to impose it on everyone else. (America and Americans)

We shout that we are a nation of laws, not men—and then we proceed to break every law we can if we can get away with it. (America and Americans)

Continuing his assault on progressive government, Trump used anxiety and anger about Islamic terrorism to churn up fear and marginalize Muslims, forgetting one of the most fundamental aspects of America’s success—tolerance, acceptance, and the willingness to help others.

Americans are remarkably kind and hospitable and open with both guests and strangers; and yet they will make a wide circle around the man dying on the pavement. Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence. (America and Americans)

Trump’s repeated vow as a candidate to name conservatives to the Supreme Court far enough right to satisfy religious fundamentalists is a violation of a core principle guaranteed by the U.S. constitution: the separation of church and state.

We constantly rediscover the excellence of the architecture of our government. It has been proof not only against foreign attack but against our own stupidities, which are sometimes more dangerous. (America and Americans)

The narcissism of Trump’s claim that only he can fix things is clinical in nature, and will prevent him from doing what doesn’t benefit him personally. E pluribus unum: does he know what America’s founding motto means?

The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. (America and Americans)

In the past, unless a president acted illegally, Americans respected both the office and the office holder. This civility has been shredded.

We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him. (America and Americans)

But it isn’t enough for those who oppose Donald Trump to blame those who supported him. Americans, all of them, must recognize their own contribution to, and accept responsibility for, the situation in which they find themselves.

In the present climate of whining self-pity, of practiced sickness, of professional goldbricking, of screaming charges about whose fault it is, one hears of very few who do their own time, who take their rap and don’t spread it around. It is as though the quality of responsibility has atrophied. (America and Americans)

Unfortunately, a sense of entitlement to leisure and luxury at impossibly low cost has led to an obese, lazy, solipsistic, violent, substance-dependent population in some sectors of the United States. Blaming foreigners for illegal drugs, to take one example, is unacceptable. If there were no market, there would be no importation.

I strongly suspect that our moral and spiritual disintegration grows out of our lack of experience with plenty. Once, in a novel, I wrote about a woman who said she didn’t want a lot of money. She just wanted enough. To which her husband replied that just enough doesn’t exist. There is no money or not enough money. A billionaire still hasn’t enough money. . . . Having many things seems to create a desire for more things, more clothes, houses, automobiles . . . . We are trapped and entangled in things. (America and Americans)

As a Canadian who has lived in the USA and benefited from its largess, it pains me deeply to witness this insanity. But the truth is that for too long America has touted success without admitting failure—and ignored the existence or validity of cultures in other countries, including Canada.

We in the United States . . . should be taken as a horrible example and our methods avoided by any government and people enlightened enough . . . . (Sea of Cortez)

As a scientist, I’m particularly concerned about a president-elect who ignores science when convenient and who makes frequent unfounded assertions based on hearsay rather than provable fact.

. . . the most dangerous tendency in the world is the desire to believe a rumor rather than to pin down a fact. (A Russian Journal, 1948)

Perhaps the most serious example of this ignorance is Trump’s denial of global warming, which he appeared to take back slightly after being elected. Unfortunately his cabinet appointments confirm the inconvenient truth that, for purposes of governing, he doesn’t believe the climate is really changing—or if it is, that human waste and carbon-dependency is a contributing factor than can or should be checked.

With our own resources we have been prodigal, and our country will not soon lose the scars of our grasping stupidity. (Sea of Cortez)

[The] tendency toward irresponsibility persists in very many of us today; our rivers are poisoned by reckless dumping of sewage and toxic industrial wastes, the air of our cities is filthy and dangerous to breathe from the belching of uncontrolled products from combustion of coal, coke, oil, and gasoline. Our towns are girdled with wreckage and the debris of our toys—our automobiles and our packaged pleasures. Through uninhibited spraying against one enemy we have destroyed the natural balances our survival requires. All these evils can and must be overcome if America and Americans are to survive; but many of us still conduct ourselves as our ancestors did, stealing from the future for our clear and present profit. (America and Americans)

Above all, Donald Trump is a bully’s bully. His blatantly hyperbolic claims during the campaign callously played on the economic fears of Americans while exploiting their pain for his gain. His campaign rhetoric and behavior since winning have made me fearful, too. As a foreigner, I now fear that by setting foot in America I will be subject to the kind of disrespect and violence sanctioned, for the first time in my memory, by the highest office in the land.

Until I have evidence that this fear is unwarranted—and for as long as Donald Trump is president—I have decided not to re-enter the United States. I regret this because I have close friends and family members in America I will miss seeing. But when Americans say they want to be “great again” it sounds to me as if they will only be comfortable when they are once again the dominant “winners” of the world. It reminds me of the bully who tweets almost daily that those who disagree with him are “losers.” Such disrespect makes me feel unwelcome and unsafe in Donald Trump’s America.

When I joined the Advisory Board of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University two years ago, I hoped my work as a Canadian artist, scientist, and humanist would offer a helpful perspective and foster the values espoused by John Steinbeck in his life and writing. As a result of the 2016 election, however, I now fear that America will drift even farther from Steinbeck’s hopeful daylight into the darkness of anger, cynicism, and crude mockery embodied by the president-elect.

I briefly considered resigning my duties on the Steinbeck center’s board; but because I’m an optimist, like Steinbeck, I have decided to stay. I am confident that the pall over America will lift eventually, as day follows night. Meanwhile, technology makes it possible for me to participate in meetings, and Steinbeck’s delicate metaphor of the “hour of the pearl” reminds us that the transition from darkness back to light is a fundamental truth of science, art, and the arc toward justice of human history.

Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter. . . . It is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest . . . the air is cool and fresh. . . . Very few people are about, just enough to make it seem more deserted than it is. . . . the hour of the Pearl—the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself. (Cannery Row, 1945)

Today, on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, I urge self-examination on others, and the resolution to forsake all that Steinbeck felt was the worse in us.

I have named the destroyers of nations: comfort, plenty, and security—out of which grow a bored and slothful cynicism, in which rebellion against the world as it is or myself as I am are submerged in listless self-satisfaction. (America and Americans)

On behalf of SteinbeckNow.com, to which I will continue to contribute, I also urge readers of this post to respond by commenting, or by sharing their thoughts in a guest-author post of their own. Whether or not you agree with my decision to stay away from America until the madness passes, engagement with American values and principles embraced by Steinbeck during his lifetime is to participate in the books he wrote in the way he wanted: actively, with empathy, imagination, and faith that the Hour of the Pearl will come again to our world.

The Hour of the Pearl, oil on canvas by Ron Clavier.

The Winter of Our Discontent Deepens as Trumpettes Party

Image of Trumpettes with portrait of Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago

It’s doubtful either Donald Trump or the minority of Americans who just elected him ever read The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck’s prophetic fiction about public and private corruption in America 60 years ago. But for fans of the novel the parallels with our winter of discontent today are troubling. Cheating and self-dealing, inequality and incivility, anti-immigrant hatred and hysteria—is the USA less or more selfish today than it was when Steinbeck wrote his cautionary tale? For Donald Trump and his fans among America’s fraction-of-one-percent, personal profit is the golden rule and goodness can measured in tax cuts and capital gains. Add one word to the line from Richard III quoted in Steinbeck’s title—“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of New York”—and Shakespeare’s metaphor for an English tyrant’s mood aptly expresses the ardor felt by the Trumpettes of Mar-a-Lago, the palatial club in Palm Beach where Trump now holds winter court. I don’t know if John Steinbeck visited Mar-a-Lago. or encountered Donald Trump before he died, but I’ve had the pleasure of both and I’m pretty sure Steinbeck would take a very dim view.

John Steinbeck’s View of Donald Trump and Mar-a-Lago?

Image of Donald Trump's Palm Beach estate Mar-a-Lago

Before I moved to California and discovered Steinbeck Country I lived in West Palm Beach, where I ran a prominent nonprofit and played the organ at St. Edward’s Catholic Church, “the Kennedy church,” in Palm Beach. Once I substituted at Bethesda-by-the Sea, the Episcopal church where Trump reportedly received applause from attendees on Christmas Eve. I knew Ralph Wolfe Cowan, the artist who painted the Dorian Gray-like portrait of Trump shown in the lead photo of this post. My home in West Palm Beach wasn’t far from the bridge connecting with Palm Beach near Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s spacious domain, so named because it stretches from Lake Worth to the Atlantic. I passed by often on my way to church, and I was a luncheon and gala guest on those occasions when doing my job entailed hobnobbing.

Image of Marjorie Merriweather PostIt’s even possible I toured Mar-a-Lago before Donald Trump, who bought it at a discount from descendants of Post cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1985. A year or so earlier a friend of mine arranged for a private look-see at the estate where Post entertained lavishly when John Steinbeck was alive. By the 1980s the mansion’s faded interior resembled Norma Desmond’s living room in Sunset Boulevard—aging, abandoned, populated by the ghosts of parties and partners past—and John Kennedy was the only ex-president with a known Palm Beach address. To fill this gap, Post willed Mar-a-Lago to the government as a presidential retreat when she died. But the property lies under the flight path of Palm Beach airport, adding to security issues, and before Trump came along the Palm Beach social scene had attracted few of Kennedy’s successors. Johnson wasn’t the Palm Beach type, Nixon and Ford and Reagan enjoyed Walter Annenberg’s hospitality in Palm Springs, and the George H.W. Bushes had close ties to the old money on Jupiter Island, a less pretentious winter enclave an hour north of Palm Beach.

Image of memorial plaque at Mar-a-LagoPalm Beach prejudice presented another problem. Kennedy wasn’t welcome everywhere, even as president, and top-tier social clubs like the one across the road from Mar-a-Lago excluded Catholics and Jews from membership as recently as my time. To his credit, Donald Trump thumbed his nose at this tradition when he opened Mar-a-Lago Club for those with sufficient cash and cachet, regardless of race or religion, in 1995. As a marketing strategy his open-door policy was a winner, attracting socialites and business leaders and making Mar-a-Lago a popular venue for black-tie charity events. Trump’s inauguration committee may be having trouble signing talent, but name entertainers like Vic Damone loved playing Mar-a-Lago, and the evening I spent chatting with Diahann Carroll, Vic’s wife at the time, is my warmest memory of the place. Vanity Fair covered Mar-a-Lago favorably almost from the start, though the tone changed after the editor of the magazine described Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian.” (“How Donald Trump Beat Palm Society and Won the Fight for Mar-a-Lago was a source of images for this post.)

Image of Christopher HitchensIn 2003 my organization was celebrating its 25th anniversary when the publisher and a retinue from Vanity Fair flew to town in preparation for an expose of Palm Beach social mores. One of the writers in the group—the late Christopher Hitchens, a regular contributor to Vanity Fair—invited me to tag along when a Republican billionaire with a household name hosted dinner at a Palm Beach club that still banned Jews. Rather late in life Hitchens had learned that his maternal grandmother was Jewish, a topic of conversation as we waited outside the club, so I suggested that he ask for a kosher menu once we were inside and seated for dinner. The next day I got a call from the head of the Palm Beach cultural venue where my organization’s anniversary event was about to be held. It happened that his board chairman was an officer of the club—a thin-skinned millionaire who learned, almost instantly, about our quiet indiscretion the night before. I wrote the requisite letter of apology and agreed to keep my mouth shut about the incident, but Christopher seemed gratified when I reported the result to him. He said it proved our point perfectly.

Image of Roy Cohn and Donald TrumpLike John Steinbeck, a writer he admired, Christopher Hitchens was politically astute, egalitarian, and courageous under fire from bullies, Left or Right. Like Steinbeck, he supported America’s pursuit of an unpopular war (in Hitchens’s case, Iraq; in Steinbeck’s, Vietnam) and bravely paid the price. Like Steinbeck, he distrusted power, disliked braggadocio, and detested xenophobia, insult, and incitement to mob violence of the kind seen more than once during Donald Trump’s campaign for president. Roy Cohn, the McCarthy-era lawyer who taught Trump how to play New York hardball, was anathema to Hitchens, as he’d been to Steinbeck when The Winter of Our Discontent was written. The odious combination of compulsive mendacity, obsessive opportunism, and pathological aggression that repelled Steinbeck advanced Cohn’s career and attracted clients. One of them was Donald Trump, the billionaire developer described by Hitchens in 1997 as a “bankrupt real-estate monarch [who] can treat the skyline as his own without any hint of a nasty creditors’ meeting at any of his numerous and lenient banks.” Trump’s Palm Beach ascendancy might have amused Hitchens. But I think it would offend Steinbeck, who ridiculed small-town ambition and conspicuous consumption in The Winter of Our Discontent.

Steinbeck’s California Dreads What Palm Beach Celebrates

Image of John SteinbeckI am unacquainted with the four Trumpettes who posed for Vanity Fair in front of Ralph Cowan’s painting of Donald Trump. But I recognized names from the past when I read reports about holiday festivities at Mar-a-Lago. An outspoken Trumpette quoted by national media outlets once worked for the Democratic county commissioner from West Palm Beach. On New Year’s Day the Palm Beach daily newspaper published an admonishing letter to readers in which she promised that “President-elect Trump will make us financially secure again” and described “the days of massive government waste and corruption” as a thing of the past caused (presumably) by Democrats. Today, more than 30 years after I first met this woman and a decade after leaving Florida for California, I feel about Donald Trump’s Palm Beach as John Steinbeck felt about Salinas, his home town. I’m grateful for the memories but sad for the “dear little town” I used to know. As Mar-a-Lago celebrates and Washington gets ready, the winter of our discontent grows darker by the day here in his home state.

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

Image of the death penalty surviving in America

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

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

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

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

The Supreme Court Considers the Case of John Steinbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image of members of the Supreme Court

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

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

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

Lessons from Literary Criticism for the Supreme Court

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

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

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

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

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

The Gun: Connecting Eugenics, Execution, and Fascism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggestions for Further Reading

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

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

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

John Steinbeck in Los Gatos: The Progressive Politics Behind The Grapes of Wrath

Image of Charles Erskine Scott Wood

Charles Erskine Scott Wood

Recently an enterprising Italian high school teacher named Enzo Sardarello blogged about John Steinbeck’s Los Gatos neighbor Charles Erskine Scott Wood, a Whitmanesque author and painter and an energetic advocate for progressive politics during the era leading up to the writing of The Grapes of Wrath. Before studying law in the East, Wood served as an infantry officer in the Nez Perce Indian war of 1877; as a defense attorney in Oregon and guru of progressive politics in Los Gatos he opposed U.S. imperialism, advocated for Indian rights, and espoused birth control, free thinking, and free love. Between 1925 and 1944, his powerful personality and Los Gatos home attracted a host of artists, writers, and celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin, Ansel Adams, and John Steinbeck. Sardarello’s post about this chapter in Steinbeck’s life is a reminder that international interest in The Grapes of Wrath—written in Los Gatos during the time Steinbeck knew Wood—continues today, and that Steinbeck had more congenial neighbors in Los Gatos when he lived there than Ruth Comfort Mitchell, the Republican novelist whose reactionary response to The Grapes of Wrath is the subject of a summer exhibit at the Los Gatos history museum.

Report on Japanese-Americans in Monterey Herald Recalls John Steinbeck, Internationalist

Image of John Steinbeck with reporters at 1957 PEN conference in Tokyo

According to a report by Monterey Herald writer Carly Mayberry, the Japanese American Citizens League Hall in Monterey, California has a World War II-era letter, signed by (among others) John Steinbeck, welcoming the Japanese to the city Steinbeck later left because, he said, he no longer felt welcome there. The April 25 Monterey Herald story notes that the 90-year old building was given to the Monterey chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League by an organization called the Japan Businessman Association in 1942, the year the United States entered World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Steinbeck—an advocate of constitutional rights for all citizens—protested the Japanese internment that followed as immoral and unnecessary. But he was also a realist. During their 1940 expedition to the Sea of Cortez, he and his friend Ed Ricketts (who also signed the welcome letter) lamented the damage being done to the fragile ocean floor by Japanese commercial fishing. Later they tried unsuccessfully to interest the U.S. government in Japanese-sponsored scientific research documenting the underwater geography of the Pacific, where Japanese and American forces fought bitterly for supremacy throughout World War II. That conflict ended in August 1945, when American bombers dropped nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan eventually recovered, and Steinbeck eventually visited Tokyo, speaking at a 1957 writers’ meeting ten years after the trip he made to Soviet Russia with another international-minded friend, the French-Hungarian photographer Robert Capa. Ten years later he traveled to Southeast Asia, the final leg in a life journey that ended back on the Monterey Peninsula, where his wife, sons, and sisters scattered his ashes in 1968. Observing the family’s wish for privacy, the Monterey Herald declined to report on the event.

From The Grapes of Wrath to Cesar Chavez: A New Life of Fred Ross, Social Activist And Community Organizer

Cover image of Gabriel Thompson's life of community organizer Fred Ross

Barack Obama’s time as a community organizer was brief. But the long career of Fred Ross, the legendary community organizer who followed Tom Collins and Harold Tefft at the migrant camp portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath, extended from the 1930s to the era of Cesar Chavez, the California labor leader who made boycott a household word in America, 25 years after Steinbeck wrote his novel. The versatile life and lasting influence of Ross—a teacher, social worker, and activist for workers’ rights—are the subject of America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century by the journalist Gabriel Thompson, published this week by the University of California Press. The following excerpt from the book was chosen by the author and is used with his permission.—Ed.

 Image of Tom Collins and migrant mother

On his first day at the Arvin camp, Ross was shown around the camp by departing manager Harold Tefft. When a drunk resident approached and let loose with a string of curses, Tefft shoved the man to the ground and began pummeling him in the face.

Ross had unknowingly walked into a firestorm. Several weeks earlier, more than a hundred residents had signed a handwritten petition requesting the removal of Tefft and sent it to the FSA [Farmer Security Administration] headquarters in San Francisco. They accused him of entering the women’s bathroom without warning, ignoring decisions made by the camp council, and “beating the Osborne child with a handsaw.”

It was an ironic turn of events at what had been considered the crown jewel of the migrant camps. The first manager of Arvin was the brilliant Tom Collins, a slight man with a square jaw and finely trimmed mustache who took the Okies’ cause as his own. Raised in an orphanage, Collins had trained for the priesthood, managed a school system in Guam, and aspired to write novels (one of his unfinished books was titled “Oklatopia”). “He is one of the most unusual persons I have ever met,” wrote one FSA director, “with infinite capacity for good work and at his best when he is nearly killed with work.”

The first manager of Arvin was the brilliant Tom Collins, a slight man with a square jaw and finely trimmed mustache who took the Okies’ cause as his own.

When John Steinbeck visited the camp while gathering material for The Grapes of Wrath, he was impressed by what Collins had accomplished. “I want to thank you for one of the very fine experiences of a life,” he wrote. “I hope I can be of some help.” Collins became Steinbeck’s “migrant liaison,” with the pair traveling the valley to visit and assist desperate farmworkers. (It was while traveling with Collins that Steinbeck helped families who had been washed out during the tremendous floods of 1938.) Steinbeck would partially dedicate The Grapes of Wrath “to Tom who lived it,” and he portrayed the Arvin camp as a utopian paradise.

In the book, the Joads have fled a squatter camp to arrive at Weedpatch in the middle of the night, exhausted and filthy. A security guard welcomes them and explains the basics: the camp has running water and toilets; police aren’t allowed inside without a warrant; an elected committee of workers makes the rules. The Joads, who have thus far suffered one misfortune after another, are incredulous. Tom asks the guard, “You mean to say the fellas that run the camp is jus’ fellas—camping here?” The guard replies, “Sure. And it works.”

That utopia, no doubt idealized by Steinbeck, was in shambles when Ross arrived. The elected council was moribund and most of the recreational events, which Collins believed so central to creating a sense of community, had been scrapped. In his last report, Tefft did hit one positive note, writing that he had been warmly received after addressing a group of farmers, who appreciated his efforts “to cooperate with them in furnishing labor at the established wage scale.” The established wage scale was miserly. Tefft, essentially, was being thanked by growers for convincing camp residents to work for low wages without complaint.

That utopia, no doubt idealized by Steinbeck, was in shambles when Ross arrived.

Ross set out to repair the damage done by Tefft. Although the manager held ultimate power at the camp, on both a personal and professional level Ross needed the residents to like him. “I wouldn’t have been happy if even one person had been against me,” he later said. After moving into the manager’s quarters, he began to visit residents at the crack of dawn, before they headed out to the fields, moving from tent to tent, making small talk, and drinking huge amounts of coffee. It was the perfect training ground for an organizer. The camp had its share of stubborn folks—it took a certain amount of stubbornness to keep going after the hardships they’d endured—and while they appreciated good company as much as the next person, they were weary of patronizing attitudes. “Hypocrisy, pretense, insincerity, lack of interest in their problems and in them—these evils we can never hide from them,” wrote Collins, who wasn’t immune from occasionally striking patronizing tones himself. While sympathetic to the plight of the migrants, some in the FSA viewed them as stunted creatures unable to grasp basic concepts, or mounds of so much clay that reformers needed to reshape in their image. The buzzword of the day was “rehabilitate,” which captured the arrogance of this position. One supervisor, visiting Arvin in 1936, wrote that the migrants “seem almost childlike at times, as indeed they are.” They weren’t childlike, of course. They were poor.

Like Collins, Ross was fascinated by the migrants. “What started out as a way to win them [over],” Ross later said, “almost immediately became a driving interest to be around them, learn about them, pick up their stories. If you are really interested, listening comes naturally.” As he had with Mulligan, Ross chatted for hours, soon becoming a member of what he called the “spit and argue” club, an informal group that held long, rambling discussions. His curiosity and sympathy won many over. One resident called the previous managers at Arvin “educated men, who have never done any real work,” and likened them to “dictators.” He considered Ross, on the other hand, “an educated man but when he came here he acted as one of the boys. . . . He didn’t act one bit better than his staff or the people in the camp. And he’s always got time to say a few words to you.”

Within months, the visits were bearing fruit. “Practically all traces of the recent difficulties at Arvin Camp have disappeared,” wrote a supervisor after visiting. “Mr. Ross is doing an excellent job of promoting camper recreation and activities.” By the fall, communal events were held every night of the week, a new council was elected, a co-op store was formed, and a camp newspaper, the Tow Sack Tattler, was being published.

Image of Woody Guthrie and Fred Ross

Luke Hinman showed up at Arvin in early September, just as the cotton harvest was getting under way. Tall and skinny, wearing a ragged leather jacket and driving a junk heap of a car, he looked every bit the hardened radical he was. Five years older than Ross, the ex-Wobbly had joined the Communist Party, volunteered for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and returned from Spain to fight on behalf of farmworkers. He was coming off a weeklong stint in jail, the result of supporting striking workers in Marysville, and asked Ross if the camp’s community hall was available.

Hinman was the statewide director of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). Established in 1937 and affiliated with the upstart
Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the union sought to organize the “unskilled” field workers long ignored by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Had he arrived earlier in the year, Hinman would have been sent packing: under Tefft, the camp council had banned union meetings and forbidden the posting of union material on the bulletin board. But the arrival of
Ross signaled a change in politics. When growers publicly burned The Grapes of Wrath and Kern County pulled it from libraries and schools, residents at the camp sent a letter of protest, while passing a well-worn copy of the banned book from tent to tent. The editor of the new camp paper was a CIO activist, and he filled the pages with militant slogans—“An Injury to One Is an Injury to All”—and poems with unsubtle titles like “Join the Union.” The council voted to allow the CIO inside, and soon Hinman and another organizer, Wyman Hicks, were spending their nights talking union with residents in their tents. Ross often poked his head in to listen, amazed at the audacity of their project: two broke but fearless organizers, responsible for the entire state, were itching for a fight against the powerful growers. When it got late, Hinman and Hicks bedded down on the patch of grass beneath Ross’s window.

The battle lines being drawn were over what constituted a “fair wage” for cotton pickers. California’s newly elected liberal governor, Culbert Olson, had pegged muckraking journalist Carey McWilliams to be the state’s commissioner of immigration and housing. McWilliams, no friend of big growers, moved quickly, tripling the number of labor inspectors and hosting a public hearing in Fresno, where he determined that a fair cotton rate for the season was $1.25 per hundred pounds picked. The growers balked, offering 80 cents. While the state couldn’t enforce the higher wage, McWilliams promised that any worker who refused to work for less wouldn’t be cut from the relief rolls. Big growers “screamed like banshees,” but McWilliams didn’t back down. It was such policies, and his hard-hitting exposé of big agriculture, Factories in the Field, that would cause the Associated Farmers to label McWilliams “Agricultural Pest No. 1 in California, outranking pear blight and boll weevil.” In the coming years, the paths of Ross and McWilliams would frequently intersect, with Ross coming away deeply influenced by McWilliams’s analysis of farm labor. Decades later, Ross would insist that United Farm Workers volunteers read Factories in the Field to better appreciate the nature of the beast they were up against.

The battle lines being drawn were over what constituted a ‘fair wage’ for cotton pickers.

UCAPAWA launched a strike in Kern County on October 9, 1939, calling for the $1.25 wage rate. The strike, coming soon after publication of The Grapes of Wrath, caught the attention of the John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Agricultural Organization, which was chaired by Helen Gahagan Douglas, a future congresswoman and wife of movie star Melvyn Douglas. Members of the committee raised money for UCAPAWA and traveled to the Arvin camp to hand out clothing and shoes. Also visiting was a frizzy-haired, guitar-toting Woody Guthrie, who, along with movie star Will Geer, became a frequent guest at the camp. Guthrie was coming off a stint as the “hobo correspondent” for a newspaper called the Light, for which he had traveled the state to visit migrant camps. Many of the migrants knew him from his radio program in Los Angeles, The Oklahoma and Woody Show, and at Arvin he stood in front of a crowd, strummed his guitar and belted out, “I ain’t gonna pick your 80 cent cotton / Ain’t gonna starve myself that way.”

Before long, Geer and Guthrie were sleeping on the grass under Ross’s window, alongside the two union organizers. Ross was enthralled with Guthrie, admiring his natural ease with the campers and the way he used his songs to stiffen the backbones of the strikers. That fall, when Ross began writing a weekly segment in the camp paper, he titled it “The Feller Sez,” taking inspiration from Guthrie’s “Woody Sez” column published in the People’s Daily World, a Communist paper out of San Francisco. During the strike, Ross asked Guthrie to write a letter for the camp paper. “Go tell the Ass Farmers and the vigilantes I said go take a long, tall, flying suck at a sunflower,” wrote Guthrie, with characteristic bravado. “Tell ’em I said go ahead and pay you guys that $1.25.”

In Arvin, the walkout began promisingly, with workers shutting down a number of fields. It was an exhilarating experience for Ross, who reported that nearly every camp resident refused to scab. Relief work had been eye-opening but ultimately frustrating: Ross had witnessed the grinding poverty of his clients, but there was little to do but express sympathy and make sure their meager checks arrived on time. But in the strike people were fighting back. Ross ignored orders from the West Coast director of the FSA, Laurence Hewes, to remain neutral. In the camp paper, Ross used his column to stress the need for cooperation, criticizing the “man who’ll work for less wages than all of his neighbors.” The Tow Sack Tattler announced that a picket line would be thrown up around every cotton field, reminding readers of the “very unpleasant word for those who cross the line.” Ross woke early each morning to watch caravans of strikers leave the camp and chase scabs from the fields. His partisanship was so overt that one resident would pen a letter to Ross’s supervisor complaining that the camp was “practically run” by the union, that Ross was a “strong member” of the CIO, and that the camp was no longer a place “for us honest and non-communists to live in.”

In Arvin, the walkout began promisingly, with workers shutting down a number of fields.

Hewes, the FSA director, didn’t consider the strike a “legitimate labor dispute” but instead saw it as a “put-up job” by Communists, whose only goal was violence. But Ross had no such cynicism. He had been to the fields and watched growers cheat workers out of their already pitiful wages, claiming the cotton they picked wasn’t “clean.” He knew many went hungry, and he heard reports of frustrated parents who, driven mad by the constant whimpering of their malnourished children, beat them into silence. This was no manufactured crisis, and the Communists who helped organize the strike were heroes to Ross. Yvonne, too, became swept up in the cause, serving as the secretary of the Bakersfield chapter of the Steinbeck Committee.

But Hewes was certainly right about one thing—attempts at organizing farmworkers were often met by violence. The strike centered around five cotton-growing areas: Arvin, Corcoran, Pixley, Visalia, and Madera. In the Arvin region, strikes were called at 150 ranches, but growers had little problem finding replacement workers, and the strike was effectively broken within two weeks. The same pattern played out elsewhere, with the notable exception of Madera, north of Fresno, where 90 percent of the workers struck. In response, two hundred growers attacked unarmed strikers at the city park, swinging pick handles and clubs. With strike leaders bloodied and Governor Olson refusing to intervene, the union put on a brave face. “Clubbed, But Still We Strike” ran a leaflet headline, promising more action. But the crackdown had done the trick.

Although unsuccessful, the strike left a deep impression on Ross, who considered his two years at Arvin among the most “supercharged” periods of his life. In his writings, Ross later claimed that the strike was the largest in the history of the San Joaquin Valley, but it wasn’t: a far larger cotton strike occurred in 1933, made up overwhelmingly of Mexican workers. The 1939 strike was instead the last notable conflict of the 1930s, a tumultuous decade that saw more than 127,000 California farmworkers engage in at least 140 strikes. Ross knew this history very well and likely exaggerated the size of the strike to dramatize the experience. But this exaggeration also likely reflected an emotional truth: for someone with a front-row seat, the strike was an exhilarating and unforgettable experience, at once cautionary and inspiring.

Setting the Stage for John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath: Richard Henry Dana at 200

Image of Moby Dick illustration by Rockwell Kent

Cover image from Two Years Before the MastRichard Henry Dana, Jr., the author of Two Years Before the Mast, was born 200 years ago in Massachusetts, the home of Dana’s famous Founding family, and of John Steinbeck’s paternal grandparents as well. Growing up, Steinbeck read Dana’s autobiographical account of life along the California coast in the early 19th century–as noted by the artist Tom Killion, the earliest writing, in English, that describes the California coast from the perspective of the sea. New England roots, adventure fiction, California coast: cause enough for Steinbeck fans to celebrate Richard Henry Dana’s bicentennial. But Two Years Before the Mast is also a masterpiece of social-protest literature, like The Grapes of Wrath, and helped set the stage for Steinbeck’s novel. Details of Dana’s life are worth mentioning in 2015, two centuries after his birth and 75 years since the appearance of The Grapes of Wrath. They connect Dana’s era and output with those of Steinbeck—and with the New England artist Rockwell Kent, who wrote popular books of travel, illustrated books by others (including Moby Dick, above), and espoused socialism, pacifism, and opposition to American foreign policy during Steinbeck’s lifetime.

Richard Henry Dana and the Power of Fiction to Change

Image of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., author of Two Years Before the MastBorn into a Boston Brahmin family of politically progressive lawyers, writers, and legislators, Dana grew up at a time when flogging was routine punishment on ships like the Pilgrim, the California-bound brig he sailed as a merchant seaman after dropping out of Harvard at the age of 19. Like John Steinbeck—who became a college-dropout merchant seaman, briefly, in 1925—young Dana employed fiction as a vehicle to focus public attention on an egregious injustice experienced personally, the brutal mistreatment of sailors at sea. The Grapes of Wrath, written 100 years after Dana drafted Two Years Before the Mast, dramatizes the mistreatment of Dust Bowl migrants through the struggles of a fictional family caught in a Dickensian system of injustice and oppression; Dana’s autobiographical novel describes the pain and suffering of his fellow-sailor Sam, “a human being made in God’s likeness—fastened up and flogged like a beast!” Following the publication of Two Years Before the Mast in 1840—exactly 100 years before Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez expedition along the Baja, California coast—flogging at sea finally ended, a process Dana helped hasten in his career as a maritime lawyer and legal writer. Though he never wrote another novel, he returned to the California coast in 1859, adding a postscript to later editions of Two Years Before the Mast describing the changes he observed.

Image of untitled print by Rockwell Kent

Two Years Before the Mast exposed an evil practice, just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Julia Ward Howe’s “John Brown’s Body”—the source of Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” title—excoriated slavery and advocated abolition, the other great cause to which Richard Henry Dana devoted his long life. The Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in the United States in 1863, and Dana served as U.S. counsel at the trial of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, after the Civil War. Ironically, a bloody war fought 75 years later served to integrate poor families like the Joads into the American economy, ending the conditions dramatized in The Grapes of Wrath. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Two Years Before the Mast was written in a turbulent time, and has never been out of print. Dana’s classic, still rewarding reading for Steinbeck fans, is full of resemblances to elements in Steinbeck’s work, including memorable descriptions of the California coast, meditations on social and economic policy, and an Easter Sunday chapter reminiscent of Sea of Cortez.

Dana, Steinbeck, and Rockwell Kent: An American Legacy

Image of Rockwell Kent, American artist-activistUnlike John Steinbeck, Richard Henry Dana was a polished speaker who advocated progressive policy from a position of social strength and achieved celebrity without being demonized. A closer parallel to Steinbeck in this regard can be found in the life of Rockwell Kent, a gruff adventurer who was born in 1882, the year Dana died, and who managed to outlive Steinbeck by two years. Kent’s writing, autobiographical in source, was realistic. His art was visionary, allegorical, and mythic. His illustrations of works by Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Melville—the American author most influenced by Dana, and an inspiration for Steinbeck—are particularly powerful, so impressive that one wishes he’d been commissioned to illustrate The Grapes of Wrath, a book he read with the recognition of a kindred spirit. Like Steinbeck, Kent rejected conservative politics, revealed religion, and conventional morality. Like Steinbeck, he espoused free living and engaged in social issues with a passion uncharacteristic of his parents and peers. Like Steinbeck, he married repeatedly, traveled relentlessly, and found an appreciative audience in Russia, where he journeyed in 1967 after a fight with the federal government over his passport. In a televised Cold War confrontation, Kent defied Senator Joseph McCarthy, pleading the Fifth Amendment not because he was a communist (he wasn’t), but to show solidarity with American artists and authors blacklisted for being sympathetic to socialism (which he was).

Image of drawing by Rockwell Kent

Though Kent failed to produce a magnum opus comparable to The Grapes of Wrath or Two Years Before the Mast, he deserves attention as an artist-activist equal in passion to John Steinbeck and Richard Henry Dana and—based on his courage—even worthier of praise. A biography of Rockwell Kent equal in scope to Jackson Benson’s life of Steinbeck should be written to increase appreciation of Kent’s achievement, preferably from the angle being taken by William Souder in his new book about Steinbeck: “Mad at the World.” Meanwhile, Dana’s bicentennial has produced a splendid biography by former Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeffrey L. Amestoy, aptly titled Slavish Shore: The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana Jr. The recent Vermont Public Radio interview with Amestoy about the writing, publication, and impact of Two Years Before the Mast will strike a familiar note with fans of Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. From rural New England to the California coast, the social-protest theme in American literature is an enduring legacy. It began with Richard Henry Dana 200 years ago.

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:

“Self-Protection”: Film Documents Steinbeck’s Application for a Gun License in New York State

new-york-state-gun-license

The film “Steinbeck: Armed with the Truth (And a Colt Automatic)” came about after Paul Boczkowski and Marie Wainscoat of Longtimers Productions, a California company, viewed a gallery exhibition I helped put together six or seven years ago in Pacific Grove with my wife Nancy and the prominent marine biologist Robert Brownell, a student of Ed Ricketts as well as John Steinbeck. The idea for the exhibition was born when a man sent me a copy of the application for a gun license that Steinbeck submitted in New York State on May 12, 1942. In his application Steinbeck sought permission to carry two concealed revolvers for “self-protection.”

New York State Gun License Fires Interest in Pacific Grove

The person who sent me the gun-license application worked for a museum and felt the application was important enough to be made public. The subject of Steinbeck and guns already had my attention, and I agreed. Some years earlier I had spoken with a Salinas woman who told me that sometime in the mid-to-late 1930s she had witnessed Steinbeck being threatened by a man with a gun, perhaps hired by others, who was upset about what he felt Steinbeck was writing. We called the exhibition—which included artwork, letters, and documentation—“Steinbeck: Armed with the Truth (And a Colt Automatic).” The producers kept the title for their film about the show. “Steinbeck Fully Loaded,” a Sunday magazine feature, appeared in the Monterey County Herald.

I also wrote a piece about Steinbeck’s gun license application for an innovative literary-blog website called Red Room that, unfortunately, no longer exists. Before the site went out of business, Paul Douglass—at that time the editor of Steinbeck Review—picked up on my post. This led to my writing a pair of articles for the journal in the spring of 2008 and the fall of 2009.

Since that time, my account of Steinbeck and guns has appeared in a number of periodicals and books, though no one bothers to notify me before they publish it. The gun license episode tied in with other stories and historic tidbits about Steinbeck I had picked up while writing for the Monterey County Herald, operating a Pacific Grove art gallery with a literary bent, and co-curating the inaugural art exhibition at the National Steinbeck Center in 1998.

Monterey County Sources Inspire Stories About Steinbeck

My sources were often people who had known Steinbeck well, or their descendants. Two were classmates of John in Salinas. Another was the daughter of a Monterey County cop who corresponded with Steinbeck after the writer left California for New York, and who shipped Steinbeck several revolvers via railway express. A fourth was the son of a Monterey County Herald editor who became a good friend to Steinbeck and helped him find a Big Sur mountain lion as a gift for the people of England—an incident I used in a book of stories that I wrote about Steinbeck’s life in Monterey County and New York State.

I call the series “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life.” The stories reflect the portrait of Steinbeck painted by my sources: a complex man of great gifts, deep compassion, and capacity for fun, traits overshadowed by very real and very dark threats experienced by Steinbeck in Monterey County. Some of my stories include artists, the secondary theme of the film. Artists were important to Steinbeck throughout his lifetime: he numbered them among his friends and felt not only comfortable, but also safe with them. When you have as many enemies as Steinbeck did, I learned, “safe” becomes important.

Which is why he applied for that gun license on May 12, 1942.

Sample “Almost True Stories from a Writer’s Life” in Steve Hauk’s Archive.—Ed,