John Steinbeck on Racism and Bigotry
“I am sad for a time when one must know a man’s race before his work can be approved or disapproved.”
By Maria Popova
In September of 1936, young John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) witnessed murderous riots in the streets of his Californian hometown — the result of a violent clash between the local lettuce growers and the migrant farm workers who had finally revolted against the inhumane conditions they had long endured. (Decades later, one such laborer would detail these horrific conditions in his conversation with Studs Terkel.) Animated by irrepressible compassion, Steinbeck set out to tell the migrants’ story and spent two years working on a manuscript titled L’Affaire Lettuceberg. But he held himself to so high a standard that he ultimately decided he had failed to live up to his humanistic duty and destroyed the manuscript — one of the most courageous acts for a creative person to perform.
He then started from scratch and embarked upon the most intense writing experience of his life thus far — a quest to give voice to these oppressed laborers, to celebrate the basic goodness and humanity of the so-called common people amid a culture than had tried over and over to dehumanize them. The result was his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (public library), published on April 14 of 1939, in which Steinbeck wrote:
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success … in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
Both populist and insurrectionist, both protest song and gospel, the book was instantly beloved by those who stood for equality and human rights, and instantly reviled by the Donald Trumps of the day, who saw it as a threat to the power structures that buoyed them.
Steinbeck received a letter from a Reverend L. M. Birkhead, National Director of an organization called “Friends of Democracy,” claiming to combat Antisemitic, pro-Nazi propaganda. But Birkhead’s missive had a troubling undercurrent of bigotry. He asserted that The Grapes of Wrath had been called “Jewish propaganda” and implied that the only way to dispel such accusations would be for Steinbeck to prove that he is not Jewish — an accusation analogous to the conspiracy theories which “birthers” directed at President Barack Obama nearly a century later, stemming from the same soul-malady of which all bigotry is a symptom.
Steinbeck’s response to the Reverend, found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library), is a masterwork of moral wisdom and a sublime stance against bigotry, just as timely and perhaps — such is the tragedy of our time — even timelier today.
Dear Mr. Birkhead:
I am answering your letter with a good deal of sadness. I am sad for a time when one must know a man’s race before his work can be approved or disapproved. It does not seem important to me whether I am Jewish or not, and I know that a statement of mine is useless if an interested critic wishes to ride a preconceived thesis… It happens that I am not Jewish and have no Jewish blood but it only happens that way. I find that I do not experience any pride that it is so.
If you wish — here is my racial map although you know what an intelligent anthropologist thinks of racial theories. As you will see, I am the typical American Airedale.
After outlining his genealogy, not without sarcastic jabs at the very notion that it is of any significance at all, Steinbeck adds:
Anyway there it is. Use it or don’t use it, print it or not. Those who wish for one reason or another to believe me Jewish will go on believing it while men of good will and good intelligence won’t care one way or another. I can prove these things of course — but when I shall have to — the American democracy will have disappeared.
The Grapes of Wrath was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year and became a cornerstone of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize two decades later. It endures as a one of the most significant works of social justice ever written.
Complement the thoroughly fantastic Steinbeck: A Life in Letters — the source of his timeless wisdom on falling in love and the art of the friend breakup — with the story of how the beloved writer used the diary as a tool of discipline and an antidote to self-doubt as he was writing The Grapes of Wrath.
Published April 14, 2016