By Stephen Cooper
IN A JITTERY, newly authoritarian land of hatred and hurt, chastened criminal and social justice reformers and human rights advocates can find solace and sustenance in the words and works of the incomparable John Steinbeck, one of America’s greatest writers and psychoanalysts.
In his opus and Pulitzer Prize winning, The Grapes of Wrath, spotlighting exploitative and inhumane labor practices and living conditions of migrant agricultural workers during the Great Depression, Steinbeck masterfully wrote: “[F]ailure hangs over the State like a great sorrow . . . . And the smell of rot fills the country . . . . 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 . . . . [A]nd, in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is the growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
In the dawning, gloomy, metastatic malignancy of a Trump Presidency, do not Steinbeck’s hallowed words resonate every bit as much, if not terrifyingly more? Do they not poignantly describe the heartbreak and fear of so many?
The evil empire
The words and oeuvres of John Steinbeck are more relevant today than ever for compassionate, big-hearted folks – folks who abhor racism, torture, oppression, and unequal justice under law, including: the discriminatory and dysfunctional use of the death penalty, excessive prison sentences, mass incarceration, the scourge of solitary confinement, and now, with the horrifying, looming prospect of an Attorney General Giuliani – back like the cackling, indefatigable evil “Emperor” from Star Wars – a return to despicably discriminatory policies like “stop and frisk,” and newer, more malevolent and unconstitutional-sounding ones, like “extreme vetting” and “deportation forces.”
In the introduction to the 2008 Penguin Books edition of Steinbeck’s, “The Winter of Our Discontent,” a title pregnant with meaning when first released (but positively giving birth to twins now), Professor Susan Shillinglaw writes, Steinbeck “stood as America’s moral compass, pointing to Americans’ virtues and lapses.” For Steinbeck, “[t]he freedom to critique one’s country, [which] he felt with increasing urgency, was the role of an artist in a free nation.”
Accepting the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature, Steinbeck struck a happier, lighter chord, saying, “the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat, courage, compassion and love.
“In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation.” (In an interview for an NBC radio program recorded on April 16, 1939, Steinbeck also said: “[T]he poor are still in the open. When they make a struggle it is an heroic struggle with starvation, death, or imprisonment the penalty if they lose. And since our race admires gallantry, the writer will deal with it where he finds it. He finds it in the struggling poor now.”).
Lest we writers, advocates for peace, for grace, and for justice forget (many of us, regrettably, having not picked up a copy of The Grapes of Wrath, since being required, in school, at far too tender an age), Steinbeck was primarily awarded the Nobel Prize – and, is such “a giant of American letters,” because of his unparalleled capacity to shine a searing spotlight, with captivating, credible, one-of-a-kind prose – on the suffering of the poor and the oppressed (epitomized in The Grapes of Wrath by the Joad family, and their harrowing cross-country migration from what Professor Shilllinglaw calls, “Oklahoma’s Dying Dustbowl to California’s corrupt Promised Land”).
In the introduction to Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, editor Robert DeMott, writes that Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath “intending to ‘rip’ each reader’s nerves ‘to rags’ by making him ‘participate in the actuality.’” It is here, I respectfully submit, that all good people of conscience can take instruction from the manna of Steinbeck’s moral wisdom as he “humanize[d] America’s downtrodden.”
We citizens who reject totalitarianism, who believe in freedom, equality, and happiness for all – not contrived, ill-conceived soundbites on hats – must do as Steinbeck did. We must, in our lifetime, in the most human, most piercing, most painstaking and revealing of ways, highlight the stories of the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the vulnerable.
During the next four years (and God, help us, possibly the next eight), no fight for the soul, the resilience, and character of America will be more important.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015.. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.