A rare column by John Steinbeck probes the strength of American democracy: NPR


John Steinbeck speaks to the media in his publisher’s office in New York on October 25, 1962.

Anthony Camerano/AP


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Anthony Camerano/AP

A rare column by John Steinbeck probes the strength of American democracy: NPR

John Steinbeck speaks to the media in his publisher’s office in New York on October 25, 1962.

Anthony Camerano/AP

NEW YORK — Decades ago, as communists and suspected communists were blacklisted and debates swirled about the future of American democracy, John Steinbeck — a resident of Paris at the time — s is often found questioned about the headlines of his native country.

The question he kept hearing: “What about McCarthyism?”

The future Nobel laureate wrote that the practice embodied by US Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was “simply a new name for something that has been around since the time popular government emerged”.

“It is the attempt to substitute government by men for government by law,” Steinbeck continued in a 1954 column for Le Figaro which had rarely been seen until its reprint this week in the literary quarterly Strand magazine. “We’ve always had this latent thing. All democracies have it. It can’t be destroyed because, by destroying it, democracy would destroy itself.”

Steinbeck was closely associated with his native California, the setting for all or most of “Grapes of Wrath,” “Of mice and Men” and other fiction. But he lived briefly in Paris in the mid-1950s and wrote a series of short plays for Le Figaro which have been translated into French.

Most of his observations were humorous reflections on his adopted city, but sometimes he couldn’t resist commenting on larger matters.

“Anyone who is even remotely familiar with Steinbeck’s works knows that he never shied away from tackling controversial subjects,” writes Andrew F. Gulli, editor of The Strand, in a brief introduction. The strand unearthed obscure works by Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others. Gulli calls Steinbeck’s column in the French publication timely work for current concerns about democracy.

Grapes of Wrath“was a defining work of the Great Depression. Steinbeck held to an idealistic liberalism formed in part in the 1930s by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, deepened by the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II and ultimately tested by Vietnam, he despised both McCarthyism and Communism, opposing what he called “any interference with the creative spirit” – whether it was censorship in the United States or of the persecution of writers in the Soviet Union.

“He said in the 1960s that the role of an artist was to criticize his country,” says Susan Shillinglaw, who directs the Steinbeck Center for Studies at San Jose State University.

Steinbeck believed that the United States was a force for good and lucky in its ability to correct itself. He advocated a version of tough love that is hard to defend now, equating democracy with a child who “must be constantly hurt” to endure and seeing McCarthyism as a passing threat that would strengthen the country in the long run.

“By resisting, we keep our democracy tough and tough and alive, its machinery intact. An untested organism soon becomes flabby and weak,” he wrote.

McCarthyism was reaching its peak at the time of Steinbeck’s chronicle and McCarthy himself would be censured by his Senate peers within months and dead in 1957. Political historian Julian Zelizer says Steinbeck was not alone in acknowledging the dangers of anti-Communist hysteria, while maintaining an “adamant optimism” that “the constitutional separation of powers and pluralism would keep these forces at the fringes”.

Lucan Way, whose books include “Pluralism by Default: Weak Autocrats and the Rise of Competitive Politics“, told the Associated Press that “in principle, the clear and unambiguous defeat of anti-democratic actors” such as McCarthy could have a positive effect.

But he doesn’t think Steinbeck’s chronicle can be applied to contemporary politics.

“What is happening now is not an example of this phenomenon (the fall of McCarthyism),” says Way. “Trumpism was not clearly defeated but rather helped normalize anti-democratic behavior that was previously seen as off limits.”


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