Finding solace in Steinbeck during the time of Trump

November 11, 2016

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OPINION 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: “Failure 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 . . . . And, 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 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, “the 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: “The 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. Steinbeck is “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 has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.







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38 Comments

  1. Rambunctious says:

    Thanks for this story…I needed a good laugh…If Mr. Steinbeck were alive today I would bet my farm that he would have voted for Trump. If any of you that read his books feel otherwise I would suggest that you read them again.

    (4) 14 Total Votes - 9 up - 5 down
  2. mej says:

    I don’t think most people understand the Globalism that Hillary / Obama want.

    To start at the end, the financial result of Globalism is the ultra wealthy get richer and those who are not ultra wealthy get poorer. The large unemployment in the Red States prove this out.

    Another nasty little outcome of Globalism is the wink and nod, the governments give to countries that have taken our jobs. Those little outcomes are child exploitation, human trafficking, and slavery. Fact

    We have pretty much lost the craftsmanship of the American worker. Run on down to Dollar Tree or Target and buy a bunch of junk and just throw it away. Globalism has brought us materialism.

    Do you like being sick so much. That is a direct result of the world market. That is a fact that is taught in our liberal colleges even.

    We get nothing out of Obama’s and Hillary’s Globalism. Let’s hope President Trump closes the borders in every way.

    (17) 25 Total Votes - 21 up - 4 down
    • kettle says:

      “Globalism has brought us materialism.” No, We had materialism Free trade made it all cheaper allowing the dollar stores etc.

      “Do you like being sick so much. That is a direct result of the world market.” No, you are confused.

      “Let’s hope President Trump closes the borders in every way.” Lol No foreign tourists? That would economically harm San Luis Obispo County and many American Towns and end countless low paying jobs.

      (-8) 14 Total Votes - 3 up - 11 down
  3. non_sequitur says:

    #Calexit

    (-19) 37 Total Votes - 9 up - 28 down
    • Rambunctious says:

      Go ahead…AZ is looking better everyday.

      (5) 7 Total Votes - 6 up - 1 down
      • kettle says:

        Yes, please tell all of your friends, Arizona has what you want.

        California will never be a red state, will never have a conservative majority so people can stop complaining.

        (-1) 9 Total Votes - 4 up - 5 down
        • 2much says:

          Kettle, It appears the the majority of the responses here disagree with you on almost every topic you side with. I hope your wrong about the “Red” state forever…Change, she is a comn’, I urge all to escape from the “Party Lines” (as is what seems to have happened in this election). Time to stop voting for your color, and whatever they tell you to vote for, and vote your conscience and what is truly best for this Country.

          (-2) 2 Total Votes - 0 up - 2 down
  4. isoslo says:

    What a pile of crapola. An excuse for Mr. Cooper to try and show us how clever he is. The comparison of our current political environment to that of the 1920s is beyond stupid. Another liberal trying desperately to make things seem horrible when the truth is we still live in the most fair and just country on the planet.Mr. Cooper please limit your dribble to the safe spaces of a few college campuses where the students are still young enough to actually listen to this garbage.

    (48) 80 Total Votes - 64 up - 16 down
  5. Slosum says:

    Oh for God’s sake…. enough of the sobbing and breast beating.

    (44) 62 Total Votes - 53 up - 9 down
  6. Otis says:

    Nonsense ironyman2000. Trump has to use the hammer against the identified group of malcontents — that includes leaders in the minorities, in the education segments and in the TV and print media.

    This is war and the time is now to raise the flag — enforce the rule of law — backing the police and military — and make it clear there are consequences for rebellion.

    Face it, we are a sick nation and Trump’s victory was a narrow thing fed by the discontent of many — such as white non college types that have been forgotten — and the many who know something is wrong.

    Obama has ruined this place and we better bite the bullet and fix it. Our enemies internationally sense our weakness and are ready to strike us in many ways.

    Trump’s challenges cross the economic to the moral and are substantially greater than many of our past leaders faced — such as Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman — during their time. Draining the swamp and curing the national disease of malcontent are but features of the reconciliation that are required.

    (25) 53 Total Votes - 39 up - 14 down
    • ironyman2000 says:

      “identified group of malcontents”?? What the hell does THAT mean? I do not face nor accept your identification of this as a “sick nation”. Obama has improved this place not ruined it. You cite no specifics on this.
      I, for one, will not tolerate the direction of my country to be set by the uneducated.

      (-31) 53 Total Votes - 11 up - 42 down
    • kettle says:

      Otis says:”This is war and the time is now to raise the flag — enforce the rule of law — backing the police and military — and make it clear there are consequences for rebellion.”

      Fascism front and center.

      Otis says: “Obama has ruined this place” Exaggerate much?

      Otis says: “Trump’s challenges cross the economic to the moral and are substantially greater than many of our past leaders faced ”

      He faces the same challenges Obama and Bush faced” Exaggerate much? Because that is bull.

      If by Draining the swamp you mean hiring the swamp for the white house you would be right.

      (-29) 55 Total Votes - 13 up - 42 down
    • non_sequitur says:

      I hope that is satire. If it’s not, and you are actually hoping for a civil war, be glad because it will happen. Statements such as yours will incite it.

      (-6) 18 Total Votes - 6 up - 12 down
      • kettle says:

        No it is not satire, Otis supports the fascist state.

        “consequences for rebellion” The Constitution is not a document of convenience.

        (1) 5 Total Votes - 3 up - 2 down
  7. shelworth says:

    Democrats (at least the Hillary Democrats) crack me up. “Trump won, there will be violence against minorities, women and the transgendered!” as they riot and burn their own cities (at least the ones that were born there, not the ones paid for and bused in. Does Stephan Cooper (whoever he is) really think that for the last 8 years the USA has been an idyllic utopia? Has he not watched the news? Hasn’t seen the assassinated police officers? Or maybe he subscribes to that brand of “justice”, me, I’ll take the Bill of Rights and the Constitution please. Which is why I voted for Trump, just for the small chance we could bring those documents back to life. Something Hillary would not do.

    (38) 58 Total Votes - 48 up - 10 down
    • ironyman2000 says:

      Trump was the beneficiary of an outdated and absurd electoral college system. The majority of voters cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.

      (-6) 14 Total Votes - 4 up - 10 down
      • shelworth says:

        Actually neither one got more than 50%+1 so we would have a run off between Trump and Clinton. Without the Libertarian in the race Trump would get 4-5 million more votes than Clinton.

        (2) 8 Total Votes - 5 up - 3 down
  8. ironyman2000 says:

    This is a thoughtful and prescient piece. It is the foolish Trumpians who are so blind they can not perceive this. They must try and stomp on that which they do not understand. They can only support a demented punk who has stomped on everyone and everything he has come in contact with. They claim that “change” is needed but don’t realize that having one’s arm severed is a change……..just not a good one.

    (-49) 79 Total Votes - 15 up - 64 down

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