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20 December 2018updated 24 Jul 2021 5:44am

To understand Trump’s America, read John Steinbeck

On the 50-year anniversary of his death, the author of The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden has never felt more relevant.

By Daniel Rey

“His book is a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.” It was a Democratic representative from Oklahoma who gave this verdict of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s chronicle of migrants leaving the Dust Bowl for California. Disdained by the political elite and much of the literary set, it was nonetheless the best-selling book of 1939.

Today’s parallels with the 1930s give Steinbeck’s work renewed urgency. He writes about farm labourers, shopkeepers and the denizens of village taverns – the kinds of people who, before the enormous political upheaval of 2016, the chattering classes barely remembered. In the age of Trump, mass-migration and the phenomenon of the ‘left behind’, Steinbeck’s work is just as relevant as when he wrote it. But more than that: reading Steinbeck fifty years after his death is the perfect antidote to the culture war that has gripped America.

As in the 1930s, machinery – today it’s automation – threaten traditional livelihoods and ways of life in the United States. The Rust Belt is today’s version of the Dust Bowl of the Depression.

“One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families,” representatives of city-based corporations explain to the tenant families working the Oklahoma land in The Grapes of Wrath. Unconcerned by the fabric of local communities, the agents suggest the families abandon their homes.

“Why don’t you go west to California? … You can reach out anywhere and pick an orange,” they advise, incentivising migration, like the local authorities today who pack homeless people on buses and send them to other American cities.

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Steinbeck tried significantly harder to understand the plight of migrant workers, spending weeks travelling with them in California and producing journalism that highlighted their plight. The stories they told him led to The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939. Today, it would be hard to read the novel without thinking of another caravan of migrants making headlines by trying to reach California. Like Steinbeck’s Midwesterners, they pine for a promised land of economic security.

If California is Steinbeck country, it is not the California many readers recognise from popular culture. His locale is not Los Angeles or San Francisco, but Salinas.

It was “never a pretty town,” wrote Steinbeck in an article in 1955. “The mountains on both sides of the valley were beautiful, but Salinas was not, and we knew it.”

Salinas Valley is to Steinbeck what London is to Dickens, or the American West to Cormac McCarthy. That the ordinary people of the Salinas Valley were Steinbeck’s muses says much about his position in America’s urban-rural divide. In Steinbeck’s time this divide fed his critics’ disdain. Today it is arguably the most important fissure in the United States.

Born into a family of moderate resources, Steinbeck was a writer, a journalist, and a sporadic attendee of Stanford University. But he was a long way from being an urbanite. None of his major works are set in a big city and few of his characters have metropolitan pretensions.

An exception is the disastrously naïve Adam Trask from East of Eden, a holier-than-thou liberal who subscribes to the East Coast titles The Atlantic and National Geographic. And when Adam’s business venture to transport ice-packed lettuce eastwards from central California ruins him financially, Steinbeck gives us an archetypically small-town American perspective on the hubristically over-educated and self-righteous.

“These know-it-all dreamers always got into trouble…People who inherited their money always got into trouble.”

It seems strange that a writer with a Pulitzer and a Nobel prize is a window into the allegedly philistine side of the culture war. But Steinbeck was not appreciated by the literary establishment. He was not as experimental as Faulkner, not as sophisticated as Fitzgerald, not as high-brow as James.

Perhaps it’s that Steinbeck is too easy to read, not complicated enough to warrant a place in the pantheon. His prose may be simple, but it is also lyrical, most notably in the descriptions of setting that begin so many chapters and novels, from the eponymous street in Cannery Row to the Salinas River in Of Mice and Men.

Or perhaps it’s because he writes about ordinary folk. Whether it was peasants in the Soviet Union in his brilliant travelogue The Russian Journal, or his fictionalised farm labourers of the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck was forever drawn to salt-of-the-earth characters.

Defending himself during his Nobel Prize speech in 1962 he affirmed:

“Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches – nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tinhorn mendicants of low calorie despair … The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive.”

When we consider the culture war today, Steinbeck’s earthy approach to literature demonstrates the value of a strong connection between the intelligentsia and the common man.

A particularly uncommon man currently sits in the White House. Steinbeck, grounded in rural and blue-collar life, would see the appeal of Trump. But he would also see that Trump is not the answer.

Steinbeck’s oeuvre contains a few characters with Trumpian traits. It might be tempting to find a parallel with the inferiority-complexed and confrontational Curley from Of Mice and Men, the landowner’s son whose pride pushes the novella’s calamity, but the real Trump is Cyrus Trask, the irascible patriarch from East of Eden.

Spinning fabricated tales, Trask senior rises to become a powerful official in the postbellum government.

“At the very first he knew he was lying,” Steinbeck’s narrator tells us, “but it was not long before he was equally sure that every one of his stories was true.”

Once in the corridors of power, Cyrus cuts an aggressive, intimidating figure: “I can get senators defeated and I can pick appointments like apples. I can make men and I can destroy men.” Read today, he even sounds like Trump.

To be sure, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden are too long, many of Steinbeck’s characters (particularly the female ones) are oversimplified, and the contemporary critics who charged him with moralising sometimes had a point.

But migrant workers are still struggling to make a living in the fields, there is no long-term solution to the future of blue-collar work, and the weather – be it dust, drought or fire – is still wreaking havoc on rural communities. Steinbeck still has a place.

The day before the Swedish Academy honoured Steinbeck in 1962, a New York Times headline asked: “Does a Writer with a Moral Vision of the 1930s Deserve the Nobel Prize?”

With that assessment, is it any wonder reading Steinbeck in our own age feels so important?

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