Writers Take Sides 1938
For the 36 year old John Steinbeck, 1938 was the year of writing The Grapes of Wrath: his gospel of the plight of the mid-western migrant, the promise of California, and the rise of fascism in the US. Two years earlier he’d written In Dubious Battle, a novel that was something of a Grapes of Wrath taster, and a warning to those in power that things were not as they should be in a democracy that had become rather inward looking and unaware of its own history. It was also, as Grapes would be, a wake-up call to literary America, and a Europe in the midst of political turmoil, and, in the case of Spain, civil slaughter.
Steinbeck, a Californian still living in the State in 1938, was a committed anti-fascist, contemptible of communism, but above all else a man prepared to speak and write his mind as the following short piece — from a 1938 collection of 418 letters from American authors about the Spanish Civil War — shows:
“Just returned from a little tour in the agricultural fields of California. We have our own fascist groups out here. They haven’t bombed open towns yet but in Salinas last year tear gas was thrown in a Union Hall and through the windows of workingmen’s houses. That’s rather close isn’t it?
“ Your question as to whether I am for Franco is rather insulting. Have you seen anyone not actuated by greed who was for Franco? No, I’m not for Franco and his Moors and Italians and Germans. But some Americans are. Some Americans were for the Hessians England sent against our own revolutionary army. They were for the Hessians because they were selling things to them. The descendants of some of these Americans are still very rich and still touchy concerning the American Way, and our ‘ancient liberties.’ I am reasonable enough not to believe in the liberty of a man or a group to exploit, torment, or slaughter other men or groups. I believe in the despotism of human life and happiness against the liberty of money and possessions.”
Good words, and appropriate, then as now.
Other American writers were also writing and protesting against Franco, not least Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, who managed to get the backing of the White House for their ant-fascist campaign, and the screening of the film The Spanish Earth.
As many have said and written before: Spain was a vicious rehearsal for World War II, just a year later, the year that The Grapes of Wrath was published.
Thomas Fensch (Editor) — Conversations with John Steinbeck (University Press of Mississippi, Jackson & London, 1988); John Steinbeck — Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (Viking Press & Penguin Books, New York & London, 1969–1990); Jay Parini — John Steinbeck: A Biography (Heinemann, London, 1994); Jackson J. Benson — The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (Penguin Books, New York & London, 1984–1990); John Steinbeck — Once There Was a War (Viking Press, New York, 1958 & Penguin Books, New York & London, 1977); John Steinbeck: America and Americans ( Edited by Susan Shillinglaw & Jackson J. Benson, Penguin Books, New York & London, 2003); John Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (Edited by Elaine Steinbeck & Robert Wallsten, Viking Press, New York, 1975, Penguin Books, USA & London, 1976, Penguin Classics, London, 2001); John Steinbeck: Travels with Charley (The Viking Press, New York, 1962 & Penguin Books, New York & London, 1980, 1997, & in Penguin Classics, 2000); The Fiction of John Steinbeck (The Viking & Penguin Books); John Steinbeck: A Russian Journal, with Photos by Robert Capa ( The Viking Press, New York, 1948 & Penguin Classic, New York & London, 1999 & 2000); John Steinbeck: Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (The Viking Press, New York, 1943 & Paragon House, New York, 1990); Carlos Baker: Ernest Hemingway — A Life Story (Wm. Collins Sons, London, 1969); Arthur Miller: Timebends — An Autobiography (Methuen, London, 1999);