We remember John Steinbeck as the Nobel Prize winning novelist of Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and Tortilla Flat. But we know little else about him. His too-much fame has kept us from seeing him whole.
Were you aware that Steinbeck was an early champion for equal rights? Fully twenty years before it became fashionable to consider the plight of America's ethnic minorities, Steinbeck was branded a “communist sympathizer” because he believed that Hispanic Americans and African Americans deserved the same respect and opportunities that European Americans enjoyed. Consider the letter that he wrote to the president of 20th Century Fox Films on January 10, 1944:
I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro there was a Negro of dignity, purpose and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.
That letter was followed by a telegram sent 3 weeks later stating, “I REQUEST MY NAME BE REMOVED FROM ANY CONNECTION WITH ANY SHOWING OF THIS FILM.” Steinbeck's request was never granted. In a letter written to his literary agent, Annie Laurie Williams, he said:
“It does not seem right that knowing the effect of the picture on many people, the studio still lets it go. As for Hitchcock, I think his reasons are very simple.
1. He has been doing stories of international spies and masterminds for so long that it has become a habit.
2. He is one of those incredible English middle class snobs who really and truly despise working people.”
John Steinbeck was more than a best-selling novelist. He was a man of courage, principle and conviction. During the most heated part of the civil rights debate in 1962, the deeply introverted Steinbeck spoke out again in his book, Travels with Charley. “In Salinas in California, where I was born and grew and went to school gathering the impressions that formed me, there was only one Negro family… [and] the Cooper boys were my friends. Now these were the only Negroes I knew or had contact with in the days of my flypaper childhood, and you can see how little I was prepared for the great world. When I heard, for example, that Negroes were an inferior race, I thought the authority was misinformed. When I heard that Negroes were dirty, I remembered Mrs. Cooper's shining kitchen. Lazy? The drone and clop of Mr. Cooper's horse-drawn dray in the street outside used to awaken us in the dawn. Dishonest? Mr. Cooper was one of the very few Salinians who never let a debt cross the fifteenth of the month. If in Salinas anyone from a wiser and more sophisticated world had asked, 'How would you like your sister to marry a Cooper?' I think we would have laughed. For it might have occurred to us that a Cooper might not have wanted to marry our sister.”
Do you have any idea how risky it was to say those sorts of things in 1962?
What kind of risks have you been taking for the things that you believe? Do you have any convictions for which you've been willing to stick your neck out? Or are you one of the quietly guilty 'silent majority'?
Roy H. Williams
PS Have you visited www.InvisibleHeroes.com?