John Steinbeck: Footnote for a Memoir

Until along in the fifties I largely made my living out of the farm problem. This had been my preoccupation as a student, and I taught agricultural economics at Harvard. For anyone with these interests a giant figure just offstage was John Steinbeck. All official compassion in farm matters until the late thirties had been for the family farmer—an oaken citizen who leased, or more often owned, his own acres, sat proudly under his own roof tree, but who was bedeviled by debt, rising costs, the two great droughts of the thirties, and prices that, because of endemic surpluses, never reached that magic level called parity. The Southern sharecropper got a certain amount of ritualistic sympathy, but the independent farmer was the farm problem.

For many years a certain number of liberals who knew about agriculture had been telling each other, and anyone else who would listen, that the truly forgotten man in farming was, in fact, the hired farm worker. He added the misfortunes of his employer to a specialized collection of his own. Nor teas his situation improved when his employer was not a family farmer but a big producer of fruit, vegetables, sugar beets, tobacco, or cotton. Unfortunately, no one did listen. Then The Grapes of Wrath, almost overnight, made the life led by these wretched people a national scandal. Thereafter, though they still might be ignored, they could not entirely be forgotten. It was a special stroke of genius to make farm workers in this novel not the Mexicans, Filipinos, Negroes, or Japanese, who, as Steinbeck knew better than anyone, had long followed and stooped and harvested the crops, but white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP’s as they were not yet called) , who had once enjoyed the unbelievably better fortune of the debt-ridden family farm. These were basic Americans made untouchable—Okies for goodness sake—by economic weakness and resulting disaster. It could happen to anyone except Norman Vincent Peale.

I did not meet John Steinbeck until just after Christmas in 1953-1954. With my wife I had been in Puerto Rico at the university, and we went on to St. John in tlie Virgin Islands for a holiday. Caneel Bay, where we arrived late one night, was then a minor backwater of the Rockefeller benefactions; indeed, it was currently being operated as a kind of colony of Colonial Williamsburg. (Like, I gather, everything else in the Western world, it has since been drastically developed.) There was a slight depression at the time, induced, as so often before, by the belief that where the economy is concerned, Cod will not let good conservative gentlemen down. The Eisenhower Administration had recently increased interest rates dramatically for no good reason, and business was off. In consequence an unusual number of Americans were taking the unprecedented step of remaining at home. My wife returned from her regulation dawn patrol to report that there was only one other couple in the hotel and adjacent cottages. Their name was Steinbeck. You don’t suppose . . . ?

It was, and the beginning of a friendship. I can add little on Steinbeck as a writer, for he did not like talking about his work, at least to me. But I can tell quite a bit more about a shrewd and perceptive man, much interested in politics and contemporary anthropology and not only droll but very, very funny. He was a large man, still cleanshaven, exceedingly homely, and in 1954 looked older than I had imagined or he was. He spoke in a carefully subdued mumble. Elaine, his wife, was intelligent, tolerant, devoted, and lovely.

At Caneel Bay the Steinbecks too were on holiday, and John regularly took a mask and snorkel, and looking from shore like some terrible accident of marine miscegenation, went out along the reef to explore the underwater life. It was an interest which had developed many years before on the California coast near Monterey and is reflected in many of his stories. One day, however, my wife and I set out to tour the island on foot, anti John abandoned the sea to accompany us in a jeep that he had requisitioned for the purpose, along with the owner. (The latter was an acquaintance who had secluded himself on the island to write a novel. In face of the failure rate it is astonishing how many people can be persuaded that solitude is a substitute for art. This was possibly an instance, but John deferred to the unhappy man as to Proust.) We explored the ruins of the old sugar plantations and heard of the great revolt of 1733. Then the slaves seized the island and penned their erstwhile masters up in a small enclave around Caneel Bay. Eventually a commando of soldiers righteously representing the several civilized powers with interests in the area was sent in to restore order. It was a fine example of international cooperation. The slaves, however, had the last word. They went to a high promontory at one end of the island and dashed on like lemmings into the sea. The island went back to wilderness. John thought, on any rational calculation of their personal future, that their decision was sound. He predicted that, within a measurable time, a similar calculation would be made by the inhabitants of Manhattan, and certainly of Miami Beach, with similar results.

Steinbeck differed from other novelists of his (or a slightly earlier) generation in being a controlled drinker. But he was also an appreciative one. Adlai Stevenson, in one of his great speeches in 1952, written I believe with the major help of James Wechsler, referred to the brief period every four years just before presidential elections when politics reconciles even the most obsolete men to the machine age. It was, he said, “a kind of pause in the Republican occupation that might be called ‘The Liberal Hour.’ ” Thereafter those of us who were working on his campaign spoke of the time when we assembled for a drink as the Liberal Hour. I told John of this nomenclature, and he considered it carefully from every angle for several evenings. Then he told me he preferred his own term. He called it Milking Time.

Milking Time was an occasion for wonderful nonsense. I remember especially one evening when he got on to the wife of a man with whom he had a close personal identification. The girl was a frustrated circus performer. She loved lions and tigers and other exotic beasts and dressed like a zebra; would often dream that she was riding around a ring on the rump of a horse and attempt in a limited way while asleep to do so; could not see a curtain pole without taking hold of it as a trapeze; and did a certain amount of damage to people’s houses while swinging from their chandeliers. She hurt herself one day when she stepped out of a second-story window on to a poorly attached clothesline. Life with her was interesting. I believe it had no appreciable relation to fact and that it was just as well that Hotchner was not around.

We also talked a good deal about politics. John liked Stevenson and believed Joe McCarthy, then in peak form, strictly a flash in the pan. To exercise power through fear, he thought, required commanding intelligence and great diligence. Joe had neither. I seem also to recall that even at this stage Steinbeck thought he would prove a bit vulnerable to the bottle.

Then, as later, John developed a favorite theme, which is that the world owes more than it realizes to shared greed. Since there is an infinity of visions of the future, and also of how any one vision can be made real, ideology divides men. But they are brought together again by pursuit of their common interest in income, power, position, or the prospect of an invitation to eat at the White House. It is a shrewd point. New York and California liberals quarrel hideously because, being happy where they are and not wanting to go to Washington, they are influenced more or less exclusively by ideas. Elsewhere shared greed makes men more tractable.

In the ensuing years we saw the Steinbecks at intervals, and I heard from him often—as there must be many who will testify, he was (in small but legible script) one of the last good letter writers. We were brought together at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, because someone had the idea of beating out a covey of artists, writers, and certified intellectuals to attend the rites, a project with a heavy portent of disaster for President Lyndon Johnson and Professor Eric Goldman. The Steinbecks were in the flock and joined us for the day.

We were also joined by a television crew whose principals had the idea of covering the event by immortalizing the responses of a highly unrepresentative set of spectators—as I recall, besides the Galbraiths, Scottie Lanahan, Janet Leigh, and Senator and Mrs. Hubert Humphrey. Having Steinbeck show up was, from the point of view of the producer, roughly equivalent to discovering Toynbee in the studio audience at the Johnny Carson show.

To have a television camera on you all that day (and in the front seat of the car as we were stalled in the traffic jams) was an unbelievable mark of political status. We attracted attention second only to President and Mrs. Kennedy and well ahead of Douglas Dillon, Dean Rusk, or the Secretary of Commerce. We both made the most of it, but John more than I. He told one or two people who got up the courage to ask why the attention that he had just been named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and had not yet got his uniform fitted. To others, he said he was the new Secretary of Public Morals and Consumer Education. (I think that was it.)

When asked by the television men for his reaction to the Inaugural Address, he said: “Syntax, my lad. It has been restored to the highest places in the republic.” Inspired by the prayers of Cardinal Cushing and other prelates, he also offered an allegory on that evening’s situation meeting in heaven. The briefing angel would say: “Well, it was a pretty quiet day down there until noon, my Lord. Then we got one hell of a blast!” I was sad that John did not live to reflect on the way the doors and windows of heaven were shaken by the Reverend Billy Graham last January 20.

A few weeks later as I was about to leave for India, I received a letter from John—which alas, I seem no longer to have—which impressed me as much as any communication I ever received. It said that no writer, teacher, or man of required independence oi mind had any business becoming an ambassador, and that definitely included me. It wasn’t necessarily that I would louse up the job or dislike it. Rather, I would like it too much. The bonds and constraints of bureaucracy would become too comfortable. Presently one would relax in them and cherish them. Thus, the end.

The warning always remained with me. The temptation to surrender to organization is indeed very great. While a military organization compels it, the State Department has more effective means. If you accept the approved belief and behavior, you are, as James C. Thomson, Jr., has said, an effective man. As such, you are called in for conferences and consulted with deference, even respect. If, however, you insist on the uncomplicated truth, you are a problem to be handled. I woidd guess that the men that Kennedy brought in split about fifty-fifty between those who decided to make sense and those who opted for being effective. In any case, in the ensuing years every time I was tempted by the thought that Taiwan was China, that Laos or later Vietnam was the fulcrum of the free world, that Goa teas not a Portuguese colony but an integral province of Portugal, or even that one should bow to protocol and proceed to Palam Airport near New Delhi to welcome any visitor of the rank of technical sergeant or above, I thought of John. In time, I have been told, I acquired a reputation for being a trifle prickly. The fault was entirely, anyhow mostly, his.

Meanwhile I began to get letters forgiving me for my decision and offering me advice. An undated one from Babylon sur Rhone, which evidently was Avignon, must have coincided with the shelterbuilding flap of 1961-1962. He began with a reference to this. I have Elaine Steinbeck’s permission to quote him. On the shelters he said:

I have my own shelter worked out in New York. At the first suggestion of a bomb. I’ll pry open a manhole cover and there are a thousand miles of shelter. And the rats there aren’t likely to draw a gun on me. . . . Furthermore, after a couple of days, the sewers are going to smell sweeter than the upper air.

Later, proposing that all writers unite to modernize the cliches about peace—he urged that henceforth we beat swords into portable typewriters and ball-point pens—he asked me to arrange him a diplomatic appointment. Me had decided that he wanted to be ambassador to Oz.

Now OZ has another secret weapon we could well use on all levels of government and diplomacy. The Wizard of OZ is a fraud who admits he is a fraud. Can you think what this would do if it got into chancelleries and general staffs. There would be a major break-through. I can think of a dozen other advantages and rewards of my Embassy to 07 but I think these two would justify it. The simple expedient of dying different countries different colors so we would know whether we were for or against them would be worth any outlay hy our government. It is even possible that a discreet traffic in emeralds could make my Embassy self-supporting if not profitable.

Then came what, with some effort, I considered a compliment.

I trust you, Ken. to handle this matter for me with your usual discretion and subtlety.

In the next letter, not having been notified by President Kennedy ol his appointment, he thought probably Senator Dirksen had got it. “Maybe he can do the job better than I can. . . . It’s just one more small heartbreak.”

A year or two later he reported on his triumphant journey to the Soviet Union and returned to a favorite theme.

We got home from our culture-mongering completely exhausted and with a very vague idea of what had happened. ... I developed the only diplomacy that has ever worked outside of total conquest—that of finding areas of mutual greed.

I found I enjoyed the Sov iet hustlers pretty much.

There was a kind ol youthful honesty about their illicit intention that was not without charm. And their lives are difficult under their lour party system.

It takes a fairly deft or very lucky man to make his way upward in the worker’s paradise.

In the last year or two his letters were shorter. The X rays which led to spinal surgery in the autumn of 1967 he reported as looking “like a snake tence after a tornado.” With some misgivings I sent him a pamphlet I had written on How to Get Out of Vietnam.

To my delight he approved, on the whole, although he thought my solution—basically that wc recognize error, pull back, and negotiate our withdrawal, assuring ourselves only of the safety of those remaining behind—a bit reminiscent of a recommendation that came out of a big meeting in Washington in World War H. It was to consider what could be clone to arrest the rapid increase in venereal diseases. Everybody was stumped. Then Gene Tunney came up with an idea that “was a beauty and would work. Lie proposed continence.

My last letter was in the spring of 1968. The political prospect was for Mr. Johnson against Mr. Nixon. He was reminded of a little Indian girl in Salinas watching a wrestling match. In great excitement she said, “Jeses Chris’ they’re both jus’ as good.”Then, though recognizing that the need had long since passed, he got back to advising me on diplomacy. He had just heard about the perfect diplomat. Two men were discussing Green Bay, Wisconsin:

First Man: It’s a real nice place.

Second Man: What’s nice about it? Only things ever come out of Green Bay is the Packers and ugly whores.

First Man: Now, wait just one minute, you son of a hitch. My wife is from Green Bay.

Second Man: She is? What position she play?