AMERICA AND AMERICANS: The Lasting Hope of “One People Out of Many”

America and Americans (1966) by John Steinbeck

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          As Donald Trump prepares to be sworn-in as the forty-fifth president of the United States — to the considerable shock and lamentation of over half of this nation’s citizens, who did not vote for him– I can’t help but feel anxiety for the future state of the republic: its most vulnerable citizens, its institutions that have (until this moment) stood in resistance to any one leader who might exhibit authoritarian tendencies or exert tyrannical force, and its progress toward a more perfect union — even through all its stumbles and black-eyes along the way. In short, I fear that with the election of Donald Trump the United States is veering wildly off course, as perhaps it hasn’t done since the days of the Civil War.

          I don’t know if this doom-and-gloom feeling is overstatement or if it’s the accurate diagnosis of a wobbly political system that is close to the point of breakdown. In either case, I wonder: Is there a hope for a divided nation? Do we have anything at all to look forward to in the coming years? If we look to the past (and to literature) to answer those questions, then we might respond, “Yes, but it will be a long, hard road. And that hope might not translate into progress for many years, if not decades.”

          I wanted to end my Inaugural List on a note of hopeful-yet-realistic optimism. As low as things seem, our country has been here before. In fact, today is part of a larger struggle that has always existed in this nation. But it’s a struggle that we are winning, and will continue to win — a bright spark of optimism for when we feel our lowest.

          With these thoughts in mind, I recall a rally I recently attended to protest the policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump, in which a protestor was carrying a sign that read, “AMERICA WAS NEVER GREAT.” I couldn’t disagree more. I understand the intent of the sign: to acknowledge that our nation has always perpetrated atrocities and injustices, even while claiming to be a lamp of liberty and tolerance. But our nation was founded precisely on that struggle to close the gap between our rhetoric of idealism and our reality of injustice. In that struggle lies our greatness.

          It’s a struggle that Steinbeck illuminates and celebrates in his final book, American and Americans, while neither resorting to the tired clichés of patriotic claptrap, nor thrashing away at the easy straw man of overgeneralized sentiments like those expressed on the sign held by my fellow Trump protestor. 

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John Steinbeck and Charley

          Instead, Steinbeck’s collection of essays — the only nonfiction book on my Inaugural List — is a meditation on the American people, character, landscape, history, and future. He offers insight on the paradoxes of our political system, the immigrant experience (and our treatment of immigrants), the myths that construct our shared American identity, the way we project our identity to the rest of world, our connection to (and destruction of) the land, our economic obsession, the pitfalls of our nation, and how we seem to overcome our flaws to continue progressing as a nation. Steinbeck offers an honest, frank, and highly-subjective analysis (which he freely admits on page one), and he does so out of an obvious abundance of love for the nation and its people. 

          Sometimes his essays are illustrated by personal experiences or stories he has heard from other Americans. The hardback edition from 1966 contains striking black-and-white and color photos offering a glimpse of America in the mid-twentieth century that perfectly compliments Steinbeck’s text. Photographs are included from Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, and Alfred Eisenstaedt, among many others. The result is a literary and visual composite of a people in the mid-20th century, at the height of America’s influence in the world after WWII, but also in the midst of some of the nation’s most challenging and chaotic problems, including the Cold War, the atomic age, and the fight for civil rights. Steinbeck’s portrait still holds true fifty years later, and his warnings of a populace numbed by complacency and all-too-riled-up by emotional political rhetoric that panders to base fear and prejudice remains relevant as our nation enters the years of a Trump administration that threatens to take us down an authoritarian route.

          Perhaps we can understand the rise of Trump from Steinbeck’s view of what Americans desire in their politicians: “We want a common candidate but an uncommon office holder.” It’s an impossible contradiction, but one that has somehow worked in the past, which Steinbeck acknowledges. But what happens when that office holder is revealed to be decidedly “common”? Or even worse: dangerous? Again, I turn to Steinbeck to offer some words of hope. The final paragraph of his afterword reassures us that even in the midst of our darkest moments (which Steinbeck does not shy away from illuminating throughout the book) we always manage to progress. These are comforting words for those of us who recognize our nation’s tendency to slip backward on the road of progress, but who have hope that we can once again work together to overcome our basest human flaws to work toward our ideals. The paragraph is worth printing in its entirety:


From our beginning, in hindsight at least, our social direction is clear. We have moved to become one people out of many. At intervals, men or groups, through fear of people or the desire to use them, have tried to change our direction, to arrest our growth, or to stampede the Americans. This will happen again and again. The impulses which for a time enforced the Alien and Sedition laws, which have used fear and illicit emotion to interfere with and put a stop to continuing revolution, will rise again, and they will serve us in the future as they have in the past to clarify and to strengthen our process. We have failed sometimes, taken wrong paths, paused for renewal, filled our bellies and licked our wounds; but we have never slipped back — never.

— John Steinbeck


          I leave these words of hope at the end of my Inaugural List after twenty days of writing about fiction that explores some dark and often depressing subject matter. Moving forward with this blog during the Trump years, I’d like to see Steinbeck’s words as a small but necessary flicker of illumination in a very dark and vast — but not unchartered — path of America’s history. Let us hope that the Ideals of this nation, as expressed by Steinbeck, may ultimately rule the day, guiding us away from Mephisto’s Mother Night and back into the light that burns for “one people out of many.”

THE HARBOR: Socialist Fiction as a Voice for Labor

The Harbor (1915) by Ernest Poole

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          Ernest Poole won the first ever Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1918 for His Family, but it was his novel of three years earlier, The Harbor, that remains his most lasting work. It’s the story of a journalist named Billy (surely based on Poole himself), who grows up in a comfortable middle class house overlooking a harbor that his father runs as a small businessman. However, the harbor soon leaves his father behind as it becomes one huge corporate entity (along with the railroads) financed by Wall Street. Billy is stuck between two worlds, desiring to marry into a wealthy family whose patriarch is one of the engineers of the new industrial center, but strangely drawn into the world of the working class men who toil in the harbor, as represented by his radical college friend, Joe. We witness Billy grow up and come into his own as a writer while slowly beginning to understand the wage slave exploitation of the stokers and dockers who power international trade in the harbor but see none of the profits.

Poole’s novel is honest, balanced, and straight-forward in its portrayal. The rich owners and their Wall Street backers, represented by the engineer Dillion, are not evil monsters. In fact, they think their work is actually helping the nation to grow (which it is, but at the expense of its poorest workers). The middle class, including Billy’s father, are not out-of-touch or unsympathetic characters. They work hard, but have faith in the system. Billy’s father doesn’t agree with the strike, and he even looks down on the labor leaders, but he is not a character “type” who exists merely as antagonistic counterpoint to the strikers. He supports Billy’s writing and is hopeful for the future. Likewise, the labor leaders are not painted as saints or heroes. They are regular men who have family problems and health issues. Their ideals carry them through their work, but they understand that the fight will go on long after they are gone, even if they do believe that the revolution is near. We are shown the harsh lives of the stokers, but never in an emotionally manipulative way. Poole doesn’t exaggerate, nor does he hold back. We are witness to the workers bickering among themselves, and also their struggle to put aside their own personal prejudices.

In the midst of this, Billy acts as a type of connective surrogate. He reports on the events for both sides — first for the industrialists, then for the strikers. He remains on friendly terms with both, even as he begins to side with the strikers. He believes in the revolution, but understands that it will not happen as soon or as quickly as Joe believes. He also understands that the best way to get out the message is not to work outside the system, but to work from within, trying to get his articles published in mainstream papers.


Was the defeat of this one strike the end?

The grim battleships answered, ‘Yes, it is the end.’

But the restless harbor answered, ‘No.’

What change was coming in my life? I did not know. Of one thing only I was sure. The last of my gods, Efficiency, whose feet had stood firm on mechanical laws and in whose head were all the brains of all the big men at the top, had now come tottering crashing down. And in its place a huge new god, whose feet stood deep in poverty and in whose head were all the dreams of all the toilers of the earth, had called to me with one deep voice, with one tremendous burning passion for the freedom of mankind.

–Ernest Poole


One hundred years after the novel was written, some progress has been made, but we are still dealing with the same issues presented in the novel. Workers who drive their industries make barely enough to survive. They work long hours will little overtime pay (and, if some in the Trump administration get their way, none at all). Wall Street still reaps the profits while the average worker goes home with not enough enough money to pay rent. Conservatives with ties to big business continue to dismantle labor unions and work to protect the interests of the 1%.
The question we must ask ourselves: where are the strikes? Where are the national movements of workers demanding their rights? Occasionally, we will see strikes for a 15-dollar minimum wage or equal pay for women (a point that Poole makes in his novel, as the suffragists are an important inspiration for Billy to join the socialist movement). And, of course, we have seen the Occupy Wall Street movement. But with all the power that social media gives us in organizing, we haven’t made all that much progress in those marches translating to legislation, especially considering the work done on that front in the Progressive Era. The march forward continues, but at a pace that seems far slower than it was one-hundred years ago.

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Ernest Poole

Another question we must ask: where are the socialist literary voices helping to carry the banner in the 21st century? Where are our Ernest Pooles, Upton Sinclairs, Ida Tarbells, Carl Sandburgs, and Emma Goldmans? And if they do exist, do they have any mass appeal? Does anyone read their work, outside the halls of the academy or urban intellectual circles?

In an era when the gap between rich and poor is greater than it has even been — when the new Trump cabinet will have more wealthy businessmen than even Harding’s administration — Poole’s novel challenges us to question how we will respond, and whether or not fiction can still be a powerful force in the struggle.