Why I Love Steinbeck
For as long as I’ve been reading his work, John Steinbeck has spoken to me as a student, a teacher, a Democrat, a union member, and as a person concerned with the human condition. I list him as a primary influence as a writer. I’ve long said that The Grapes of Wrath is the greatest work of literature ever committed to print. He was a champion of the downtrodden and disenfranchised; the marginalized and minimalized. He was accused of sensationalism by those who didn’t understand that he brought social realism into his writing. Because of all this, and of his ability to blur the fiction and nonfiction with works as stunning as GOW, I’ve said that if I could be any writer ever, I would be him.
Because I had somehow forgotten some of this, or more likely not thought about it for a while, I was pleasantly reminded last week of why I love Steinbeck so much.
When I opened up The Writer’s Almanac last Friday, I found a piece about May 6 being the anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt establishing the Works Progress Administration . The far-reaching attempt to stimulate employment and the economy in the midst of the Great Depression was aimed at the poor and working-class populations, and it required a near-infinitesimal amount of manual labor. The Writer’s Almanac excerpt went on to say:
It wasn’t always the most efficient operation, however, and its critics gave it nicknames like “We Poke Along,” “We Play Around,” “We Piddle Around,” and “Working Piss Ants.” WPA employees were derided as “shovel-leaners,” an accusation John Steinbeck addressed in his essay “A Primer on the ‘30s”: “It was the fixation of businessmen that the WPA did nothing but lean on shovels. I had an uncle who was particularly irritated at shovel-leaning. When he pooh-poohed my contention that shovel-leaning was necessary, I bet him five dollars, which I didn’t have, that he couldn’t shovel sand for fifteen timed minutes without stopping. He said a man should give a good day’s work and grabbed a shovel. At the end of three minutes his face was red, at six he was staggering and before eight minutes were up his wife stopped him to save him from apoplexy. And he never mentioned shovel-leaning again.”
Steinbeck had it right: If you come on down and find out what it’s like, you might whistle a different tune.
It’s saddens me to consider how 76 years later there are so many businessmen so misinformed about the true nature of Labor and what it means to be a bluecollar worker. Too many remain voluntarily misinformed. Too many still are bent on busting the unions that are the lifeblood of the middle class, claiming the unions strong-arm the public sector; they generate lazy, entitled workers who drag down political progress and choke government funds dry. It seems they’d rather have the extremes: the poor and the rich, with the latter grinding the bones of the former in their industrial processes as they push for political power.
I’d wonder if Scott Walker is listening, but I already know that you can’t make a man hear who wants to be deaf.