Years ago, as I was doing research for a paper on John Steinbeck, I came upon a fascinating exchange of letters in 1940 between the author and the director of a group called Friends of Democracy. The correspondence came in the wake of the 1939 publication of “The Grapes of Wrath.”
The director of Friends of Democracy, L. M. Birkhead, wrote the following to Steinbeck: “I hope that you will not think I am impertinent, but our organization has had put up to it the problem of your nationality. You may consider that it is none of our business, nor the business of anyone else in the country. However, there is a very widespread propaganda, particularly among the extreme reactionary religionists of the country, that you are Jewish and that ‘Grapes of Wrath’ is Jewish propaganda. I wonder if you have any sort of a statement that you could send me which would clarify this issue.”
It turns out that Steinbeck had received many such letters, but it seems that Birkhead’s is the only one he honored with a response.
Steinbeck begins his letter by saying: “I am answering your letter with a good deal of sadness. I am sad for a time when one must know a man’s race before his work can be approved or disapproved. It does not seem important to me whether I am Jewish or not, and I know that a statement of mine is useless if an interested critic wishes to ride a preconceived thesis. I cannot see how ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ can be Jewish propaganda, but then I have heard it called communist propaganda also.”
Steinbeck’s next two lines powerfully shine forth with their utter menschlichkeit: “It happens that I am not Jewish and have no Jewish blood, but it only happens that way. I find that I do not experience any pride that it is so.”
Steinbeck goes on to provide his genealogy, explaining how he is a descendant of Irish, New England and German forbears. The family name, he says, was Grosssteinbeck, “But the three s’s in a row were an outrage to America so my grandfather dropped the first syllable in the interest of spelling.”
After providing his ancestry, Steinbeck writes: “Anyway, there it is. Use it or don’t use it, print it or not. Those who wish for one reason or another to believe me Jewish will go on believing it, while men of good will and good intelligence won’t care one way or another.”
Steinbeck ends by saying: “I can prove these things, of course—but when I shall have to—the American democracy will have disappeared.”
There is a wondrous humanity displayed in this correspondence by John Steinbeck.
And when one thinks about the xenophobic and isolationist currents in America at the time (influential enough to prevent America from entering the war then raging in Europe), and when one notes that antisemitism was then not just relegated to fringe elements of American society (as indicated by the popularity of Father Coughlin’s radio broadcasts), then one is truly astonished by Steinbeck’s remarks.
Steinbeck could have just answered Birkhead as to the question of his Jewishness. But Steinbeck takes pains to remark on the affront to American democracy that such a question betrays.
I get from Steinbeck a kind of faith in America, a faith that says that by its very definition America is a home for all peoples. As we approach Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 8, John Steinbeck teaches us that all Americans have a stake in remembering what happened in the Holocaust and in fighting prejudice, racism, hate and antisemitism wherever and whenever they occur.
Rest in peace, John Steinbeck.
Teddy Weinberger is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.