Faith in the Wasteland

John Steinbeck and the American Faith Tradition in the Great Depression & World War II

Farm machinery destroyed by a dust storm common in the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression era. These would likely be familiar to Californians like Steinbeck (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)

I REMEMBER a time sitting in a cold room with friends gathered around me, reading about “the glory.” We made black bean quesadillas later that night for dinner because we were living simply during our time together. The room was cold because it was a bitter NYC January, but we all had warm clothes and were thankful for that. We had each other to lean on and confide in hopes and dreams and etc, and it made it so we were very quiet so to listen to one another with fierce intent.

We were very quiet in that cold room because we were trying to listen to Steinbeck’s call to glory, a call to a greater purpose in our lives that would consume everything we did once we found it. Some of us had found the glory, and some of us were still looking, and some of us struggled to see it present in our lives.

But we knew it was coming, and that’s why we sat and listened in a cold room in our small community.

“The glory” is taken from direct recitation of a passage from East of Eden by John Steinbeck, one of the greatest American authors to ever live. I really do not think I’m exaggerating in describing him as such, given that he combines American literarians’ Hemingway-inclined-grammar-aesthetic with subject matter that is not time-locked and is always relevant.

Steinbeck, putting aside the purity, originality and general ‘American-ness’ of his stories, is a great author. But Steinbeck is unmistakably an American author [it’s why I am astounded that he managed to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, given the board’s general disdain of American literature — he was a compromise in a year where the judges hated all the nominees according to historical documents].

Everything I have read by Steinbeck relies alot on the idea of what America represents. Which is why I think that he continues to be very popular both academically and commercially.

It’s similar to how Haruki Murakami is very popular Stateside for his extensive use of American iconography. Our culture is recognizable to the world, but American audiences appreciate it in a way that other parts of the world may not, or at least that’s how I understand it.

But American literature is also informed by a deep struggle with our cultural identity in a sort of an “American faith” tradition. One of the largest religions in the western United States, Mormonism, takes this conceit literally by making America itself the site of the Garden of Eden.

My argument on what informs American literature, and pretty much all American culture, is primarily type of faith tradition. And the American faith is something that Steinbeck embraces wholeheartedly, even if his bleak works may not convey that in a first reading. We don’t find answers to all of our problems, but we find peace.

This faith tradition idea goes back to the foundation of the country, but eventually we will see it loop back to Steinbeck and how the two intersect.

America was founded as the “shining beacon on a hill,” or in the words of Jesus himself: “A City Upon a Hill.” The exact quotation is from the Parable of Salt and Light:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” — Matthew 5:13–16

It cannot be understated that this might be one of the most important Biblical verses to understand both American theology and how American culture has evolved to what it is today.

It also going a long way in explaining certain spheres of political thought, because the phrase is inextricable from American exceptionalism — the political ideology that the United States of America is inherently different from other nations, that the U.S. has a responsibility to change the world, and that the U.S. has a certain place of superiority among other nations.

American exceptionalism can be easily traced to Puritan thought and ideology (they were an apocalyptic sort). The idea of exceptionalism also has roots with Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America — probably the foundational work of American political science.

But the phrase “City on a Hill” was commodified specifically for the American Puritans by preacher John Winthrop. I consider this speech as the first American political speech, in that it sets a goal for the future American Puritans (though in a far more admonishing tone), and that the general syntactical construction (making three points for dramatic overstatement, asking a lot of rhetorical questions of the audience) and phraseology of the speech would later be used by a number of notable modern American presidents.

Most notably, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama have all used the phrase “city on a hill.” Reagan’s usage of it also precluded the conservative right and the modern Republican Party adopting many of the tenets and ideas of American exceptionalism as a part of a their platform in election and candidate speeches, along with the goals of laws drafted by the GOP.

In this speech (later titled “A Model of Christian Charity”) given on the ship Arbella as it was en route to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop described the ideal that their new society in New England should strive for and accomplish. He admonished the congregation that they destined are to form this perfect Christian community in the New World, otherwise “we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”

For Winthrop, there was no room for failure in the creation of this new country. If it was ever unclear why American society is so high stress and fast paced, it is because Winthrop and his Puritanical ideologies are a foundational element of American society. This ideology informs our society even today, even though we are nearly 400 years away John Winthrop and the Puritans.

So what happens when there is failure in the The City on The Hill?

The Great Depression is another event we feel the pangs of today, even though we seem very far away from its beginning in 1929, and ending in our country’s descent into the Second World War.

A little history first, The Great Depression famously began with The Wall Street Crash of 1929 or Black Tuesday. This was when the Depression began in America, but a large crash in the London Stock Exchange in September 1929 did telegraph a market collapse, economic historians will note.

In fact, economic historians and economists can debate for quite a bit on what caused the Crash of 1929. Part of the reason I regret not minoring or even studying economics in college is because there are so many differing opinions in American economic thought on what caused the market to crash, not to mention the various fringe and revolutionary theorems proposed by European thinkers about American economics.

In any case, whatever happened happened, and the United States entered about a decade of despair. The poor economic situation was exacerbated by the Dust Bowl conditions (pictured above) that frequently destroyed crops in the Midwest and Western America.

This was the historical context for John Steinbeck’s publishing career.

John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. was born in 1902 in the Salinas Valley area of California. He studied English literature at Stanford before leaving without a degree. He then was in New York City for a little while before moving back to California where he wrote a series of novels set in the Salinas Valley — as it would turn out, these would be among his most famous works, including the novella/play Of Mice & Men and the epic The Grapes of Wrath.

After a significant writing career in the 30’s (he published around one book every year) he later served as a war correspondent for a NYC newspaper during World War II [his dispatches were later collected into Once There Was a War, which I think is fairly under appreciated] before publishing a number of other works, including Cannery Row and his magnum opus East of Eden.

In all, Steinbeck had a very prosperous and long writing career, publishing 26 works of fiction and nonfiction in his lifetime. This easily dwarfs the other foundational members of the American literary “canon”, as F. Scott Fitzgerald only finished four novels and Ernest Hemingway only published around 10–15 books, many of them collections of previous works.

I say “canon,” because I do realize it’s extremely unfair to the many other American authors who have had wildly different experiences than these three fairly well-off white men, but it’s also understanding that there are hundreds of American novelists who should be recognized on their own terms. But these three authors are extremely prolific in literary education right now, and will most likely continue to be just as prolific. It’s a lot like we’re only just appreciating and critically examining Shakespeare’s contemporaries like John Ford and Christopher Marlowe in the 2010s, even though some of them wrote better quality, albeit fewer plays than The Bard himself.

But measuring the marigolds is a really unfair way of judging novelists and authors, given that many novelists can make a huge impact even if they’ve only published one book, and those with dozens of published works only have an increased risk of publishing bad lit.

I’m noting that because a number of Steinbeck’s books are okay, critically speaking. They aren’t bad or poor quality, and I generally enjoy Steinbeck’s style and his good sense of humor in his more lighthearted works — literary critics are generally more harsh toward works with comedic tones [in my view anyways, no literary critic seems to have a good sense of humor]. It’s just that most of Steinbeck’s works are not as interesting as the five or six really good books he published (the critical consensus nowadays is that at least two, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, are masterpieces). In that way, he’s on par with the average quality and output of most American novelists.

That’s all you need to really know about Steinbeck biographically I think, but I left out the part that is essential for his work — explaining the moralistic struggle of America, and our deep uncomfortability with failure and poverty.

When we talk about The American Dream, what we’re really saying is bad things cannot happen in America if you try to be a good person.

We know it’s an intrinsically false statement from whenever we experience a national or personal tragedy for the first time, and we usually experience and internalize those things before we even turn 10. We also know that failure is always a possibility even if we try our hardest and learn as much as we can.

Collectively, America experiences and relearns that feeling everytime there is a war or a depression or a bad ‘black swan’ event where we just couldn’t see a bad thing coming. It’s part of the reason that apocalyptic fiction or conspiracy theorizing is really popular to certain audiences when they are nervous or worried about things being terrible. It’s like chocolate tasting better when you’re crying your eyes out.

That’s why Steinbeck is still an effective read, because his books function as a critique of American exceptionalism — which really informs our societal attitudes whether we like it or not.

Critiquing exceptionalism is always effective because while we simultaneously hold out hope and try to believe that America is a special and better place, and The American Dream is and has been alive and well; we know that it isn’t true because there is still economic inequality, violence, and generally bad things that happen every single day in America. We personally believe we’re ‘above it all’ until we realize that we really aren’t.

But the world doesn’t end.

The country doesn’t come to a halt.

We keep marching in unison or on our own paths. It’s how life goes.

And it’s the message of all of Steinbeck, which is why I believe he’s worth reading even if you’ve all read everything you “need to know.” Because in all of his books, there’s a passage about things going wrong when they shouldn’t go wrong. And the book never ends there.

In fact, most of Steinbeck’s books don’t ‘end’ in a sense. Which helps make him such a uniquely American writer.

There is a finiteness in ending, a finality. I know it’s reductive, but it’s worth saying. That is why there are so many works of American literature that end in uncertainty (waiting for someone to arrive, staring off into the distance after an act of brutality, or even a cut to black after the death of a character with the question of what comes out of the darkness after). We don’t like things ending cleanly. We’re okay with stories stopping.

A stop means a book has run out of pages, but there is still something beyond. It’s not ours to see, but there’s comfort in knowing that the life goes on after the story.

And truly great American writers don’t try to encapsulate a life in a book of 300–800 pages. They capture a story. Stories are more fleeting than life and just as beautiful. They can be long and short, from a sentence to a 12 volume epic. But a story isn’t a life in whole. It’s a summation of it, something we can internalize and look back on after the story is over, a religious text for our lives.

The “American Faith” is an ongoing process. There are great highs and lows in every American life, and there are events that seem like an end to one story. Perhaps they are sometimes, but life goes on after these great and terrible events — past, present and future. We find comfort in keeping an ideal, that we live in an inherently different nation. We struggle to reconcile it with the bad in our lives, and sometimes we fail to do so. But we must persevere anyways, and we find some sort of meaning in that. Trying to do good and be better despite the pains and despair in life.

Steinbeck conveyed this pain by making all of his characters experience poverty. They all had grand ambition set aside by the struggle of day-to-day survival. Some were destroyed, some were lost in ambition, but a few moved on — changed or haunted by the past, but wiser or calmer about the future. Eventually, these characters would find a quiet peace, which would be a fine thing indeed.

I talked about “the glory” earlier in this essay. I do not believe I personally have found it yet, or perhaps I have not recognized it in my life. But I know finding it may not mean total happiness, but it will mean peace of a sort.

Literature and the writing of it, is a strive towards “the glory,” it is about that strive for a peace by finding meaning in stories, and sharing them to help up the others among us. That should probably be the goal of it at least, the goal to help and lift up others.

We’ll always fail often and frequently, but one day there will be that “one fine morning” as Fitzgerald writes in the end of The Great Gatsby. We find that meaning in a story and we have a certainty about us that wasn’t there before.

And then “the glory” is in our lives from that point on. And we have the responsibility to use that knowledge, that glory, to help find the quiet peace for others. It’s why literature provides so many answers. That’s the glory of it.

“ [The glory’s] beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then -the glory- so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. … It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men. ” — East of Eden, John Steinbeck