Monetary Policy: Some Fairly-Recent Should- and Must-Reads
Tony Judt (2009): What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?: Weekend Reading

John Steinbeck: America and Americans: Weekend Reading

Il Quarto Stato

Weekend Reading: John Steinbeck: America and Americans: "SURE I remember the Nineteen Thirties, the terrible, troubled, triumphant, surging Thirties. I can’t think of any decade in history when so much happened in so many directions. Violent changes took place. Our country was modeled, our lives remolded, our Government rebuilt, forced to functions, duties and responsibilities it never had before and can never relinquish...

...The most rabid, hysterical Roosevelt-hater would not dare to suggest removing the reforms, the safeguards and the new concept that the Government is responsible for all its citizens.

Looking back, the decade seems to have been as carefully designed as a play. It had beginning, middle and end, even a prologue—1929 gave contrast and tragic stature to the ensuing ten years. I remember ’29 very well. We had it made (I didn’t but most people did). I remember the drugged and happy faces of people who built paper fortunes on stocks they couldn’t possibly have paid for. “I made ten grand in ten minutes today. Let’s see—that’s eighty thousand for the week.” In our little town bank presidents and track workers rushed to pay phones to call brokers. Everyone was a broker, more or less. At lunch hour, store clerks and stenographers munched sandwiches while they watched the stock boards and calculated their pyramiding fortunes. Their eyes had the look you see around the roulette table.

I saw it sharply because I was on the outside, writing books no one would buy. I didn’t have even the margin to start my fortune. I saw the wild spending, the champagne and caviar through windows, smelled the heady perfumes on fur-draped ladies when they came warm and shining out of the theaters. Then the bottom dropped out, and I could see that clearly too because I had been practicing for the Depression a long time.

I wasn’t involved with loss. I remember how the Big Boys, the men in the know, were interviewed and re-interviewed. Some of them bought space to reassure the crumbling millionaires: “It’s just a natural setback.” “Don’t be afraid—buy—keep buying.” Meanwhile the Big Boys sold and the market fell on its face. Then came panic, and panic changed to dull shock. When the market fell, the factories, mines, and steelworks closed and then no one could buy anything, not even food. People walked about looking as if they’d been slugged. The papers told of ruined men jumping from buildings. When they landed on the pavement, they were really ruined.

The uncle of one of my friends was a very rich millionaire. From seven millions he dropped to two millions in a few weeks, but two millions cash. He complained that he didn’t know how he was going to eat, cut himself down to one egg for breakfast. His cheeks grew gaunt and his eyes feverish. Finally he shot himself. He figured he would starve to death on two millions. That’s how values were....

In the Thirties when Hitler was successful, when Mussolini made the trains run on time, a spate of would-be Czars began to arise. Gerald L. K. Smith, Father Coughlin, Huey Long, Townsend—each one with plans to use unrest and confusion and hatred as the material for personal power. The Klan became powerful, in numbers at least. In Pacific Grove, KKK was painted in huge letters on the streets and several times a small red card was slipped under my door which read, “We are watching you,” signed “KKK.”

The Communists were active, forming united fronts with everyone. We had great shouting arguments about that. They were pretty clever. If you favored justice, or the abolition of poverty, or equality or even mother love, you were automatically in a united front with the Communists. There were also Lovestoneites and Trotskyists. I never could get them straight in my mind except that the Stalinists were in power in Russia and the others were out.

Anyway, they didn’t like each other.

The Stalinists went about with little smiles of secret knowledge and gave the impression that they had sources of information not available to ordinary people. It was only later that I realized this was not so. We were all united in a dislike for dictators (Stalin was not a dictator if you were properly educated in dialectics).

When the stunning news of the Hitler-Stalin pact was printed, I came on one of my Communist friends in the street. He began shouting before I got near him: “Don’t ask me. I don’t know, God damn it. They didn’t tell us.” As it turned out, the Kremlin didn’t tell the American Communists anything. Someone told me later they didn’t trust them.

Except for the field organizers of strikes, who were pretty tough monkeys and devoted, most of the so-called Communists I met were middle-class, middle-aged people playing a game of dreams. I remember a woman in easy circumstances saying to another even more affluent: “After the revolution even we will have more, won’t we, dear?” Then there was another lover of proletarians who used to raise hell with Sunday picnickers on her property.

I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist. Maybe the Communists so closely questioned by investigation committees were a danger to America, but the ones I knew—at least they claimed to be Communists—couldn’t have disrupted a Sunday-school picnic. Besides they were too busy fighting among themselves...

From the first we have treated our minorities abominably, the way the old boys do the new kids in school. All that was required to release this mechanism of oppression and sadism was that the newcomers be meek, poor, weak in numbers, and unprotected—although it helped if their skin, hair, eyes were different and if they spoke some language other than English or worshiped in some church other than Protestant.

The Pilgrim Fathers took out after the Catholics, and both clobbered the Jews. The Irish had their turn running the gantlet, and after them the Germans, the Poles, the Slovaks, the Italians, the Hindus, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Filipinos, the Mexicans. To all these people we gave disparaging names: Micks, Sheenies, Krauts, Dagos, Wops, Rag-heads, Yellowbellies, and so forth. The turn against each group continued until it became sound, solvent, self-defensive, and economically anonymous—whereupon each group joined the older boys and charged down on the newest ones.

It occurs to me that this very cruelty toward newcomers might go far to explain the speed with which the ethnic and national strangers merged with the “Americans.” Having suffered, one would have thought they might have pity on the newer come, but they did not; they couldn’t wait to join the majority and indulge in the accepted upper-caste practice of rumbling some newer group...

The result is that we seem to be in a state of turmoil all the time, both physically and mentally. We are able to believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and at the same time we are deeply convinced that it is the best government in the world, and we would like to impose it upon everyone else. We speak of the American Way of Life as though it involved the ground rules for the governance of heaven.

A man hungry and unemployed through his own stupidity and that of others, a man beaten by a brutal policeman, a woman forced into prostitution by her own laziness, high prices, availability, and despair—all bow with reverence toward the American Way of Life, although each one would look puzzled and angry if he were asked to define it. We scramble and scrabble up the stony path toward the pot of gold we have taken to mean security. We trample friends, relatives, and strangers who get in the way of our achieving it; and once we get it we shower it on psychoanalysts to try to find out why we are unhappy, and finally—if we have enough of the gold—we contribute it back to the nation in the form of foundations and charities...

Some years ago, a very intelligent Negro man worked for me in New York. One afternoon through the window I saw this man coming home from the store. As he rounded the corner, a drunk, fat white woman came barreling out of a saloon, slipped on the icy pavement, and fell. Instantly, the man turned at right angles and crossed the street, keeping as far away from the woman as he could. When he came into the house I said, “I saw that. Why did you do it?”

“Oh, that. Well, I guess I thought if I went to help her she was so drunk and mad she might start yelling ‘rape.’”

“That was a pretty quick reaction,” I said.

“Maybe,” he said; “but I’ve been practicing to be a Negro for a long time”...

MEMBERS OF a classless society must work out changes in status levels without violating their belief that there are no such levels. In an aristocracy this problem is solved and the changes are in effect rather than in name. In America, and perhaps in Russia, the reverse is true. In name we are classless, while in practice the class structure is subtle, ever-changing...

While our rich men were growing richer and we were all living high on the hog in the nineteenth century—all equal, all common, democratic, mostly Protestant, materialistic and down-to-earth—there must have been a profound yearning for the flamboyance, the trappings, the ritual, the fancy titles and postures and litanies we had denied and cast out. There was, and we did something about it. We created unofficial orders, kingdoms, robes, and regalia and complicated forms of procedure and secret recognitions among the elect. The meeting hall over the fire-house in the grubby little town would be transformed—one night into Solomon’s temple, the next to a select and benign witches’ coven, the next to the chapel of an order of knighthood complete with regalia, shining swords, and ostrich feathers. For one night a week we became noble.

I remember well seeing Louis Schneider, the good butcher of Salinas—a round and red-faced man, in a bloody apron most of the time—wearing a golden crown, an imitation ermine robe, holding the symbols of power in his hands and speaking ritual phrases I am sure he didn’t understand and would have laughed at if he had. His box-toed shoes peeped from under the gold and purple of his robe, but nothing could change his yellow waterfall mustache or his wrinkled and much-reddened neck. It was glorious. At every parade the noble knights marched, a little shy and very unmilitary, but with their plumes fluttering and silver-plated swords reflecting the light...