Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Letter to John Steinbeck

I began the month of August visiting the Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, California. So it seems fitting to end it with a passage from  a letter Steinbeck wrote to Adlai Stevenson in 1959:


Do you remember the two kinds of Christmases? There is one kind of house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence…Then there is the other kind of Christmas with presents piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says, “Is that all?”


Well, it seems to me that America now is like that second kind of Christmas. Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick…”


Mainly, I am troubled by the cynical immorality of my country. I do not think it can survive on this basis and unless some kind of catastrophe strikes us, we are lost. But by our very attitudes we are drawing catastrophe to ourselves.…


Someone has to reinspect our system and that soon. We can’t expect to raise our children to be good and honorable when the city, the state, the government, the corporations all offer higher rewards for chicanery and deceit than probity and truth. On all levels it is rigged. Maybe nothing can be done about it, but I am stupid enough and naively hopeful enough to want to try. How about you?


Well, Mr. Steinbeck, here we are 62 years later, still miserable, greedy and sicker than ever before. Catastrophe rained down on us and we are drenched by our stupid refusal to open an umbrella. Cynical immorality is the foundation of our national discourse, truth is on a ventilator and honor is an endangered species. Yet perhaps more of us than ever before are hopeful enough to try to do something about it. The kids are returning to school and I call upon all my teacher colleagues to get to the real work of teaching them what they need to know and what they need to figure out what they don’t yet know. Train them to respect the system, throw out what doesn't work and feed everything in themselves and each other that leans towards kindness, community and beauty.


May it be so.

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