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Winters of Discontent

On John Steinbeck’s bleak America

At one point in John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, a street philosopher called Doc, who is described as “half Christ and half satyr,” makes a pointed observation:

It has always seemed strange to me. The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding, and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.

Steinbeck was a writer who, according to the title of a new biography by William Souder, was Mad at the World. But was that all there is to it? Steinbeck doesn’t strike me as so much “mad at the world” as he was outraged at how the strong tended to bully the weak, and the brutally indifferent way that the most vulnerable in society were treated. This power conflict is certainly a part of the world, but it’s not all the world has to offer. Steinbeck also knew that anguish, like anger, has its uses—for one thing, it means you’re still paying attention. That line from Cannery Row, like the best of Steinbeck’s work, resonates all these years later, telling us a lot about the way we live now.

I worked my way through Souder’s biography but, in the end, decided my time would be better spent revisiting the fruits of Steinbeck’s own labors, which get less examination in the biography than they should. Some of Steinbeck’s lesser-known works, such as The Moon Is Down and The Winter of Our Discontent, are vital today—if you happen to be thinking about the meaning of anti-fascism, our ever-more bifurcated society, and the slow economic and moral demise of the middle class.

Steinbeck knew that anguish, like anger, has its uses—for one thing, it means you’re still paying attention.

Souder’s Mad at the World recounts the events of Steinbeck’s life, but we don’t get much of a sense of his inner life, or of his deeper motivations. Nor is the biographer interested in giving a close reading of the novels that Steinbeck left us. This is an unfortunate omission because with Steinbeck, everything was about the work. He was repulsed at the idea of becoming a celebrity and doubted his writing ability even when he consistently wrote acclaimed classics that sold more than most writers dare to dream. It’s good to see that he came by his political convictions honestly—he didn’t need to change much to understand how the other half lived. Steinbeck spent plenty of time doing hard physical labor, even helping to build an early iteration of Madison Square Garden during an early and unsatisfying stint in New York City. He was able to write The Grapes of Wrath because he wasn’t above talking to drifters and migrant workers from the Dust Bowl who were huddled in makeshift refugee camps—camps that might seem eerily similar to the holding pens for today’s rounded-up immigrants.

The Moon Is Down was Steinbeck’s contribution to the war against the Nazis. Published in 1942, the novella was intended to be used as a morale booster for the Allied troops and the citizens of the occupied countries across Europe. It was popular with American and European readers; many people risked a lot to copy and distribute it under the nose of fascist occupiers. According to its jacket, anyone caught with The Moon Is Down in Mussolini’s Italy could be punished by death. Even though its author was writing from across the world, a Norwegian critic hailed the book as “the epic of the Norwegian underground.” When he was asked at a 1946 prize ceremony in Norway how he was able to understand the resistance so well, Steinbeck responded by saying, “I put myself in your place and thought what I would do.”

The plot is simple: a foreign army occupies a small snowy town on the edge of the sea that has the material benefit of a coal mine. After several people are shot point blank, the townspeople become increasingly resentful as the occupation works them to death, and any hint of dissension is met with overwhelming force. The occupying soldiers are intended to be representations of the Nazis, complete with officially sanctioned sadism and references to a distant, despotic Leader and a Quisling-like turncoat.

It’s clear that the occupation is an evil thing, but even the occupiers are given human attributes. Once they begin to feel the tedium and the pointlessness of their jobs and comprehend how little the locals are willing to cooperate, they pine for home and get restless and start to go mad from the strain. One jittery soldier exclaims that “the flies have conquered the flypaper,” and the phrase soon becomes a motto of the resistance. The novel emphasizes how finding small but vital ways of keeping one’s defiant spirit alive in dark times is crucial to surviving oppression, which is part of why Steinbeck intended the book to be a “kind of celebration of the durability of democracy.”

Free people have consciously started plenty of conflicts, and some people will evidently follow their leader to the bitter end even if the game is pretty much over.

The occupiers are oblivious about how they are perceived. A few of the soldiers can’t understand why the locals aren’t more grateful for bringing order and stability, even wondering why they haven’t been offered the flowers they were told they’d receive as liberators. It’s a lesson that America, like many world powers, has apparently needed to keep learning over and over again. One soldier sincerely tries to woo a local woman with some romantic poetry and fails miserably. Some contemporary critics disagreed with the gesture of humanizing enemy forces, understandable given the historical context, but Steinbeck consciously avoided using the usual caricatures and stereotypes that tend to come with propaganda. To humanize evil like that is to take away some of its power, which is often rooted in pretending to be beyond mere humanity.

Steinbeck demonstrates how relatively small but effective sacrifices can put some steel in the resolve of occupied people. When the town’s mayor decides that his death will be worthwhile if it inspires his fellow locals to stand up for themselves, he isn’t grandiose about it: “I am a little man and this is a little town, but there must be a spark in little men that can burst into flame. I am afraid, I am terribly afraid, and I thought of all the things I might do to save my own life, and then that went away, and sometimes now I feel a kind of exultation, as though I were bigger and better than I am.” He is reminded of the time when he learned Socrates’s famous Apology in school. Though he fumbles some lines, what’s most important is that he remembers a key one: “if you think that by killing men you can prevent someone from censuring your evil lives, you are mistaken.”

 This belief in ultimate justice connects to a larger point about the relationship between occupiers and occupied. “The people don’t like to be conquered, sir,” the mayor later says, “and so they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.” One could argue that this conclusion is simplistic or overstating the case. Free people have consciously started plenty of conflicts, and some people will evidently follow their leader to the bitter end even if the game is pretty much over. But for anyone mimeographing this contraband in the basement of a building occupied by fascists, as one resourceful dissident in Denmark did, it won’t do to split philosophical hairs. When it comes to being antifascist, maybe keeping the faith is plenty.

The Winter of Our Discontent was Steinbeck’s last novel, published in 1961, and follows the moral breakdown of a middle-class man in the face of financial and emotional instability. Ethan Allan Hawley, descended from Puritan stock, clerks at a grocery store in a small fictional town in Long Island. Once upon a time, the Hawleys used to own a large part of the town, but his father’s wealth evaporated in the stock market crash and forced him to sell off almost everything he owned. Now all that remains is their ancestral house, the social currency that comes from being from “a good family,” and the simmering angst of barely getting by in blithely opportunistic America.

Ethan’s not a bad guy, or at least he doesn’t think so. He’s affable, a Harvard grad and a veteran, and he gives amusing little sermons to his stocked shelves every morning. Yet lurking underneath is the nagging defensiveness that comes from losing the ability to direct your own future. He uncharacteristically snaps when his boss, a Sicilian immigrant named Marullo, affably calls him “kid” and bristles as he pontificates about what it really takes to make a buck in America. The fact that the store Ethan works in is owned by an immigrant “wop,” as he refers to him, adds a racial edge to Ethan’s quietly gnawing insecurity. It’s a midcentury version of the anti-immigrant xenophobia we often hear today.

The bankers next door attempt to use this racial anxiety as bait as well as appealing to Ethan’s more auspicious family background to cajole him into putting the last of his wife’s inheritance into their hands, since after all “money makes money.” “There are opportunities our ancestors never dreamed of. And they’re being picked up by foreigners,” they tell him. “Foreigners are taking us over. Wake up, Ethan.” But Ethan won’t budge. His sense of integrity (he’s never skimmed off the top once in all these years and buys his family’s groceries wholesale from the store) is enough to get him through. Almost. The pressure intensifies when his kids start pestering him about why they aren’t rich, and Ethan knows that his current situation won’t provide them with any answers. When he starts to chafe at the fact that he’s going to be stuck where he is for the foreseeable future, as well as the embarrassment and self-hatred that comes with that lack of agency, Ethan’s rectitude begins to fail him. For the first time in his life, he seriously considers taking desperate measures.

So much of what we are dealing with in today’s America can be traced to the kind of anxieties that plague Ethan’s otherwise sunny disposition. He is a smart, capable, decent fellow whose world is slowly closing in on him by the steady encroachment of the market, which he can’t control by simply following the rules. Ethan is incapable of living up to the somewhat idealized nobility of his ancestors, and Steinbeck lets us see how the economic infrastructure in the town subtly but firmly excludes him. Ethan feels responsible for his choices, which is part of what torments him, yet those choices are made within an increasingly diminishing range of options. Ethan’s desperation and economic insecurity eventually lead him to drop a dime on Marullo. He uses the Sullivan Act, which was historically a way of targeting Italian-American immigrants through criminalizing the carrying of guns.

Everyone around him is on the take. They don’t even necessarily see anything wrong with it. When Ethan’s teenage son enters a national “I Love America” essay contest, he’s not bothered at all by the fact that he plagiarized his prizewinning entry from the anthologies of grand old speeches in the dusty books up in the family’s attic. He shrugs it off with “that’s the way the cookie crumbles.” If anything, he’s more intrigued by the opportunity for self-promotion: maybe he can score some national TV spots if he styles his hair the right way. His son scoffs at the idea of working in the store, which wounds poor Ethan’s already fragile pride. (These days, his son would probably dream of being a social media influencer or have his own YouTube channel.) When the corporate sponsor of the contest finds out about the pretty obvious fraud, they decide to cover it up rather than risk losing face in the public. In the mid century, when TV was becoming a larger cultural force, plenty of intellectuals worried that the idiot box was going to change everything. Images were replacing words, and appearance was becoming reality, which takes mass consciousness to a very scary place, where ratings and market share are all that ultimately matters.

So much of what we are dealing with in today’s America can be traced to the kind of anxieties that plague Ethan’s otherwise sunny disposition.

The epigraph that Steinbeck included wouldn’t need to change much had the novel been written today: “readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today.” There are millions of Ethan Hawleys out there right now who aren’t nearly as self-critical or reflexively decent as he is. Many of them probably ended up voting for Trump, either through anxious desperation or sheer spite, which is something the resolutely high-minded Ethan probably wouldn’t do. The steady erosion of the traditional foundations of middle-class life have caused lots of deeply but privately embarrassed people, especially those who have been accustomed to some sense of self-determination, to seek other ways of feeling like they are in charge again.

Ethan’s anguished decision to start cutting some moral and legal corners (which doesn’t end up happening only because of a random interruption to his plan) evidently goes down very easy—a little too easy—with much of the Trump crowd. This marks a crucial departure from the older versions of conservatism. Just over a decade ago, George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” went over pretty big. His supporters assumed that his aw shucks, everyman persona indicated that he really did mean well despite all of his administration’s many world-historical disasters, fuckups, and cruelties.

Now that Trumpism (if not Trump himself) has fully taken over the Republican Party, its current style is brash, in-your-face amorality, something that can feel like proto-fascism. When militia groups take up arms and plot against local officials who displease them, or make not-so-subtle statements about “gathering” their “forces,” or clamor for clemency for the young vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, it’s not unreasonable to worry that it can, in fact, happen here. Maybe this ruthlessness is what passes for competence, particularly if some people think that necessary democratic institutions are no more than a den of crooks—and this goes especially if it doesn’t look like any alternatives are available. It suggests the real possibility that we are heading into a Covid winter of discontent even while we may still face another springtime for Trumpism. Giving Steinbeck’s often overlooked writing a fresh look might be a useful way of thinking about how we got here, and what it might take to get us through. At least we can’t say we haven’t been warned.