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  • Casylike Christs in Carl Sandburg and Dorothy Day
  • Stephen Bullivant (bio)

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Thomas Hart Benton's depiction of Jim Casy. [End Page 78]

Jim Casy'S Role as a "Christ-Figure" in The Grapes of Wrath has been detailed at length by Steinbeck scholars. His telling initials, wilderness sojourn, unwarranted death, and myriad other – real or imagined – parallels to the gospel Jesus have been exhaustively catalogued. Likewise, quite what Steinbeck meant by incarnating Christ as a "red son-of-a-bitch" has received considerable attention. Less well-documented, however, are the numerous Casylike Christs appearing elsewhere in American literature in the early decades of the twentieth century. Taken together, these constitute a significant, left-wing christological tradition—one of importance for Steinbeck studies. In a previous article, I explored the presence of this tradition in works by Sarah N. Cleghorn, Woody Guthrie, and Alfred Hayes.1 Here, I present examples from two further (and notably diverse) writers: acclaimed poet and longtime friend of Steinbeck, Carl Sandburg, and journalist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day.

The September 1915 issues of both The Masses and the International Socialist Review included Sandburg's then-new poem "Billy Sunday." Addressed to the popular eponymous evangelist, its opening lines demand:

You come along – tearing your shirt – yelling about Jesus.I want to know what the hell you know about Jesus?

(Sandburg 3)2

Initially Sandburg contrasts Jesus' way of "talking soft" with Sunday's "shaking your fist and calling us all dam fools," and [End Page 79] "blabbering [that] we're all going to hell straight off and you know all about it." Sandburg continues:

I've read Jesus' words. I know what he said. You don't throw any scare into me. I've got your number. I know how much you know about Jesus.

(Sandburg 3)

Billy Sunday was a wealthy and influential man who could earn more in a Sunday of services than the average worker made in a year. His friends included sports and movie stars, industrial tycoons, and U.S. presidents. Sandburg lambastes him on both these counts. A longstanding opponent of acquisitive preachers,3 he had previously denounced Sunday as a "salesman and crowd trickster" (Niven 265). Here he calls him a "bughouse peddler of second-hand gospel" (Sandburg 5) and mocks his reverence of "the face of the woman on the American silver dollar" (Sandburg 6). Furthermore, Sandburg goes so far as to identify Sunday's powerful allies with Christ's killers:

He never came near clean people or dirty people but they felt cleaner because he came along. It was your crowd of bankers and business men and lawyers that hired the sluggers and murderers who put Jesus out of the running.

I say it was the same bunch that's backing you that nailed the nails into the hands of this Jesus of Nazareth. He had lined up against him the same crooks and strong-arm men now lined up with you paying your way.

(Sandburg 3-4)

The poet's primary ire, however, is reserved for Sunday's preaching that the poor should accept their poverty, consoled by thoughts of their eventual salvation:

You tell people living in shanties that Jesus is going to fix it up all right with them by giving them mansions in the skies after they're dead and the worms have eaten 'em.

You tell $6 a week department store girls all they need is Jesus; you take a steel trust wop, dead without having lived, gray and shrunken at forty years of age, and you tell him to look at Jesus on the cross and he'll be all right.

You tell poor people they don't need any more money on pay day, and even if it's fierce to be [End Page 80] out of a job, Jesus'll fix that all right, all right– all they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.

(Sandburg 5)

Needless to say, this "up-against-the-wall, ripsnorting denunciation" of so respected a public figure proved controversial (Yannella 59). A reprint of the poem in The New York...


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