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  • Editor's Column"the beacon thing": Musings on John Steinbeck, America, and Light
  • Barbara A. Heavilin and Scott Pugh

I want to go … to the other side of home where the lights are given.

—John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent (357)

John Steinbeck structured East of Eden around contrasts—between good and evil, between wet years and dry years in the Salinas Valley, between dark and light. In Journal of a Novel, written in tandem with East of Eden, he comments, "The writers of today, even I, have a tendency to celebrate the destruction of the spirit and God knows it is destroyed often enough. But the beacon thing is that sometimes it is not…. The great ones, Plato, Lao Tze, Bhudda [sic], Christ, Paul, and the great Hebrew prophets are not remembered for negation or denial…. It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage" (115). Here he defines light as a "beacon thing," where certain people—like Sam Hamilton, like Lee— hold torches to guide the faltering. Who is leading us today? And where?

The likes of Steve Bannon hold up flares that would take us to the underworld. Early in the Trump administration, Bannon, formerly an executive with alt-right Breitbart News Network, served as the President's chief strategist. Although Bannon is no longer in this position, his chilling words remain as an under-the-radar mantra for this administration. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter's Michael Wolff, Bannon strutted his manifesto onto the national stage, paving the way for fake news, alternative facts, oppression of the media, and diminishment of the First Amendment and the American people's rights to know the truth. Proudly taking on the mantle of an evil bard, Bannon distorts all those values we hold most dear, as Wolff reports:

"Darkness is good," says Bannon, who amid the suits surrounding him at Trump Tower, looks like a graduate student in his T-shirt, open [End Page v] button-down and tatty blue blazer—albeit a 62-year-old graduate student. "Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power. It only helps us when they"—I believe by "they" he means liberals and the media, already promoting calls for his ouster—"get it wrong. When they're blind to who we are and what we're doing."

In contrast to this evil bard, Bannon, and his Twittering companion, Trump, John Steinbeck still stands as the voice and conscience of the best of America. Cautiously optimistic, his nonfiction America and Americans as well as his fiction stand as both a dirge bemoaning the death of America's ethical moorings and a hopeful paean to the enduring goodness of the American people. His voice comes as a jeremiad, always, cautioning us and also offering us a hand, a light, a beacon.

The awareness of America's perilous state, as we teeter between dark and light, is today evident to many. And yet our nation is pulled—like Cal Trask— between better instincts and dark desires. A March 6, 2019, four-page letter from the Democratic National Committee is urgent, opening with "This is a time unlike any other in American history" and continuing,

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Fig 1.

America and Americans publicity still featuring Henry Fonda, 1967.

Collection of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.

[End Page vi]

Climate reports say we have just 10 years before we reach the point of no return for our planet's health. The Affordable Care Act is being systematically sabotaged while people desperately set up GoFundMe pages to pay for lifesaving care. Kids are being held in cages and are sick and dying at our borders. Active shooter drills are a routine part of our children's school day. Hate crimes are on the rise. Workers' rights are being trampled. Voter and civil rights are under attack.

In the midst of dark moral and ethical chaos, with John Steinbeck, we might opine, "I want to go … to the other side of home where the lights are given" (357)—a place where the environment is protected, the sick and mentally ill cared for, children cherished...


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