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  • Editor's Column"We are the jury": Steinbeck's America under Threat
  • Barbara A. Heavilin and Kathleen Hicks

Even if the national government should swing into line behind Presidential exercise of power, there remain the rights, prejudices, and customs of states, counties, and townships, managements of private production, labor unions, churches, professional organizations of doctors, lawyers, and guilds and leagues and organizations.

—John Steinbeck, America and Americans (344)

John Steinbeck loved his country with an abiding passion that permeates his finest fiction—The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent. And the very titles of his nonfiction works of the 1960s—Travels with Charley in Search of America and America and Americans—speak of that consuming focus on his country. In the foreword to the latter work, he avows that it has been "informed by America, and inspired by curiosity, impatience, some anger, and a passionate love of America and the Americans." From the heart, he writes that his country is "unspeakably dear and very beautiful" (317–18). Recognizing Steinbeck's passion, early critic Harry Thornton Moore dubbed him "the poet of our dispossessed" (72). Such a role and task Steinbeck delineates for himself in his "Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech": "The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging to light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement" (America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction 173).

Given Steinbeck's declared intention to bring to light whatever dangers might lie before his country, it is not surprising that in America and Americans, written in the 1960s, he saw the possibility that a president might overreach his exercise of power and that a branch of the federal government might acquit [End Page V] him, creating a virtual dictatorship. Now, the House of Representatives in Congress has impeached an overreaching president who was found guilty on two counts: first, for the use of excessive power in asking a foreign government to investigate a rival in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, thereby putting the country's national security at risk; and second, for obstructing Congress's ability to investigate his wrongdoing by blocking relevant documents and witnesses. Sadly, to the horror and dismay of a great many Americans, when the trial was brought before the largely Republican Senate, neither supporting documents nor witnesses were allowed. Although the House offered mountains of evidence and proved its case beyond reasonable doubt, the president was acquitted and remains in office. All Republican Senators, save one, voted for acquittal. Maintaining that he must be true to God and country, Mitt Romney broke ranks with his party and voted with the Democrats to convict and remove from office. At grave risk to his own political future, Democratic Senator Doug Jones of red-state Alabama likewise followed his own conscience and voted to convict. House managers warn that "this is the first impeachment trial in the history of the United States without witnesses and documents, which were blocked by President Trump during the inquiry" (Easley, Web). Thus, American democracy is under threat and at risk.

In the Fall 2019 editor's column, we considered the darkness, evil, and distortion of truth emanating from Trump and his cohorts, and we looked at Steinbeck's definition of light as a "beacon thing" wherein certain people—such as East of Eden's Sam Hamilton and the Chinese servant Lee—hold torches to guide the faltering. And we asked questions: Who is leading us today? And where?

Steinbeck has given beacons to light the way. Like the words of presidential historian Jon Meacham, who maintains that "we are the jury" and our "task is to push forward," in The Grapes of Wrath, the words of Ma Joad echo across time: "We're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people—we go on" (Web; 280). In the conclusion of East of Eden, the dying Adam struggles to get out his final word, "Timshel." The word is a blessing for his son, Cal—one that is fraught with meaning. Behind it lies the Cain story of good and...


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