Abstract

In her seminal study on intellectuals and the civil rights struggle, Carol Polsgrove castigated “white intellectuals, in the North and South” for their reticence. After Brown v. Board of Education “opened the door to change,” she argues, America's leading intellectuals simply “milled about outside the door, debating amongst themselves how fast America ought to go through it.” Yet what of John Steinbeck? How did the compassionate advocate of social justice in the thirties respond to the racial upheaval of the fifties and sixties, a time when his winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature made him once more a highly visible public intellectual? This paper applies a historical perspective in examining Steinbeck's contributions (or lack thereof) to America's race issue, with a particular emphasis on his nonfiction and personal correspondence. It is argued that Steinbeck was typically uncomfortable airing his support for the civil rights movement and deliberately avoided presenting himself as a spokesman on the issue. While in his fiction he tended to indulge in stereotyping, he did so with no perceptible intent to denigrate his nonwhite characters. His preoccupation, even when addressing the race issue directly, was always with the danger of moral decline in American society at large. Steinbeck's African American was presented as a dignified and courageous foil to the materialistic white American, who was “trapped and entangled” in avaricious individualism.

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