Travels with Steinbeck

An American classic offers a subtle and prescient account of the dangers of expanding corporate power.


While protesters and police clashed in Canada over the weekend of April 20, I was comfortably ensconced on a sunny urban rooftop reading “Travels With Charley: In Search of America,” Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck’s 1962 memoir of his cross-country trip with his standard poodle. It was hardly the escapist read I had hoped might take my mind off the controversial Summit of the Americas.

Many of the protesters in Quebec City may hear the name John Steinbeck and think of high school term papers and Cliff’s Notes. But unlike many of the other authors of the dusty American-lit classics in Gen X and Y’s classrooms, Steinbeck was writing until just a decade or two before today’s youthful rabble-rousers were born. And he was one of the first prominent thinkers to openly question the effects of corporate power during the post-war boom. Much of Steinbeck’s fiction — “The Pearl” is perhaps the best example — focused on the corrosive influence of greed, and Steinbeck himself was a good friend and frequent correspondent of left-wing icon Adlai Stevenson.

In “Travels With Charley,” Steinbeck outlines the dangers of corporatization — from the tyranny of megaretailers to the subjugation of the environment and labor rights to the almighty dollar. In 1961, long before Barnes & Noble, WalMart, or Home Depot appeared, he saw the beginnings of the cultural erosion they would bring:

“The hamlet store, whether grocery, general, hardware, clothing, cannot compete with the supermarket and the chain organization. Our treasured and nostalgic picture of the village general store, the cracker-barrel store where an informed yeomanry gather to express opinions and formulate the national character, is rapidly disappearing.”

Of Seattle, circa 1961, he wrote:

“Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth. Bulldozers rolled up green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning. The torn white lumber from concrete forms was piled beside gray walls. I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.”

Steinbeck sensed that in the new culture he saw taking shape, the fundamentals of work — who did it, and for whom — would change. He took note of the influx of immigrants from Mexico to work the fields for independent farmers and eventually major corporate agribusiness companies, a trend that didn’t catch the attention of most Americans until Cesar Chavez founded the United Farm Workers, just a year after “Travels With Charley” was written. “It occurs to me,” he wrote, “that just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work.”

What he could not have foreseen was that eventually — under the guise of free and unfettered trade, á la NAFTA, GATT and other treaties — America would begin to export the “hard and humble work”, and the jobs associated with it, to places only beginning to taste the kind of progress that “looks so much like destruction.”

Bits and Pieces

FOLLOW THAT STORY

The superintendent of schools in Hamilton County, Indiana, was surprised when he was suddenly flooded with emails from outside the district, demanding that a new high school be named Ronald Wilson Reagan High School. The emails appear to have come from supporters of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which we profiled back in March.

FOR WHOM THE CELL PHONE RINGS

So you think you’ll have to throttle someone if you hear one more electronic gizmo play “Fur Elise.” But before you program your own cell phone to alert you with “The Thong Song,” you might be wise to think of what happened with Napster. Yes, copyright cops are on the prowl for tune thieves among the wired set.

BEWARE OF ROBO-DOG
Police dogs in some municipalities are being fitted with fancy new titanium teeth to “improve their bite — and their grip — on anyone trying to escape the law.”