Steinbeck’s Whitewash

Tony Ortega‘s feature “Louis Owens and John Steinbeck’s Ghosts” is something of a hybrid of personal essay and literary essay. Starting with the suicide of novelist Louis Owens six years ago, the Village Voice editor recalls his research of Steinbeck’s novel In Dubious Battle, which uses white Okies instead of the Mexicans who actually participated in the Great Cotton Strike of 1933. The entire piece is worth your time—it’s a nice tribute to Owens and an interesting exploration of Ortega’s own family ties to the strike. But this bit summarizes what’s at issue:

Making the workers all one ethnicity made sense in a couple of ways—not only was it easier to consider groupthink among a homogenous group, but by 1936, when the book was published, many more white Okies had poured into California as a result of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. You could argue that Steinbeck wasn’t only “whitewashing” the details of the strike in his novel to keep his theme pure, but also to reflect the times.

Other things, however, weren’t so easy to reconcile—in particular, some troubling remarks that the author had made in newspaper articles at about the same time. More than once, Steinbeck made the point that it was time for the larger public to pay more attention to the plight of farm workers for the very reason that so many of them were now white. As he put it, “their blood was strong”; democracy, he argued, came more “naturally” to the white farm worker, who wasn’t going to put up with the kind of treatment that earlier workers had.

Although Steinbeck didn’t use the bigoted language that was so common at the time, he was nevertheless implying that the “blood” of the Mexican workers wasn’t “strong,” that democracy didn’t come naturally to them, when the opposite was true: Organizers found the Mexicans more willing to stand up for their rights.

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