Journalist Bill Steigerwald’s book, “Dogging Steinbeck,” is part road trip travelogue, part cross-era cultural commentary, part literary detective work and part research piece on John Steinbeck, colored by the author’s libertarian leanings.
If that sounds like an odd combination, that’s because it is. But it is also a hilarious, exuberant read that reveals much about John Steinbeck and the diversity of people, places, and attitudes that is America.
Steigerwald devotes a decent portion of his book to understanding the “ball of political contradictions” known as John Steinbeck, a big-government Democrat with Marxist friends, civil rights and labor union advocate — who incidentally was on author George Orwell’s potential crypto-communist list — but as Steigerwald argues, also harbored staunch anti-Communist, hawkish and pro-gun views.
In a short chapter on Steinbeck’s more libertarian impulses, Steigerwald cites a particularly powerful speech given by Steinbeck over Radio Free Europe in 1954 to the repressed people of Eastern Europe. It is an eloquent defense of free expression and the power of the individual:
“To my friends,
There was a time when I could visit you and you were free to visit me. My books were in your stores and you were free to write to me on any subject. Now your borders are closed with barbed wire and guarded by armed men and fierce dogs, not to keep me out but to keep you in. And now your minds are also imprisoned. You are told that I am a bad writer but you are not permitted to judge for yourselves. You are told we are bad people but you are forbidden to see and to compare. You are treated like untrustworthy animals, subjected to conditioning as cold and ruthless as though you were rats in a laboratory. You cannot travel, you cannot read freely and you cannot work at the profession of your choice. Your writers are the conditioned servants of a regime. All of this is designed to destroy your ability to think.
I beg you to keep alive the integrity of the individual in his ability to judge and compare and create. May your writers write secretly and hold their writing for the time when this grey anesthetic has passed as pass it must. The free world outside your prison still lives. You will join it again and it will welcome you. Everything around you is cynically designed to destroy you as individuals. You must remember and teach your children that they are precious, not as dull cogs in the wheel of party existence, but as units complete and shining in themselves.”
On this week in which we celebrate our own independence, Steinbeck’s speech is a particularly poignant reminder that freedom is not and has never been the natural state of the world — that as Reagan said it
“must be fought for, protected, and handed on [to our children] for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”