Posted by: George | September 20, 2010

Steinbeck Entering the South

September 20, 2010

Steinbeck begins to write about race in fourth chapter from the end of the Travels with Charley. (The chapter is on pages 215-219 of the first edition. The book doesn’t have chapter titles or numbers, so situating my discussion will be a little awkward.)

After an extended stay in Texas, Steinbeck is about to enter Louisiana. He begins the chapter by saying one of the goals of his trip was to answer the question: “What are Americans like today?” In a seeming digression, he says that Europeans view Americans as a “faceless clot,” typically not in very positive terms, but they don’t apply this general impression (prejudice?) to the Americans who are their friends. Prejudice endures, Steinbeck suggests, because we compartmentalize our general attitudes about a race from our experiences with individual members of that race. Rather than use our personal experience with individuals to question broad generalizations, we comfortably abide with paradoxes.

With the seeming digression about European attitudes toward Americans, Steinbeck is preparing readers for his discussion of prejudice, which will include Steinbeck’s own prejudice about the South. He writes: “I faced the South with dread.” He describes himself as someone who is not drawn to “pain and violence” and who does not have the experience to understand racism. While growing up in Salinas, California, he never witnessed racism. The Coopers, the one “Negro” family in the area, were treated with respect. Ulysses Cooper, the oldest son, died his “third year” in high school, and Steinbeck felt honored to serve as one of his pallbearers.

Toward the end of the chapter, Steinbeck even turns one of the then current clichés of racism on its head: “If in Salinas anyone from a wiser and more sophisticated world had asked, ‘How would you like your sister to marry a Cooper?’ I think we would have laughed. For it might have occurred to us that a Cooper might not have wanted to marry our sister, good friends though we all were.”

This is why Steinbeck feels “unfitted to take sides in the racial conflict.” When Southerners begin to discuss race issues, he feels they go “into a room of experience” he cannot enter.

Though ill prepared for the task, Steinbeck realizes that he will become a witness: “When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not welcome witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble.”

For Steinbeck (and, he hopes, for his readers), the Coopers serve as a glimpse into the future. Because they were not objects of racism, their “dignity was intact.” They were valued and fully integrated members of the community. The Cooper family, thus, served as an argument for the positive effects of a more equitable society.

I would guess most readers, even in 1962, accepted the values of this argument. In many ways, Steinbeck’s ethos carries us. He is sermonic in this chapter, and we want to answer with an Amen. However, as Steinbeck’s words echo, as readers gain some distance from the moral force of his voice, questions arise. Could Steinbeck have come of age without witnessing prejudice? Were the Coopers treated as equals in Salinas?

The Coopers were not the first or the only Black family in Salinas. Jim Bardin settled in Salinas before the Civil War. After the war, more Black families migrated from the South, as did a number of ex-confederates. With ex-slaves and ex-confederates in the same county, we would expect some racial tension. And, the area had a significant Hispanic population. It seems that Steinbeck would have witnessed some form of racism, even if these acts were tame compared to the lynchings in the South.

The website for the Monterey County Historical Society recounts one example of racism toward a member of the Cooper family. During World War II, residents of Maple Street signed a petition to discourage Ignatius Cooper from buying a house. Ignatius bought the house anyway, but he reported felt bitter about his treatment. This was, of course, long after Steinbeck moved away, but the event does suggest that Salinas had its own history of racism.



  1. Very interesting post. I agree that Steinbeck must be exaggerating his naivety on prejudice. However, I can relate to his sentiment. When I first moved to South Africa, from Scotland, I frequently felt that my views on racial equality were somewhat out of their depth and naive. The racial issues in South Africa were more complicated than I gave them credit for.
    Anyway, I look forward to reading more of your posts.


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