Posted by: George | October 4, 2010

A Morality Play

October 4, 2010

In the next to the last chapter of Travels with Charley (pages 230-42 of the first edition), Steinbeck leaves New Orleans. He buys a poor-boy sandwich, drives to the Mississippi River, and sits with Charley to regain his composure. An “enlightened Southerner” (“a neatly dressed man well along in years”) walks up. He and Steinbeck carry on a short dialogue about the race issue. Both men agree that change is coming and both fear the means. The Southerner points out that they are both tied to the original sin of our nation: “Surely my ancestors had slaves, but it is possible that yours caught them and sold them to us.” However, both Steinbeck and the Southerner feel they are too old to be players in the change that must come.

Even though he had not slept much the night before, Steinbeck gases up his truck and continues to drive east. At the gas station, he offers a ride to an elderly Black man. The man is “reluctant to accept.” During the ride, he doesn’t look at Steinbeck and seems uncomfortable. When Steinbeck asks him what about the school desegregation in New Orleans, the man replies, “I don’t know nothing about that, captain, sir.”

The next day, Steinbeck picks up two more riders. The first is a young white man, who is on the road looking for work. He praises the cheerleaders in New Orleans, who are, he feels, “doing their duty.” He even says that he plans to kill many Blacks (of course, using the n-word) before he dies. When Steinbeck cannot take any more, he pulls his car over and orders the man out.

The last rider is a young Black student who has been involved with sit-ins. The student feels the nonviolent approach of Martin Luther King is too slow. He wants to see change in his lifetime.

While Steinbeck says that he could not claim to have presented a “cross-section” of the South in this chapter, it seems a little too neat. In a single chapter, he talks with an elderly White Southerner and an elderly Black Southerner (who represent the old order) as well as a young White racist (vowing to prevent change) and a young Black student (vowing to force change). Much of the dialogue, especially that between Steinbeck and the “enlightened Southerner,” is a little too formal, a little too finely crafted.

The chapter reads like a morality play. We view the forces of good and evil facing off and play’s chorus (the “enlightened Southerner” and Steinbeck) warn of the change to come and the “dreadful uncertainty of the means.” I suspect that Steinbeck, in this chapter, crosses from nonfiction to fiction, but I don’t think this bothered many readers in 1962. The boundaries between nonfiction and fiction were more porous then. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway carries on a dialogue with an elderly woman, clearly a product of his imagination.

The chapter, whether fact or fiction, effectively presents the question left unanswered in a book that might otherwise remain a pleasant travelogue: If Blacks are demanding equality and Whites will not relinquish their privilege, what kind of horrors will the country face in the coming decades?

If Steinbeck were alive today, fifty years later, I think he would wonder, like most of us, at how much has changed and he would despair that so much racism survives in dark corners, seldom even voiced except in a new code. Newt Gingrich would never use the n-word to describe President Obama, but he did recently say Obama might suffer from a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview. I am sure that Gingrich would say he is not a racist. And yet, I suspect that Gingrich knows phrases like this tap into an anger that is as old as our country. Such phrases hardly promote thoughtful political dialogue.

While Gingrich might be in another place and time, lost in dreams of his own father, many Americans have changed. We have witnessed, in our lifetimes, progress without apocalyptic violence. We may still feel uncomfortable whenever we discuss race, but that young Black student, if he did exist, if he did ride with Steinbeck and Charley, probably saw change in his lifetime. Steinbeck feared the “means” because he did not believe it was possible for Americans to change their attitudes about race in a few decades, even if we as a society are not yet post-racial.

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