John Steinbeck in 1937. (Peter Stackpole/New York Public Library)

How John Steinbeck faced anti-Semitic attacks

John Steinbeck, born in Salinas on Feb. 27, 1902, wrote a series of articles as a young man for the San Francisco News about labor unrest in his hometown. A bloody crackdown on striking lettuce workers in 1936 inspired in Steinbeck a quest to give voice to the oppressed and resulted three years later with his masterwork “The Grapes of Wrath.”

The book was celebrated as a work of genius and awarded the 1940 Pulitzer Prize, but it was also ferociously criticized. Among the lines of attack: That Steinbeck was Jewish.

After receiving numerous letters on the matter, Steinbeck penned a response to a group called “Friends of Democracy” that had asked him to clear up the matter of his ancestry.

“I am answering your letter with a good deal of sadness,” Steinbeck began. “I am sad for a time when one must know a man’s race before his work can be approved or disapproved. It does not seem important to me whether I am Jewish or not, and I know that a statement of mine is useless if an interested critic wishes to ride a preconceived thesis. I cannot see how The Grapes of Wrath can be Jewish propaganda but then I have heard it called communist propaganda also.

“It happens that I am not Jewish and have no Jewish blood but it only happens that way. I find that I do not experience any pride that it is so.”

Steinbeck explained that his ancestry is German and Irish, then continued:

“Anyway there it is. Use it or don’t use it, print it or not. Those who wish for one reason or another to believe me Jewish will go on believing it while men of good will and good intelligence won’t care one way or another. I can prove these things of course — but when I shall have to — the American democracy will have disappeared.”

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