Politics of a Higher Nature – William Blake and John Steinbeck

As politically inspiring as they might be, should we view William Blake and John Steinbeck as political writers?

In a recent article  at Steinbeck Now, John Steinbeck’s political legacy was discussed in light of new books by Russell Brand and Naomi Klein, two advocates for social change and proponents of greater corporate and individual accountability.

In that article, English poet, William Blake, was cited alongside Steinbeck as an example of progressive political thought. The underlying suggestion was that in anti-establishment politics, figures like William Blake and John Steinbeck might be seen to stand together, holding the line against tyranny, against “herd mentality” and against political oppression. In so far as both artists worked to fulfill the old adage of speaking truth to power, such link between Steinbeck and Blake could not be clearer.

I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps the similarity ends there, however. There is also something strange about applying the tag of political writer to two artists whose works have found life beyond the confines of their times.

Does a shared advocacy for the “little guy” justify a broad reading of these two figures as political writers? Or might a better view of these two artists see them as poets of the human spirit, inspiring contemporary thinkers to work as tirelessly as these writers did toward the expression of a human ideal – poets first and, in the end, politically inspiring only because of their metaphysically-rooted ideas, not because of any specifically political ideas?

The Politics of Poetry?

Volumes have been written about the politics of John Steinbeck and William Blake. Championed by voices on the left, Steinbeck is seen often as an advocate for the proletariat. Blake, the Romantic-era English poet, is depicted as a thorough-going political rebel bent on decrying the status quo of a decadent, rapidly modernizing world.

Yet late in his career John Steinbeck defended the American war in Vietnam, turning against his former principles, according to some, and at the very least complicating in that act any view of the writer as a symbol of liberal politics. William Blake, in his poems and his visual art, was continuously involved in a project of deconstructing social theory into a metaphysical statement on the individual’s place in the world – ridiculing politics and politicians along the way.

For two “political writers,” Steinbeck and Blake make a curious pair. Each achieved some lasting recognition as an artist and in doing so must have found a way to communicate something universal about mankind. We wouldn’t still be reading them if they hadn’t.

There is something to say about the ways that Of Mice and Men and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell both play upon the notion of a barred paradise – that classic poetic trope of life after the Fall. In utilizing the components of mythology, Blake and Steinbeck set their work in a context that allows for continued reading and continued relevance. I argue that this is where we look to them for inspiration.

While politics are a timeless manifestation of organized society, the political circumstances that often define political writing are not. We do not, after all, read William Blake as a counterpart to John Stuart Mill. Nor do we read John Steinbeck as the Karl Marx of American letters. We read them as we read any artist whose work outlives them – because they speak to a lasting truth.

Politics of a Higher Nature

File:John Steinbeck 1962.jpgThere is no denying the political content of much of Steinbeck’s fiction. From Tortilla Flats and In Dubious Battle to Grapes of Wrath, Viva Zapata! and Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck depicted visions of shared property, dramatized battles for social equality and outlined the human costs of a struggle waged by the labor class against entrenched powers.

While Blake’s vision of the world has been widely ascribed political significance, this view of his work is not immediately obvious as the primary significance of the work. If Steinbeck’s work in Grapes of Wrath poses one ideology in conflict with another, Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Songs of Innocence and Experience attempt instead to attack all ideology and to create what amounts to an anti-ideology.

A philosopher will tell you this is an impossible task yet Blake’s entire project was aimed at questioning our notions of human, conceptual limitations. The spirit of man, for Blake, longs to be free of the “mind forg’d manacles” that society has constructed. The work of the artist and poet is to help break the chains, like Ezekial in Blake’s “A Memorable Fancy.”

I then asked Ezekiel why he ate dung, and lay so long on his right and left side. He answer’d, ‘The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite: this the North American tribes practise, and is he honest who resists his genius or conscience only for the sake of present ease or gratification?’

So the question becomes, in all fidelity, to what extent can we insist on emphasizing the political import of Blake’s vision in preference to the metaphysical message of the work? In other words, can we really say that William Blake’s work is essentially political? If so, what are the political values being advocated?

In a similar vein, can we say that John Steinbeck’s fiction is essentially political? Although we can see a similar ethos of social responsibility represented by Casy in The Grapes of Wrath and expressed in Ezekiel’s speech here, can we also accurately say that both figures are espousing political action? Isn’t there a deeper message about vision or truth here, about how people should overcome their gross limitations to realize a greater, higher nature?

What about the Subtext?

While, again, there is no doubting the political intentions and political content of Steinbeck’s novels In Dubious BattleThe Pearl, Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and others, we can  reasonably ask if the politics in these works constitute the most memorable, interesting or important element of the texts.

Importantly, most of these works features the central figure of a visionary. His vision happens to have socio-political overtones, not unlike so many Old Testament prophets. (Coincidentally, it is also this mystical view of the social collective that triggers many critics to identify Steinbeck’s humanism.)

Outraged ambition and an angry sense that the ideal is attainable yet denied… a cry against economic tyranny…a statement of human potential expressed in failed dreams…these are the elements of the Steinbeck hero tale. These are the characteristics of the Steinbeck prophet quest and, yes, they seem to have a lot in common with William Blake’s prophets and prophecies.

There is a temptation to suggest we are seeing a generalized version of the Garden of Eden tale re-told in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and in much of Blake’s poetry. Perhaps, long before East of Eden, Steinbeck was thinking about the ancient trope of a lost paradise. Blake certainly had Milton’s Paradise Lost in mind when he railed against the intellectual status quo of his day.

As an aspect of mythology and a poetic reference point, the Garden of Eden trope holds a place in a tradition of long-standing attempts to express and explain the human condition. Considering the role this theme has played across world mythologies and literatures, it seems fair to point to the barred paradise as an example of the universal in literature.

Perhaps I am wrong to suggest that Steinbeck’s portrayal of a failed labor strike in In Dubious Battle is tantamount to an iteration of this classic poetic trope.  Maybe the failed ideal of shared land ownership in Of Mice and Men is purely a statement of economic realities and intended, in its failure to function, as political statement. But if I am wrong, why are we still reading John Steinbeck?

True, capitalist systems continue to perpetuate a have’s and have-not’s system, but the plight of itinerant workers of California’s agricultural plantations is no longer a pressing news story. Politically, that story is over (for the most part). So there must be another reason we find it compelling.

Denied from the Garden

Arguing that both Blake and Steinbeck are at their most political when utilizing the ancient trope of the barred paradise, I would take the position that the oft cited politics in the works of these two writers is symptomatic – secondary to a more urgent and more universal statement at the heart of their writing.

Each writer presents a view of society where the visionary is set against an unfeeling world, reaching for the fulfillment of an ideal that is too fantastic to be realized. We can all relate to this idea, not because of our politics but because of our humanity. Is it really political to say that man’s spiritual needs are historically opposed to society’s demands?

Although I have no qualms whatsoever with the notion that Steinbeck and Blake make for inspiring political heroes for some, I find difficulty accepting the idea that the social mysticism of Steinbeck’s most political work and Blake’s more traditional mysticism constitute a fundamentally political message. There is a fundamental message here but it is both bigger and smaller than politics.

Blake’s cry in Jerusalem that “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create” may be inspiring to someone’s politics, but that does not mean the poet was offering a critique of the capitalist state when he said he had to be an artist…

[A different version of this essay appeared on SteinbeckNow.com]

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