The secret life of John Steinbeck

The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author's strange relationship with his own government.

Mike Selby

FOIA — the Freedom of Information Act — was enacted by the United States Congress in 1966 to give its citizens access to previously unreleased records.

This act has been used to free innocent people from incarceration, expose corporate greed (such the Ford Pinto Memo, which showed the car company felt it was cheaper to pay off wrongful death suits than to fix the deadly design flaw on the vehicle — which would cost them $11 per car), and to show just how much time, money, and resources were used trying to spy on John Lennon.

A more recent search has led to a literary mystery. While sifting through various CIA records via FOIA, researcher Brian Kannard came across a series of correspondence that could only lead to one conclusion: John Steinbeck was a spy for the CIA.

At first glance this statement seems ludicrous, if only for the well known fact that the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author spent his professional career in an adversarial relationship with his own government.

Steinbeck’s difficulty with his elected officials began with the 1939 publication of his most revered novel, ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ Set during the depression, Steinbeck realistically portrayed what life was like in a country that suddenly had “the economic rug pulled out from under it.”

Viking initially published 50,000 hardcover editions, but by the end of the year they had to reprint it 11 times. Not only a hit with readers, critics adored it as well, and the book won Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.

Not everyone was impressed. Numerous groups felt it was nothing more than thinly disguised communist propaganda, causing thousands of copies to be turned into bonfires across the country. Steinbeck himself began to receive death threats, was followed and harassed by the FBI, and the IRS suddenly began auditing him for back taxes.

His life became so disrupted that in 1942 he was forced to write the White House, asking the attorney general if he “could ask Edgar’s boys to stop stepping on my heels … it is getting tiresome.”

Steinbeck may have been in J. Edgar Hoover’s sights long before this. Years earlier he had joined the League of American Writers, which had initially been formed by the American Communist Party. He also personally stood up with playwright Arthur Miller, who had refused to name names during the McCarthy years. Many could think of nothing more un-American than these two acts.

Yet despite all this, Steinbeck offered his services to his country in the early 1950s. Sifting through the CIA records, Kannard found a letter from Steinbeck to the director of the CIA, advising the director of his latest book tour in Europe.

“If during this trip,” Steinbeck wrote, “I can be of any service whatever to yourself or to the Agency you direct, I shall be only too glad.” The director’s reply was also found, reading, “It would be helpful, too, if you could come down to Washington for a talk with us before you leave. We might then discuss any special matters on which you may feel that you can assist us.”

What “special matters” the CIA felt Steinbeck could assist them with, or what they discussed at this meeting, remain unknown. However, Kannard was able to track down Steinbeck’s son Thomas, who confirmed that on trips to Paris he was not allowed to accompany his father to certain meetings. This went on throughout the ’50s and ’60s. (Perhaps he was spying on John Lennon.) Kannard published his findings in the book “Steinbeck: Citizen Spy” in 2012. With no definitive answers, the book has to rely on speculation as to Steinbeck’s clandestine activities.

Whatever his spy craft consisted of, it is hard to imagine it being more compelling than ‘East of Eden’, ‘Of Mice and Men,’ ‘Cannery Row,’ or ‘The Winter of Our Discontent.’ Books overflowing with compassion, heart, and perseverance, they should of been all the service his country needed.

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