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Sundays With The Christianists: John Steinbeck Invented 'Bortion, Wrote Evil Books
Now here's a surprise: a rightwing Christian rant against John Steinbeck that barely mentions The Grapes of Wrath at all. If nothing else, we can credit wingnut radio preacher and homeschooling "expert" Kevin Swanson with this much: He's not always predictable. Or at least, while his opinions are completely predictable, the particular topics he chooses to obsess about aren't necessarily what you'd expect. We've reached the end of the literature survey portion of Swanson's ebook manifesto, Apostate: The Men Who Destroyed the Christian West, although he still has a couple of chapters on modern popular culture for us to slog through in his screed about the decline of Western civilization from a nonexistent Christian norm.
So far, we've learned that Shakespeare was far too friendly to homos, Nathaniel Hawthorne undermined American Christianity by making the Puritans seem too Puritanical, Mark Twain consorted with demons and unfairly suggested that Christians were OK with slavery, and Ernest Hemingway was a nihilist, man. As we noted last time, Swanson takes a dim view of 20th century literature, and is content to let just two American writers, Hemingway and John Steinbeck, stand in for the entire century's literary output.
[contextly_sidebar id="8cdU8IXwI8BD54W8Mb7PAvgSv5juxZV9"]The most salient fact of Steinbeck's life, for Swanson at least, is that while many of the philosophers and writers Swanson reviews led depraved, sinful lives, Steinbeck "bears the distinction of being the first...to murder his own child." Which is to say that in 1939, he insisted that his first wife, Carol, have an abortion, which led to an infection that required a hysterectomy. Or as Swanson puts it:
John Steinbeck took his apostasy seriously. It was his task to lead the Western world into adultery, divorce, and abortion. Shortly after the publication of Grapes of Wrath, 33 years before the American nation approved convenience abortion by a Supreme Court decision, this mighty cultural leader forced his wife Carol to abort their first child. She never recovered from the tragic event, and remained sterile for the rest of her life. Meanwhile John conducted his affairs and eventually divorced the sadly afflicted Carol for another woman. His new marriage was also marred with multiple affairs and another divorce.
So if you had been wondering where adultery, divorce, and abortion all came from, look no further than John Steinbeck. Swanson takes his biographical sketch of Steinbeck from Jay Parini's 1995 biography; we like how Swanson suggests that it was the act of abortion itself that traumatized Carol, not the infection and subsequent hysterectomy that left her bitter, as Parini seems to emphasize . (Also not mentioned by Swanson -- Carol Steinbeck had her own affair shortly after, with Joseph Campbell. Yes, that Joseph Campbell.) Needless to say, the tragedy has to be that an abortion happened at all, not that it was an illegal procedure performed in dicey circumstances, leading to horrible consequences.
Swanson treats this as if it were a pivotal moment in American cultural history, not a biographical detail that most readers of Steinbeck had never heard of (it was news to us, but perhaps we're simply out of the "everybody knows John Steinbeck made his wife have an abortion" mainstream). And while putting it into what he insists is its proper context, Swanson refers to one of his favorite fanciful science facts, the notion that the Pill leaves women with hundreds of dead fetuses all over their innards:
This single abortion may not sound all that significant after a third of all American babies conceived since 1960 have been aborted through surgical abortions, day-after pills, and the abortifacient birth control pills. Nevertheless, societies really do act as corporeal units and their visionary cultural leaders are significant. That is what makes these stories worth noting. Granted, John Steinbeck was not the only leader in the cultural revolution, but he was an important leader. Should a lone prostitute abort a child in a slum in New York City, the consequences no doubt are tragic. However, this can hardly be compared with the social repercussions that come about when a major cultural leader (whose work influences millions of people), steps over the same line. One man’s actions are important as they impact more people than we can imagine.
So those are the two types of people who have abortions: influential writers and also whores. And John Steinbeck definitely started the whole "let's have an abortion for the fun of it" trend, because when people think "Steinbeck," their first thought is usually not "Okies" or "Tom Joad," but "forced his wife to have an abortion." To be sure, Swanson finds plenty of other villains who brought abortion to America, like Sartre, Margaret Sanger (who actually opposed abortion for most of her career, and advocated contraception to make it unnecessary), and of course Margaret Mead, who thought heathens and free love were perfectly fine.
Steinbeck also blasphemed outrageously in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which Swanson bizarrely describes as "a speech in the presence of the King of Sweden." Steinbeck's rhetorical flourish about the threat of nuclear war becomes, for Swanson, a summary of "the humanist worldview":
He said, “Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope. So that today, John the Apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the word, and the word is man, and the word is with man.” This is blasphemy of the highest form, and high-potency humanist thinking. It is Nietzsche all over again, setting himself against Christ. John Steinbeck understood his competition. He understood the historical reality of Jesus Christ who spoke the final Word and rules history from the right hand of the Father -- he knew he was setting himself against Christ. John Steinbeck is apostate, quintessence.
As an avatar of Steinbeck's work, Swanson does a book report on Steinbeck's 1937 novella Of Mice and Men. This frankly surprised us, since we'd have assumed that The Grapes of Wrath would make a juicier target, what with all the socialism and Reverend Casey's Emersonian preaching about everybody being part of one big soul, not to mention the blasphemous parody of the Madonna at the end, where Rose Of Sharon nurses the dying tramp. Who knows, maybe that was too Catholic for Swanson, or he just never got past that one chapter with the turtle. Or it had too many pages. In any case, Of Mice and Men is quite terrible enough for Swanson, who says the book
may be the clearest and most consistent incarnation of the destructive ideas of the age. It was a toxic little book of significant cultural impact, landing the author the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.
Not only does Swanson not seem aware that the Nobel is for the entire body of a writer's work, he also seems confused about when Steinbeck wrote the novella, following the line about the 1962 Nobel award with, "By this time in Steinbeck’s life, he had given up on any possibility of meaning in his random, chance-created universe," as if he had just written the book, which of course was published in 1937.
Swanson's plot summary is kind of a hoot:
The ranch hands constantly avail themselves of whore houses. The boss’ son is married to a whorish, Proverbs 7 type of woman, who is constantly seeking the attention of other men; he is also extremely combative and pugnacious, even dangerous. Most of the characters take God’s name in vain, and curse at everything and everyone around them. There are no meaningful relationships in the story, whatsoever.
The only true companionship of consequence is the friendship between an old man and his old dog. However, the old dog is diseased and smelly and the boss’ son “helpfully” takes the dog out back and shoots him. This, of course, ends the companionship.
John Steinbeck, why can't you write about something nice? We do like the idea that Swanson is confident his readers will instantly recognize what a "Proverbs 7 type of woman" is -- that's the Bible's warning against adulterous women and their many nasty temptations, those dirty seductive hoors. Of the novella's climax (spoiler warning), Kevin's Notes informs us,
Regrettably, the boss’ son’s wife (the whorish woman) gets a little too friendly with Lennie. In response to her sexual advances, the mentally-unstable fellow gets angry and kills her. Later he explains the reason for his anger: he did not want George to think less of him for his inappropriate contact with the woman, and risk losing George’s friendship. When George learns of the killing, he shoots his friend Lennie in the head, thereby putting this miserable story out of its misery.
We'll admit, that last line isn't half bad, a bit reminiscent of Roger Ebert maybe.
Swanson's thematic analysis of the novella mostly consists of an extended discussion of all the book's terrible cussin':
The most shocking aspect of this book to the Christian mind is the unrelenting abuse of God’s name. It comes in almost every sentence in the story. At times, the foul language seems to serve as the central message and it is illustrative of the apostasy and rebellion against God so palpable in the 20th century [...] It is interesting that the author and the characters in Of Mice and Men do their best to ignore the reality of God, yet they mention Him constantly. They ignore God except to insult Him at every opportunity. They are eager to let their audience know that they do not fear God nor do any of the characters in the stories. They know about the Christian God; and they hate him; and they want the world to know this. Thus, they perfect the art of impiety and godlessness.
We were kind of expecting some mention of the plot in there, perhaps, at least a condemnation of Lennie and George for seeking the empty solace of human friendship instead of the fellowship of the church and Christ's salvation, but no, this is apparently just a book about swears. Or perhaps Swanson was just in a hurry and wanted to remind us one more time that Steinbeck murdered his baby, which Swanson sees as a chance to compare to the crime of Cain:
After Adam sinned against God and cut off his relationship with Him, Cain killed his brother and John Steinbeck killed his child. They then became vagabonds on the earth (Gen. 4: 14-16), wandering around somewhere “east of Eden.” These three verses sum up the writings of John Steinbeck. They describe the plight of postmodern man, lonely in the big city. He terminates his relationships with family, church, and community. He wanders from city to city, and generation by generation his family relationships grow weaker and more fragile. What little friendship remains in the world is destroyed when someone shoots the old man’s dog, and when George kills his only friend in the world. Life outside of God’s order is supremely lonely.
That's one tortured mess of a paragraph, but at least Swanson manages to squeeze in another Steinbeck title, so partial credit. By this point, however, Swanson seems bored, and drops the chapter with some grumbling about what a shame it is that Steinbeck won "Nobel Prizes" [sic] for describing "the barrenness, the emptiness, the loneliness, and the death of the modern world, where there are many people and very few meaningful relationships." Swanson's in such a hurry to end the chapter that he doesn't even remind us that the story should have ended with everyone reading a Chick tract, repenting their sins, and sharing the good news of the Gospel. That's how all good stories should end.
Next Week: Kevin gonna talk about: Pop Music! He warns that "for some, this will be the most frightening chapter yet" -- Scary!