American democracy will have disappeared

On May 2nd of 1940, a Reverend Leon M. Birkhead — National Director of “Friends of Democracy,” an organisation committed to combatting “anti-Semitic propaganda” — wrote to the author John Steinbeck with the following enquiry:

I hope that you will not think I am impertinent, but our organization has had put up to it the problem of your nationality. You may consider that it is none of our business, nor the business of anyone else in the country. However, there is a very widespread propaganda, particularly among the extreme reactionary religionists of the country, that you are Jewish, and that Grapes of Wrath is Jewish propaganda. I wonder if you have any sort of a statement that you could send me which would clarify this issue.

Steinbeck replied as follows.

(Source: Steinbeck: A Life in Letters; Image: John Steinbeck, via.)

Los Gatos
May 7, 1940

Dear Mr. Birkhead:

I am answering your letter with a good deal of sadness. 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.

If you wish—here is my racial map although you know what an intelligent anthropologist thinks of racial theories. As you will see, I am the typical American Airedale.

My grandfather on my father’s side was German, the son of a farming family which lived and still lives on a fairly large farm near Düsseldorf. My grandfather came to America in the late fifties in time to be in the Civil War. There has been little communication with the German branch since then except for a visit to Germany about four years ago by a second cousin of mine. He reports that the family still lives on the same farm and that they appear to be good citizens, intensely blond and quite able to prove the nonsensical thing the Nazis insist on. Their name and ours by the way was Grosssteinbeck but the three s’s in a row were an outrage to America so my grandfather dropped the first syllable in the interest of spelling.

My German grandfather married a New England woman whose family name was Dickson who came from Leominster, Massachusetts, where her family had lived since the middle seventeenth century.

On my mother’s side my blood is all north Irish, my grandfather whose name was Hamilton having come from Mulkeraugh near Londonderry and his wife whose name was Feaghan from nearby.

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.

Yours is only one of many letters I have received on the same subject. It is the first I have answered and I think it is the last. I fully recognize your position and do not in the least blame you for it. I am only miserable for the time and its prejudice that prompts it.


John Steinbeck

P. S. On both sides and for many generations we are blond and blue-eyed to a degree to arouse the admiration and perhaps envy of the dark-complexioned Hitler.