It's Tuesday, June 23, 2020, the third day of summer -- the summer of national discontent. John Steinbeck, a native of Salinas, Calif., usually wrote about life on the West Coast. But the book published by Viking Press on this date in 1961, "The Winter of Our Discontent," was set on the Eastern Seaboard.
The novel featured a tortured protagonist named Ethan Allen Hawley, a man with a patrician's pedigree, a Harvard education, and a World War II combat record. But neither the advantageous circumstances of Hawley's upbringing nor his admirable war record provided him with a sufficient cushion from downward mobility. Or gave him the necessary moral grounding to resist the ethical shortcuts he used in his quest to regain the material prosperity that defined success in postwar America -- and defines it still for many people.
Steinbeck would win the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year. The Swedish Academy praised the author for revisiting in his 1961 novel the "eternal" themes he had raised in "The Grapes of Wrath," the book considered his greatest work. The Nobel committee's prize to Steinbeck was for his entire body of work, even the nonfiction 1962 story of the road, "Travels With Charley."
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Steinbeck and his publisher assumed that mid-20th century readers would know that the phrase "winter of our discontent" comes from Shakespeare. The line is in the first scene in the first act of "Richard III," and sets up the tension that follows. But the stanza is more complicated than the snippet in Steinbeck's title suggests.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
The lines are Richard's own, and he's not actually lamenting the winter, or his own discontent. He is hailing an upturn in the House of York -- his family -- precipitated by the success of his brother Edward IV in wresting the crown from King Henry VI.
But what kind of king is Edward proving to be? In the mind of Richard (at least in Shakespeare's telling) Edward's decadence and love of wealth soon mar the national landscape. Steinbeck's metaphor was easily understood in 1961. The United States had emerged from the Great Depression and World War II as a military and political powerhouse -- and with a humming economy that was the envy of the world.
What Americans were doing with their newfound material success, or maybe more precisely, what rampant consumerism was doing to Americans' moral compasses, is what "The Winter of Our Discontent" is about.
The story contains themes and plot twists that do not seem six decades old: A hard-working immigrant is mistreated by the government and people he thought were his friends. Political office is used to manipulate public policy in ways that make officeholders rich. Plagiarism is rewarded, not punished. The size of a man's bank portfolio is considered more important than his values.
You get the idea. Am I saying Donald Trump should tackle this novel? I suppose so, although he famously eschews reading -- and it's a little late for him anyway. I was actually thinking more about people who go into politics, or journalism, to make money, and the ethical compromises this goal forces them to make. Also, while contemplating how much of our current national discontent stems from a willingness to judge our fellow Americans by their politics or skin color or the other various demographic cohorts they are assigned to, a line from Steinbeck's 1961 novel came to mind: "I wonder how many people I've looked at all my life and never seen," Ethan Hawley muses to himself. "It's scary to think about."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.