Literature rarely creates legislation in the US these days, but in the early part of the 20th Century, it was a powerful force in creating social policy; notably helping to create the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. Books like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath were pivotal in changing food and agricultural regulations in the US.
President Theodore Roosevelt had described Sinclair as a “crackpot” because of his socialist positions. He wrote privately to William Allen White, “I have an utter contempt for him. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.” After reading The Jungle, Roosevelt agreed with some of Sinclair’s conclusions. Roosevelt wrote, “radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist.” He assigned the Labor Commissioner Charles P. Neill and social worker James Bronson Reynolds to go to Chicago to investigate some meat packing facilities. – wikipedia
I took a walk down to my favorite book store yesterday and found a gem – The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck. Like Sinclair, Steinbeck’s wrote on social themes. At the same time he was inadvertently adding to the myth of the American Dream he was contrasting it with vivid literary illustrations of the disenfranchised – women, migrant workers, the disabled, the poor and people of color. Steinbeck’s most famous book, The Grapes of Wrath, centered around the overlooked and mundane existence of agricultural workers. He showed us how separate we were becoming from the sacred cycle of life and death that has sat at the forefront of the human psyche for most of our history.
This journey that Steinbeck took with Biologist Ed Ricketts to the Sea of Cortez was not just a journey of scientific exploration, but the journey of the soul. It was on the boat the Wester Flyer that Steinbeck began to deeply internalize ideas about the interconnectedness of man and environment and explored ideas about the relationships of the individual to the society, about leaving and returning home.
“it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”