"My country is at present spoiled by prosperity, stupid with the lust of gain, soiled by crime in its willing perpetuation of slavery, shamed by an unjust war,
noble sentiment much forgotten even by individuals, the aims of politicians selfish or petty, the literature frivolous and venal.
She is not dead, but in my time she sleepeth, and the spirits of our fathers flame no more, but lies hid beneath the ashes.
It will not be so long; bodies cannot live when the soul gets too overgrown with gluttony and falsehood."
—the American writer-reformer Margaret Fuller, in a letter written April 19, 1848. (She is also a continuing heroine in many of my novels.)
In November of 1959, another author, John Steinbeck, wrote a letter to his friend, Adlai Stevenson:
Guy Fawkes Day
Back from Camelot, and, reading the papers, not at all sure it was wise. Two first impressions.
First, a creeping, all pervading nerve-gas of immorality which starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices both corporate and governmental.
Two, a nervous restlessness, a hunger, a thirst, a yearning for something unknown—perhaps morality.
Then there's the violence, cruelty and hypocrisy symptomatic of a people which has too much, and last, the surly ill-temper which only shows up in humans when they are frightened.
Adlai, do you remember two kinds of Christmases?
There is one kind in a house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence.
Once I gave my youngest boy, who loves all living things, a dwarf, peach-faced parrot for Christmas. He removed the paper and then retreated a little shyly and looked at the little bird for a long time.
And finally he said in a whisper, "Now who would have ever thought that I would have a peach-faced parrot?"
Then there is the other kind of Christmas with present piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says—"Is that all?"
Well, it seems to me that America now is like that second kind of Christmas. Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are.
We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.
Mainly, Adlai, I am troubled by the cynical immorality of my country. I do not think it can survive on this basis and unless some kind of catastrophe strikes us, we are lost.
But by our very attitudes we are drawing catastrophe to ourselves. What we have beaten in nature, we cannot conquer in ourselves.
Someone has to reinspect our system and that soon.
We can't expect to raise our children to be good and honorable men when the city, the state, the government, the corporations all offer higher rewards for chicanery and deceit than probity and truth.
On all levels it is rigged, Adlai. Maybe nothing can be done about it, but I am stupid enough and naively hopeful enough to want to try. How about you?
How would you respond to Steinbeck if you were Adlai?
If you were just you?
Is there an answer?
Or is it just the nature of Man?