Our Erroneous Citation of John Steinbeck as the Author of “Socialism never took root in America…”

February 15, 2016

A visitor sent an email yesterday about this quote we had published on the site, cited to John Steinbeck:

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

A quick web search makes very clear that we aren’t the first or the last publication to contain this misattribution of the quote. But indeed, it’s not from Steinbeck. It may seem like a reasonable thing for the famous 20th-century author of Grapes of Wrath, but these aren’t lines that can be directly traced back to him.

Such misattributions are common; student of quotations will be well aware that the words inside a quotation are often massaged, changed, and reshaped with time. Words also commonly latch on to unrelated famous people for no good reason whatsoever.

Considering this phenomenon, I like to call to mind a “good old boy” citing a quote he mangles a bit that he doesn’t have the slightest idea of the provence of. When asked from where it’s come, he unveils his biases by whether he find it more plausible that Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain came up with it.

Anyway, I quickly found that Wikiquote already has a note about the quotation on the Steinbeck page. It says, quite rightly:

As quoted in A Short History of Progress (2004) by Ronald Wright.

This is a quite helpful discovery. (Also, Wikiquote is jammed-packed with similarly useful information.) I parlayed that into a slightly more exact way of finding the best possible way to cite this quote: Google Books has scans of MANY works. And indeed, it does manage to have a text-searchable version of Wright’s A Short History of Progress. (This method is the easiest and cheapest way I know to get a linkable copy of a book’s sentence.) Here’s my best attempt to link it. The basic context is that on page 124, in the chapter entitled “The Rebellion of the Tools,” Ronald Wright writes:

John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. This helps explain why American culture is so hostile to the idea of limits, why voters during the last energy shortage rejected the sweater-wearing Jimmy Carter and elected Ronald Reagan who told them it was still “morning in America.” Nowhere does the myth of progress have more fervent believers.

One can easily understand how the first misattribution happened. But the broader context makes quite clear that Wright is simply paraphrasing, not quoting Steinbeck. So citing the inner fragment as the work of Steinbeck is clearly an error.

The quote in the Quodid database has been updated to match our current understanding. Please don’t hesitate to email us as quodid at gmail if you have further questions about the accuracy of a quote’s citation inside or outside of our database!