What do Orson Welles and John Steinbeck have in common?
On July 19, 1944, Welles finished the final broadcast of his radio program, Orson Welles’ Almanac, with a five-minute reading of a piece “especially written for me to broadcast by one of the first talents in American literature, John Steinbeck.” The broadcast emanated from the Coast Guard camp at Long Beach, CA. The story was titled With Your Wings. This short sketch remained unpublished for 70 years.
But this past Friday The Strand Magazine, a Birmingham, MI quarterly, featured Steinbeck’s piece in its holiday issue.
Hillel Italie, a national writer for the Associated Press, broke the story. The magazine specializes in republishing such long-lost or obscure stories by famous writers.
Andrew F. Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, found the transcript for Steinbeck’s piece while looking through archives at the University of Texas, Austin.
Read the piece for yourself. It certainly has Steinbeck’s great ability at description. It tells the story of Second Lieutenant William Thatcher who has completed his flight training. He has just received his wings. He wears them proudly, just as he proudly wears the gold bars on his shoulders. He climbs into his Model-A Ford to return to his home, his family, and his neighborhood awaiting their hero.
Steinbeck writes, “It was as though his own people were sitting in judgment of him.” It was an almost typical scene repeated many times over during World War II.
It is only at the very end, however, that Steinbeck reveals that Second Lieutenant Thatcher is a black man, serving in the segregated armed forces.
Italie quotes Gulli about the sketch. “Steinbeck was an idealist. He saw America as this wonderful land with so much to offer but on the flip slide, he could see inequality, he could see greed and excess destroying the working class. This story strikes me as an effort to show middle class America that African-Americans were carrying on a huge burden in defending the United States and the allies during the war.”
Thatcher’s father tells him, “Son, every black man in the world is going to fly with your wings.”
Steinbeck finishes the story, “His heart was pounding. He could hear a little quiet murmur of voices in front of the house. He knew they were going to sing in a moment. And he knew now what he was to them.”