With Your Wings, about a black pilot returning from the second world war, was written for an Orson Welles radio broadcast in 1944 but then disappeared
In July 1944, Orson Welles wrapped up one of his wartime radio broadcasts with a brief, emotional reading of one of America’s favorite authors, John Steinbeck.
The piece was titled With Your Wings, an inspirational story about a black pilot. Steinbeck wrote it for Welles’ program,but it seemed to disappear almost as soon as it was aired. There are no records of With Your Wings appearing in a book or magazine. Even some Steinbeck experts, including the scholar Susan Shillinglaw and the antiquarian James Dourgarian, know little about it.
“It doesn’t ring a bell at all,” said Dourgarian, who specializes in selling first editions of Steinbeck’s work. “And that’s saying something if I haven’t heard of it. It’s also surprising because you would think that anything Steinbeck was involved with would be printed some place.”
But 70 years after Welles’ introduction in the midst of the second world war, With Your Wings is getting published. Andrew F Gulli, managing editor of the Birmingham, Michigan-based quarterly the Strand, came upon the transcript recently while looking through archives at the University of Texas at Austin. He features it in the Strand’s holiday issue, which comes out on Friday.
Steinbeck, who died in 1968, often wrote about social injustice and on occasion featured black characters, notably Crooks in his classic novella Of Mice and Men. Gulli, whose magazine specializes in reissuing obscure works by famous writers, said in a recent email that With Your Wings was characteristic of the Nobel laureate’s worldview.
“Steinbeck was an idealist. He saw America as this wonderful land with so much to offer, but on the flipside he could see inequality, he could see greed and excess destroying the working classes,” Gulli wrote. “This story strikes me as an effort to show middle America that African Americans were carrying on a huge burden in defending the United States and the allies during the war.”
An avid supporter of the war, Steinbeck worked overseas as a correspondent in the 1940s and, according to biographer Robert DeMott, wrote a favourable book about the air force called Bombs Away!. Dourgarian noted that Steinbeck had favoured “unusual” stories instead of describing the daily briefings from military officials.
With Your Wings at first reads like a standard narrative of a veteran’s return, a plot used by everyone from Homer to Ernest Hemingway. Second Lieutenant William Thatcher has completed his training and at a farewell ceremony receives silver wings, pinned to his chest. He climbs into his “clattering” Model-A Ford and sets out for an unidentified hometown. He appears to be greeted as a hero, or at least a celebrity, passing “crowded porches” and children “washed and dressed in their best and starchiest clothes, hairs bursting with ribbons”.
“He could hear the rustle as the neighbours moved silently near and formed a half circle behind him,” Steinbeck writes. “It was as though his own people were sitting in judgement on him.”
Thatcher’s sense of obligation is made more clear and powerful when Steinbeck reveals that he is black, at a time the military was segregated. “He took off his cap with the gold eagle on it and held it in his hand. He saw his tall father lick his lips. And then his father said softly, ‘Son, every black man in the world is going to fly with your wings,’” Steinbeck writes.
“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.”