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America and Americans

America and Americans

By John Steinbeck


John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902. He attended Salinas highschool, where he
contributed to the school paper. He went on to Stanford University from 1920-1925. He left
without a degree and went to New York City. An uncle got him a job with a paper, where a
publishing editor convinced him to write a collection of short stories. However, these stories were
rejected by the publisher. Eventually, Steinbeck moved back to California, which was to be the
setting of most of his books. Steinbeck wrote The Pastures of Heaven (1932), To a God Unknown
(1933), Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Sea of
Cortez (1941), Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947) and others. In 1962, John Steinbeck was
awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.


One of the generalities most often noted about Americans is that we are a restless, a
dissatisfied, a searching people. We bridle and buck under failure, and we go mad with
dissatisfaction in the face of success. We spend our time searching for security, and hate
it when we get it. (page 32)

I chose this quote because it is a very true, accurate statement. We usually try to make things
harder on ourselves than things need to be, and we are never satisfied. However, I never actually
though about that until I read this little passage. The way we think and act is so ingrained, it’s
automatic, and we don’t think it’s strange. It never occurred to me how strange some of our
behaviors are.

For Americans too the wide and general dream has a name. It is called "the American
Way of Life." No one can define it or point to any one person or group that lives it, but it
is real nevertheless, perhaps more real than that equally remote dream the Russians call
Communism. These dreams describe our vague yearnings toward what we wish were and
hope we may be: wise, just, compassionate, and noble. The fact that we have this dream at
all is perhaps an indication of its possibility. (page 41)

This quote is also a very shrewd observation of us, that we all believe in the undefined, unattainable
"American Way of Life." I especially like the ending of this particular passage where Steinbeck
talks about the things "we wish we were and hope we may be". It’s a good description of one more
unattainable goal that most of us try to reach. I also liked this whole passage because it is basically
complimentary. (and there really weren’t that many passages that were complementary.)

But we are an exuberant people, careless and destructive as active children. We make
strong and potent tools and then have to use them to prove that they exist. Under the
pressure of war we finally made the atom bomb, and for reasons which seemed justifiable
at the time we dropped it on two Japanese cities-and I think we actually frightened
ourselves. (page 149)

This passage gave me a very good mental picture. I pictured oversize children playing with
matches. And in a lot of ways, that was what we were doing when we made the atom bomb; we
were playing with matches. And in essence, we got burned. We "frightened ourselves". Steinbeck
presents a very clear picture here of what we are doing and what we are like. It is another startlingly
clear observation.

Really, I chose these three passages to be my most important passages because each of them
captured the essence of their section of the book and each presented a very sharp, clear, true
observation that still holds true today, about forty years later.

EVALUATION (One student writes...)

I am not a great lover of Steinbeck, and after reading the book America and Americans I am still
not a great lover of Steinbeck. However, I did appreciate the ideas and observations in the book.

The ideas that John Steinbeck wrote about were all very valid. He made some very clear
judgments about the nature of all of us that live in this country, America. I especially liked the section
where he talked about how we feel towards our government and our president. I felt that section
was particularly true. Another section that interested me a lot was the part where he talks about the
way we treat the elderly and children. That section really hit home for me, because I understand
completely what he is saying from personal experience (about children, not about the elderly). I can
attest to the validity of the statements made in that chapter.

One of the things that I didn’t like all that much was the way Steinbeck tended to go off on
tangents. For, example, take the story about the Native American jumping into the river with the
fish. Steinbeck was discussing the fact the Native Americans did not fit the same pattern as other
immigrants, then suddenly he busts out with the river story. That one was completely out of the blue
for me. Most of the others were on topic, or at least had a point. I think that best story in the book
was the story about the miser. That one was amusing and had a point; the point was that every town
has its screwballs. That is a very valid point. I think that everybody meets a screwball at least once
a year. I usually meet mine riding the bus.

America and Americans wasn’t too difficult to read. The vocabulary was easy and the sentences
weren’t complex. (In comparison to Hawthorne or Benjamin Franklin) Occasionally, it did drag
quite a bit. I found myself counting the number of pages until the next set of pictures. And the
reason I was doing that was not because the book was difficult to read, but because certain sections
didn’t interest me.

I think that I could possibly recommend this book to someone, depending on the person. If I knew
that the person I was recommending the book to was a great lover of Steinbeck and enjoyed his
ideas and views on humanity and liked books about "real life", then I would recommend America
and Americans.

However, if the person I was recommending the book to didn’t really like Steinbeck’s writing style,
then I wouldn’t recommend America and Americans, because a lot of enjoying a book comes from
enjoying the author’s style, and this holds doubly true for Steinbeck, in my opinion.

Something interesting that I noticed was that a lot of what Steinbeck says isn’t complementary at
all. In fact, he says some very mean things about us. But, it also seems like he’s proud to be an
American. I thought that was an interesting paradox within a paradox in his book.

So, I liked sections of the book, thought other sections were slow, but overall, I appreciated it.
And that is a large concession from one who hates to read Steinbeck.

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