America and Americans

America and Americans

"America and Americans" is a 1966 collection of John Steinbeck's journalism.

America and Americans is a fascinating personal view of America up until the mid-sixties. It is biased towards the early part of the twentieth century, a period in which Americans were loved, hated and feared by the rest of the world and themselves for what they had done, what they had become and what they could yet be. The text of the book traces the incredible self sufficiency, resourcefulness and instinctive brutality of the early settlers, through to the mass industrial age in which the traits displayed by their forefathers served the American people so well in their labours and ingenuity that they became the leading nation of the industrialised world. With unacknowledged nostalgia, the author expresses fear that the values stemming from the human need to survive have been eradicated as his society's needs have been replaced by ever spiralling wants; where the struggle for survival and the optimism of pushing new frontiers has been replaced by the quest to fill increasing hours of leisure with shallow pursuits and the creation and fulfilment of capitalist and materialistic dreams. Steinbeck closes in suggesting that the pursuit of survival was what gave society its values, rules, and critically its purpose; and as the purpose of life, survival, is no longer pressing, American society has witnessed a regression of values and codes concurrent with the diminishing struggle simply to exist.

The book, however, is no diatribe. It is a sensitive and crushingly honest view of his country, personal in the extreme, and it is the personality that gives the text its richness. The storyteller is never far from the page, and there are several characteristic fables that ensure that the reading always stays within the human and never strays into the esoteric. Steinbeck does try to temper his pessimism in the closing sections of the book by suggesting his love for the Americans and his belief that they can achieve anything provided they have a sense of purpose. However, the reader can sense the author reaching for a positive tone in contrast to the effortless prose that forms the majority of the book. The book contains many interesting photographs. In a way, the inclusion of the photographs is as suggestive as any of the text about the state of America at the time of writing. It is saying, "here is over a hundred pages of thought provoking text should you care to read it, but if not, why not just look at the pictures?" The pictures stand in contrast to the cautionary text. They are, with few exceptions, symbols of the American spirit and its achievements, a visual celebration to counter the less optimistic text.

Steinbeck was clearly in love with his country yet mercifully capable of understanding that love has nothing to do with the quality of its recipient. Therefore, the reader obtains a critical yet personal view of his country's progress, but puts the book down unable to shake a sense of the author's sadness, bewilderment and fear over the state of America at the time of his writing and for her future. At times he seems a lonely voice in a his perceived cultural and moral wilderness that is no less a wilderness to him than that physically conquered by his countrymen.

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