Part I: America and Americans
Part II: The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights The hardest part about packing for a Steinbeck-tour of California was what novel to bring.I’m a relatively light packer and can frequently shove a week’s worth of clothes into one backpack, but the real concern was, ‘Which unread book do I think will help best capture the experience?” Translation: “What book do I want to be seen reading?” The selection process was akin to choosing the proper wine with dinner. My master reading-order-list told me it was time to read The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (Steinbeck’s posthumously released tale of King Arthur), but I wanted something with a bit more punch. A tale that was bold in language and rich in Salinas flavor with a bouquet to bring out the flavor of the scenery and experience.
So I selected the 1966 essay collection, America and Americans. Incidentally, this decision was rather fortuitous as Steinbeck crafted the project during his writing of The Acts of King Arthur. Steinbeck’s literary procrastination mirrored my own desire not to jump right into Arthur as well. As a professed romantic, I was filled with a sense of kinship: As if my decision was somehow justified by the spirit of Steinbeck and the Salinas Valley. Kizmet, baby.
The first pressing of America and Americans differs from the Penguin repress in that the Penguin ed. contains numerous additional essays on war, celebrities, and travel. It even includes his Nobel acceptance speech which I recently purchased in a hardcover collection of other Nobel speeches. The Penguin ed. made for a perfect travel copy by adding more bang for the buck and an innate ‘destrucatability’ I don’t often ascribe to pristine first editions. I did miss out on the black and white photos from the first pressing, but there really is no strong connection from image to word.
The text of Steinbeck’s America and Americans covers his ruminations on the changing face of the American Dream and the make-up of the dreamers. One of Steinbeck’s strengths is that of the armchair philosopher. By the 1960’s, Steinbeck had grown from starving artist to National Treasure, from accused Commie sympathizer to Presidential confidant, and from simple writer to vibrant wordsmith. His characters capture every quintessence of humanity, but his insight into the workings and motivations of those characters are his true talent. Steinbeck understands human behavior in a way most never will.
America and Americans reads like the cheat sheet for Steinbeck’s novels. In it, he takes great pains to spell out his views on the people he worked so tirelessly to define. It’s a harsh criticism of America, but deserved and constructive. It is the ballast for every politician who flavors speeches with condescension and apologies. Steinbeck treats his readers like young adults ready to hear the truth as opposed to those who treat Americans as children needing protection. It can be a hard lesson, but if more people recognized the faults, then perhaps they begin preventative maintenance.
America and Americans is an essential text for anyone considering themselves a patriot or wearing a tiny metal flag to prove love of country. Guthrie’s guitar may have killed fascists, but these essays declare war.
“What can I say about journalism? It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the first thing the dictator controls. It is the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap.”
“The town motto, given it by a reporter ahead of his time, was: “Salinas is.” I don’t know what that means, but there is no doubt of its compelling tone.”
“I wonder if all towns have the blackness – the feeling of violence just below the surface.”
“The Songs of the working people have always been their sharpest statement, and one statement which cannot be destroyed. You can burn books, buy newspapers, you can guard against handbills and pamphlets, but you cannot prevent singing.”
“America was not planned; it became. Plans made for it fell apart, were forgotten. From being a polyglot nation, Americans became the worst linguists in the world.”
“We are able to believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and at the same time we are convinced that it is the best government in the world, and would like to impose it upon everyone else.”
“Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence.”
“The paradoxes are everywhere: We shout that we are a nation of laws, not men – and then proceed to break every law we can if we get away with it. We proudly insist that we base our political positions on the issues – and we vote against the man…”
“We are afraid to be awake, afraid to be alone, afraid to be a moment without the noise and confusion we call entertainment.”
“Man is indeed wonderful, and perhaps his gaudiest achievement has been to survive his paradoxes.”
“When students cheat in examinations, it may be bad for them as individuals but for the community it means that the graduate is traveling with false papers and very shortly the papers – in this case the college degree – lose their value.”
“I have named the destroyers of nations: comfort, plenty, and security – out of which grow a bored and slothful cynicism, in which rebellion against the world as it is and myself as I am are submerged in listless self-satisfaction.”
“A dying people tolerates the present, rejects the future, and finds the satisfactions in past greatness and half-remembered glory…A dying people invariably concedes that poetry is gone, that beauty has withered away.”