My first taste of John Steinbeck came in reading The Grapes of Wrath one summer weekend while at my grandparent’s cottage with nothing to do but peruse their library. Following that was picking up the short novel, The Pearl, and then his non-fiction travelogue, Travels with Charley. By the time I got to America and Americans, I think I had already picked up a strong sense of what encapsulated this great American author’s passions and worldview. His writings have generally covered the early part of 20th century America, its culture, its history, and its problems, and this particular collection of essays is no different, though he does focus on the present more than the past.
In America and Americans, Steinbeck records his skepticism about America and her future, a skepticism grounded in love that doesn’t take away from his patriotism but rather adds to it. Even as early as the book’s publication in 1966, Steinbeck recognized the dangers of America’s general loss of family values, our over-obsession with entertainment and sex, and how these negative distractions have begun to deter our young people from caring at all about their country. I can’t imagine how the man would respond were he to see how distracted our people (the children and grand children of those young people from ’66) are today! What kind of over-obsession with entertainment and sex was even possible in the days prior to the internet and smart phones? My goodness! the man would probably renounce his citizenship, were he still alive today to see what America has become. Naturally, we’ve all watched the slow, day-to-day disintegration of family values and overall morality in our society, but imagine jumping from 1966 to 2015 to see the how far we’ve gone (or better stated, “how far-gone we’ve become”). Reading this book will give you a sense of what such a jump might be like.
Steinbeck wrote this work at one of the peaks of our nation’s racial struggles (other peaks being the height of slavery, the Emancipation, and the violent troubles we’re currently seeing throughout many states today), and he reconfirms what he had previously written in Travels with Charley (published in 1962), that he loves “the negroes” and that it’s about time we all got along. Sadly, even with an African-American President in office for the past seven years, even that still seems to be wishful thinking for a society going farther and farther down the tubes.
Steinbeck’s essays in this book are not as uniform as one might expect. He starts each portion discussing one specific topic, but then meanders into other, seemingly unrelated issues, though by the end he somehow finds a way to take all his diverging thoughts and tie them together in a unified tapestry, just as they are already tied into the fabric of the great American nation that he’s trying to portray. His varied thoughts and personal opinions match the reality of America and Americans in general, the melting pot that we are (though that description is becoming less and less “P.C.” the more brainwashed and “tolerant” our people become), and in this, I think Steinbeck does a superb job. Aesthetically, I must note that the photographs splattered throughout my copy (published in October 1968) are way too dark and difficult to see. I hope they’ve figured out a way to improve them for newer editions.