Rick's Reviews > America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction

America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction by John Steinbeck
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Jul 01, 2010

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It’s only the last 80 pages of this collection that is America and Americans, one of Steinbeck’s last published books (originally published with a series of photographs as well), so the weight of the title is a little off. America and Americans is a sardonic, not always convincing but fairly provocative series of essays on America at midcentury and its infatuation with material things and the impact of this infatuation on our national character. If you are sold that there was a national character that once upon a time looked like this (resourceful, chivalrous, contrary, independent, and self-critical) but not looks like this (greedy, self-centered, whiney, despairing) it's a compelling call to quit our whining and get at it. If not, it's one man looking back unhappily.

But the overall mix of pieces is a fine representation of Steinbeck’s perspective and interests over the length of his career and gives a fair reading of his character—inquisitive, compassionate, independent, direct, uncompromising, fond of the individual, wary of the extreme, self-deprecating, loyal American (but suspicious of those who demand conformity or seek to bully, and resistant to any individual or institution that denies others their freedoms so he pissed off the right for his opposition to McCarthy, the right for being supportive of civil rights at all and the center for being so with less patience than they preferred, and the left for being a moderate hawk on Vietnam), and as regular a guy as a Nobel Prize winning writer can be. He writes about places, people (friends, colleagues, and politicians), family, travels, issues and interests. There are charming essays on his relationship with his children and the ospreys near his Sag Harbor house—didn’t know Steinbeck was as much a New Yorker (and a Met fan) as he was a Californian. Supportive essays of his friends—a defense of Arthur Miller in his battles with HUAC, praise for Adlai Stevenson, Henry Fonda, Ed Ricketts, Woody Guthrie, and others. Advocacy essays in support of migrant workers, Civil Rights workers, and others who seek to better themselves or America. You will certainly recognize the writing and the sensibility behind the novels and perhaps better understand what animates him. It’s a fine collection, harmed only a little by some redundancy (same anecdote appears three times; same seminal story twice), and a good way to pass morning and evening commutes on the subway or late evenings before bed. Thoughtful, intelligent, and quietly provocative.
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