John Steinbeck’s America and Americans is both well written and extremely intriguing to me. The whole book is dedicated to airing any grievances Steinbeck may have held in his life, but this chapter, labeled “E Pluribus Unum,” in particular is heavily based in the politics of where “Americans” came from and what “Americans” stood and still stand for today.
“Having suffered, one would have thought [Americans] might have pity on the newer come, but they did not; they couldn’t wait to join the majority and indulge in the accepted upper-caste practice of rumbling some newer group.”
In short, Steinbeck calls many Americans hypocrites and in doing so lays down every slur imaginable, ethnicity, race, sex, religion, you name it. Many of which I didn’t even know existed and because of that he ultimately comes of with the image a cynical old man lecturing the youth about why they will amount to nothing. Yet among the slurs, Steinbeck lays down lines of painful and honest beauty that cuts through red tape, cultural barriers and into the heart of the reader. Steinbeck’s commitment to his beliefs is what is most impressive and what instantly linked his writing to Orwell’s. In Why I Write, Orwell didn’t say, “oh, most writers should think about maybe adding these elements in their own writing.” Instead, Orwell flat out said, “there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer.” He laid out his philosophy and gave little chance for rebuttal. Maybe the stubbornness of these two authors just portrays a grumpy old man image, but at least they have a definite image. Which I guess in a roundabout way brings me to my discovery while comparing the two authors. I enjoyed and am intrigued by both of their works because they are passionate about what they are saying and you can feel that they care about their topics. Mostly though, I respect them both as authors because they are able to make me as a reader believe that whatever they are writing is the truth… well… kinda sorta the truth.
Oh and were you wondering what slurs he used exactly? Here is just one line from the chapter: “To all these people we gave disparaging names: Micks, Sheenies, Kraits, Dagos, Wops, Ragheads, Yellowbellies, and so forth.” Perhaps I am not culturaled enough in the slur world because I know maybe two or three of these or maybe it’s because I’m not the slur throwin’ type of guy. Regardless, Steinbeck sure knows how to hand them out.
Didion seems to be the grandma from movies that appears so sweet and serene but every once in awhile will drop a quick witted insult under her breath with a younger person standing next to her, mouth agape, responding only with an exasperated “Grandma!” While looking side-to-side to see if anyone else could believe a grandma could say such a thing. Yeah, Didion seems like that kind of person to me, but again, I’m just going off a picture here.
What is so glorious about her writing is that it gives off a subtle humor that seems to invoke a bit of self-mockery. I think this gives the illusion that she is not completely narcissistic and allows her to seem grounded, but in reality and in her writing, she is looking at herself, thinking about her life, and her struggles, and in all honesty, this is what makes her piece so inspiring. The piece is all about her, (of course it is when the title is Why I Write) and she is focused strictly on her life and her struggles, but her humor creates a bond with the reader that doesn’t have you searching for laughter, but rather enjoying and indulging when it is presented.
This style of subtle humor is what made me pick up an old Kurt Vonnegut book: Mother Night. Vonegutt much like Didion has the ability to make the reader sincerely chuckle yet still respect the story and not write it off as a comedy. Didion ends her piece brilliantly, she doesn’t outright ask the reader anything. What she does is make such an compelling argument about herself and then resolves her own argument making it seem plausible that everyone should be able to do the same. Therefore, as the reader finishes her last sentence, they take it upon themselves to think, well wait, why do I write, and who am I as a writer? That is something I truly wish to emulate, the art of subtlety. With humor, emotions, and messages buried in the words and within characters. I lack the fine touch, but I can very much appreciate an author that has the ability to execute such subtlety.
With Vonnegut, the ending is a little different, a little more dark if you will:
They say that a hanging man hears gorgeous music. Too bad that I, like my father, unlike my musical mother, am tone-deaf. All the Same, I hope that the tune I am about to hear is not Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas.’ Goodbye, cruel world!”
The man is talking about how he will be hung before the sun rises, yet the humor is just enough without killing the beauty of his acceptance of death. In some regard, like with Didion, I find myself asking, “Were I ever in a situation that involved me being hanged, what gorgeous music would filter through my ears.” Ridiculous? Without a doubt. Powerful? Perhaps intriguing would be more fitting adjective.