illustrated portrait of American author John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

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In his essay, "Paradox and Dream," choose and defend at least one generality that John Steinbeck notes about the American way of life.

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In the first paragraph of his essay, Steinbeck writes,

We work too hard, and many die under the strain; and then to make up for that we play with a violence as suicidal . . .

This generality is true of Americans, as we work far more than many Europeans do. Our work weeks are longer than those in many other industrialized nations, and we do not always even take the personal/vacation days that are allotted to us. As a result, stress is rampant in the United States, and we suffer from the result of chronic stress. We often eat too much or unhealthily; we don't spend enough time sleeping or exercising. Because of these tendencies, obesity and heart-related illnesses are widespread in the United States. However, when we decide to relax, we often do so with abandon and even violence, delighting in participating in or watching sports like car racing or football. We are not sedate or quiet people as a nation.

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In Steinbeck's essay, "Paradox and Dream," one of the main generalities is the American Dream of owning your own home (paragraph 5). He states that Americans "hunger for a home." They spend their life dreaming of having a home in the suburbs or in a small, picturesque town. Of course, owning the home is all important, not simply renting a house. Also, builders advertise developments where these houses can be purchased, catering to the dream of permanent home ownership.

Paradoxically, these houses carry heavy mortgages that require a steady income. Even the appliances in the house are purchased on loans, and it is easy to become buried in a load of debt. Furthermore, these permanent residences are usually not so permanent; Steinbeck points out that "the American family rarely stays in one place for more than five years" (paragraph 5). Lastly, even if the house does not become a burden, a family will still sell the home to move up to a bigger, better version of the same house, perhaps even in a city. In this manner, the American Dream of home ownership is merely an illusion.

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I think that Steinbeck brings out some very interesting and compelling points about what it means to be American.  In no way would he mean for this to be a definitive statement from a social scientist, yet what he does develop is meant to cause a level of reflection about what it means to be "American" and the paradoxes that accompany such a distinction.  I think that one particular point that he makes is relevant because it is a central theme in his writing.  Consider his point made about the paradox concerning Americans' sense of compassion:

Americans are remarkably kind and hospitable and open with both guests and strangers; and yet they will make a wide circle around the man dying on the pavement. 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 implications of this paradox are fairly profound because human cruelty is a major theme of Steinbeck's work.  The same tendency that enables Steinbeck's characters to take people in and host others out of pure generosity in The Grapes of Wrath is the same tendency that enables the lynch mob to hunt down Lennie in Of Mice and Men.  How there can be both tendencies within the American sense of character is something that Steinbeck examines in his own work.  The paradox of offering care to strangers and to animals, but doing nothing when someone is in need of assistance is one that causes reflection and thought as to how action and apathy are so much a part of what it means to be "American."

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