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The American Dream is the wide- spread belief that America is a land of unlimited wealth and prosperity, of unrestrained human initiative and economic success. Poor people all over the world were lured to arrive there thinking it was the place where one could start from nothing and make a fortune in short terms. In the beginning of XX century it turned out to be an illusion in many ways. On one hand the USA were shaken by deep economic and social problems. On the other hand the money-centered society, the blind ambition to own for its own sake moved the basic human values to the periphery of the society. Steinbeck was not the first but one of the best to observe, describe, attack these dark sides of the American reality.
Speaking about early works I mean the works created until the beginning of the WW II, including "The Grapes of Wrath".
Childhood in the colorful valley of Salinas, the Californean coas. The idyllic and romantic atmosphere of the Golden State later proves to be the writer's preferable region not just as a background but as a peculiar condition of the human spirit. The Ocean is often represented in his works as a living creature, as an universal measure.
Passion for reading and deep interest in literature influenced by his mother and aunt.
Episodic studies, wandering through the country, change of jobs and occupations played an important role in getting familiar with all sides of the American reality.
The economic and social events in the country after the WW I.A great economic and financial crisis and a subsequent depression paralized the country. Thousands of companies went bankrupt , millions became unemployed, streams of migrant labourers walked along the roads of America in search of work, numerous strikes broke throughout the country.
He was a witness and a participant in all these events and, being a honest man, he could not remain silent. Two of his early works were dedicated to these events.
"In a Dubious Battle" (1936) describes the tragic events during the strike of the applepickers. The strike turned into a cruel battle in which Americans fought against other Americans. Many lost their lives. No one was a winner in this "dubious battle" (an expression borrowed from Milton's "Lost Paradise"). Steinbeck sympathises the workers but he is rather an observer (position similar to those of Doctor Berton, one of the main characters) who is horrified but tries to narrate objectively and register this dark side of the American reality. He author explains social problems with the imperfection of the human nature.
In "The Grapes of Wrath" (1939) the writer goes farther and deeper. Describing the tragic fates of the three generations of the Joad family, expropriated Oklahoma farmers from the dust bowl regions, he comes to his bitter conclusion - the individual human life is of no value in a society ruled by the wild thirst for money. The lives of the ordinary people depend on the ruthless nature forces and economic laws. They are a perpetual fight for survival. The author's optimism could be found in the characters themselves. These ordinary, uneducated people are of strong breed. They are humane and warm- hearted, they follow their strong moral code. The writer's cry against the dark side of the American reality is - this must be changed, these people deserve better lives.
The establishment of the group- man concept in Steinbeck's early works was influenced by the ideas of his friend, the biologist Edward Ricketts. According to him the big human communities are not just a sum of separate individuals but a kind of beings with their own collective memory, psychology and conduct.
In "The Pastures of the Heaven" (1932) the group consists of twenty families living in a small idyllic world in a colourful valley. They are ordinary, friendly, good-hearted people, some of them a little strange and eccentric. The tranquility of this isolated world was destroyed by the appearance of the family of new settlers who are rough and ruthless people, unable to understand the feelings of the paisanos. The group here represents the human virtues.
In "Tortilla Flat" (1935) the group is a small brotherhood of carefree paisanos who live in a cheerful way: they do not work, wander here and there, drink, sometimes steal. In some ways these groups emerge naturally but on the other hand they are artificial groups constructed by the losers of society who thrust their limited ambitions against those in power. The plans of the group usually fail. In "Grapes of Wrath" the group is already in existence and its power is in realization that they are capable of evolution, of natural selection. If in Steinbeck's early works the group is opposed to society as representing the primary positive human values, later the group concept undergoes serious changes.
Starting from "Cannery Row" the author redirects his attention to "the individual mind and spirit of a man" (Eden p.152) stating that human creativity is something like a moral force in the bad world. "The group never invents anything" (Eden, p.160) so individual departure from the group is an absolute necessity for a man to do his or her own thing. In Steinbeck's later works the group is the society itself and the individual expression means to be separated to resist the acquisition of power, the ambition to own for its own sake, the dark side of the American Dream. This concept is quite different from the traditional American individualism.
In "The Pastures of the Heaven" the newcomers represent all the horror, disorder, narrow-mindedness and futility of the American society. Missing warmth and humanity they turn the beautiful valley into a waste land and destroy the lives of the natural people. In "Tortilla Flat" the sudden acquisition of two houses deeply changes the character of Danny and even the expression of his face. Property and wealth are pointed out as those evils of civilization which destroy the soul of the natural man. The end is tragic - Danny dies, the houses burn down, the brotherhood falls apart. In "The Grapes of Wrath" the world of property is much more menacing devastating the characters both physically and spiritually.
In "Canary Row" Steinbeck recreates the truly poetic world of his youth into a metaphor for a special and perhaps the best kind of America, for the mind, the sensibility, the spirit of the American soul. Although this world had gone it touches that better part of the American consciousness that is in odds with lotteries, the game shows and cutthroat business practices. The inhabitants of the street are not just funny eccentric figures of the past but the author's cry and willingness to prefer passionate enjoyment to aggressive ambition.
Most of Steinbeck's characters are outsiders in some way. Most of them die unable to survive in the world of property and adopt its values. The author reaches an ethical paradox: those who possess the primary human virtues are not suitable for the American way of life. Or the more rueful observation "We have met the enemy and he is us" (S., Letters, p.74) which demands a change in the society.
John Ernest Steinbeck entered the American literary scene when a change of scenery took place and many of traditional faces and characters had to leave the footlights. The spotlights turned on the new faces. The USA finished the First World War as a winner, but it did not mean an unlimited economical success. It seemed, that the prosperity and welfare will be the American style of life, but twenty years later it turned out, that the American Dream was just illusion in many ways .A great economic and financial crisis and subsequent depression paralyzed the country. John Steinbeck was a witness and a participant in all these events.