Us v. Them

Gregory Rodriguez says of John Steinbeck’s America and Americans, “It’s journalistic, sentimental, an aging writer reconnecting with a country he [had lost touch with].”

"The whole thing is crazy.” That’s John Steinbeck describing the United States in his 1966 essay collection America and Americans. “We built America and the process made us American – a new breed, rooted in all races, stained and tinted with all colors, a seeming ethnic anarchy. Then in a little, little time, we became more alike than we were different – a new society; not great, but fitted by our very faults for greatness, e pluribus unum.”

Leading up to its 38th Steinbeck Festival, the National Steinbeck Center posed a series of questions on its Facebook page for comments.

The question “When do you feel most American?” was answered with, among others, “When I visit a National Park” and “When I think about our founding fathers and how they granted us all liberty” and “When it takes nine months to get an appointment with the VA.”

In reply to the question “What does citizenship mean to you?” someone quoted Teddy Roosevelt: “Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag… We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.”

In this presidential election season, with a contentious census count looming, a seemingly innocuous question like “What makes you hopeful about America’s future?” can invite comments with a political undertone: “Storms come; storms pass. America endures” and “We can impeach or vote 2020.”

Thomas Steinbeck said of his father that when artists and writers stand up for the disenfranchised, “… these people will naturally become the enemies of the political status quo.”

Steinbeck Center’s marketing and community outreach coordinator, Eric Mora, notes that the festival’s themes over the last four years have been more topical: Steinbeck and migration, Steinbeck and women, Steinbeck and ocean conservation.

This year’s Steinbeck Festival theme is “In Search of America” and its twin guide books are Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and America and Americans.

“From the first we have treated our minorities abominably,” Steinbeck wrote in the latter book. “It helped if their skin, hair, eyes were different and if they spoke some language other than English or worshipped in some church other than Protestant.”

He describes how “firstlings” worked, fought and died for this country, and also stole, cheated and double-crossed; about how each wave of immigrants tries to pull up the rope to American-ness before the next wave of immigrants; about how Native Americans and African Americans were assaulted by white supremacy.

“There are national myths we like to say about ourselves.”

“There are national myths we like to say about ourselves,” Mora says. “They’re so central to our national identity.”

Still, the organizers hope the festival will be more intellectual than political, more cohesive than divisive. They’ve programmed a bunch of events to get there.

There is a talk with author Peter Zheutlin who, inspired by Travels with Charley, took his own dog on a 9,000-mile trip around the U.S. and then wrote about it in The Dog Went Over the Mountain: Travels with Albie: An American Journey. There is a film screening of Laurie Coyle’s documentary Adios Amor: The Search for Maria Moreno, about the first farmworker woman in the U.S. to be hired as a union organizer. Mora says it highlights “her inability to reconcile [American] wealth with harsh farmworkers’ lives in the Salinas Valley.”

There are tours, wine tastings, live music and talks. There is a pet show.

But the main attraction is a panel discussion with three academics: University of Colorado historian and Center of the American West faculty director Patricia Limerick; Stanford University sociologist Tomas Jimenez; and Cambridge University historian Gary Gerstle.

It’s titled “Did Americans ever get along?” and revolves around America and Americans. It’s moderated by Gregory Rodriguez, the founder of Zocalo Public Square, a 16-year-old nonprofit that publishes “ideas journalism” to build community and start conversations.

In 2015, one topic they addressed was titled “Salinas: California’s Richest Poor City” and they enlisted local people to answer the question, “Why does a place blessed with such fertile land and hard-working residents lag in so many ways?”

“We’re not pro or con,” Rodriguez says. “We’re asking why the world is the way it is.”

The panel’s question is a potentially volatile one right now – with bitter fights over immigration, race, class, crime and party – but Rodriguez stays faithful to his role as moderator and won’t opine on the matter. He hazards an observation:

“There is, in all fairness, the tendency of Americans to be nostalgic about a time that was more peaceful. We may be puncturing nostalgia. Did we get along?”

And he’s leaving the response to the scholars: “It’s an all-star panel.”

Michele Speich, the Steinbeck Center’s new executive director, says, “Right now, in these political times, I think it’s really relevant. It calls for us to examine [ourselves]. It’s going to be a dynamic talk.”

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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