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“Paradox and Dream”

7 February 2012

“Paradox and Dream” is the title of an essay written in 1966 by American author and Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck. I came across it in Steinbeck’s America and Americans while looking for a particular quote of his about why socialism never caught on it America (“I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”)

From the very first sentence of this essay I was struck by the pertinence of his descriptions  over 40 years later.

Following is an excerpted version of “Paradox and Dream”:

One of the generalities most often noted about Americans is that we are a restless, a dissatisfied, a searching people. We bridle and buck under failure, and we go mad with dissatisfaction in the face of success. We spend our time searching for security, and hate it when we get it. For the most part we are an intemperate people: we eat too much when we can, drink too much, indulge our senses too much. Even in our so-called virtues we are intemperate: a teetotaler is not content to not drink—he must stop all the drinking in the world; a vegetarian among us would outlaw the eating of meat. We work too hard, and many die under the strain; and then to make up for that we play with violence as suicidal.

The result is that we seem to be in a state of turmoil all the time, both physically and mentally. We are able to believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and at the same time we are deeply convinced that it is the best government in the world, and we would like to impose it upon everyone else. We speak of the American Way of Life as though it involved the ground rules for the governance of heaven. A man hungry and unemployed through his own stupidity and that of others, a man beaten by a brutal policeman, a woman forced into prostitution by her own laziness, high prices, availability, and despair—all bow with reverence toward the American Way of Life, although each one would look puzzled and angry if he were asked to define it. We scramble and scrabble up the stony path toward the pot of gold we have taken to mean security. We trample friends, relatives, and strangers who get in our way of achieving it; and once we get it we shower it on psychoanalysts to try to find out why we are unhappy, and finally—if we have enough of the gold—we contribute it back to the nation in the form of foundations and charities.

[. . .]  

Now there is a set of generalities for you, each one of them canceled out by another generality. Americans seem to live and breathe and function by paradox; but in nothing are we so paradoxical as in our passionate beliefs in our own myths. We truly believe ourselves to be natural-born mechanics and do-it-yourself-ers. We spend our lives in motorcars, yet most of us—a great many of us at least—do not know enough about a car to look in the gas tank when the motor fails. Our lives as we live them would not function without electricity, but it is a rare man or woman who, when the power goes off, knows how to look for a burned-out fuse and replace it. We believe implicitly that we are the heirs of the pioneers; that we have inherited self-sufficiency and the ability to take care of ourselves, particularly in relation to nature. There isn’t a man among us in ten thousand who knows how to butcher a cow or a pig and cut it up for eating, let alone a wild animal. By natural endowment, we are great rifle shots and great hunters—but when hunting season opens there is a slaughter of farm animals and humans by men and women who couldn’t hit a real target if they could see it. Americans treasure the knowledge that they live close to nature, but fewer and fewer farmers feed more and more people; and as soon as we can afford to we eat out of cans, buy frozen TV dinners, and haunt the delicatessens. Affluence means moving to the suburbs, but the American suburbanite sees, if anything, less of the country than the city apartment dweller with his window boxes and his African violets tended under lights. In no country are more seeds and plants and equipment purchased, and less flowers and vegetables raised.

The paradoxes are everywhere: We shout that we are a nation of laws, not men—and then proceed to break every law we can if we can get away with it. We proudly insist that we base our political positions on the issues—and we will vote against a man because of his religion, his name, or the shape of his nose.

[. . .]

We fancy ourselves as hardheaded realists, but we will buy anything we see advertised, particularly on television; and we buy it not with reference to the quality or the value of the product, but directly as a result of the number of times we have heard it mentioned. The most arrant nonsense about a product is never questioned. We are afraid to be awake, afraid to be alone, afraid to be a moment without the noise and confusion we call entertainment. [. . . ]

One of the characteristics most puzzling to a foreign observer is the strong and imperishable dream the American carries. On inspection, it is found that the dream has little to do with reality in American life. Consider the dream of and the hunger for a home. The very word can reduce nearly all of my compatriots to tears. Builders and developers never build houses—they build homes. The dream home is either in a small town or in a suburban area where grass and trees simulate the country. This dream home is a permanent seat, not rented but owned. It is a center where a man and his wife grow graciously old, warmed by the radiance of well-washed children and grandchildren. Many thousands of these homes are built every year; built, planned, advertised, and sold—and yet, the American family rarely stays in one place for more than five years. The home and its equipment are purchased on time and heavily mortgaged. The earning power of the father is almost always overextended, so that after a few years he is not able to keep up the payments on his loans. That is on the losing side. But suppose the earner is successful and his income increases. Right away the house is not big enough, or in the proper neighborhood. Or perhaps suburban life palls, and the family move to the city, where excitement and convenience beckon.

For Americans too the wide and general dream has a name. It is called “the American Way of Life.” No one can define it or point to any one person or group who lives it, but it is very real nevertheless, perhaps more real than that equally remote dream the Russians call Communism. These dreams describe our vague yearnings toward what we wish were and hope we may be: wise, just, compassionate, and noble. The fact that we have this dream at all is perhaps an indication of its possibility.


Wide-armed thanks to Paul Higdon for sharing some of the stunning photos he took on a  recent trip through Arizona. To see more amazing shots like these — from the U.S. and from travels around the world — visit Paul’s Flickr site.


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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Teresa Owens permalink
    7 February 2012 15:32

    Pretty amazing to be able to end all that on a “positive” note….I just loved this piece, really. It’s a mighty big nutshell, but a nutshell nonetheless….Thanks for posting, Jena.

    • 7 February 2012 15:53

      That’s what I thought, too, Teresa — and that may be the one major difference between today and 1966. We are so cynical and pessimistic nowadays.

  2. 7 February 2012 16:26

    Still right on in relevance to the USA of today…

    • 7 February 2012 17:13

      I know. At the end of the essay he’s seems hopeful about the possibilities, but the fact that we are still stuck in the same place 40+ years later seems to justify my pessimism!

  3. 7 February 2012 18:08

    I agree with what has been said here. But for me, 1966 opened up a new vision of what the world was like. I spent 6 weeks in Norway that summer and had my 15th birthday there. I was conceived there and I have been drawn there ever since. I grow increasingly disappointed in a land that has such great possibilities and often look toward Norway as my other home. Most of my family is there and I miss them.

    • 7 February 2012 19:39

      1966 – really? That’s pretty cool! But I’m starting to see that Norwegians have their paradoxes too. Maybe just ones I can ignore better. 🙂

  4. 7 February 2012 18:28

    Thank you for sharing. Still so relevant!

    • 7 February 2012 19:40

      Hi Dianna – great to hear from you again, which reminded me that I need to check out your blog (I’ve been behind in everything since Xmas … not looking good that it’s already February and I haven’t caught up yet!) Hope things are going well for you.

  5. 7 February 2012 19:00

    “We are afraid to be awake, afraid to be alone, afraid to be a moment without the noise and confusion we call entertainment.”

    This one really struck me. If I could describe popular American culture it’s “perpetually stimulated.”

    • 7 February 2012 19:42

      Me, too! I keep re-reading the essay and every time something different sticks out at me. We are absolutely afraid to really live and so we cloud our days with all sorts of noisy and mind-numbing distractions. This is one thing I always notice when we return to the U.S.

  6. Sophie permalink
    8 February 2012 00:12

    I looove LOOOVE loove your piece!

    I read through some of your comments, and you mentioned pardoxes of Norwegians. I hope you write something on that someday. Objectivity, no?

    Once again, LOOOOVED your piece!

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