Steinbeck and Social Synthesis

By: Danny Spetz

“It seemed to me that regional speech is in the process of disappearing, not gone but going… Communications must destroy localness, by a slow, inevitable process.”

John Steinbeck (Travels with Charley)

Mark Twain said, “America is built on a tilt, and everything loose slides to California.” Coming from a man who lived in a time with great regional cultures and divides, and who placed such differences and divisions at the center of much of his writing, his observation seems particularly prescient in today’s America.

            Elements of regional cultures and distinctions still surely exist across the continent. There is still cotton in the South, and the Midwest is still mostly corn. One travels to Las Vegas when in search of gambling and hookers, and to Texas when in search of guns and cattle. Nashville is still known for its’ country music, New Orleans for its’ jazz and Chicago for the blues, and just about every state, metropolitan center, village and hamlet still tries to retain its local delicacies. Peperoni rolls in West Virginia, cheesesteaks in Philly, Chili in Cincinnati, and a whole different type of chili in Chugwater.

            But despite efforts to keep regionalities beyond mere geography alive, it sems America is sliding more and more towards one great and sweeping national culture and psyche. People across the country are more alike today than they have ever been before, and it is in large part, if not fully, because of the rise of national media outlets and news distribution. Americans, regardless of locale, watch the same shows, watch the same commercials, see the same ads, and interact on the same social media platforms. Local news stations still exist, but “news” can sometimes be a stretch, and even the latest weather forecast can be more quickly gathered through a free app. It began when the ability to communicate across great distances began, and as communicative distances widened, so narrowed the distinction of regions.

            Mass produced and mass distributed products by nature, and perhaps by definition, have a tendency to be interchangeable. Mass produced communication is no different. And naturally, from the consumption of near identical media and entertainment comes the development of near identical cultures. This is no new trend. It’s been working its’ processes for some time now.

            In 1960 John Steinbeck departed on his epic road trip across the nation on his trusty motorized steed Rocinante and with only his beloved blue poodle Charley as a companion. He set out in an attempt to rediscover the broad spectrum of layered cultures and people that spread across a continent that he remembered from his childhood, depicted in his many novels, and which he now felt out of touch with. He even subtitled his ensuing work In Search of America.

            What he found, and what he describes in his book, was a changed America. Not necessarily an America changed for the worse, or for the better, but certainly an America with a definite change. The middle years of the Twentieth-Century had altered middle America tremendously.

            He saw the shift toward uniformity as a byproduct of the mass production, distribution, and consumption of communications. “One of my purposes was to listen, to hear speech, accent, speech rhythms, overtones and emphasis. For speech is so much more than words and sentences. I did listen everywhere. It seemed to me that regional speech is in the process of disappearing, not gone but going. Forty years of radio and twenty years of television must have this impact. Communications must destroy localness, by a slow, inevitable process. I can remember a time when I could almost pinpoint a man’s place of origin by his speech. That is growing more difficult now and will in some foreseeable future become impossible. It is a rare house or building that is not rigged with spiky combers of the air. Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” 

            Flip on any news station today and they’ll be delivering the same product as the rest. Events may be portrayed from a different angle, shed in a different light, or spun in a different direction, and though the names of the presenters shown at the bottom of the screen will be different, it will be essentially the same cast of prim, po-faced and painted characters who spend their days dissecting, critiquing and generally over-analyzing any and all minor happenings in an effort to fill twenty-four hours.

            But the question remains: Is this change really a bad thing after all? Or, even if it does contain one, several, or a myriad of downsides, is the overall effect still a positive? One has to imagine that these things happen for a reason. That the progression towards a national voice is a natural progression, a progression that occurred because people like it, like the conveniences of modern life, and not because of unseen insidious forces acting in effort to destroy localities.

            Perhaps it is just the American effect at work. The melting pot in action. Assimilation in the extreme, and the American experiment realized. Steinbeck seemed to think so. “If I were to prepare one immaculately inspected generality it would be this: For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerners, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners. And descendants of English, Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, Polish are essentially American. This is not patriotic whoop-de-do; it is carefully observed fact. California Chinese, Boston Irish, Wisconsin German, yes, and Alabama Negroes, have more in common than they have apart. And this is the more remarkable because it has happened so quickly. It is a fact that Americans from all sections and of all racial extractions are more alike than the Welsh are like the English, the Lancashireman like the Cockney, or for that matter the Lowland Scot like the Highlander. It is astonishing that this has happened in less than two hundred years and most of it in the last fifty. The American identity is an exact and provable thing.”

            Or maybe, even all of this being true, natural tendencies accepted, progression towards conformity an unstoppable rolling stone, maybe that stone is still rolling down a road to ruin.

            There can be no way of knowing, and it’s a fool who thinks he could know. The only constant in the world is change, and there’s no way of stopping it. One more from Steinbeck: “The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain.”

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