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The American Dream, John Steinbeck and Hunter S. Thompson

Two writers who come quickly to my mind whenever I hear or see images of American patriotism are John Steinbeck and Hunter S. Thompson. As different as these two men are, their writing is similar in that the American Dream constantly fails their characters. Both seek to define America and the American Dream, however, it remains seemingly elusive, and both writers fail to find it. I choose Steinbeck and Thompson because, to me, their writing styles are the same. They have the same lust for language and powerful writing. Their subjects are contemporary; they are not necessarily moral or upright, but are average people.

Both view the world in the same sad way, that people are as easily led to beauty as deceit, joy to sorrow and life to death. There are certain truths in their writing that is not expressed elsewhere; consequences that we might not always like to believe exist. I also choose Steinbeck and Thompson in that they are representative of the twentieth century. Steinbeck neatly covers the first half more or less, and Thompson from the sixties to present. Both authors have also experienced a number of failures. Steinbeck has been called sentimental, overdrawn, boring and grossly contrived.

While this may be true, for example, the killing of Candy’s dog as a metaphor for the killing of Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck received attention after Tortilla Flats was published. Since then, he has become one of the most popular authors of the twentieth century and won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. Thompson, who has been called names less polite, continues to be a dynamic force in modern American writing, because he broke conventional rules of writing and journalism. Thompson, who flunked out of Columbia, also worked hard before gaining fame for Hell’s Angels.

His popularity continues today with his cult following of fans. Rather interesting is that both men are alcoholics. One of Steinbeck’s last books is Travels With Charley in which the old man and his poodle take a road trip in a custom built truck named Rosinante. This book is my least favorite; here, sentimental, overdrawn, boring and grossly contrived apply greatly. Steinbeck records faithfully how he procured his truck, meets with his sons one last time before setting off, then hurtles across the country, interviewing cowboys and common people.

He makes brief comments on current events such as Nikita Kruschev; but other than that, fails to find America. In fact, I would say that the book subtitled “In Search of America”, is a lame attempt at personal journalism. Personal journalism is only worth reading if something exciting or out of the ordinary happens, and takes a certain touch. (As human beings, we tend to go for the exciting. In Travels, Steinbeck may as well have printed how many times he changed his underwear).

Travels is a failure all in itself, as Steinbeck throws his characteristic prose out the window. Thompson also goes on the road. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, while a smashing success, is a two-fold failure. First, Thompson and his attorney (Oscar Zeta Acosta; the attorney is never named, except, some think, in the urgent speed letter as Dr. Gonzo) also fail to find the American Dream. With all its opportunities for sex, drugs, and money, they simply can’t find it, no matter how hard they try.

The second failure is one on part of Thompson; he edited the manuscript at least five or six times, destroying his goal of “buying a big fat red notebook and writing things basically as they happened”. The book is not true gonzo journalism, as it had been tainted by editing as well as Acosta’s threats of libel. Perhaps the heart of the American Dream for these two writers is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Grapes was written near the end of the Great Depression and published in 1939.

Interestingly enough, Steinbeck almost failed to finish his epic and it was only when his first wife suggested the title, that he could resume finishing it. Grapes is a study in failure – of the land, of the government, of society and people in general. Because of the drought, families such as the Joads are not able to produce food or profit and are pushed off the land that their family had fought for generations. The Joads’, like other dispossessed people of the time, became nomadic and traveled to California, having placed their faith in handbills distributed by canneries and farms.

However, they fail to find the American Dream, or, rather, the American Dream fails them. They are unable to make anything out of nothing except pity and sadness. Perhaps the ultimate testimony to this is the miscarriage of Rosasharn’s baby. This is a metaphor for fertility; the land cannot produce anything nor people themselves. In Chapter Twenty, Steinbeck makes his dissertation on failure. While science can make all sorts of wondrous new grafts and varieties of fruit, it cannot make the fruit available to those who need it most.

Instead, it is left to rot in the sun. Thompson began his journey to find the American Dream in Hell’s Angels. Here, he describes the migration of Linkhorn mentalities from the east to the west, California in particular. Near the end of the book, he writes a prophetic statement about the American Dream, of these strange bike riders who are “useless in a highly technical economy”. Uneducated, relatively unskilled and just too weird, the Angels stand for an emerging society that has never experienced such a phenomena before.

Thompson then developed his theory in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This then brings us to the question: Just what the heck is the American Dream? It is a strange concept, defined by painting of goddesses with large books and holding telegraph wires, felt in the stirrings of the heart during the national anthem, the idea that anyone – regardless of status, race or creed – was created equal in the eyes of God and capable of becoming successful and wealthy through hard work, God-fearedness and just by being on American soil.

The American Dream is a severe form of nationalism, and one that has been used as a red herring fallacy in many arguments. It is also a fantasy formation of sorts; despite crumbling urban centers, racial problems and nuclear paranoia (as Thompson points out in the final chapters of Hell’sAngels), advertising and other popular media images still uphold the idea of America as the land of the free. In both Grapes and Fear, the characters are even accused of being un-American. Once in California, the Joads and their friend Casey (the preacher) hear strange talk of “reds”.

The reds, are of course, communists, and those who are not communists but want to offer people a better standard of living. It is talk of unionizing that ultimately leads to the death of Casey and why young Tom Joad must leave his family. He swears to live out Casey’s dream. Thompson, while sitting in a bar in Aspen, finds a former astronaut (whose name was deleted at the insistence of publisher’s lawyers), hassling a band that plays songs with some un-American sentiments.

Thompson, as Raoul Duke, admonishes the bullish spaceman – “Hey, I’m an American and I agree with every word he says,” When the astronaut is asked by a young boy for an autograph, the spaceman is aghast when the boy rips the slip of paper up, proving just how worthless the spaceman’s “heroism” is. So where do we go from here? Is the American Dream all meaningless imagery and puffery symbolism? Or is it something attainable, like money and power? Does it actually exist? If so, why does it elude so many writers and everyday people?

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