Listening to America

Every February, I have the privilege of teaching Travel Writing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. One of the sweetest times of the semester comes in February, when my students and I accompany John Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, on their trek around the US in the fall of 1960. We're struck by Steinbeck's prescience regarding the environment, immigration, race relations, and more. And we're impressed by his open-mindedess and desire to listen, even to people who hold different values than he does -- that is, until he witnesses a particularly vulgar protest against school integration in New Orleans and is overcome with anger and perplexity. Indeed, his trip ends there, even though he has to drive all the way back to New York. Here's a particularly optimistic observation from Steinbeck that I believe has the power to heal our broken nation:

"From start to finish I found no strangers . . . these are my people and this is my country. If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself. 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." And, insisted Steinbeck, in spite of our many differences, we Americans more alike than not. "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."

Lisa Knopp