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Steinbeck Found America Content with Mediocrity

In his book When I Relax I Feel Guilty, Tim Hansel addresses our tendency toward mediocrity:

Late in his life John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Prize, decided to travel around the country he loved to explore it more deeply, to enjoy it more deeply, and in the process perhaps to write of his discoveries. Interestingly enough, very few people encouraged him to go. Friend after friend reminded him …it was simply too late in his life. “And I had seen so many,” he wrote, “begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they were even encouraged by their wives and relatives, and it’s such a sweet trap.”
He knew the potential problems of driving ten or twelve thousand miles alone in a truck with only his dog. But as he said, he was not about to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. And at this point in his life, he was not about to begin trading in quality for quantity. He went. His adventures were recorded in a book called Travels with Charlie: In Search of America.
Much of it betrays the sad, cellophane age we live in, so safe and sterile, and the profound consequences of such a life (or should I say lifelessness?).
“It was all plastic too, —the table linen, the butter dish, the sugar and crackers were wrapped in cellophane, the jelly in a small plastic coffin sealed with cellophane. It was early evening and I was the only customer. Even the waitress wore a sponge apron. She wasn’t happy, but then she wasn’t unhappy. She wasn’t anything.”
On different occasions throughout the book, Steinbeck observes how insulated our society has become, and how we allow mediocrity to infuse our style of living.
Before he left, one of his friends, a well-known and highly respected political reporter (and as Steinbeck describes him, “a completely honest man”) told him, “If anywhere in your travels you come on a man with guts, mark the place. I want to go see him. I haven’t seen anything but cowardice and expediency. This used to be a nation of giants. Where have they gone? You can’t defend a nation with a board of directors. That takes men. Where are they?”

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