Steinbeck uses his Chinese immigrant servant / scholar character Lee to deliver this beautiful soliloquy on what it means to be American, and why the people of our land are set apart from those whose ancestors never came over from their home countries around the world:
We’re a violent people, Cal. Does it seem strange to you that I include myself? Maybe it’s true, that we are all descendants of the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers, and brawlers. But also the brave, and independent, and generous. If our ancestors hadn’t been that, they would’ve stayed in their home plots in the other world and starved over the squeezed-out soil.
Cal turned his head toward Lee, and his face had lost its tightness. He smiled, and Lee knew he had not fooled the boy entirely. Cal knew now it was a job—a well-done job—and he was grateful.
Lee went on, “That’s why I include myself. We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed—selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful—we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic—and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or the language of our culture? That’s what we are, Cal—all of us. You aren’t very different.
That’s about the best description of us I’ve ever read, from half a century ago but it could have been laid down this morning.
A version of this post originally appeared here on December 16th 2017