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American Literature Essay: A Change In Lifestyle

3541 words - 15 pages

When America was first discovered, it was very much an unsettled land. There was no centralized government, no real established culture, and no official identity. Thus, it became the perfect place for people who were looking to start over. Many of the early settlers were younger brothers who hoped to claim the land that they could not inherit, religious pilgrims who hoped to be able to practice their beliefs, and floundering businessmen who hoped to create a fortune in a new land. What they all had in common was the idea that they could become something better, that in this empty land they could carve their lives into some fantastic image in their minds. Eventually, the ability to do big ...view middle of the document...

The result of this was the rejection of the ideals that had been set before them (especially the ideal that a human’s purpose in life is merely to validate his position), and an understanding of their place within a world that is larger than themselves.

One of the first realizations of the now-obsolete generation was that everything, including the values and ideals that they had been told to strive for, was transitory, and even illusory. An example of this is shown in Steinbeck’s short story, “The Leader of the People”. In the story, the main character’s grandfather had been the ideal man of his time. Almost like a hero out of a Wild West novel, he led groups of people, through Indian attacks and murderous terrain, safely to the west coast. However, when he actually reached the coast, his job was done. Once everything was settled, they did not need people like him anymore. His son-in-law even says “Well, how many times do I have to listen to the story of the iron plates, and the thirty-five horses? That time’s done. Why can’t he forget it, now it’s done?” To his children, none of the amazing things that he had done were worth anything, because they no longer mattered in their world. By saying this, the author suggests that as far as the world is concerned, societal ideals only matter insofar as society needs them. There is no actual importance to having attained the ideals. This is shown by the fact that Jody’s grandfather is called by his job title-“the leader of the people”- rather than by his actual name. There is also line at the end where the grandfather says “I was the leader, but if I hadn’t been there, someone else would’ve been the head. The thing had to have a head.” With this line, Jody’s grandfather admits that everything he accomplished was only important in terms of society’s needs at the time.
Even worse, the story hints that many of the ideals that people are told to strive for are not even real, or at least, they aren’t how people picture them to be. The story describes people like Jody’s grandfather as “the great phantoms”, suggesting that they were something ghostlike and unreal. In addition, all of grandfather’s “greatness” came either from Jody’s thoughts (“Jody lay in his bed and thought of the impossible world of Indians and buffaloes…” and “He thought of Grandfather on a huge white horse, marshaling the people.”), or from the stories that the grandfather tells about himself. This suggests that the idea of greatness is manufactured. This is supported by the fact when the grandfather is not trying to tell stories, he likens his killing of Native Americans to Jody’s killing of the mice; he basically says that there was nothing glorious in what they did because the Indians were such inferior opponents to them. (This is shown by the dialogue between him and Jody where Jody tells the grandfather that he is about to go and kill mice. The grandfather’s response: “Have the people of this generation come down to hunting...

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