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Travelling America: The Diaries of John Steinbeck and Jean Baudrillard
America has long been considered the "land of opportunity," which makes it in turn, an opportune place to travel and explore. Though vast in geography and rich in culture, America has often offered its travelers a similar experience, as these travelers so often find themselves visiting similar places and hearing similar tales of the past and the present. Additionally, travelling often brings with it a longing for the past, as is seen so often in the case of America and the search for an understanding of the "American Dream," which has for years been rooted in the land and resources that America has to offer. Is this notion still true, or is it merely wishful thinking of the past?
This question can be explored further in comparing the travels through America of author John Steinbeck, and author and sociologist, Jean Baudrillard. Steinbeck, an American, and Baudrillard, a Frenchman, began their travels through America's heartland in much the same way: eager to learn and explore. And while their distinctly different cultural backgrounds and different perspectives allowed each man to experience the country in his own way, in reading their accounts, one can see vast similarities, which each add a piece to the understanding of America's changing culture in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in terms of the nation's environmental perspectives.
Comparison: Steinbeck v. Baudrillard
Travels with Charley: In Search of America, is a travelogue written by American author John Steinbeck that recounts the experiences attained during a 1960 road trip across America with his dog, Charley. Steinbeck, who had made his name writing novels about the American experience such as Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath, noted that he was moved by a desire to see his country on a personal level, since he made his living writing about it (McGrath 2011, pp.1). Driven by a sense of wanderlust about a country in which he lived and wrote of but had never fully seen, Steinbeck set forth on a nearly 10,000-mile journey across America in a specially-made camper which he named Rocinante, after the horse of legendary literary character, Don Quixote (Steigerwald 2010, pp.1).
In viewing this brief description alone, it can be assumed that Steinbeck undertook this trip with a sense of wonder, fully ready to meet the hard-working Americans and natural wonders that the country had to offer in his dreams. What he found, however, was exceedingly different. On his journey, Steinbeck was able to see that the majority of Americans had given up on the dreams of the past. They no longer lived on or appreciated the land which they were given, but worried instead about increasing technology, the struggle to fit the "norm" and the quest for continued wealth and growth, both on a personal and global scale.
Steinbeck found that even the nation's most treasured natural resources had been capitalized upon and turned into businesses rather than held for their natural beauty and wonder. Upon reaching Wyoming, he noted, "it is my opinion that we close and celebrate the freaks of our nature and of our civilization . . . Yellowstone National Park is no more representative of America than is Disneyland" (Steinbeck 1961, pp. 16). This is what angered Steinbeck so closely, and angers most individuals who argue against the quest for superiority and expansion and want nothing but to return to simpler times. Such natural wonders and environmental bounty existed and continues to exist on a lesser level throughout the entire country. However, the quest for constant expansion and a cultural shift from valuing a down-home, salt of the earth existence into fast-paced, technologically-savvy world left Steinbeck disenchanted with his idealistic perception of America and the lives so many Americans led.
At the time Steinbeck was travelling, 1960, America was dealing with a significant debate regarding the status of the environment, with those pushing for the advancement of technology, through the building of environmentally-destructive factories and projects butting heads with individuals who understood the value of nature along with the environmental damage that continued expansion brought about. Steinbeck's own writing dealt with this debate, and he wrote, "Even those people who joy in n umbers and are impressed with bigness are beginning to worry, gradually becoming aware that there must be a saturation point and the progress may be a progression toward strangulation" (Steinbeck 1961, pp. 196).
Steinbeck's own status as an American and literary obsession with the country certainly aided in his disgust for what he saw throughout much of the country. While Steinbeck still saw glimmers of hope in portions of America, such as Montana, which he noted had "towns which were places to live rather than nervous hives," where people appreciated life and nature and simplicity, the quest for his own "American Dream" was ultimately more lackluster than he had hoped for, and he ultimately alluded that one "can't go home again because home ceases to exist except in the mothballs of memory" (Steinbeck 1961, pp. 158, 206).
French sociologist and author, Jean Baudrillard, had much the same opinion of America upon his travelling throughout the country in the early 1970s. Living his entire life in France, Baudrillard had the same idealized notions of America and sought to experience them for himself, thus setting off on a journey that would evidently become his own travelogue, America. What he found, was also, exceedingly different. He found a country obsessed with the notion that bigger is better, never settling or enjoying but moving on and up at an excruciating pace. Baudrillard notes that much of America's association with the land and the environment stem from a sense of loss. He notes that the American Southwest is filled with individuals who still feel the losses of their ancestors losing that land they treasured to foreign invaders, who are now forced to live under a society which they never embraced. Even the desert, he notes, which remains largely untouched, only brings back "nostalgia" of a lost time (Baudrillard 1986, pp. 67).
Many years later, Baudrillard noted the same sense of disconnect in American culture, focusing not on its own land and resources (as seen by the American war in Iraq), but on the quest for others, perhaps to regain what it has lost (Solomon 2005, pp.1). Such a disconnect between what people viewed as the values upheld by Americans in their own minds and what Americans seem to value throughout the country as seen by observers is quite apparent, which leads readers of these works and more general observers to question and evaluate the American culture both as a whole and in terms of environmental perspectives.
In viewing each of these works by two men who couldn't be more different from one another, strong similarities are seen, especially in assessing the overall absence of the "American Dream," as noted by both authors, as well as the desire to grow and expand on a more material level rather than protect and value the environment, nature, and more generally, the ways of the past. In utilizing the writings of both Steinbeck and Baudrillard, one can additionally look into research that can help pinpoint when this shift in American mindset took place, away from the environment and nature and toward technology and modernization, especially during the period in which the two men traveled: the 1960s and 1970s.
Evaluating American Environmental Culture of the 1960s-70s
At the time of Steinbeck's travels through America, the American environmental culture was beginning to change, and the initiatives that would begin in the years to follow would significantly change the way Americans viewed the environment. Like Steinbeck, and Baudrillard to follow, many American citizens, politicians, and environmental activists were beginning to take note of the general sense of disregard toward the environment in favor of globalization, economic prosperity, technological advances and the like, which had secured the United States a place on the world stage. Despite this success, however, many Americans grew displeased with the overarching sense of ignorance towards the environment and towards the values upon which America was founded and fostered.
The environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s can be said to have started in 1962 with the publication of Silent Spring. Environmental atrocities and cover-ups involving toxic disasters were beginning to come to light and individuals who had once existed with a "not in my back yard" mentality were now focused on public health and a perspective of "not in anyone's back yard" (Freudenberg and Steinsapir 1991, pp. 235-6).
The United States saw a massive influx of "grassroots" organizations which sought to bring suit against many of the alleged environmental offenses that had taken place in years past (Kuzmiak 1991, pp. 265).
Due to such an influx in awareness, individuals were able to return to a culture of environmental awareness and appreciation, and the environmental movement that took place began the transformation of "environmentalism as an ideology into a full-fledged social movement" (Silveira 2001, pp.…[continue]
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