restricted access Just Folks: John Steinbeck and the American Quest for Anonymity
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Just Folks:
John Steinbeck and the American Quest for Anonymity

One of the central anomalies of American democratic life as we have come to appreciate it is the seeming self-contradiction of the notion that democracy—as Thomas Jefferson and most explicitly James Fenimore Cooper saw it—was a device and system by which the best could take their natural place as an aristocracy based upon their own talents. The logical corollary of this, of course, was that the less fit would fail to rise at all, or rise only so far and no further—a justice based on natural merits given equal opportunities.

But this American credo, based as it was on the famous Protestant work ethic, was always greeted by suspicion from below that the high and mighty had gotten to their stations by a process that had conspired to raise up some at the expense of others: that, in other words, a few had jumped the line and usurped the natural course of things by which each person would, in turn, take his—and, eventually, her—rightful place at bat in the Great American Batting Order. But this led predictably to a certain cynicism when the latter did not occur on schedule, or needed to be made to happen by artificial means, resulting in a call for force to make the line a rule, with no one "cutting in"; as a result, we have seen in the American educational system a tendency to brand every child as "special," meaning (as has been frequently noted) that (therefore) no child is.

Those who can remember taking the day's delivered milk in from the porch in the morning will also recall that its cream had naturally risen to the top of the bottle, and thus made for a pleasurable cup of coffee or bowl of cereal. But cream was [End Page 23] inherently undemocratic in the context of milk, and thus it had to be made to disappear, or wait its turn. Walt Whitman was the poet of homogenization, and in section twenty-one of "Song of Myself he argues against the swagger of folks in office with a presumed natural mandate: "Have you outstript the rest? are you the President? / It is a trifle, they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on" (207). In other words, Whitman is also being the poet of natural term limits, and advising the successful not to bother unpacking their bags.

Whitman's tone can be taken as a kind of healthy cynicism about social (or political) pretension, and his pursuit of a healthy and positive anonymity—as if in patient anticipation of an eventual just reckoning—can be seen in an almost exactly contemporaneous and much anthologized poem by Emily Dickinson. In spite of the sheer number of poems which she begins with "I," Dickinson consistently addresses the anonymity of her present (and future) condition, as here in lines which most of us know by heart:

I'm Nobody. Who are you?Are you—Nobody—Too?

Dickinson's characteristic Germanic capitalization of words of significance might tempt the reader to think of "Nobody" as a proper name, which in a sense it is. But the poem's concluding lines—there are, finally, only eight in all—make of this newly-discovered paired anonymity a cuddly manifesto of mutual support:

How dreary—to be—Somebody!How public—like a Frog —To tell one's name—the livelong June —To an admiring Bog!

You and me, Babe! Notable here is the combination of contempt for the "admiring Bog"—today we might write "blog"—with an equal contempt for those who sell themselves seasonally to promote their names and works, their annual emissions. How shameful to be like those ephemeral amphibians and cater to the paparazzi of supermarket tabloids! Better to be—I have here skipped two lines—one of a pair of nonentities, as if celebrity were the danger being warned of in Arnold's "Dover Beach": [End Page 24]

Then there's a pair of us?Don't tell! they'd advertise—you know!

How prescient Dickinson was to have incorporated the word "advertise...