In the American Stories class I’m teaching, I’ve discussed the importance of group versus individual dynamics in American literature and culture. The thing that makes America stand out from, say, European literature (historically) has often been the emphasis on the individual. American writers are willing to make outcasts, misfits, and oddballs the heroes of their fiction. The solution to problems is often to stop thinking about people as members of a group, whether racial or economic, and to think about people as single units. That emphasis on the individual human spirit has pushed the envelope in fiction and it’s something I love about reading American writers.
At the same time, Americans have a sort of obsession with group movements and the dynamics of people that move on a massive scale, almost in the same way that countries like China do. Take a look at the work of a fave author of mine, John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was particularly fascinated by our dual nature as Americans, our potential for both iconoclasm and startling moments of national unity. He writes:
One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land…I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep those two squatting men apart…this is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate — “We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one…this is the beginning — from “I” to “we.”
Here, Steinbeck shows that the seeds of revolution, one of our most prized ideals, are not in the seeds of individualism. They are, instead, when we begin to work together, when we unite for a common goal. This, too, is powerful and valuable, an important moment to study in an American story. And here, too, Steinbeck is talking about “collective action” over individual striving:
This you may say of man — when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.
It’s Man the monolith Steinbeck is talking about here, and how Man the group is linked to progress. Does progress only happen when people become a little less than individuals, and become instead a massive movement, a many-headed creature? As a staunch individualist, no matter how much I love Steinbeck, I’m inclined to disagree. But the power of his ideas can’t be denied, and neither can their strong place in the American ethos.
So who wins in your story: the collective or the group? What do you think?