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Depression-Era Philosophies: Steinbeck and Sturges

Though operating in vastly different mediums, novelist John Steinbeck and filmmaker Preston Sturges were among the first American artists to explore philosophical solutions to the economic travesty that gripped the national psyche from 1929 to 1941. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) emerged in the cultural dialogue far enough into the Depression years that each work was able to synthesize trends of the era into broad, overarching social theories about the relationship between individuals in society. Steinbeck rooted his “law” in secular humanism and advocated a shift from acquisitive individualism to a more communitarian ideal. Using the Joad family as a representative case for the conversion from “I” to “we,” Steinbeck expands the definition of family from strictly biological sense to a much broader notion of the human family. In this vein, the individual enters the human family through empathy. On the contrary, Sullivan’s theory argues such a conversion from “I” to “we” can never be complete. Empathy with regards to the plight of disparate social classes can never be achieved. Further, the individual who attempts to experience a life not his own is, ultimately, a phony. Sullivan’...

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