The California Dream: a dangerous social and environmental myth protested by John Muir and John Steinbeck
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The California Dream: a dangerous social and environmental myth protested by John Muir and John Steinbeck

  • Author(s): Winter, Raymond Earl, III
  • Advisor(s): Goggans, Jan
  • et al.

This study examines the intentions, techniques, and effects of John Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) as they review the social and environmental injustices in the Great Central Valley which have been created by the perpetuation of the "California Dream". These writers challenge the Dream itself, making a case for a less individualistic and dominating perspective of land ownership and of fellow mankind, to be replaced with a more altruistic and interdependent model. I establish the sources and early applications of this utopian mythology through the explorer, builder, and profiteer phases of California's statehood, and assert (1) the belief that California is limitlessly bountiful and a guaranteed source of prosperity for every hard worker falsely represents opportunity and literally overwhelms the landscape; (2) certain parties of industry continue to perpetuate an Edenic California mythology for the sake of profit at the cost of land and livelihood; and (3) literary efforts to counter the myth continue to challenge a social and environmental ethic that inappropriately encourages social hierarchies and environmental degradation. These literary efforts, as modeled by Muir and Steinbeck, likewise shift the psychological location of California in the American imagination into a more honest, informed, and justice-oriented position. The study concludes with a contemporary review of how the myth continues to this day to justify social and environmental crises in the Great Central Valley, and how writers and citizens alike must continue to reorient the perception of this place in light of radical social and environmental changes that have occurred since the founding days of the California Dream.

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