Individualism and American public (1900 – 1941)

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            Individualism is a political ideology that stresses for a complete freedom of exercising ones principles and preferences while opposing any form of communal, societal or even national interference. Political individualism on the other hand is the moderated fashion of individualism whereby a government offers protection of liberty of individuals to do as per their wishes provided that they don’t infringe the liberties of others. Another name for this kind of ideology is the French “Laissez faire” which means “to allow the people to do what they know how to do as long as they don’t cross other people’s paths”. In simple terms individualism provides for a free market system where individuals and enterprises control the major factors of production with the government playing a minimal “spectator” role. (Clays, Gregory, 1986) Individualism therefore is concerned with discouraging the concentration of commercial and industrial enterprises on the hands of the state. In U.S. for instance, individualism has been an ideology that forms the basis of the constitution, associated with the very beginning of the formation of United Sates.

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Many of its citizens were people who had run away from various forms of oppressions in their governments in Europe. These people therefore influenced the building of the U.S constitution and as a result a fundamental American ideology of individualism was created that stressed; individuals are the basis of all reality and all society and that an individual is defined by what he or she is not (4). According to the congressman who argued that Americans have historically been known to subscribe to the ideals of individualism as opposed to those of government invention this is very true, as we shall see later from “The Grapes of wrath” by John Steinbeck, about what characterized the public life of the majority of Americans between the years 1900 and 1941.

            In his book, John Steinback vividly depicts the lives of ordinary people who are struggling to preserve their humanity in the face of social and economic desperation.

This book written in 1939 vividly portrays how the Americans by word and deed practiced the ideals of individualism, through the Joad family an example of the families that were forced to vacate their farms in Oklahoma after the farms were repossessed by a bank. The throwing out of the many families in Oklahoma from what remained of their farms after the Dust Bowl symbolizes how great the freedom to do “what you know how to do better” without the intervention of the government was practiced in U.S. between 1900 and 1941. Individualism is seen to take the center stage as the banks are under no moral or governmental obligation in the control of their economic activities. This kind of unfettered freedom was the order of the day in the American public life between 1900 and 1941, as the case of the Joads is just an example of what really happened across Oklahoma and the entire U.S. The government was nowhere to intervene as the ideologies of unfettered individualism dominated the American socio-economic life.

            According to French Saint-Simoman socialists’, individualism is a form of “egoism” or “anarchy” or even the ruthless exploitation of man by man in an economical discourse. This kind of phenomenon is characterized by increasingly inequality between the “haves and the have-nots”. (Lukes, Steven, 1971) This school of thought is supported by Steinbeck’s “The grapes of Wrath” when after their farms were repossessed the Joads resorted to seek solace in hope; hope that came in the form of handbills that described high paying jobs in the beautiful country of California. It is on reaching California that they face the reality that, their hopes of getting a decent house, family and good paying jobs are not practical. This is because there is an over supply of labour against an environment characterized by lack of laws and the big corporate farmers are in a league to exploit the workers. The farm owners who symbolize the “haves” are out to take advantage of the freedom to control their business activities (individualism) and therefore exploit the workers who in this case are the “have-nots”. Again, this is an episode that portrays how individualism (freedom to exercise your principles and desires) without the interference from the state authorities or even the municipal authorities was practiced to its optimum. This is a case of individualism that is bend on egoism and anarchy that stresses that individuals are not duty-bound to any socially imposed morality and therefore they should be free to be egocentric if they so desire.

            Individualistic ideologies are hard to die from people’s hearts and minds, hence the arguments put forth by the congressman that Americans are not known to subscribe to the ideals of governmental invention but individualist ones was not hollow. This is portrayed in the book when a section of workers try to form Unions in order to collectively bargain for better payments. Interestingly some of the workers (Joad family) unconsciously/unknowingly work as “Strike breakers” to disperse their fellow workers who are striking. The encounter ends up with Jim Casey dying and Tom Joad killing for the second time. Again, this episode shows how individualism is deeply inscribed in the hearts of many Americans. It is individualism that drives the Joad family to accept to be paid in order to disperse their colleagues who are striking. Instead of joining them to collectively fight oppression they choose to be individualistic and egocentric.

            High level of unfettered individualism was the prime mover of American social and economic life between the years 1900 and 1941 as seen in the entire course of the Joads journey from Oklahoma all the way to California. Their stay in California is as well filled with numerous episodes that indicate individualism at its highest level. However, the end of the book brings out what many would agree is a complete contrast of the whole plot of the story. A big rainfall floods the creek where the Joads resided making them to seek shelter elsewhere, they come across a barn on a hill, when they get into it they find a starving man. Rose Sharon one of the Joad family daughters goes beyond the dictates of individualism when she breastfeeds the starving man. This act therefore illustrates the spontaneous mutual sharing and care of the others that ultimately leads to a new era of awareness and formation of collective values.

            It is therefore wise to assert that even though Americans followed the ideals of individualism to the core between 1900 and 1941, this was not always the case with all the people. For instance, the workers in the California farms realized that for them to experience a change in the work conditions and payment terms they had to rebel the individualistic ideologies and form a collective body that would help them to come out of the tyranny of oppression. This episode therefore persuades anyone to conclude that the congressman who argued that the $700 billion bailout package was against American history that is pegged to individualism ideals rather than those of government intervention was shortsighted and one-sided. This reasoning again persuades anyone to conclude that individualism can only be consistent when the society comprises of people who belong to the same socio-economic class. In other words the history of America is characterized by various ideologies with both individualism and its contrast, collectivism included.

            Collectivism, the theory and practice that makes groups rather than individual the fundamental unit of political, social and economic concern was also an ideology that was practiced in America between 1900 and 1941 alongside individualism. (Stephen and Gregory M.A, n.d) For instance, it is collectivism that makes the Joad family, Jim Casey and other Oklahoma residents to resolve to move along the 66 highway heading to California. The working under harsh conditions and poor pay leads them to collectively form a workers Union to collectively fight for their rights. Again, as the book approaches the end Pa Joad with eighteen other men collectively come together and build a bank to prevent the rain water flooding the creek where they were staying, a complete contrast to individualism. This book therefore portrays episodes of individualism and at the same time portrays episodes of collectivism. Therefore it is wise to assert that the American public life between 1900 and 1941 was characterized by both individualism and collectivism. However, individualism always carried the day therefore the congressman hypothesis is true but it should not carry all the weight as being a strong factor to bar the bailout plan, as it is evident from the “The Grapes of Wrath” that individualism goes hand in hand with collectivism.

                        Work cited:

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinback, 1939, accessed on, October 26, 2008
Lukes, Steven, 1971, accessed on, October 26, 2008
Clays, Gregory, 1986, accessed on, October 26, 2008
Stephen Grabill and Gregory M.A Gronbacher, n.d, available at;, accessed on, October 26, 2008

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Individualism and American public (1900 – 1941). (2016, Oct 19). Retrieved from

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