John Steinbeck and the Nineteenth Century

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 10.58.15 AMI adore John Steinbeck. I really do. His words, his works, they capture so very much. The human experience. The American experience. I have recently been reading East of Eden for the who knows how manyth time and I was once again taken by his distillation of the nineteenth century. The step toward verse – near poetic, but yet not. So cold and matter of fact. And I think he got it right.  I offer…

History was secreted in the glands of a million historians. we must get out of this banged-up century, some said, out of this cheating murderous century of riot and secret death, of scrabbling for public lands and damn well getting them by any means at all.

Think back, recall our little nation fringing the oceans, torn with complexities, too big for its britches. Just got going when the British took us on again. We beat them, but it didn’t do us much good. What we had was a burned White House and ten thousand widows on the public pension list.

Then the soldiers went to Mexico and it was a kind of painful picnic. Nobody knows why you go to a picnic to be uncomfortable when it is so easy and pleasant to eat at home. The Mexican War did two good things though. We got a lot of western land, damn near doubled our size, and besides that it was training for generals, so that when the sad self-murder settled on us the leaders knew the techniques for making it properly horrible.

And then the arguments:

Can you keep a slave?

Well if you bought him in good faith, why not?

Next they’ll be saying a man can’t have a horse. Who is it who wants to take my property?

And there we were, like a man scratching at his own face and bleeding into his own beard.

Well, that was over and we got slowly up off the bloody ground and started westward.

There came boom and bust, bankruptcy, depression.

Great public thieves came along and picked the pockets of everyone who had a pocket.

To hell with that rotten century!

With compliments,


2 thoughts on “John Steinbeck and the Nineteenth Century”

  1. I admit that I’ve never read Steinbeck, but as a student of the 19th century: what a quote! Wow.

    Just curious…does Steinbeck elaborate at all on his apparently negative feelings about “scrambling for public lands?” Is this a criticism of the Homestead Act? I know this is a somewhat controversial act in U.S. history. The failure rate was around 60%, but it did a lot for the people that actually succeeded. Of course, it was just another in a long line of disappointments and broken promises for American Indians.

    I have recently discovered this website but am really enjoying it. Congratulations and keep up the great work!

    1. I am glad you are enjoying the site and thanks for the comments. While he does not elaborate in great detail, he certainly hints at his personal feelings regarding such disappointments from time to time. If you ever get a chance, you should read Travels with Charlie. There is quite a bit of interesting commentary in there on American-ness in all its complexities.

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