Monday, September 27, 2010

Turn of the Century

     John Steinbeck has a way of writing about American culture unlike other American authors.  In both Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, he includes interchapters, breaks in the plotline, that reflect ideas relevant to wider society.  Chapter 12 of East of Eden completely breaks away from any sort of plot advancement or character building and in stead meditates on the turn of the century in American culture. 
     Steinbeck does this with full knowledge, and he allows readers in on the break too: "You can see this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900."  Just as one section of the book has come to a close, so, too, does a section of American history.  Beautiful technique, Mr. Steinbeck.  In two short pages he recalls the sordid events of the 19th century, and bids them not a fond farewell but rather good riddance.  "To hell with that rotten century!... New chapter, new life." 
     Do we always need these type of bookends?  When we look back on history, or on our lives, what are the chapter dividers that make life nice and neat?  What events lead one part of our lives to a close and another to a new beginning?  What is it about the idea of a clean slate, a fresh start that is so enticing? 
     Maybe it's just an eaiser way for our brains to organize information.  I have a sneaking suspicion that dear Johnny is aware of this.  He knows that despite whatever distinctions we want to impose on one "era" and the next, there will always be carryover.  Our memories, both individual and communal, cannot be erased quite so easily as the 1800s, despite the ease with which Steinbeck's narrator would do away with them.  Boundaries always blur.

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