I found this passage while rereading John Steinbeck’s classic novel, East of Eden. This abrupt chapter breaks apart the continuation of the ‘modern’ biblical saga that is its central thread, suggesting that this passage is part of the collective consciousness of the era. It is not directly acknowledged by any of the characters, nor at this point are the characters of an age to see the world in this light (this is, after all, chapter 12 of 55). Yet it is arresting both in the novel and without context.
You can see how this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900. Another hundred years were ground up and churned, and what had happened was all muddied by the way folks wanted it to be–more rich and meaningful the farther back it was. In the books of some memories it was the best time that ever sloshed over the world–the old time, the gay time, sweet and simple, as though time were young and fearless. Old men who didn’t know whether they were going to stagger over the boundary of the century looked forward to it with distaste. For the world was changing, and sweetness was gone, and virtue too. Worry had crept on a corroding world, and what was lost–good manners, ease and beauty? Ladies were not ladies any more, and you couldn’t trust a gentleman’s word.
There was a time when people kept their fly buttons fastened. And man’s freedom was boiling off. And even childhood was no good any more–not the way it was. No worry then but how to find a good stone, not round exactly but flattened and water-shaped, to use in a sling pouch cut from a discarded shoe. Where did all the good stones go, and all the simplicity?
A man’s mind vagued up a little, for how can you remember the feel of pleasure or pain or choking emotion? You can remember only that you had them. An elder man might truly recall through water the delicate doctor-testing of little girls, but such a man forgets, and wants to, the acid emotion eating at the spleen so that a boy had to put his face flat down in the young wild oats and drum his fists against the ground and sob “Christ! Christ!” Such a man might say, and did, “What’s the damned kid lying out there in the grass for? He’ll catch a cold.”
Oh, strawberries don’t taste as they used to and the thighs of women have lost their clutch!
And some men eased themselves like setting hens into the nest of death.
History was secreted in the glands of a million historians. We must get out of this banged-up century, some said, out 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 a training ground 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 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!
Let’s get it over and the door closed shut on it! Let’s close it like a book and go on reading! New chapter, new life. A man will have clean hands once we get the lid slammed shut on that stinking century. It’s a fair thing ahead. There’s no rot on this clean new hundred years. It’s not stacked, and any bastard who deals seconds from this new deck of years–why, we’ll crucify him head down over a privy.
Oh, but strawberries will never taste so good again and the thighs of women have lost their clutch!