Monday, September 22, 2008

East Of Eden

I read Steinbeck's EAST OF EDEN while on vacation in the jungle. My son Jeremy had been asking me to read it for a few years. It was a bit of an anacolouthon, reading John Steinbeck's amazing tale of the Salinas valley and the lives intertwined there, and then looking up to gaze at a banana tree, a coconut tree. Part of the richness of the story is its dealing in lifetimes, which is always poignant. But Steinbeck dabbles in sin and grace throughout the book, and this is its grand feature.

But here, some juicy tidbits.

"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."
And that was 1900. Distracted as we were by the .com bubble, we forgot to notice, when a new century boundary was recently crossed, that, yes, the world was changing, and sweetness had gone missing, and virtue too. A man's word could no longer be trusted. The themes Steinbeck proposes at the end of the nineteenth century were in some way the themes at the end of the twenthieth: loss of virtue, unremitting change for its own sake. And the ladies, well, weren't ladies anymore. Progress--as the old men would distastefully look at it.

E of E introduces two memorable characters. When I was done reading the book, I immediately began to miss them. The first is Samuel Hamilton, Irish pater of a large, varied family that fills a large part of the book. The second is the Chinese manservant, Lee. As was the wont--for the sake of survival--of the Chinese of the day, they spoke to their American wards in pidgin English. The following quote is where Sam Hamilton flushes Lee out on the subject:

"What's your name?" Samuel asked pleasantly.
"Lee. Got more name. Lee papa family name. Call Lee."
"I've read quite a lot about China. You born in China?"
"No. Born here."
Samuel was silent for quite a long time while the buggy lurched down the wheel track toward the dusty valley. "Lee," he said at last, "I mean no disrespect, but I've never been able to figure why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years."
Lee grinned. "Me talkee Chinese talk," he said.
"Well, I guess you have your reasons, And it's not my affair. I hope you'll forgive me if I don't believe it, Lee."
Lee looked at him and the brown eyes under their rounded upper lids seemed to open and deepen until they weren't foreign any more, but man's eyes, warm and understanding. Lee chuckled. "It's more than a convenience," he said. "It's even more than self-protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all."
Samuel showed no sign of having observed any change. "I can understand the first two," he said thoughtfully, "but the third escapes me."
Lee said, "I know it's hard to believe, but it has happened so often to me and to my friends that we take it for granted. If I should go up to a lady or a gentleman, for instance, and speak as I am doing now, I wouldn't be understood."
"Why not?"
"Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they'll listen to. But English from me they don't listen to, and so they don't understand it."
"Can that be possible? How do I understand you?"
"That's why I'm talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect."...
" ...Don't you ever make a mistake? I mean, break into English?"
"No, I don't. I think it's a matter of what is expected. You look at a man's eyes, you see that he expects pidgin and a shuffle, so you speak pidgin and shuffle."

And now for Christian vocation:(bold print mine)

Samuel bit into a sandwich. "I was shuffling over half a hundred questions. What you said brings the brightest one up. You don't mind?"...
...I think I can guess what your next question is."
"Why am I content to be a servant?"
"How in the world did you know?"
"It seemed to follow."
"Do you resent the question?"
"Not from you. There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension. I don't know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is the refuge of the philosopher, the food of the lazy, and, properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love. I can't understand why more intelligent people don't take it up as a career--learn to do it well and reap its benefits. A good servant has absolute security, not because of his master's kindness, but because of habit and indolence. It's a hard thing for a man to change spices or lay out his own socks. He'll keep a bad servant rather than change. But a good servant, and I am an excellent one, can completely control his master, tell him what to think, how to act, whom to marry, when to divorce, reduce him to terror as a discipline, or distribute happiness to him, and finally be mentioned in his will. If I had wished I could have robbed, stripped,and beaten anyone I've worked for and come away with thanks. Finally, in my circumstances I am unprotected. My master will defend me, protect me. You have to work and worry. I work less and worry less. And I am a good servant. A bad one does no work and does no worrying, and he still is fed, clothed, and protected. I don't know any profession where the field is so cluttered with incompentents and where excellence is so rare."
The relationship between Hamilton and Lee deepens to the end of Hamilton's life, and is the basis for understanding much about Lee that happens much later. While all of the other characters--as interesting as they are--are preoccupied with more shallow things, these two are the wisdom characters of the book.

Read and enjoy. This is a book worth reading several times. Even in the jungle.

1 comment:

Ethan said...

Great. Now I want to read this book.

Actually, I've been wanting to read it for a couple years now. Ever since having it recommended by... I think his name was Jeremy too, come to think of it.

I haven't really liked Steinbeck's writing in the past--didn't like Grapes of Wrath, didn't like Mice and Men. However I do fully intend to read East of Eden; and especially so now.