East of Eden by John Steinbeck
From John Steinbeck’s East of Eden:
…All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed–selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful–we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic–and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or the language of our culture? …
So, essentially, America is a land of walking contradictions. Sadly, that was the only passage, from an otherwise condescending and tedious book, that caught my attention, and it came at the tail-end of five hundred sixty-eight pages. It might almost make East of Eden worth the effort if this culmination–and, yes, this is the culmination of the novel’s themes–wasn’t so depressingly obvious and, by its very nature, anti-climactic. Cal versus Aron, Adam versus Kate, Samuel versus Lee, America versus Eden: of course everything in the book, the characters’ relationships, the multiple, intersecting storylines, and Steinbeck’s heavy-handed philosophy, comes down to that single passage, spoken by the author’s symbolic intellectual ego, Lee.
But the more I pondered it, the more I realized that I wasn’t struck by the truth of Steinbeck’s words–he doesn’t state anything most of us don’t already suspect–but rather by the way they still apply to American citizens today. (Steinbeck published East of Eden in 1952.) Can it be that the flaws in American society are so deeply ingrained in its citizens, and further impressed upon successive generations, that they never really change?