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Monday, September 27, 2010

East of Eden II: The Salinas Valley

I apologize to anyone who is really chomping at the bit for chapter after chapter.  We had unexpected company stop by, and I didn't get nearly the amount of reading done that I'd have liked.  There will be days like this, and there will be days where there's just no realistic way for you to keep up with me.  Hopefully it all balances out in the end.  We'll learn as we go.  Please don't hesitate to comment and make suggestions just about the management of this project.  Cheers!



I read the first paragraph of chapter one, and thought I should find some good pictures to paste into the blog--maybe a map--to illustrate what we're about to read.  But here's the thing, and see if you agree: just as the same story read by two people (or, in the potentially applicable case of movies, viewed by two people--and I can't help by think of Doubt, in this case) is different for each experience, so this description is so much more personal if left un-objectified by a photograph.  A map, perhaps, wouldn't be so bad.  Besides, isn't the Salinas Valley and Monterey Bay from Steinbeck's time just a little different than what we might see were we to drive through it?  (And those of you who've read other Steinbeck, permit yourself an amalgam survey of the land--I love Tortilla Flat for this comparison.)


Reading Questions 1
chapter 1.1

  1. In the opening paragraphs, Steinbeck seems very nostalgic, especially in describing the land as the lap of a mother.  Name and briefly describe a physical location where you feel such safety, nostalgia, and--perhaps inexplicable or irrational--beauty.
  2. One of my very favorite aspects of Steinbeck's writing is the level of characterization he ascribes the setting.  If you were to compare the land to a person--even a specific person (please, no names, unless the person is so generic simply by dint of supremely elevated social status, like a movie star, politician, hotel heiress that there's nothing personal to it) or an archetype--who embodies the same, well, character as the Salinas Valley.  More simply, what is the personality, as depicted here, of this land?  (Think also: is this one "person," or more--a family, clan, community; is it over a moment in the life of so-and-so, or across his/her/their collected life?)
  3. "You can boast about anything if it's all you have.  Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast."
  4. "Once a woman told me that colored flowers would seem more bright if you added a few white flowers to give the colors definition."
  5. I have been reading recently a book called The Hero and the Crown, a Newberry winner no less, by Robin McKinley.  Perhaps it's good this is through the veil of the internet and I can't be shot, but I'm having a devil of time enjoying this book (so why am I still reading?).  The story is fine, the characters are good, but the writing is infuriating!  And not because the writing is bad (it isn't), but because it is so distant.  I feel entirely disconnected from the events and characters (I don't care!), like I'm reading the story of a story of a story (which, somehow, Borges does to great effect and success, but that's another time).  Here, Steinbeck, giving extremely detailed description of THE LAND, which should be utter drudgery, somehow, miraculously, makes it interesting, engaging, and so dag-gone personal!  How does he accomplish this?  (Or am I delusional and alone?)  Where else have you seen/experienced something like this?
  6. "...the land would shout with grass."
  7. "And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich year, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years.  It was always that way."

chapter 1.2

  1. "Periodically the owners killed the cattle for their hides and tallow and left the meat to the vultures and coyotes."
  2. Consider the names.  Wherever you may come from, there are place names that really mean something.  You have no idea what they mean, but the sense of meaning is there--thickly there.  There is a buzz of folklore and superstition about it--not negative, just present and alive.  Please list some of those names.
  3. What does Steinbeck tell us about the subject/theme of the book to follow by this first chapter?  What, narratively speaking, IS the land of the Salinas Valley?
And the springboard of the final sentence!  Oh, what a thing that cannot be appreciated without knowing what's coming!  I've known and I know this story well, and that sentence means more now--particularly now that I love the Hamiltons et al and everyone else like I love my family--than it ever has.  This book is that truly great epic, somehow deepening with each read, that never leaves, and you forget how great it was and affecting until you crack it again and re-visit its places and people.


NOTE and REQUEST: When making you comments or answering questions (and yes, the un-question-marked quotations are indeed questions), please include the number of the question at the top of your comment.


  1. 1.1: 2. Your question on the setting is interesting. I am not sure that I can think of a person that I automatically identify with it. To me, it almost has that feel as if "The Land" is some sort of deity; to be sure, a deity that leaves plenty of room for free will, but by making the introduction the way it is, Steinbeck seems to be saying that the land is going to have vast implications for how the characters live and make decisions. It's an interesting perspective because, at least in my opinion, Americans don't think that way anymore. Maybe this has to do with the advancements of 24/7 television and media, but it seems to me that Americans more typically think that on what land you live has very little influence in deciding who you are. Steinbeck suggests that it makes all the difference. You give two quotes that also stuck with me about forgetting the dry years when the land is plentiful (and vice versa) and about how the less one has, the more he/she boasts about it. Yes, these are observations about human nature, but keep in mind how the land influences it. If the land were always steady and not plentiful, perhaps people would live more rationally. And when it's extreme one way or another, how does this drive the characters' interactions with each other? I have to imagine that Steinbeck would think it very important. To the second quote, how would this story be different if it took place on Nantucket, for example? Well, you wouldn't have nearly as many poor people, so maybe that would change the character of the people, from boastful to perhaps more quietly content in Steinbeck's eyes.

    Finally, if I had to put a face on the land, I don't think it would be a real person. I would say a divine puppet pulling the strings, except that this seems to go too far. Maybe the best description is Fortuna blindly determining the fates of many through her spinning wheel.

  2. James: I understand where you're coming from claiming Fortune as a likely character analog for the land, but sometimes it seems much more cognisant and engaged with the people. As far as mass media taking disconnecting us from the land, I think it's more a matter of the very thing Steinbeck gripes about all through Grapes of Wrath: that is, mass agriculture, and taking food production and self sustenance from the hands of the individual. I'm a big fan of the old Foodnetwork show, Molto Mario, in which Mario Batali talks continually about regional and, as he calls it, microregional cooking, where everything made is done because it is immediately available. The people are proud of their food, because they've milked the cows, slaughtered the pigs, grown the onions, harvested the wheat for the pasta or the rice or the olives.... They are tied to the land the way we are not. However, you speak to farmer or a rancher and immediately it's a different story. They are yet connected, and they yet embrace (or curse, depending on the season or the Farmer's Almanac) the land.

    By Steinbeck's hand, I see the land more like what you said initially, a demigod of some sort--moderately powerful and apparently indifferent to the fates of those she influences.

  3. 1.1: 1) When I read this prompt, I automatically thought of Higgins Lake, even though I have not been back there since 12th grade. More specifically, I thought of sitting down by the lake at 5 AM, wrapped in a blanket and holding a cup of coffee to keep my hands warm. The edge of the water has the iridescence of a pearl as it quietly laps the shore and the trees that surround the beach on three sides whisper and sigh, just seeming to wake up. Birds call out every once in a while and break the silence, sometimes followed by a splash as one tries to catch a fish. Off to the right, maybe half a mile down the shore, are houses, each one with a dock reaching out sleepily into the water. Everything seems to yawn, trying to catch a little more sleep before the sun rises, bringing all of the noises of the day.

    1.1: 2) I think that perhaps the Salinas Valley is more than one person. It is so varied (say, between the foothills, where the topsoil gets thinner and thinner the farther up you go, and the valley, where the soil is rich and fertile) that it’s almost as if you’re looking at different generations with different values. The valley could be seen as the youngest generation, still in its youth, still limber, still full of vitality. Farther up into the foothills, the soil becomes thin, with flints sticking through. This could be seen as an older, less flexible, less limber, generation. This generation’s values are not those of the younger generation, but not those of the generation before them either. And so it progresses up the foothills, until the top, where the soil is replaced by flinty gravel that reflects the sunlight.

    1.1: 3) The less you have, the more what you do have means. You don’t really know what something means to you until it is gone…or until it’s all you have. A man lives alone in a house. His wife has left him or died. His children have moved away. He begins to realize that he misses having them around. The holidays aren’t the same. He is lonely. So, he begins to work on remodeling the house, the house he lived in for nearly two decades, the house his children grew up in, the house that will outlast him and his children. He starts with the roof and then he repaints the outside. When that’s done, he begins redoing the bathroom, the dining room, the living room, the basement, the yard, and the upstairs. He boasts about it to his children. It’s all he talks about. It’s all he has to keep his mind off the fact that he’s getting older.

    1.1: 4) This reminds me of a few things. One is a saying that’s something like, “If you do not know the dark, then how can you truly appreciate the light?” The other thing is a little something I learned in an Art Appreciation Class I took in college this past spring: if you put two complementary colors side by side, they appear more intense than they would if seen by themselves.

    1.1: 5) I understand what you mean by personal. It’s something about the tone while he’s describing the land. When I read it, I was bombarded not only by the imagery, but also by his love of the land; or, if not love, at least his connectedness to it. But I really feel that it is love. Reading this part made me feel warm inside and that’s why I believe it is love he is conveying. To answer the second question: I’m not sure where I’ve run into something like this before. I can’t think of another author that does what Steinbeck did.

    1.1: 6) I love this line! When I saw it on the page, it stood out to me as if it were in Technicolor. I love the personification. And I love that it is shouting, not in anger, but out of happiness, like little children do when their father comes home from work. That’s what I thought of when I read this: little children shouting with joy and gathering around their father as he walks in the door.

    1.1: 7) It can be so easy to forget the good times when you’re going through hard ones, and vice versa. The people that can remember, however, know that things will always change. Good to bad, and back again.

  4. 1.2: 1) When I read this sentence, my first thought was, “How wasteful.” But then, I thought about it again and maybe it’s not really wasteful, because it was left for the vultures and coyotes. So, it really wasn’t wasted, however, I do wonder why they left the meat. Was it because they just didn’t want to use it, didn’t need to use it, or because they wanted to leave it specifically for the wildlife to feast on.

    1.2: 2) I’ve heard some very strange names of places before and I’ve often wondered why they were named as they were. Here are some of them: Searchlight, Nevada; Sparks, Nevada; Silver Spring, Maryland; Christmas, Florida; Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

    1.2: 3) Steinbeck seems to concentrate on the land and farming in this first chapter. He also mentions some things about the people who settled there and the names that they gave to places. It all sounds very much like a historical account of the Salinas Valley, and, by the last sentence, it can be assumed that more history, family history, will be revealed as the book goes on. And as for the second question, I’m not sure if I am taking too much of a cue from the title, but it seems as if the Salinas Valley is Eden.

  5. Karli -- Great insights and remarks! I think it's particularly interesting contrasting the nature of your comments verus James: his a definitely from the mind of an analytic pragmatist; you are certtainly a poet. And Steinbeck is a poet!


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