Could we have picked two words that were any more different? Probably not. But before you get all Jackie Chan on us, hear us out: we essentially mean that sometimes our narrator is wistful about the past, and sometimes he is critical of it. But the point is, our narrator likes to think about the past a lot.
First of all, there is the narrator's own personal childhood past. This is what we mean by nostalgic: harking back to the good old days when things were simpler. In fact, Steinbeck opens the novel with this kind of language:
I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. (1.1.3)
Wow—Steinbeck definitely has fond memories of the Salinas of his youth. Why else compare the landscape to a mother's lap? It sounds like growing up in Salinas was great. Even when he's talking about the way to the brothels, he specifically asks us to remember, as though this is a memory that we all share:
Do you remember hearing that, old men? And do you remember how an easterly breeze brought odors in from Chinatown, roasting pork and punk and black tobacco and yen shi? And do you remember the deep blatting stroke of the great gong in the Joss House, and how its tone hung in the air so long? (19.1.9)
By inviting us to join in on this memory, Steinbeck is actually asking us to imagine for ourselves the smell of roasting pork. It's sneaky, isn't it? But it works. What's more, we can definitely tell from this tone that the past is something that Steinbeck wishes he could re-connect with. Head on over to our "Themes" for more on why the past is important.
Which brings us to our next point. Steinbeck may have a yearning for some aspects of his past, but he definitely doesn't shy away from its uglier bits. This is especially true when he is talking about the nation's past. When talking about the beginning of the 1900s, he uses the voice of a crotchety old man complaining about kids these days:
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. (12.1.1)
Oh, strawberries don't taste as they used to and the thighs of women have lost their clutch! (12.1.4)
But here's the kicker: Steinbeck is actually criticizing the people who talk this way about the past. We know this because he proceeds to list all of the reasons why the 1800s weren't awesome: the Mexican American War, the Civil War, economic booms and busts, etc.
He doesn't stop with the 1800s either. The early decades of the twentieth century were no cakewalk once World War I got going, and Steinbeck talks about how naïve the people of Salinas were to initially react the way that they did:
The war, at first anyways, was for other people. We, I, my family and friends, had kind of bleacher seats, and it was pretty exciting. And just as war is always for somebody else, so it is also true that someone else always gets killed. And Mother of God! that wasn't true either. The dreadful telegrams began to sneak sorrowfully in, and it was everybody's brother. (42.1.4)
So the past isn't always better than the present. But by talking about the past in these two very different tones, Steinbeck is showing us that the past is, simply put, past. We can look back on it in a lot of ways—with yearning, with remorse, and so on—but that's the point: the past is there to be learned from. We choose how we want to see it and whether or not we want to learn from it. Hm, maybe we're crazy, but there just might be a connection here to the idea of timshel and choice…