The burned town of Seney, Michigan is a symbol of the destructive aftermath of World War I. The town’s buildings and landscape are completely annihilated, with no sign of life. Nick likely witnessed similarly brutal scenes during his time as a soldier in the war, suggesting that Seney reflects the magnitude of the destruction of World War I, which has forever changed the global landscape. Seney is not a warzone—it has been destroyed in a fire, not in a bombing. Yet the level of destruction seems to remind Nick of the war he left behind. He expects the familiarity and comfort of home, but the burned, desolate town is utterly and tragically transformed. When Nick first sees Seney, he “[sits] down on the bundle of canvas and bedding,” possibly because the extent of the destruction knocks the wind out of him. He gets down from the train expecting a town but “[t]here [is] no town, nothing but […] the burned-over country.” There is no sign of the “thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney,” and nothing on the hillside where he “expected to find the scattered houses of the town.” All the markers of familiarity have vanished, leaving Nick in an unexpected setting where he struggles to get his bearings. Reliving the war is traumatic for him. While Nick is trying to put the memories of the war behind him and move on, Seney emphasizes how difficult (or impossible) this is, since signs of the war are everywhere.
Seney Quotes in Big Two-Hearted River
The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car. There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House hotel stuck up above the ground. The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney.
He walked along the road feeling the ache from the pull of the heavy pack. The road climbed steadily. It was hard work walking up-hill. His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy. He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him.
[…] Seney was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned.