Literary Frolic Fridays: June, 2019 edition ~ John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

In the winter of 1947, John Steinbeck was desperate to “get back” to writing, to real writing, and to devote every fiber of his being to “a long slow piece of work.” To him, his hitherto published work represented only practice, training, a foreshadowing of what he could write—what he must write.  Far too long had he been steeped in the drudgery of applying his skill to inconsequential “bits and pieces of things” that were devoid of “continuity” and lasting impact. His goal was to clear his desk so that the summer of 1948 could be spent in California researching Salinas Valley (later entitled East of Eden). He anticipated that writing Salinas Valley would be a journey, a struggle that would consume years of his life—his entire lifetime if necessary. But it had to be written, this book, this testament which would personally represent to Steinbeck the writer he knew in his heart that he was, the work for which he wanted to be remembered. But what form should it take?

At first, Steinbeck toyed with the idea of writing a historic chronicle of his maternal forbears, the Hamiltons; then the thought of writing an allegory took center stage. The structure of one of his favorite novels, Moby Dick, provided the framework: he would blend fact (the experiences of his maternal ancestors in Salinas, California), fiction (the Trask family), allegory (Cain and Abel from Genesis 4) together and varnish the end product with a veneer of biblical overtone. 

Just as Steinbeck was assailed by death, grief, and marital stress during the writing of The Red Pony, so would they dog him during the writing of East of Edennas Valley. Ed Ricketts, who to Steinbeck was “the greatest man I have known and the best teacher” was struck by a Southern Pacific train while driving across railroad tracks—he died in agony three days later. Soon after Rickett’s death, Steinbeck’s writing was further interrupted by his contentious separation and divorce from second wife Gwyn Conger. Although Gwen found Steinbeck to be a ” tremendously complex man who could be very beautiful one moment and then change into something very unbeautiful,” she believed that he had “struggled for what he received, and the rewards he received … He earned his success by sweat and struggle. I was blessed, being able to share some of his most productive years.”

How did contemporary critics react towards East of Eden?

Negative Reviews

Arthur Mizener: “In the Land of Nod.” The New Republic, October 6, 1952

“…one of the worst things about a bad book is the way it infects your recollection of the author’s good work.”

“Most of the characters are not that interesting. They are comic-strip illustrations of Steinbeck’s moral, like Adam and Cal, or they are stock figures who act as mouthpieces for the moralizing—a philosophical Chinaman from some novel by Earl Stanley Gardner or a merry-and-sad Irish blacksmith …The book’s action is always getting lost in a swamp of solemn talk from these philosophers.”

“Most of the time the characters and events are forced into stagey postures and well-made-play situations by the moral, and sometimes they are forced off the stage altogether while Steinbeck himself lectures us about Life.”

Leo Gurko: “Steinbeck’s Later Fiction.” The Nation, September 20, 1952

“This is the most ambitious of the six novels by Steinbeck since the appearance in 1939 of his masterpiece, “The Grapes of Wrath.” It shares the distinction with the other five of being unsatisfactory in one important aspect or another and raises anew the question of why Steinbeck’s talent has declined so rapidly and so far.”

“Steinbeck is no great shakes as a moral philosopher, and this novel in terms of action and character is committed to its moral philosophy. He is, or was, at his best when moved by indignation, horror, passionate tenderness, and the other violent motions …”

“Furthermore, various elements fail to relate or cohere”

“The Steinbeck who was as much the genius of the 30’s as Sinclair Lewis was of the ~20’s is scarcely in evidence. The vitality, passion, and folk-communion …“Of Mice and Men,” and “The Grapes of Wrath” … are painfully absent in East of Eden, as they have been in Steinbeck’s fiction since the 1930’s came to an end.”

Positive Reviews

Orville Prescott: “Books of the Times,” New York Times, September 19, 1952

“Clumsy in structure and defaced by excessive melodramatics and much cheap sensationalism though it is, East of Eden, is a serious and on the whole successful effort to grapple with a major theme.”

“Now in East of Eden he has achieved a considered philosophy and it is a fine and generous one.” “A fine, lusty sense of life is here, a delight in the spectacle of men and women struggling in the age-old ways to meet their separate destinies, and an abundance of good story telling.”