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east of eden

9 September 2003

This summer, the day before Oprah Winfrey was set to announce her first "classic" book-club selection, the book that would bring the Book Club back, I turned to my son and said: "Well, do you think it's going to be The Red Pony, or The Pearl?"

I didn't miss by much. Very few American authors combine highbrow cachet (Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize), middlebrow earnestness, accessible language, and vast popularity. There wasn't a chance that Oprah was going to pick Djuna Barnes or Mina Loy to bring back the Book Club. But John Steinbeck works on all levels. In order to maintain a balance between intellectual credibility and popular appeal, Oprah's "classics" are going to have to come from a narrow middle ground, and Steinbeck is the most visible literary figure in that territory.

East of Eden is typical of Steinbeck in many ways: a California setting, a deep emphasis on relationships among men, an underlying liberal humanism. It's his longest, most ambitious novel and in some ways his most personal: his mother's family is central to the story, and John himself appears as a minor character.

But Steinbeck did not win the Nobel Prize for East of Eden. He won it despite East of Eden. The 1962 Presentation Speech by the Swedish Academy doesn't even mention the book. When citing Steinbeck "for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humour and a keen social perception," the Academy specifically praised In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Long Valley, and The Grapes of Wrath (his Pulitzer winner) – stories of laborers and economic migrants, forged in the heart of the Great Depression. The only allusion to East of Eden in the Presentation Speech is a cryptic reference to "certain signs of flagging powers" in Steinbeck's later work.

East of Eden isn't about the Depression, or even about the working class to any great degree. Set in the prosperous years before the First World War, it's a story of ranchers and entrepreneurs in the Salinas Valley. While the book shows a deep sympathy for the poor, for dreamers, and for outcasts, East of Eden simply isn't about politics. It explores the Cain and Abel myth across several generations, raising issues of human goodness and human depravity.

It's not a bad novel in any sense. It has some powerful characters: Cyrus Trask, patriarch, who builds a patronage empire out of lies about his Civil War record; Samuel Hamilton, winsome inventor; Cathy Trask, monster in female form. For much of its 600 pages, East of Eden thrives on complications, coincidences, and cosmic ironies that would not be out of place in Yoknapatawpha County. In fact, I sense the long shadow of William Faulkner over East of Eden, as if Steinbeck perhaps felt that Faulkner had chosen the good part in the 1930s by chronicling private and family demons while Steinbeck was busy telling stories of the Worker. Of course, American literature is the richer because each man stuck by and large to what he was really good at.

East of Eden simply unravels when laid out at full length. Its interesting characters die, and the survivors lack their ruthlessness. The fraternal struggle that incites the events of the first half of the novel repeats itself, in attenuated form, in the second half.

Its greatest flaw is that East of Eden can only create convincing male characters. This was an endemic weakness in Steinbeck's fiction. He was only ever really interested in men. But in his great works, female characters have an imposing archetypal stature: Ma Joad, Rose of Sharon, even the doomed Curley's Wife in Of Mice and Men. In East of Eden, the women are either Cipher Mothers or Whores from Hell. The greatest of all the Whores from Hell, Cathy Trask, is a suitably appalling character, indeed the closest Steinbeck comes to creating a Faulknerian creature of darkness. Though her evil energies set more than half the plot in motion, she loses focus as the book wears on, and succumbs at last to a bluffing blackmailer and an enervating illness. (In the opening chapters, a murderous whoremaster and multiple broken bones don't slow her down a bit).

Most original of the East of Eden characters is Lee, the Berkeley-educated Chinese-American valet who speaks pidgin to hide his intellectualism. Lee serves as chorus to the events that consume the Trasks and Hamiltons. His story of his own birth is the most appalling episode in the novel, one that evokes the great power of Steinbeck's working-class fiction. But as the novel progresses, Lee loses his crisp sententiousness and develops a longwinded sententiousness. In choosing to stay with his master when he could easily strike out on his own, Lee trades stock inscrutability for idiosyncratic inscrutability. Steinbeck tries to investigate Lee as a type of the assimilated American, but seems drawn back to portraying him as the Eternal Oriental.

East of Eden was a major bestseller in 1952. Steinbeck was famous. The novel was (and remains) a fairly easy read. It was lurid in ways we can only imagine fifty years later, containing Anglo-Saxon obscenities and a shocking frankness about sex, not to mention poisonings, rapes, beatings, suicides, grand embezzlement, and war profiteering. It could hardly have missed. It hasn't missed now; but it isn't a great book by a long haul. One hopes that it will draw other Steinbeck titles into wider circulation on its coattails.

Steinbeck, John. East of Eden (1952). New York: Penguin, 2002.