Steinbeck labored long and hard on East of Eden, declaring it to be the most difficult book he had undertaken. For a long time he had wanted to be able to write such a book and had carefully prepared himself for the task. During the writing of the first draft, he wrote a remarkable series of letters to his friend and editor Pascal Covici. The letters were published as Journal of a Novel: The “East of Eden” Letters in 1969, a year after Steinbeck’s death.
Steinbeck wrote one letter early each day from January to November 1951 as a way of limbering up for the writing task that lay ahead. The letters give a close-up view of the ups and downs of a novelist at work, his successful days as well as the days when nothing went right. One day he wonders whether the novel will be interesting to anyone other than himself. On another occasion he wonders whether his “devilish playing with the verities” (his metaphysical ideas) will put people off in an age when readers of novels want plot and action. Often, however, his enthusiasm for his task bubbles over, and he conveys how it feels to be a writer when the full rush of creativity sweeps through him. It is a very physical feeling for Steinbeck: “The joy comes in the words going down and the rhythms crowding in the chest and pulsing to get out.”
The East of Eden letters provide many fascinating details about the novel (all the anecdotes about the Hamilton family are true, for example) and leave no doubt about the primary significance Steinbeck attached to the Cain and Abel story. His first idea for the title of the novel was “Canable.” Then he thought of “Cain Sign” before settling on East of Eden, which is itself taken from the Cain and Abel story. Steinbeck thought the story of jealousy and strife between siblings lay at the basis of all neuroses, and he was thrilled by his interpretation of the Hebrew word timshel as “thou mayest.” He went to great trouble to be certain that his etymology was at least possible. He felt sure it would interest scholars and psychiatrists and provoke great argument and scholarly discussion (it did not).
Perhaps the most important idea to emerge from Steinbeck’s letters is his great affirmative vision of what the purpose of the writer should be. He comments on this in the context of his character Samuel Hamilton, a man of energy and vision who goes through life without being defeated. Steinbeck laments the fact that it has become fashionable amongst writers to show the destruction rather than the endurance of the human spirit. He argues that there have been a few men—he names Plato, Lao Tze, Buddha, Christ, and Paul—who were not destroyed by life, and these are the men the world lives by. They are remembered not for negation and denial, but for affirmation. Steinbeck goes on to argue that “It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage.” Great writing must give out strength, courage, and wisdom rather than dwell on the weakness and ugliness that is also part of the human condition. Steinbeck believed he had achieved this affirmative vision in his novel. “Although East of Eden is not Eden,” he said in the same letter, “it is not insuperably far away.”
How far away from Eden is it? Some readers may feel that there are so many cruelties, vices, and tragedies in this novel, culminating in Aron’s unnecessary death and Adam’s devastating stroke, that if it is “not insuperably far away” from Eden, it is not far away from hell either.
But that may be part of Steinbeck’s point. It is unlikely that he conceived the condition of Eden as one of perpetual bliss, but rather one of perpetual striving, because wherever there is good, there is also evil. In the interaction between the two lies the possibility of human growth and freedom. Steinbeck said as much in the letter he wrote to Covici on January 29, 1951, before he had written a single word of the novel. He wrote that the opposites of good and evil, strength and weakness, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, are inseparable: “neither can exist without the other.” Out of the interaction of these opposites, “creativeness is born.”
This comment is the key to so much of what goes on in the novel. Although the idea that good and evil are mixed up together in most...
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