East of Eden as a Letter
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....
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Changing Attitudes toward Steinbeck’s Naturalism and the Changing Reputation of East of Eden: A Survey of the Criticism since 1974
Until a few years ago, John Steinbeck’s literary reputation depended upon how critics perceived his naturalism. As long as he wrote in what was perceived as a naturalistic vein, he received high praise. When his work became less overtly naturalistic, his reputation declined drastically. During the past fifteen years this pattern of criticism has changed as critics have begun to question whether or not Steinbeck was a naturalist.
No novel is a better barometer of how Steinbeck’s reputation is faring than East of Eden. Upon its initial publication, it was considered a disaster; now some scholars call it Steinbeck’s finest work. The purpose of this study is to survey how the perception of Steinbeck’s naturalism has changed since the early 1970s, when scholars began to reevaluate Steinbeck’s post–World War II fiction, and to speculate on how these changes have affected the reevaluation of East of Eden.
The Steinbeck Society Session at the 1974 Modern Language Association Convention marks the beginning of the reevaluation of Steinbeck’s Naturalism. These papers were collected and published in a special issue of the Steinbeck Quarterly in 1976. In his “Introduction,” Warren French divides Steinbeck’s work into two distinctive categories: the “Naturalistic” works and the “Dramas of Consciousness,” placing both The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden in the latter category. That he grouped...
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Steinbeck’s Exploration of Good and Evil: Structural and Thematic Unity in East of Eden
In the final scene of East of Eden, Steinbeck employs a cinematic device that he used in the ending of The Grapes of Wrath, where Rose of Sharon nurses a starving stranger, bringing to its epitome the theme of hospitality, or kindness to strangers, that has run throughout the novel. This scene has the effect of freezing characters in the enactment of theme. With similar effect, in the final scene of East of Eden, Adam lies paralyzed by a stroke. His friend Lee, his son Cal, and Abra, who will eventually marry Cal, stand around him. With Lee’s admonition and encouragement, Adam summons the strength to speak one final word of forgiveness, instruction, and inspiration to Cal: the Hebrew word Timshel, translated as “Thou mayest,” from God’s assurance to Cain in Genesis that he has the power to triumph over evil.
This final grouping of characters, like that in The Grapes of Wrath, symbolizes and affirms the theme that has run throughout East of Eden—that human beings can triumph over evil. This grouping serves also, however, to define Steinbeck’s own view of the nature of good and evil, a necessary and corollary theme, which has also run throughout the novel to reach its epitome in this final scene. The enormous wickedness of Cathy/Kate has not endured, for in Steinbeck’s view, overwhelming as evil may seem sometimes, it ultimately proves empty and transitory. Like Cathy/Kate’s life and suicide, evil lacks...
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Alienation in East of Eden: The Chart of the Soul
“I think there is only one book to a man,” said John Steinbeck as he wrote East of Eden. “This is the book I have always wanted and have worked and prayed to be able to write” (JN, p. 5). Though Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, his “big book” (JN, p. 33), with a strong sense of purpose, critics have found it formless; and though he recorded his ideas about it daily, critics have been vague about his theme. Steinbeck expected these problems, but the expectation was not the confession of guilt it has been taken for. “My carefully worked out method will be jumped on by the not too careful critic as slipshod” (JN, p. 31), he predicted. Critics have taken as support Steinbeck’s occasional concern about whether he would be understood, discounting his dominating enthusiasm about the basic soundness of his plan. East of Eden should seem “ordinary” and “casual,” he wrote, but “it is the most uncasual story in the world” (JN, p. 40). “As you will have discovered . . . the technique of this book is an apparent lack of technique and I assure you that it is not easy” (JN, p. 60).
About midway through East of Eden Steinbeck wrote, “My patterned book is clear to me now— right to the end. And I am pleased that I am able to follow the form I laid down so long ago. I hope the book will sound a little formless at first until it settles in the mind” (JN, p. 112). As he...
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