It’s odd to me John Steinbeck doesn’t come up in conversation too much anymore.
When books do come up there’s usually a breakdown something like this: mostly contemporary with the genre interest of the speaker showing up broadly, some books to reference the contemporary books, a few 19th century canon references such as Twain, Dickens or Kipling., the foreign book of the moment and that’s about it. Sometimes there’s reference to Hemingway or Lawrence or some such– usually if a movie has been recently released. For that matter, the movies almost always dominate the conversation.
If Steinbeck does come up, one of three books are mentioned: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row. Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath fight for first place depending on the movie release schedule. The Grapes of Wrath has been read by most people who went to high school before 1990. Cannery Row comes in a distant third.
(If you liked Cannery Row, run, do not walk, to read the delightful sequel, Sweet Thursday. Don’t bother with the Nick Nolte movie. It will only make you sad.)
People seem easy with Hemingway or Lawrence or Dickens or even Twain. But when Steinbeck is mentioned people look away or mumble something to show they heard but to make sure they’re not understood.
And yes, I’m trying to write like Steinbeck.
Hemingway, Faulkner and the other American writers of the first half of the 20th century were kept alive in part because they were taught in high school. I don’t think that’s going on so much now. Shakespeare is being taught, of course. My son has not and apparently will not be taught these authors. Leave that for college, perhaps. Contemporary writers are being used in their place. I think this is a loss.
Back in the late sixties and seventies I went on a Steinbeck jag. For me this is not unusual. I get fired up by a writer and want to read everything they’ve ever written. (There’s a post coming on the use, care and feeding of obsessions. But that day is not this day.) I read East of Eden (1952) during this period and was blown away by it. I heard music described to me once as equal parts surprise and inevitability. East of Eden shows the same can be true for a good novel.
Steinbeck used the Cain and Abel story as a model for the novel. He does this from the very first and has his characters follow the rough pattern throughout their lives. Given that the story is ubiquitous you’d think that the novel would be boring. After all, you know the end. Cain will slay Abel in some way. There is going to be a fight over the father.
Somehow this doesn’t seem to matter when you’re reading it. It is like the novel fulfills the original story. Rounds it out. Gives it depth and meaning.
Okay, okay. A synopsis.
Adam and Charles Trask are born half-brothers to the same father. They work out their conflict through the first half of the novel and I won’t talk about that too much. If you want the full synopsis go to the wikipedia entry I listed earlier. While the goal is never in doubt the road there is twisty and I don’t want to spoil it.
Regardless, it climaxes with the introduction of Cathy, a psychopath of the first order. She is found broken and bleeding on their front door. Adam doesn’t see her pathology in her but to Charles it is perfectly clear. Adam falls in love with her and takes her to California to start a new life with him. She’d leave him in a moment but she’s pregnant and still recovering and can’t get clear just yet. After the birth and after she’s strong enough, she leaves Adam with two twin boys and disappears. The boys are ultimately named Aron and Caleb. And then they play out the Cain and Abel story.
But there’s a lot more to this book. Steinbeck was born in the Salinas area, descended from the Hamilton family through his mother. The story involves the Trasks and Hamiltons together– so much so I’m not terribly sure where truth ends and fiction starts. Olive Hamilton is a character in the book. Olive Hamilton Steinbeck was John Steinbeck’s mother.
East of Eden has every Steinbeck virtue and every Steinbeck flaw. The narrative is crisp and evokes the very soil and grass of all of the locations, from the Indian Wars to the Connecticut hills and finally the Salinas Valley. You can feel the clods underfoot and feel the sun on your face. The characters are lively and quick. Steinbeck had the gift of non-judgmental writing. He can write of prostitutes, criminals, violence, indolence, evil and good without making the reader terribly clear if the author thinks any of this is actually bad or good. I like that about him. He lays things out. If the reader comes to the conclusion that, say, prostitution is evil (or good) thing it’s an uncomfortable discovery as there’s not much in the novel to support it. Steinbeck serenely slips past judgment in the spinning of the story.
On the other hand there are times the characters think out loud to one another and at such points they all sound alike and they all sound like the same sort of discussion that happens in the narrative. This can be tedious. I like that characters work out ethical and moral dilemmas in conversation. But they don’t all have to work it out in exactly the same way.
One of the things that you can love or hate about Steinbeck is that he truly loves his characters. Steinbeck is the God we wish we had. He likes us with all our foibles. We make him laugh when we dance and sing. And when he drops tribulation down on us like the Looney Tunes Ton’O’Bricks, he at least feels apologetic about it.
This sort of character affection shows up a lot in the American writing of the thirties and forties. You find it in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943.) The Human Comedy by William Saroyan (also 1943.) The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck (1932.) Our Town, Thornton Wilder (1938.) Their Eyes were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (1937.) And, of course, anything written by John Steinbeck.
I found myself a little depressed reading the book at this stage of my life. I would have liked to have read it for the first time now instead of re-reading for the nth time. I know the story so well my mind tends to run over the good parts quickly and snag on the flaws. It’s still a wonderful book but, I think, a little less wonderful now than when I first read it forty years ago.
Even so, it’s still a very, very good book and a repository of craft worthy of discovery.