This extraordinary autobiographical novel is considered to be John Steinbeck's “carefully planned reflection on national and personal identity.” When he spoke of East of Eden, he said, “I’ve been practicing for a book for 35 years.” He called it “the story of my country and the story of me.“ His novel was first published in the summer of 1952, and by November it had become the nation's number-one bestseller. It was made into a Hollywood movie and a made-for-TV mini-series.
As I settled in and started reading, the first few chapters blew me away with their easy, lyrical descriptions of the Salinas Valley. The wild flowers and animals and the naming of towns and places with Native American, Spanish and then American names were as easy to recreate in my mind as the descriptions of the people who came to settle; there were two families in particular, the Trasks and the Hamiltons. There are four sections and each section covers a different period of history and a different period in the lives of the main characters, who are all fascinating and created in depth.
As I continued reading, I was beginning to get the idea that this larger-than-life story was going to be bursting with all kinds of emotions. I looked at the letter to Pascal Covici that was reproduced on a page of its own just before the story starts. I looked up Steinbeck on the Web and found reference to Covici. Steinbeck had carved a box at his request; it would hold the manuscript.
“ . . . Well here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts--the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation. . . . And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you. And still the box is not full.“ It’s a hint at what’s in the book.
The major part of the plot is set in the farmland of the Salinas Valley in California. The author investigates the relationships between parents and children, between brothers and between people, places and history. The book also uses an abundance of parallels from biblical tales of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel. Again, I had to go to the Web and find some quotes to make sure I knew what was going on.
Genesis: 4: 1-16 1): And Adam knew Eve his wife; and he conceived and bare Cain . . . 2): And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain was a tiller of the ground. 8): . . . and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Able his brother, and slew him. . . . 13): And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14): Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me. 15): And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. 16): And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden .
Each chapter covers a family or a set of persons until soon the author is weaving the threads of their lives together. Samuel and Liza Hamilton have come from Ireland around 1870 and are already settled in the Salinas Valley at the beginning of the book. The narrator (who I take to be Steinbeck) talks about old photos and old stories that have been passed down in the family. We hear of land that was so sparse that it was difficult to make a living without water. Many wells were drilled on Samuel’s ten thousand acres. He built a forge and he was an inventor but he grew nothing. Together he and Liza had nine children, one of whom, Olive, a teacher, is a portrait of Steinbeck’s mother. Olive marries and has four offspring, one of whom, is JS.
We come upon Adam Trask and his family at a farm on the outskirts of a little town in Connecticut. Adam’s father, Cyrus, is described as having lost his lower leg in the first hours of the Civil War. His mother is dead of suicide and his imperious father has married a second wife, a neighbor girl, who turns out to be consumptive (tuberculosis) and eventually dies. She bears a son, Charles, who is jealous of the love his father shows for Adam. Charles beats Adam mercilessly and goes after him with a hatchet. The father goes after Charles with a shotgun.
Adam’s father forces him to join the cavalry so he will become a man and participate in the Indian fighting. This only serves to make him more anti-violent and a pacifist. When he finally gets out he goes to see his father in Washington. Daddy is still a controlling figure and offers to arrange for his favorite son to go to West Point. Adam refuses and re-enlists for another five years to escape from his father’s influences.
When he gets out of the service a second time, he becomes a hobo and a wanderer. When he finally returns to the farm, he finds a successful establishment. Charles has been successfully running when he isn’t visiting the “girls” on the second floor of the local hotel. This is only the first instance of prostitution in the book. There’s a lot more to come.
The father dies leaving the boys a sizable inheritance. There seems to be a lot of money passing hands in one way or another throughout the book. Charles continues to be a farmer and Adam continues to be a dreamer. One day Cathy Ames shows up at the farmhouse door; she has been badly beaten. Adam takes her in and cares for her. Charles dislikes her intensely. Cathy Ames is the Eve character and I think that Steinbeck combined in her all the evil of the Serpent from the Garden of Eden.
Cathy is one of John Steinbeck's most memorable characters. She is a blatantly sexual, amoral woman. She is introduced with the words “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. . . . They are accidents and no one’s fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishments for concealed sins.”
She is described as a pretty child but even then she was a temptress. At age 10, her mother discovered her in the barn with two 14-year-old boys; she is tied up and partially nude. Mama gets hysterical when it turns out that Cathy may have tied herself up. Rumors about Cathy spread like wildfire. One night, Cathy’s Latin teacher comes banging on the Ames’ door at midnight. He’s turned away as drunk by a father who either didn’t want to, or couldn’t, understand what he was trying to tell him. He goes to the local church and blows his brains out. After that, Cathy pretends to be a model child but underneath she is seething and plotting to get away.
She runs away to Boston and is found by her father. She is brought home and beaten with a whip. The next thing we know, the house has burned down (with the parents in it) and Cathy has disappeared. So has all the money. She changes her name to Catherine Amesbury and it is at this point that she shows up on Adam and Charles’s doorstep.
Cathy ends up marrying Adam. She becomes his Eve. On their wedding night, she gets him to take her opiate medication and he passes out. She and crawls in bed with his brother Charles. By Part Two things are changing and the narrator reminds us of the war with England and then the war with Mexico. We are up to the turn of the Century, the turn of a millennium--1900. Everyone is moving west!
Eventually Adam sells out his share in the farm to Charles, and he and a pregnant Cathy move west to settle in the Salinas Valley near King City. The fates (and the author) conspire so that the two families’ lives become intertwined. This is where my memories of the story become clearer. I saw the movie with James Dean as Cal and Julie Harris as Abra. Raymond Massey played Adam and Jo Van Fleet played Kate, a prostitute who was once Cathy Amesbury (Adam’s Eve), who was the mother of unnamed twin boys.
Adam buys a large farm. We begin to meet the Hamiltons and another important character appears, a Chinese cook named Lee who “Talkee Chinese talk” with all his “R”s changed to “L”s. It’s pretty awful. We soon find out it’s a ruse. He speaks full and thoughtful English phrases, is a graduate of Berkely and is a Presbyterian. His dream is to open a bookstore in San Francisco. Steinbeck goes fast and furious on introducing characters, all of who emerge fully formed. . . .if only for a few pages.
There is the whole Hamilton clan. The patriarch Sam and his wife Liza know everyone and everything that goes on in the Valley. Sam Hamilton, who is the nearest thing to a doctor in the area, delivers Cathy’s twins. She bites his hand badly and refuses to see her children and asks to be left in the dark. Lee bandages Sam and he leaves. Cathy ends up shooting Adam in the shoulder with a forty-four after telling him that he can dump the twins in one of his empty wells . . . she doesn’t want them. After that, she steps over his body on her way out the door to another name and a new life as Kate in a whörehouse.
Some fifteen months later Sam Hamilton runs into Lee (who has dropped his accent) and learns the twins have not been named yet. He rides out to the farm, beats Adam (Adam seems to get beaten a lot) and Lee cooks some food. They discuss Genesis 4:1-16 and they finally name the boys Caleb and Aaron.
Parts Three and Four take the reader through all the inventions we now take for granted. The Trask house is set up with an icebox, a gas stove, and eventually electricity and telephones and cars. Lee takes over the running of the house and the raising of the twins, while Adam looks for something to occupy his time and mind besides raising lettuce.
Lee becomes the wise, counseling housekeeper. At one point in the story he leaves the Trask’s employment to open a bookstore in San Francisco. He’s back in six weeks because he is lonely for Adam and the boys. He moves into a downstairs bedroom and unpacks his books. He says he’s home. I suppose I could read a lot into that situation, but I won’t.
There is a disastrous adventure with Adam shipping refrigerated lettuce to the East Coast. It takes most of his money but it doesn’t really phase him.
The twins are like Adam and Charles. Cal is dark and brooding and Aron is blond and likable. Cal is a loner who worships his brother’s girlfriend, Abra Bacon, but she loves Aron. There is a wonderful scene with the two young lovers sheltered by the branches of a weeping willow (is that symbolic?). They pretend at being man and wife and they pretend at being mother and son. Aron weeps as Abra pretends to be his mother.
At his father’s birthday party, Call tries to buy his father’s love with the money he has made on growing beans, just as Charles had tried to buy Cyrus’ with a penknife when Adam had given him just a puppy. He is rebuffed by Adam who says he wants a gift that’s something good like Aron and Abra’s engagement announcement. We are full circle to the beginning of the book and the relationships between fathers and sons and brothers . . . and their women.
The righteous, Bible-reading father loses his temper and tells Cal he is bad, through and through, bad. “Bad” Cal gets angry and takes Aron to see his mother at the whörehouse, where “good” Aron breaks down when he realizes his father has lied to him. This is sort of like “The Sins of the Father are Visited on the Sons,” and I was off to my Google Search again to look that up.
Here’s some of what I found: “It is the unconscious desires and emotions associated with those beliefs that drive and inhibit behavior. They affect behavior in family and social life, school, the workplace, and personal relationships. They bias decisions. Because of them, one acts, reacts, overreacts, or is inhibited from acting. “ That paragraph seems to work for me and maybe this is what the author was getting at.
Adam is put on the Draft Board. Aron enlists in the First World War and is killed. Adam has a stroke and, as he lies in bed, Lee brings in Cal and Abra. Lee tells Adam his rejection of Cal was the cause of Aron's death. Lee urges him to forgive Cal. Abra tries to explain to Adam why Cal behaved like he did. She tells him how awful it is not to be loved and that it can make a person mean and violent and cruel. . . . Adam manages to lift his hand and utter timshel, which means “thou mayest” and falls asleep. Timshel is the Hebrew phrase that Steinbeck carved on that wooden box he gave to his publisher. Steinbeck’s writing ranges from fanciful to tender to hard-boiled. This was a great read of one man’s epic interpretation of the battle between good and evil and the victories men can achieve when they have been passed through the crucible and emerge purified.
I recommend this book highly and judging from the participation in this write-off, quite a few others are more than pleased with his other works. Please read the reviews by the other participants who are listed below.
This write-off was organized by Stephen_Murray and frazzledspice to celebrate John Steinbeck’s 99th Birthday on February 27, 2001.
Caravan70, ed_grover, Eplovejoy, Frazelledspice, Gabriella, GraceF, Hadassahchana, Howard Creech, Isinga, Jiahong, Kchowell, Ladydagney1, Macresarf1, Murasaki, NFP, Nathanael73, Skygirl and Stephen_Murray,
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