Classics Club: East of Eden

John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)

East of Eden is one of those books that I’ve seen mentioned by many readers as an all-time favorite (though there are a few haters as well). When the Folio Society did a poll to gather suggestions for publication, it was at the top of the list … and they duly published their beautiful edition this year. Somehow I had never gotten around to reading it earlier in my life, but now seemed to be the perfect time.

And so it proved to be. In this time of chaos and confusion, Steinbeck’s exploration of the mystery of evil and the transforming nature of love is rich, complex, and powerful. It’s also simply a compelling story, which one can enjoy without thinking much about the deeper layers. But even if these do not come fully to consciousness, they will reverberate in the soul and have their own transforming effect.

Steinbeck weaves together many elements into this tapestry: a snapshot of a particular time and place, the Salinas Valley in California at the turn of the century; people and tales from his own family history; images and themes taken from myth and religion; invented characters including a terrifying psychopath; and commentary directly expressing the author’s philosophy. It’s a big, ambitious novel, and though there are weak points and a certain loss of narrative energy toward the end, for me Steinbeck succeeded in his stated goal of making me feel as though I were not reading a book, but living it. The people and places he created will continue to live within me and play their part in the drama of my own life. What greater claim to immortality could an author have?

A fascinating companion book is Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. As he was writing, Steinbeck simultaneously wrote a journal in the form of unsent “letters” to his editor and friend, Pascal Covici, on facing pages of the manuscript. It’s an unusual and perhaps unique glimpse into the writing process, into the usually invisible realm where an artist struggles to grasp and give form to what wants to be expressed through him. In many ways this struggle remains obscure — Steinbeck often tells Covici that he’s trying to do something without saying clearly what it is — and there are also passages that are repetitive and dull, such as recurring musings about pencils and pencil sharpeners. But even this is interesting in what it reveals about how the mundane and the extraordinary combine in a writer’s mind, and how he negotiates that balance in the heat of creation.

A few times, Steinbeck states in the letters that the creation of a novel is everything to him; once it’s finished it’s like a dead thing, and it’s time for him to move on to the next. This seems to me to express so well the sacrificial role of an artist, who gives all his mind and heart and soul to the process of creation, shaping a work that represents both something universal and something of its creator’s unique perspective, and then must leave it free to have its own life — which it does, within us.

And it’s clear to me from certain passages that Steinbeck and I are “kindred spirits,” as Anne Shirley would say. Here for example is his response to the contemporary trend towards pessimistic and misanthropic writing, which many would still consider the only serious kind:

If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and our half developed culture, it is this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know. It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth… — Journal of a Novel, p. 107

His credo is amply demonstrated in East of Eden, which unflinchingly portrays the depths of evil and misery to which mankind can descend, without ever losing hope in our ascent. This is the kind of book it always gives me joy to discover, and that indeed gives me strength to carry on living. I truly don’t know what I would do without these beacons on the way.

Classics Club list #30


15 thoughts on “Classics Club: East of Eden

  1. This is not a book that has ever been on my radar simply because I have always associated it with unremitting gloom, but what you say has made me change my mind. I shall look out for a copy next time I’m in the library.


    1. This novel reminded me a good deal of Hardy, but was ultimately lacking in Hardy’s pessimism though full of dark characters and events. The journal passage I quoted above gives a good idea of Steinbeck’s philosophy, which comes through in the novel I feel.


  2. I have heartily hated Steinbeck on principle since being forced to read The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men at school; I suspect I didn’t understand either of them but his name is associated so strongly in my mind with a miserable slodge that just his name is enough to depress me.

    So I was really surprised by your review (and even surprised that I clicked on it and read it rather than passing by). I can’t say that I am racing to embrace this novel, but if I see it I may well pick it up (although to be honest I’m more interested in the journals)…


    1. Funny, Of Mice and Men was the very first “classic” I was made to read in school that I actually liked (vs. others like A Separate Peace and Lord of the Flies that I hated). There does seem to be some personal taste involved, but I still think Steinbeck is worth picking up as an adult to see if your perspective has changed.


  3. So glad to read this review. I’ve finished his The Winter of Our Discontent, and loved it. East of Eden is in my plans.
    (I’m loving my spin title too, The House of the Seven Gables).


  4. I didn’t particularly like Of Mice and Men, but loved his Winter of Our Discontent, and I know I’d probably like this one too.
    (A Separate Peace, Lory, is totally overrated, argh. I liked Lord of the Flies because of context. We read it together when I was 16, and my teacher was the best I had in High School. We all had a blast discussing it and writing our papers.)


    1. I suspect “Mice” might be one of those books that I’ve grown out of. I haven’t read it since I was about 14 years old. And I read Winter of Our Discontent back then too, and have no memory of it — so it might be one you have to be older to appreciate. Sometimes I think each book might have an optimal age (unique to each person) for reading it. I’m glad you had a good teacher for Lord of the Flies, that makes a huge difference too!


  5. I read East of Eden earlier in the year and loved it, despite having been avoiding Steinbeck for a very long time, convinced that I wouldn’t like him. The Grapes of Wrath is on my Classics Club list, so I’m looking forward to reading that one.


    1. For some reason I also resisted reading this book for a long time — it sounded too heavy I suppose. The Grapes of Wrath is a powerful book too, I would like to re-read it.


  6. Great commentary.

    East of Eden is remarkable book. I have not read Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters but I love books about the creative process and books about books. Based upon the format of letters, and your description of them, this supplementary work sounds fascinating.


  7. This book has always sounded depressing to me and I haven’t felt particularly motivated to read another classic by a dead white man, after doing so much of that in high school. After reading your review, though, I am forced to remember it’s probably a classic for a reason! It sounds very well done and like something I’d enjoy. Plus I like books with some hope in them and the quote from Steinbeck that you shared makes me think I might find that in his work.


    1. I didn’t find it depressing, though there was a lot of darkness. At this point in time, I’m grateful for authors who can help us to face that side of ourselves without losing heart — as, from the passage I quoted, I think is very much Steinbeck’s goal.


  8. This is my FAV Steinbeck – lucky, lucky you to have a gorgeous Folio edition too!

    “The people and places he created will continue to live within me and play their part in the drama of my own life.”
    Exactly! I read this nearly 20 yrs ago and so much about this book has stayed with. I hope to reread it one day soonish….with the Journal by my side 🙂


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