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August 31, 2004


Clint Mahoney

I don't think East of Eden is a sign that Steinbeck's best years were behind him at all - I will always like the illustration of The Grapes of Wrath, such as the one about the girl who braided the horses hair, best of all, but that doesn't mean that East of Eden still didn't have that feeling that is difficult to describe but I think a friend of mine said it best when he said that Samuel and Adam said things that people don't really say but we wish they did say or we at least wish that they thought those thigns. In some ways East of Eden is a book for a writer and not for the general public. Writers look at people and analyze everything about them trying to get inside their mind, puzzle out their motivations their ingredients like a chef tasting a dish and wondering what in the world that funny flavor is either to make sure to add that to what he cooks or to make sure to leave it out because it's deplorable. Steinbeck does this in a very obvious way but somehow Steinbeck can get away with this and a person who has a mind like a writer, a sociologist or even just a people-watcher appreciates it.

Nathan Alberson

I think maybe you approached East of Eden from the wrong angle. Steinbeck never wrote realistic ficiton (not even Grapes of Wrath). East of Eden functions more as mythology - and why not? It's based on the book of Genesis for crying out loud. If we only judge it by the standards of psychological realism of course we will find it lacking. Is anyone as noble as Samual, or as monstrous as Kate? Of course not. They were intended as types and symbols from the very first. Kate isn't a specific wicked woman, but all wicked women who use their sexuality to manipulate.

The story I think is almost a meta-ficiton study of characters in stories. Kate and Adam and Charles are all defined by who they are in the great centuries old mythology of Genesis. Most tragically, Aaron is defined by his mythological type. It is only at the very end that Cal, in a supreme act of meta-fiction, breaks free from the bounds of symbolism and mythology, and is given the chance by his father to be a real human being who can find redemption, and not be bound by the cords of classical tragedy.

I guess my point is it's a pretty darn good book.


Clint and Nathan

You are of course entitled to like East of Eden, just as I am to regard it as dull compared with his best. However, it’s not really for you to say whether I approached it in the right or wrong way—I would imagine that I came to it in exactly the same way as I approached his other books and found it less satisfying.

In his best work, Steinbeck’s realistic approach merges subtly and almost imperceptibly into types and symbols; in East of Eden the mythologizing is clunky and obvious, as in other American novels with too obvious a message. I had to struggle to finish it. That’s a shame, as I think Steinbeck produced some of 20th century American literature’s true masterpieces.

Nathan Alberson

Well, aesthetic judgements are all pretty subjective, so it's really pretty impossible to argue you. One man's clunky and obvious is another man's grandiose attempt to shoot for the stars.

So, you didn't approach it in the "wrong" way. But I do think you looked for things in it that Steinbeck never intended to put there in the first place.

The major point I would contend with in your original post is that Steinbeck was an author with his best years behind him. He attempted something pretty big in East of Eden, and I think he suceeded in a way that only a author at the peak of his power could do. Now, we can argue until we're blue in the face about whether what he attempted was all that great an idea in the first place (you don't like the obvious mythology - I do), but I think we can give Steinbeck credit where credit is due.


Fair enough, I think we can leave it there. My original post was rather flippant anyway. I did write more seriously about another Steinbeck book (The Long Valley) which I enjoyed very much: http://tornandfrayed.typepad.com/tornandfrayed/2004/03/the_long_valley.html

Perhaps it is just a foible of mine to prefer the earlier works of artists. I certainly prefer musicians' early work to their later meanderings, although it could be argued that rock 'n' roll is a young man's game in a way that literature is not.

Yet in some fields, mathematics for example, it can be clearly shown that people do their best work before the age of 35.

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