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East of Eden (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) Paperback – October 1, 1992
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"A novel planned on the grandest possible scale...One of those occasions when a writer has aimed high and then summoned every ounce of energy, talent, seriousness, and passion of which he was capable...It is an entirely interesting and impressive book."
—The New York Herald Tribune
"A fantasia and myth...a strange and original work of art."
—The New York Times Book Review
"A moving, crying pageant with wilderness strengths."
About the Author
John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California, in 1902, grew up in a fertile agricultural valley, about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast. Both the valley and the coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929).
After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California books, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and worked on short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938). Popular success and financial security came only with Tortilla Flat (1935), stories about Monterey’s paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The Grapes of Wrath won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.
Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-novelette The Moon is Down (1942).Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1948), another experimental drama, Burning Bright(1950), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) preceded publication of the monumental East of Eden (1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history.
The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books include Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), Once There Was a War (1958), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961),Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966), and the posthumously published Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969), Viva Zapata!(1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), and Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (1989).
Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, and, in 1964, he was presented with the United States Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Steinbeck died in New York in 1968. Today, more than thirty years after his death, he remains one of America's greatest writers and cultural figures.
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Steinbeck’s masterpiece, for to call it anything less is impossible, has left me with a sense of loss. When I came to the end of this epic tale of family and humanity, I felt abandoned simply because I ran out of words to read. I wanted to carry on in his characters’ lives, spying on their darkness, watching them evolve and bloom and outrun the forces haunting them. No book has made me feel quite so much sadness and excitement at once. Perhaps because I’m a writer, I relished the painterliness of Steinbeck’s prose. I turned every single one of its six-hundred and one pages at a furious pace, and yet I indulged and languished and roamed the landscape he had painted for me, and me alone.
The story is so personal, a reader might feel it is written for her. It is a story we must hear, a story we know, a story with which we can connect, as we do with all the ones passed down from civilization to civilization. We commune with great stories, religious accounts, epic tales, because we see ourselves most readily in them, and as Lee (one of "Eden’s" finest characters) says, that’s why we keep telling, and retelling, them from one generation to the next. Steinbeck draws on the "Old Testament," turning over the story of Cain and Abel and making it his, for us anew. And because we see ourselves in it—our good and evil—we devour his retelling as though it were medicine to save our soul, the cure for all our ails. But perhaps I exaggerate, indulging in the power of the writer a little too much. Or maybe I do feel my soul a little shaken by my experience, swept up in the writer’s magic. Either way, I am satisfied to credit Steinbeck for my joy at venturing into his Eden.
And it is the great landscape, the backdrop of his tale that speaks most readily to the reader. Steinbeck’s setting is in fact a large part of the whole. Like the characters he unearths, the soil on which they stand seems to reach for the sky, yearning to live too. You can’t read "East of Eden" without experiencing the tan valleys of Northern California and the lush green dales of Connecticut. You see his East and his West, you practically smell the air of each, and you believe the world he creates to be the same one in which you live. The opening of the book sets you up for that, tells you, dear reader, you will feel every ounce of nature’s beauty just as the narrator does; her dangerous flirtations, her permanency, her changeability, her gales, her forces, her perpetual and enduring spirit. We do not simply live in nature, but come from it. We embody it; all her forces. I think Steinbeck reminds us of this in such subtle and rare ways it seeps into the subconscious as we follow his narrator through the story of Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton, and all the characters in-between and after.
“I remember my childhood names for the grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.”
Effortlessly, Steinbeck strings you along with his prose, fooling you into not seeing the great and gargantuan task he is laying before you. “Timshel,” he teaches you. “Thou mayest,” the two words from "Genesis" that seem to speak most profoundly, for they admit to free will, and your ability to choose to rule over sin. John Milton’s "Paradise Lost" also speaks of this freedom, one in which man has often stumbled, misunderstanding his disobedience, his choice between good and evil. Steinbeck examines this idea throughout the narrative, and shows you the outcomes of those who struggle with the same, and it is in their differences that choice becomes apparent.
I have said little about the characters, the plot, the style and themes, and yet I have said everything I can about a work that has touched me so deeply. I will leave you with this short quote, said once again by Lee, the Chinese American who is the most philosophical, and enlightened of Steinbeck’s family of characters, the sage most inborn to the writer:
“But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”
This is a story of family, honor, love, pain, success, failure and free will. The Cain and Abel parallel runs through 2 sets of brothers and even the 2 woman involved with each set. In Charles and Adam then Cal and Aron, there is the perception of good and bad. With Cathy and Abra, it seems a little more black and white. However, the ideal of free will changing a path is always there. The characters always have a choice.
The novel highlights 2 generations of the Trask family with the relationships between the father's & sons, brothers, and the woman who impacts each generation of men. There is also the contrast of the poorer but more content Hamilton family which also plays a part in both generations.
This book has everything from drama to a small mystery to romance. It is a definite must read in a lifetime. Personally, I have to reread it every few years because, in addition to everything else, I find it to be a story of redemption and hope.
With that being said, East of Eden is seemingly Steinbeck's magnum opus. From the minute I bought the book, I was hooked, devouring each and every word of each page - finishing the 600ish paged book in 3 days. I'm not a crier when it comes to books, but I found myself tearing up constantly. I also found myself being personally attached to the characters and their interpolated plots and histories. Steinbeck's imagery is so strong that at times you can feel transported back in time to the rich (and sometimes not) Salinas Valley of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Save for some racially derogatory language (but I get the context of it), each word of East of Eden will have you hooked. Bring some tissues.