East of Eden by John Steinbeck

The epic tale of Adam Trask, cuckolded husband to a whore and father of twin boys, one dark, one light.

I’m rather embarrassed to confess East of Eden is the first Steinbeck I have ever read. Big deal, you say–except I majored in American Studies in college with a focus on how literature and popular culture reveal sociological truths about the American people. I was obsessed with writers like Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. I was enamored of post-Industrial Revolution American life. It makes no sense at all–none, I tell you!–that I never once considered reading a book by John Steinbeck. I probably would’ve lost my mind with delirious delight. I bet I would’ve gone to grad school for American Studies instead of Cinema Studies. Steinbeck totally could’ve wooed me away from Hitchcock. Lewis and Dreiser just weren’t potent enough.

I am a born ‘n’ bred East Coast girl. I’ve been to LA a few times, but in my mind California has always been someplace you go to, not someplace you come from. The idea that California has people and history and a story has never quite seemed real to me. Of course, I have lots of friends who moved to New York from California (and one or two who boomeranged back). And I find it amazing that their roots are so far West, that they feel the heimlisch tug of tradition to a place that makes me think only of reinvention, and starting over.

East of Eden is steeped in California, the California I suspect my friends know a little something about. I lost myself in Steinbeck’s descriptions of a rough-hewn land rising into respectability, and in specificities of the characters he created. These people aren’t Chicago charlatans or Midwestern Boosters. They’re California people telling a California story–which, incidentally, is the only way to tell the American story, don’t you think?

Notice I haven’t attempted an actual review. Just doesn’t seem appropriate, somehow, to try to distill an epic work into a set of glib observations or, even worse, facile judgment. That’s not why reading the classics is important to me as an adult (who will never go back to school). Whenever I finish a book like this I feel a sense of relief, as if to say, “Finally, now I have this book and I can read about it at last.” The door has been opened. Steinbeck is less of a mystery. How lucky am I!

4 thoughts on “East of Eden by John Steinbeck”

  1. Have you read James Blish’s ‘Cities In Flight’ books? SF Book Club bound all four into a single volume some years ago.

    The cities wending their way work where they find work. They are called ‘okies’. Term “bindlestiff” is an important distinction of character/honor.
    “Citites In Flight” kind of sounds like a retelling of the Oklahoma Dust bowl and hobos. Right up to clustering together into an ‘okie jungle’, with police ships showing up at random..

  2. Oh. Wow. You have made me pledge to myself to get this out of the library as soon as I get back to Leeds next week. I haven’t read any Steinbeck either – in fact American literature is one of the gaping holes in my education. I was recently in California near where Steinbeck lived, and it actually reminded me quite a lot of Australia. The thought of burying myself in a book revealing some of the hidden history of that place is very enticing. Thanks!

  3. I read East of Eden a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it! I still haven’t managed to read any more of his books yet, but I will one day!

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