East of Eden by John Steinbeck
1952 Penguin Books
Finished on 3/27/04
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
In his journal, John Steinbeck called East of Eden “the first book,” and indeed it has the primordial power and simplicity of myth. Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.
Adam Trask came to California from the East to farm and raise his family on the new, rich land. But the birth of his twins, Cal and Aron, brings his wife to the brink of madness, and Adam is left alone to raise his boys to manhood. One boy thrives, nurtured by the love of all those around him; the other grows up in loneliness, enveloped by a mysterious darkness.
First published in 1952, East of Eden is the work in which Steinbeck created his most mesmerizing characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity, the inexplicability of love, and the murderous consequences of love’s absence. A masterpiece of Steinbeck’s later years, East of Eden is a powerful and vastly ambitious novel that is at once a family saga and a modern retelling of the Book of Genesis.
The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.I remember my childhood names for 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.I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you wanted to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a bright grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding—unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of est. Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias. It may be that the birth and death of the day had some part in my feeling about the two ranges of mountains.
And so begins John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, East of Eden.
Several years ago, I posted a list of my favorite classics, followed by another list showing those that failed to impress me. Prior to reacquainting myself with all of these titles, I would have said that I’m not a big fan of the classics. I typically read only one or two a year (if that), just to satisfy a mild curiosity about one I may have missed in high school or college. But, apparently, these two lists indicate that I have found several classic novels quite enjoyable, if not memorable. There are even a couple that I’ve read more than once and a few that I’d like to re-read someday. The Grapes of Wrath, which I read in high school (probably 35 years ago!), is one that remains a favorite. I’ve read other novels by Steinbeck, but that particular saga is one I always remember with great fondness.
In addition to ignoring the classics, I also tend to shy away from large books, too impatient to get to all the others I’ve got stacked up around me. But when Trish mentioned that she was going to spend the month of March reading East of Eden, I decided it was time to dust off my lovely Steinbeck Centennial Edition of East of Eden and join her. I am so glad I finally took the time to read this book, as it is such a readable classic. Honestly, I couldn’t put it down! It’s quite long (601 pages, to be exact) and nearly every single page filled with text and very little white space. And yet the pages flew! It still took me almost the entire month to read, but I never once felt bored or grew tired of Steinbeck’s writing, in spite of his occasional diatribes, which he is prone to incorporate throughout his novels. Had I read this in college, I probably would have had to analyze these diatribes, as well as the biblical imagery, themes such as good versus evil, characterization and plot. One of the benefits of reading a classic later in life is that, if I choose to, I can simply enjoy the story. And I did! I liked the characters I was supposed to like and despised those who were evil (Lee and Cathy, respectively). And, having grown up in California, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Steinbeck’s descriptions of the landscape and vegetation.
On California's flora:
On the wide level acres of the valley the topsoil lay deep and fertile. It required only a rich winter of rain to make it break forth in grass and flowers. The spring flowers in a wet year were unbelievable. The whole valley floor, and the foothills too, would be carpeted with lupins and poppies. Once a woman told me that colored flowers would seem more bright if you added a few white flowers to give the colors definition. Every petal of blue lupin is edged with white, so that a field of lupins is more blue than you can imagine. And mixed with these were splashes of California poppies. These too are a burning color—not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies. When their season was over the yellow mustard came up and grew to a great height. When my grandfather came into the valley the mustard was so tall that a man on horseback showed only his head above the yellow flowers. On the uplands the grass would be strewn with buttercups, with hen-and-chickens, with black-centered yellow violets. And a little later in the season there would be red and yellow stands of Indian paintbrush. These were the flowers of the open places exposed to the sun.
Under the live oaks, shaded and dusky, the maidenhair flourished and gave a good smell, and under the mossy banks of the water courses whole clumps of five fingered ferns and goldy-backs hung down. Then there were harebells, tiny lanterns, cream white and almost sinful looking, and these were so rare and magical that a child, finding one, felt singled out and special all day long.
I’m glad I finally made time for this wonderful, albeit ambitious, novel. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the film (the 1955 original), starring James Dean, Raymond Massey and Julie Harris. I finally turned it off after close to an hour; it was so disappointing and not at all what I envisioned. I wonder if I’d enjoy the mini-series (starring Jane Seymour) any better? Nonetheless, reading East of Eden has inspired me to make time to re-read The Grapes of Wrath, as well Travels with Charley, which is another favorite. Thanks for the nudge, Trish!