Part 1 of 2 (Part 2 here)
California is a garden of Eden,
A paradise to live in or see,
But believe it or not,
You won’t find it so hot,
If you ain’t got the do re mi.
— Woody Guthrie
John Steinbeck once said that a writer should be defined by one work. Although his fame rests upon The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wanted East of Eden, which was published in 1952, to be this kind of work. He took it very seriously, and the book is part novel and part memoir of his youth, as well as a history of Salinas. When I read it, I noticed many allusions to Tolstoy in the sense that he was consciously following Tolstoy’s epics in aspiring to an all-encompassing study of humanity.
Steinbeck uses the story of Cain and Abel as the frame for that of the Trask family, beginning with Cyrus Trask, a Civil War veteran who had lost a leg in a skirmish. His wound defines him. His bitterness is passed onto his two sons, Charles and Adam, who turn out differently. Charles becomes a farmer, while Adam, unable to settle down, joins the army, almost in imitation of his father. The novel covers the vast, peaceful interlude in the United States between the Civil War and the First World War — even though war is a catalyst in the characters’ lives.
Both sons, while fairly estranged, are brought together in suspecting their father is a crook. Cyrus Trask became a top official in the Grand Army of the Republic, the veteran’s group that was founded after the Civil War and which wielded considerable political power in the Gilded Age. Steinbeck never shows him actually stealing, but it is implied, and the thought that he is something of a fraud weighs on his sons’ minds. He also claims to have fought in battles that he was never in, although I thought condemning him as a liar was a bit harsh, given that he did at least fight in a skirmish and lost his leg.
Adam’s military experience scars him. There are allusions to massacres of Indians he participated in, but as with Trask’s theft, we are never shown any of it. In many instances East of Eden lacks what we writers call “showing, not telling.” Getting a glimpse of the wartime service that so determined his life would have been helpful to the reader.
Adam then leaves the army to become a drifter, and eventually settles down. This trio of men lack any kind of female presence in their lives, and indeed, East of Eden is a male world. It made me wonder if Steinbeck didn’t care to portray women, which was a pattern in much of his writing. What Adam and Charles need is some kind of reassuring, female presence that will round them out and soften their father’s harshness. But instead, they get the gruesome Catherine.
Despite being described as “evil,” Catherine is a well-drawn character. I liked her scenes — if like is the proper word — and her strength keeps you reading. The fact that she is a liar and a murderess makes me cautious in praising her, and I would have liked to have seen more of the motivations for her actions. As someone else remarked, she recalls The Bad Seed, a play of the period that likewise depicted an “evil” girl.
The first part of the novel ends with Charles and Adam becoming bitter enemies, and Catherine played no small part in this. Adam takes her to Salinas, California with him to make a new life, and Charles drops out of the book — except when he dies and leaves a pile of cash to Adam. There is always lots of cash in this story.
Adam begins a new life in Salinas, but Catherine doesn’t stay with him. She gives birth to twins, shoots Charles, and then goes off to pursue her own California dream of become the Madame at a brothel. Adam then meets two new characters, Samuel and Lee, who will play important parts in the novel, almost overshadowing the main characters. Adam is set adrift until this duo shake him out of his despair, after which he becomes a farmer and a father — albeit perhaps not a very good one. His twin sons, Cal and Aron, become the new battlefield for Steinbeck’s recreation of the story of Cain and Abel.
Catherine makes further appearances here and there. She starts out in a bordello, working her way to the top, and is befriended by its Madame, Doty. Doty is a very likable and is another well-rounded character. Although Steinbeck paints his prostitutes as immoral, stylistically they come out seeming more likable than the moralistic goody-goodies. Thus, Doty’s presence brightens the book. But that’s a clue that she has to go, and Catherine gets her out of the way after explaining how she will create a bordello catering to men’s deepest vices and lusts, rather than straightforward sex — for a reasonable price. This reminds me of an actual plan for a bordello in San Francisco that was to be called the Hotel Nymphomania, and which was to be staffed wholly of women of that persuasion, the idea being that a contented worker is a productive worker. The churches killed the idea, however. Drat.
In Steinbeck’s view, prostitution is somewhat pleasant and serves a purpose, and he captures a tolerant attitude towards it that prevailed in many parts of the country at the time. Catherine has her competitors. One is a woman known as The Nigger, although it is unclear if she is black or not. I wouldn’t mind having seen a black Madame in the book. Showing, John, not telling!
Much of the second part of the book is about Samuel and Lee. They have long conversations about life, religion — you name it. They are cheerful, likable, and above all else humane men, but their long-windedness takes up a lot of space. Cal and Aron, as well as Adam, seem to disappear for long stretches as Lee and Samuel hash out the meaning of life. I didn’t particularly dislike them, as the two are a reason readers like East of Eden; some even call it a candidate for The Great American Novel. My problem is that they seem to be artificially inserted into the story. I feel they never truly become organic, sort of like the Raisonner of Molière’s plays: the wise, thoughtful character who is a foil to the protagonist’s flaws.
Something else that seems out of place is Steinbeck’s asides to life in Salinas, especially concerning the characters’ descendants and family. I felt that this slowed the novel’s action, and remindied me of Tolstoy’s asides in War and Peace propounding his views on philosophy, history, and so on. Come on, Leo; let’s get back to Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei. That’s the good stuff!
The book picks up again when Cal and Aron mature, although they continue the struggle. Adam is a semi-successful farmer. He attempts to refrigerate food, when this was a new technique, but it goes wrong and an entire crop is lost. He then gives up. It’s disappointing to me, and Adam is a passive character who lacks a spark of ambition and determination. You would think he’d try again, but no.
What I find curious about East of Eden is how much money everyone has. The farms are always prosperous, and if you’re poor, it’s because the character is akin to Adam, who chooses to slum around while he finds himself. Adam can give away lots of cash if need be, and Cal easily makes $10,000 to please Adam — although when Adam fails to show any interest, he burns all the money. I found this incredible.
The last part of the book deals with the Cain and Abel story again, now retold through Aron and Cal. Aron is a stick, and annoyingly moral, obviously intended as a reincarnation of Charles, but he’s a good foil to Cal, and Cal is one of the best things about the novel. I enjoyed Steinbeck’s depiction of a teenager coming to terms with life. He is supposed to be a wild, rough character, but I found him refreshingly average — a kind of Salinas Tom Jones.
Abra, who loves Cal, is delightful and endearing. I enjoyed every scene she is in, and she and Cal made a natural couple. Her supposed engagement to Aron seems almost monstrous. It’s interesting how the secondary female characters bring life to the story in a way the the primary male characters don’t.
The plot got in the way of my enjoyment, however. When the war comes, it’s considered sinful to invest in beans for the army, given that it is seen as taking advantage of the situation. Okay, maybe. But I was cool to the mora preaching that is constantly being forced into the story, especially when Aron’s falls apart when he discovers that Catherine is his mother.
Cal fares much better. Adam avoids Catherine — probably a wise thing to do given that she shot him — and it’s implied that no one has the strength to take her on. She kills herself, which seems like a cop-out to me, and leaves her money to Aron, who is so wracked with guilt by the news and the inheritance that he joins the army and is killed — and it’s all Cal’s fault.
All this guilt, guilt, guilt. I was never at home with the Cain and Abel story. It seemed overdone, although I appreciated the thematic structure it gave to the novel. Steinbeck certainly captures the American middle-class obsession with these themes. I also got rather tired of all the Biblical names. Couldn’t Abra be called Gwen or something like that? Although this Biblical naming is probably realistic given the period and the characters’ class, and Steinbeck is nothing if not a realist.
It’s certainly interesting that Lee and Samuel, a Chinese and an Irishman respectively, talk (and talk) about great moral and philosophical issues while the Americans in the book seem wrapped up in reenacting Biblical issues, or simply trying to make money. Was Steinbeck being ironic in putting his deep, Tolstoy-esque observations into the mouths non-Americans?
I also noticed Steinbeck’s lack of enthusiasm for war. A minor character who is a German is persecuted when the war fever begins, which recalls a similar character in his novel In Dubious Battle. It was tough for me to feel that Cal was truly guilty of Aron’s death, however. If Aron couldn’t handle the fact that his mother was a whore, that’s his fault. If he gets killed in the war, well, that’s war.
East of Eden was most engaging to me in its small scenes: the Sheriff tracking down Catherine’s past, the townspeople, and Cal’s scenes with Abra among them. I feel this is Steinbeck’s true strength, which hearkens back to The Grapes of Wrath and other, earlier works of his. When he put on the Tolstoy hat, I felt I was stuck in an ocean, trying to find some islands of good writing. It was a long read — not without some pleasure here and there, but it struck me as an example of middlebrow writing aimed at pleasing the book clubs.
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