Wednesday, February 2, 2011

John Steinbeck: From Salinas to East of Eden

John Steinbeck 1902-1968
Steinbeck and wife Elaine, 1963

John Steinbeck may be regarded as a quintessential "American" author. His fiction focused on the common man - the Dust Bowl migrant, cannery worker, the  farmhand,  prostitute - the lowly of the American earth.  Nonetheless, he often cast his downtrodden characters in stories suffused with Biblical allegory or Arthurian references.  The stories of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, the banishment from the Garden of Eden, were explored repeatedly in his writings, particularly in our discussion book, East of Eden, published in 1952.

Like the Biblical Adam who was created from dust, Steinbeck's literary life seems to have sprung from the dust of his Salinas origins, the setting for East of Eden.  Born John Ernst Steinbeck III in 1902 to Olive and John Steinbeck in Salinas, California, the author spent his childhood, not entirely happily, in this transitional farming community in the Salinas Valley.  A somewhat lonely child who loved reading, Steinbeck left the valley to attend Stanford, but could never quite buckle down to graduate.  He worked odd jobs as a ranch hand, factory worker, and reporter to support himself while he wrote.

One of his first literary successes was Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, followed soon by Of Mice and Men in 1937 and The Grapes of Wrath in 1939.  Cannery Row was published in 1945 and The Pearl in 1947, although there were many other books and short stories written in the intervening years.  For his body of work, John Steinbeck received The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, ten years after the publication of East of Eden.  He married three times, his last marriage to Elaine Scott being a happy and sustaining one, and he had two sons by his second wife, Gwyn Conger, who was problematic in his life.  His sons suffered from their parents' divorce and were never as close to him as he would have liked.

It is for these two sons, Thom and John IV,  that Steinbeck wrote East of Eden.  In his journal he noted, "And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all - the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness.  I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable - how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born."  In this same journal, which he kept as he was writing East of Eden, we learn that he thought this book " the only book I have ever written.  I think there is only one book to a man."  This journal has since been published as John Steinbeck: Journal of a Novel.

Set in the Salinas of his upbringing, Steinbeck said that East of Eden was also an "autobiography" of this region.  His original title for the book was "Salinas Valley."  Additionally,  it is a history of his mother's family, the Hamiltons.  Steinbeck asserted that all the episodes in it about the Hamiltons were true.  I believe the Trask family, on the other hand, is a device to explore his stated subject of good and evil on a symbolic level and how it interplays with the Hamiltons on a personal level.  Steinbeck was sure that East of Eden would be his greatest work.
~ Evelyn Fischel~

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