East of Eden, John Steinbeck … book critics either adored or hated, but make no mistake, I couldn’t stop reading it (and found it about 20,000 x’s more interesting than the book of Genesis, on which it is based). I started on the flight home from Tampa last week and finished it Wednesday morning between sets on the bench at the gym. Ignore the epic scale (and physical size) of the book. It is an intriguing read from start to finish. Steinbeck remains an enigma as far as his political and social views. He’d been firmly on the left and a member of a communist writers organization (the League of American Writers), yet he’d also offered his services to the CIA before traveling to Europe. He stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee in their witch hunt against Arthur Miller and other artists, but then become a close personal friend of Lyndon Johnson and supported the Vietnam War. Considering the fact that Steinbeck regarded East of Eden his most important novel, I find it difficult to believe that he was anything but firmly on the left socially, and perhaps an anarchist politically. The messages throughout East of Eden fall squarely with personal responsibility and freedom from any and all interference, especially governmental interference.
“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.”
There are countless philosophical discussions throughout the novel, most often spewed by and/or between Samuel Hamilton and Lee (Adam Trask’s Chinese servant). Most of those quotes can be found by simply googling “East of Eden quotes” (or vice versa). I’d bought a used copy of the book, so it was already marked up (all over the place), and I only marked it myself in a few places (when I had a marker handy).
Without listing all the characters, plots and subplots, because it would take me a few weeks to do them justice, here’s what you’re facing once you begin reading. A Steinbeckian description of Eden (i.e., the Salinas County) … an introduction to an Irish-American inventor/philosopher named Samuel Hamilton (and his brood) … and then enter Adam and Charles Trask (brothers akin to Cain and Abel—and Charles is physically scarred (marked) the way Cain was). Adam is tricked into marrying a woman (a beautiful monster) named Cathy … and from there more subplots erupt (Cathy has twin sons named Aaron and Cal, another potential Cain and Abel).
So what happens when a son believes his father (or mother) doesn’t love him? What happens when he believes he is the spawn of something evil? Is he condemned to a similar fate? Those are the essential questions the novel asks (and answers). The following conversation between Samuel and Lee (Adam Trask’s Chinese servant) are quoted here, but the link provides the full discussion. I suggest reading the book, of course.
“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”
"Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy ofthe American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in thispassage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This isnot a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered whatthe original word of the original writer had been that these very differenttranslations could be made.”
Ultimately, East of Eden is a novel about love; how and why we handle feelings of love and/or feelings of being unloved. I was moved by the following theme from the time it was introduced (about halfway in the novel). It is part of the quote from above. It has to do with the different perspectives of a quote from Genesis; whether it is fate or an absolute order that man would defeat evil.
“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.”
Steinbeck decides against the idea of children being genetically fated to evil (through Aaron and Cal), but his Samuel Hamilton does hold our existence to a higher standard.
“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”
Another passage dealing with the same morality:
"We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”
Dealing with the emperors (parents) shedding their clothes before their subjects (kids) … there’s this consequence to consider (and amici, don’t I know it):
“When a child first catches adults out -- when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just -- his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child's world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.”
Pragmatism and/or capitalism are also challenged throughout the novel. I found a naïve belief by the author in people being more than honorable once they’ve struck it rich. Steinbeck goes so far as defending arms contractors during World War I (defending their right to make a profit for what they deliver to the government), but I suspect the author believed WWI was a just war and not something we engaged in for the sake of private enterprise. In any event, I doubt he’d feel the same way about our recent wars with Iraq and Afghanistan.
And, of course, East of Eden is Very Highly Recommended by Temporary Knucksline.
DAYS AND CLOUDS ...
Days and Clouds … a fine Italian flick about a middleclass/middle-aged couple struggling with sudden (or maybe not so sudden) unemployment. There’s nothing in the job market that can begin to restore Michele’s (the husband) sense of worth. His wife, an art restorer, is forced to take on menial work and cut back on her art hours restoring a ceiling painting that has to do with confirming her professorial thesis. People under stress are apt to act abnormally … or maybe their actions can be considered normal given the circumstances. This one is often painful to watch (if you have a heart) … it takes place in Genoa (the city, not the salami) … and if the job concerns appear familiar, they aren’t much different from what’s going on here in the good old US and A.
If you can deal with the emotional strain of watching two wonderful characters ungluing before your eyes, it’s a wonderful movie.
SNHU MFA Progress Report … a bunch of my fellow classmates and/or graduates from Southern New Hampshire’s MFA program are published and/or have publishing deals in the works. A more detailed report will ensue as each new publication (book release) date approaches.
Kelly Stone Gamble … “Burying your husband is difficult—especially when you’re using the same shovel you whacked him with in the first place.” Visit Kelly’s webpage here:
You can join her virtual book party here:
Darren Rome Leo … You can visit the link here to learn about Darren’s debut novel, The Trees Beneath Us. It’s with Stark House Press and will be available in June 2015. … Visit Darren’s website here:
James Marino … his debut novel, The Keepers of Mercia, will be available November 6.
Ted Flanagan … has an essay about his professional (paramedic) experiences dealing with heroin overdoses in Cognoscenti …
Randi Sachs … Koehler Books will be publishing Randi’s novel, Indivisible, about twin brothers who lose their family in a car accident on the way to one of the brother’s college graduation. Only his twin survives, and he has Down syndrome. His brother is left as his legal guardian
John Vercher … will have his story, Discontent (a short story inspired by last year's seemingly interminable winter), published in VimFire Magazine.
Holy cow … this speech again?