This is Part 2 of a long post. Read Parts 1 and 2 together here.
John Steinbeck admitted in his letters to Pat Covici that there are two books within the covers of East of Eden and that they might even have been better published separately. The core of the book is a re-telling of the story of Cain and Abel. Cain ‘dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden’, was the eldest son of Adam and Eve, was the first person born and the first to kill. His younger brother Abel was the first to die. Theirs is the story of the fight between good and evil in the human soul.
Steinbeck sets the story in the Salinas Valley, California, bridging the 19th and 20th centuries and across two generations of the Trask family. We first read the story of Charles Trask and his brother Adam and then follow Adam’s sons Aron and Cal.
Parallel with this, Steinbeck tells the tale of Samuel Hamilton, a well-read and artistically inclined Irish immigrant who claims a dusty parcel of Californian land and settles down to raise a large family of Americans. Samuel’s daughter Olive marries a German called Ernest Steinbeck and they raise a son called John who is the narrator, and the author, of East of Eden. I know, it is all a bit mind-bending and I can’t remember any other author using a similar device but it works. It absolutely works.
The flesh-and-blood Hamiltons and the fictional Trasks are neighbours. Their stories lean against each other, stand apart and mingle a little. Steinbeck assures Pat Covici that ‘all the Hamilton stories are true.’ He wants to tell the story of America by creating a true picture of the Salinas Valley which he is, ‘using as a microcosm of the whole nation’ and for that reason he says, ‘I must put in all the lore and anecdote I can. And many of my family stories amount to folklore and should be used …’
So, East of Eden is a like a mixed-media image with old and very personal photographs overlaid on a painting.
The best, the most good, character in the novel is a real person. Samuel Hamilton makes people feel good, makes them feel like better people and makes them believe that the world is a better place. It was Steinbeck’s intention that Samuel be a guiding light, ‘by whom little and frightened men are guided through the darkness.’
Cathy Ames, the villain of the piece, the monster and devil incarnate, is only make-believe.
Cathy and Samuel are fire and water. They recognise each other and can’t bear to be close.
Cast and torn between these two extremes are the ordinary people. Some of them are dreamers, others are schemers. Some are blind to evil, others are drawn to badness. Some of them are Hamiltons and some of them are Trasks but they all feel like real people.
Yes, it’s all very symbolic but the weight of symbolism is balanced with good story-telling. Steinbeck knew what he was about, ‘I want to clothe my symbol people in the trappings of experience so that the symbol is discernible but not overwhelming.’
Does good triumph over evil? What do you think? Has it, in the real world? The point is not whether it did, in this story or any other. The point is not whether it will in the future. The point is that good could triumph over evil, if men so choose, it could.
‘It’s too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry,’ says the wisest man in the book.
‘There’s a responsibility to being a person. It’s more than just taking up space where air might be.’
This is from Steinbeck’s Nobel prize acceptance speech in 1962:
‘Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life of the whole world – of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand. Having taken Godlike power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility we once prayed some deity might have.’
In chapter two, writing about the first pioneers to colonise America, Steinbeck writes:
‘They trusted themselves as individuals because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units – because of this they could give God their own courage and receive it back. Such things have disappeared perhaps because men do not trust themselves anymore, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.’
There it is. There is Donald Trump, sure and strong. Did you draw breath? That’s art.
But wait. Take East of Eden down from your book shelf or go to a book shop and take the book in your hands. Somehow, I feel that a portion of the power of this lies in holding a book. Find Chapter 13, part 1, and read.
These are just excerpts:
‘When our food and clothing and housing are all born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking.’
‘and men are unhappy and confused.’
‘Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man.’
‘And now the forces marshalled around the concept of the group have declared war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.’
‘And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual 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…I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.’
Knitting your own dishcloths might just be a tiny step in the right direction. Knitting your own dishcloths and kneading your own bread might give you time to do some hard thinking. You might stretch your mind to considering rebellion. You might be too busy thinking to worry about the great mass of people who might think you are crazy. You might become the person your Husband thinks you are. You? I guess I mean me. But also, you.
Here are more words of wisdom from David Bowie:
‘Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.’
Because, you know, life takes courage. Responsibility takes courage. Creativity takes courage. Individuality takes courage. If you get hung up on being perfect, on playing safe, then you’ll just follow the crowd, the group, the mass. You’ll spot some strong sure man and, even if he’s wrong, you’ll hang on his coattails.
Be brave. Swim deeper. Make a splash.
‘And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.’ John Steinbeck.