EAST OF EDEN, John Steinbeck
I was a freshman in college when I read this book. I realized as I reached its end that the feverish pitch of the novel was probably at least partially based on the fact that I was feverish myself—sick in the way that kids that age and away from home get sick. I lay on my narrow dormitory bed, skipping classes, skipping meals, and reading EAST OF EDEN. When I was finished, I read four or five more Steinbecks in succession, enjoying them all but not perhaps as much as this one.
It was exactly the kind of book that appealed to me then: a family saga that was long, complicated, sad, over the top perhaps. When I reread it a few years ago, I still enjoyed it but felt a red pencil might have strengthened it.
EAST OF EDEN was published in 1962 and its title refers to the place where the biblical Cain goes after murdering his brother, Abel. The novel begins in Connecticut where Adam Trask and his older brother, Charles, live on a farm owned by their father, Cyrus, whom we later learn he has stolen money. Much of the first half of the novel concerns their relationship with the kindly and noble Hamilton family. After Cyrus’ death, Adam enters the army while his brother Charles stays on the farm and grows rich.
After his release Adam marries Cathy Trask and the couple move to Salinas, California, where she becomes pregnant. She gives birth to Cal and Aron but deserts the boys, shooting Adam while running away to live in a whorehouse. Cathy has few redemptive qualities and seems determined to debase herself and destroy everyone around her.
Adam and his servant, Lee, raise the two boys. One night Cal takes Aron to the house of prostitution owned by Cathy, showing him his mother for what she is. Like their father and uncle before the, the brothers resemble the biblical Cain and Abel. Aron is killed in combat (World War 1) and Cal falls in love with his brother’s longtime girl friend, Abra Bacon. Adam who has suffered a stroke following the shocking death of Aron forgives Cal for his sins.
This is certainly one of Steinbeck’s best novels and a classic for me. Despite its rigid notion of good and evil—people are mostly one or the other—its rich storyline, the beauty of the writing and its compelling nature, still make it a favorite.
For more forgotten books, see Evan Lewis right here.