Scot's Reviews > East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
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Jul 15, 2011

it was amazing
Read from July 15 to 20, 2011

This is the ninth book by the great John Steinbeck that I have read in my life, and perhaps it is negligence on my part, or happenstance, that I have lived this long and only now gotten around to engaging it--but I finally did so, and I am so glad I did. It might be the influence and impact of my so-recent engagement with it, but I see it as, ultimately, his most significant work. It is certainly sweeping in its purview, inclusive in its aims and references, and noble in its intent.

The Short Reign of Pippin IV is good for a lark, Of Mice and Men for a freshman high school student as exercise in developing compassion with a reflection on responsibility, and The Grapes of Wrath to shake the comfortable and self absorbed out of the fantasy that pain and suffering are pretty much equally distributed in life. This work, however, addresses what Steinbeck himself sees as the perennial and recurring basic question across all of man’s time on Earth—the struggle between good and evil, and just how much control any of us have upon our own particular roles in the ongoing epic drama that is human existence. He teaches us, subtly but repeatedly, that most vices are really attempted short cuts to get at love.

Heavy in Biblical (and sprinkled throughout with classical) allusions, poetic and sensitive in its appraisal and description of the Salinas Valley as a main setting for this multigenerational review of the interactions across two families (the Trasks with their roots in Puritanical Connecticut and the Hamiltons, Steinbeck’s nod to his own forefathers in California) this novel sets itself an incredible task – and the author responds brilliantly, yet in such a manner that time and time again, the few well chosen details he incorporates to describe any of myriad individuals introduced in passing along the way quickly convey to the reader the sense of “oh yes, I know a person just like that” or “aha, I recognize exactly what he means” without sacrificing to shallowness or demeaning stereotype.

In fact, when it comes to stereotypes, Steinbeck challenges them again and again. My two favorite characters were secondary figures: old Samuel Hamilton, the patriarch of his Irish progeny, and Lee, the Chinese man servant to Adam Trask and maker of a home for the twins Cal and Aron growing up. Both defy typical stereotypes of their ethnicities, even while conveying many often suggested qualities for those of their groups. It is easy to see why I admire these two so much—they provide role models for how I believe Steinbeck suggests we all should aim to live, open to learning from all around us, choosing our fights wisely, and nurturing others with the heartfelt belief that seeking knowledge and cultivating the good that is possible in all around us should be our ultimate life’s purpose.

I read this novel deep into the night, and when it was finished, although I totally understood why and how it concluded the way it did, I wanted it to continue. It enriched me, it inspired me, it reminded me, it taught me. It was a pleasure to engage language and ideas organized in this fashion. This, my friends, is truly great literature.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Mandie Glenn may be my favorite book of all time (but can you choose a favorite book?)

Scot Check back with me when I've completed it. I'd love to discuss it or hear some of your recollections/reactions to it when it's still fresh in my mind. I'm teaching at a Steinbeck Institute in Monterey on July 25 & 26, and look forward to hearing the participants' thoughts on it there, too. (I'm a big fan of all three James Dean movies--this was his first, of course.)

message 3: by Ben (new)

Ben Crandell Hey Scot,
I really loved this book. Now that I'm in California, I'm often reminded of scenes from the book. He must have left a very accurate impression of the landscape in my mind. The family dynamic really hit home with me, too. As you know, I grew up with twins.
My only advise is to have something light and funny to read when you finish the book. I usually need something to make me laugh after finishing any Steinbeck book, something like a chaser. His books always leave me reeling with a tragic impression, but he is so good!

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