“The Salinas was only a part-time river. The summer sun drove it underground. It was not a fine river at all, but it was the only one we had and so we boasted about it – how dangerous it was in a wet winter and how dry it was in a dry summer. You can boast about anything if it’s all you have.” (East of Eden by John Steinbeck)
A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy – that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all”(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)
I believe in a clean first read. I believe that each book should stand on its own, and that secondary criticism and biographical information can come later, after your personal impression has been formed free and clear. However, I had to break my own rule with East of Eden. I couldn’t wait to find out where it fell in Steinbeck’s bibliography. I was certain it had to be a more amateur work than The Grapes of Wrath – it’s meandering, unevenly paced, occasionally obvious, and a whole main character feels flat – but I was entirely wrong. Not only was it a later work, but Wikipedia claims Steinbeck believed it was his best work. Factual bibliography notwithstanding, Grapes constantly won my mind’s Grapes V. East of Eden battle; the former always seeming a more mature, experienced work even though technically written 13 years earlier.
For those who haven’t read it, East of Eden is partially a biography of Steinbeck’s own extended family (he himself is a character as a child) and partially an account of a fictional family. The real family is abbreviated and summarized, packed up nice and tidy, while the fictional family wallows in intricate details that never quite serve to give the sheen of realism Steinbeck seems to be striving for. Yet, even for its flaws, it’s still Steinbeck. It’s still brilliantly written (I attempted to shove no fewer than 25 quotes into this post), still vacillates between the intimate family story and the greater American story, still contains unimpeachable insights into the human soul. Still entirely worth starting and impossible not to finish. And yet, the images that linger in your mind after the book has been shut and returned to the shelf are not as pristine as Grapes, they are marred by the book’s flaws and, perhaps, a slight hint of trying too hard.