At fifteen, I was obsessed with East of Eden. Like Ethan Frome, The Great Gatsby, and A Farewell to Arms, the book was a gift from my mom. I’m convinced she passed it along in part so we could pass time stuck in traffic by identifying similarities between my father and Steinbeck’s feral sociopath, Cathy Ames.
Steinbeck is so out of vogue these days that expressing anything but disdain for his work is tantamount to proclaiming Gone With the Wind or The Prince of Tides a seminal work of American literature. Even praise for The Grapes of Wrath has all but dried up.
Until recently I hadn’t read him in years. I was afraid to. Some of those novellas I remember loving in my youth — Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row — seem implausible and maybe even schmaltzy in hindsight. So when I returned to East of Eden a few months ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
In fact, despite the repetition and the melodrama, and the often clumsy ways set pieces are pushed into place, though, I was sucked into the story as if for the first time. Is this because I imprinted on the novel and its characters at such a formative age? Quite possibly. I’ve rarely been as haunted by a literary passage as I used to be by this one:
I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places. They are accidents and no one’s fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishments for concealed sins.
And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?
Don’t worry, I’m not recommending that you run out and read the book. All of this is really just an extended segue.
Returning to East of Eden led me do some digging into Steinbeck’s life, and I discovered that he wrote letters to his editor, Pascal Covici, every day alongside his manuscript. These were published in 1969 as Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. They narrate not just the progress of Steinbeck’s book, but the minutiae of his days.
On and on and on he goes — about his new desk, his electric sharpener, his urgent need for four dozen new long pencils.
He forges ahead with his writerly plans, saying he has to write this book his way, in his time. He can’t be rushed. He won’t be questioned. This is the novel he’s been preparing for all his life. Soon, though, he’s hinting around: are the characters believable, the scenes clear, the themes subtle enough? Finally he hits up the editor for an honest reaction — and, upon receiving it, slides into a depression.
I want to ask and even beg one thing of you — that we do not discuss the book any more when you come over. No matter how delicately we go about it, it confuses me and throws me off the story. So from now on let’s do the weather or fleas or something else but let’s leave the book alone…. Once it is done, you may tear it to shreds if you wish and I won’t object, and I’ll go along with you, but right now you and I forget the delicate sets of balances involved. There are no good collaborations and all this discussion amounts to collaboration. So, we’ll do that, if you don’t mind. And let’s stop counting pages too. I am not being difficult, I hope. It is just too hard on me to try to write, defend an criticise all at the same time. I can quite easily do each one separately. Let me keep the literary discussions on these poor pages. Then we will have no quarrels.
The letters manage to be dramatic and monotonous simultaneously — no small feat. They are relentlessly, ridiculously self-important. And I savored every word.
Here’s a guy who won the Nobel Prize, and his moanings about writing were as tedious as anybody’s. Maybe even mine, though I wouldn’t put money on it.