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Literary Glance: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

April 17, 2020

Even though I’ve read a lot of books, I’ve never read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  I’d always been aware of the book while growing up.  In high school, we read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, and it was okay, but it didn’t lead me to search for more John Steinbeck books.  I knew of of an old movie called East of Eden with James Dean (and some other famous people too), but I never saw the movie.  I’ve never seen a classic comic book of East of Eden either.

East of Eden has been laying around my house recently because my daughter had to read it last year in a high school English class.  I hated admitting to her that I had never read it.  Since I wasn’t familiar with East of Eden, I expected my daughter to hate it.  Students hate every book they’re forced to read, except for maybe To Kill a Mockingbird.  When I was in school, nobody hated To Kill a Mockingbird.  At least nobody admitted that they hated it.

To my surprise, my daughter enthusiastically enjoyed East of Eden.  I was stunned!  She said it reminded her of a soap opera, only for smart people.  Her one complaint was that the descriptions were too long, especially at the beginning.

After finally getting around to reading the first few pages of East of Eden, I already know I’m going to continue this book, despite a few long descriptions.  Like my daughter, I’m not a fan of long descriptions. I like dialogue and story progression.  Still, I thought descriptions like this on the first page were pretty good:

From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River.  In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer.  The river tore the edges of the farm lands and washed whole acres down; it toppled barns and houses into itself, to go floating and bobbing away.  It trapped cows and pigs and sheep and drowned them in its muddy brown water and carried them to the sea.

And that wasn’t even the entire paragraph.  It carried over to the next page, and let me tell you, it was awesome!

I do have one minor complaint (of course).  Every once in a while, there’s an observation that doesn’t ring true to me.   Here’s an example at the beginning of subchapter 2 of Chapter 2:

When a child first catches adults out- when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgements are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just- his world falls into a panic desolation.  The gods are fallen and all safety gone.  And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck.  It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine.  And the child’s world is never quite whole again.  It is an aching kind of growing.

This whole paragraph is what I call literary nonsense.  It’s well-written and sounds profound, and maybe it’s true in some situations, but it’s not universal (and its written in a way to make it sound universal).  For example, my worldview wasn’t shattered when I realized my dad was full of crap.  I was relieved.  As a kid, I was kind of intimidated by my dad, so I felt somewhat vindicated when I realized he was just as flawed, maybe even more flawed, maybe even way more flawed, than was (or am).

Yeah, Steinbeck’s observation was literary nonsense, but stuff like that doesn’t make me stop reading the book.  I’m not going to proclaim:

“When a reader first catches a famous literary author out- when it first walks into his/her grave little head that literary authors do not have divine intelligence, that their judgements are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just- his/her world falls into a panic desolation.”

That’s a little strong.  My world is not a panic desolation just because John Steinbeck makes an occasional nonsense observation.  It’s just, “John Steinbeck is full of crap like everybody else.”

But I’ll still finish reading East of Eden.  It’s like a soap opera for smart people.

*****

What do you think?  Have you read East of Eden?  Do you like long descriptions?  Is your world a panic desolation?  I really hope your world is not a panic desolation.

2 Comments
  1. good critique. I loved the movie and also like books with a balance between description and dialogue. Since the movie was so good, I’m afraid I’d be disappointed with the book.

  2. Having to read The Red Pony in sixth grade kind of put me off Steinbeck life. I was too young for it. But I did read Grapes of Wrath for the first time not too long ago. It was phenomenal.

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