In his journal, Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck called "East of Eden" "the first book," and indeed it has the primordial power and simplicity of myth. Set in the rich farmland of California's Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families the Trasks and the Hamiltons whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.
The masterpiece of Steinbeck s later years, "East of Eden" is a work in which Steinbeck created his most mesmerizing characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity, the inexplicability of love, and the murderous consequences of love's absence. Adapted for the 1955 film directed by Elia Kazan introducing James Dean, and read by thousands as the book that brought Oprah s Book Club back, East of Eden has remained vitally present in American culture for over half a century."
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About the Author
After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California books, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and worked on short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938). Popular success and financial security came only with Tortilla Flat (1935), stories about Monterey’s paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The Grapes of Wrath won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.
Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-novelette The Moon is Down (1942). Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1948), another experimental drama, Burning Bright (1950), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) preceded publication of the monumental East of Eden (1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history.
The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books include Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), Once There Was a War (1958), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966), and the posthumously published Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969), Viva Zapata! (1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), and Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (1989).
Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, and, in 1964, he was presented with the United States Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Steinbeck died in New York in 1968. Today, more than thirty years after his death, he remains one of America's greatest writers and cultural figures.
Date of Birth:February 27, 1902
Date of Death:December 20, 1968
Place of Birth:Salinas, California
Place of Death:New York, New York
Education:Attended Stanford University intermittently between 1919 and 1925
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Excerpted from "East of Eden"
Copyright © 2003 John Steinbeck.
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Table of Contents
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What People are Saying About This
"A novel planned on the grandest possible scale...One of those occasions when a writer has aimed high and then summoned every ounce of energy, talent, seriousness, and passion of which he was capable...It is an entirely interesting and impressive book."
—The New York Herald Tribune
"A fantasia and myth...a strange and original work of art."
—The New York Times Book Review
"A moving, crying pageant with wilderness strengths."
"When the book club ended a year ago, I said I would bring it back when I found the book that was moving…and this is a great one. I read it for myself for the first time and then I had some friends read it. And we think it might be the best novel we've ever read!"
Reading Group Guide
East of Eden, John Steinbeck's passionate and exhilarating epic, re-creates the seminal stories of Genesis through the intertwined lives of two American families. The result is a purely American saga set in Steinbeck's own childhood home, the Salinas Valley of northern California. The valley is a new world both idyllic and harsh, and Steinbeck sings to it with a personal nostalgia that is clouded by the knowledge that this valley-as all human dwellings-is the location for as much tragedy as triumph.
The first family whose story is told in this novel is the Hamiltons, led by the charismatic poet-patriarch Samuel Hamilton, an Irish immigrant who raises a large and boisterous family on a mean and unyielding plot of land through charm, ingenuity, and adaptability. The Hamiltons are penniless, but Samuel and Liza's strong and traditional marriage yields nine children of every type and talent who brim with affection and potential. The children act out the numerous possibilities of American life, some making money in business and advertising, some seeking love and home life, others failing utterly in their struggle to find meaning and clarity in the chaotic possibility of a new century.
The second family, the Trasks, is introduced to us as a Connecticut father-a false war hero with a fortune of mysterious origin-his used-up wives, and his two sons: the murderous Charles and the sensitive, searching Adam. After a stint in the army and aimless years as a hobo, Adam falls in love and migrates to Salinas, intending to create his own Garden of Eden. There he presides over a fractured home, raising twin sons Caleb and Aron alone after the dissolution of his marriage to the unfathomable, treacherous Catherine Ames. Catherine herself-later known as Kate-represents the potential for evil in the world. Her life in the valley is the antithesis of that which the Trasks and Hamiltons seek to achieve, as she sinks into a limited life of meanness.
The Trasks are what Steinbeck called his "symbol people," and their story reenacts the saga of Cain and Abel, for Steinbeck one of the world's greatest stories of love, rejection, jealousy, and redemption. But Adam and his sons are held together as a family by the Chinese-American philosopher-servant Lee, who offers wisdom in the face of painful circumstances. Together the characters try to formulate personal paradises that can withstand the inevitable challenges of human existence, battling the contradiction between the desire to submit to God and tradition and the human need for self-realization and fulfillment. Much as the United States itself had to resolve its roots in Europe as it absorbed the labor of immigrants from around the world in the creation of a new nation, East of Eden's path-breaking Americans seek to free themselves from the chains of the past and achieve personal freedom.
A brilliant novel of ideas, East of Eden is far-reaching in its effort to explicate the most fundamental trials of mankind. Brutally realistic-and sometimes fatalistic-about people's ability to harm themselves and those around them, it is also a celebration of perseverance, enduring love, and the noble yearning to better oneself. And it is a work of profound optimism about the capacity of humans to triumph over adversity and determine their own fates. In prose both evanescent and dignified, Steinbeck creates in these characters and for the reader "a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed."
ABOUT JOHN STEINBECK
No writer is more quintessentially American than John Steinbeck. Born in 1902 in Salinas, California, Steinbeck attended Stanford University before working at a series of mostly blue-collar jobs and embarking on his literary career. Profoundly committed to social progress, he used his writing to raise issues of labor exploitation and the plight of the common man, penning some of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century and winning such prestigious awards as the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He received the Nobel Prize in 1962, "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception." Today, more than thirty years after his death, he remains one of America's greatest writers and cultural figures. East of Eden, the novel he called "the big one," was published in 1952.