Riss Reads: East of Eden

One of the greatest voices of American literature, you could say John Steinbeck is saint of the Salinas Valley in California. East of Eden, published in 1952, was considered the “magnum opus” of the California native and Nobel Prize winner.

Like many of his novels, East of Eden focuses on a humble farming family at the beginning of the century. The cast of eclectic and engaging characters all face different challenges as the country awaits World War I, but the protagonist is particularly unique. Samuel Hamilton and his family are supposedly based on the real-life Hamiltons, a lower-class farming family that Steinbeck’s mother grew up in. Thus, Samuel Hamilton would be Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather, and we, the readers, briefly see Salinas Valley and a growing California through a young John Steinbeck’s eyes.

“Steinbeck’s novels can all be classified as social novels dealing with the economic problems of rural labor, but there is also a streak of worship of the soil in his books.” This description from the Nobel Prize organization holds true for East of Eden. It is not a strictly environmental read, nor does it go into intense detail about the ecosystem of Salinas Valley. Yet there is definitely Steinbeck’s “worship of the soil.”

The richness of one family estate’s soil makes them exponentially richer than their county neighbors, although the neighbors labor on their land endlessly. Regardless of a family’s social status, sons and daughters graduating from high school are heading to a little college called Stanford; this trend foreshadows the current “brain drain in rural America,” where A students are fleeing small farm towns to head to college, even though their hometown farms need their ingenuity and high IQ. The novel also poses powerful questions on religion and spirituality, and many of its themes parallel the Book of Genesis.

East of Eden is a book that I could not put down, and as someone who lives in California, this novel about the golden state 100 years ago taught me a lot about it now. Plus Steinbeck’s beautifully woven stories in East of Eden make me want to re-read his other notable works. Here are some memorable quotes from East of Eden I noted as I read it:

  • “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. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast” (p. 4)
  • “I have spoken of the rich years when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years too, and they put a terror on the valley….And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way” (p. 5-6)
  • “There was no question of inheritance. Although the hill ranch was large it was abysmally poor. Samuel sunk well after well and could not find water on his own land. That would have made the difference. Water would have made them comparatively rich” (p. 43)
  • “It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man. A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform. When our food and clothing and housing are all born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused” (p. 130-131)
  • “He was not alone in his preoccupation with the future. The whole valley, the whole West was that way. It was a time when the past had lost its sweetness and its sap. You’d do a good long road before you’d find a man, and he very old, who wished to bring back a golden past. Men were notched and comfortable in the present, hard and unfruitful as it was,  but only as a doorstep into a fantastic future” (p. 155)
  • “In the towns they talked of sewers and inside toilets, and some already had them; and arc lights on the street corners — Salinas had those — and telephones. There wasn’t any limit, no boundary at all, to the future. And it would be so a man wouldn’t have room to store his happiness” (p. 156)
  • “But there’s all that fallow land, and here beside me is all that fallow man. It seems a waste. And I have a bad feeling about waste because I could never afford it. Is it a good feeling to let your life lie fallow?” (p. 293)
  • “I know that it might be better for you to come out from under your might-have-beens, into the winds of the world. And while I tell you, I myself am sifting my memories, the way men pan the dirt under a barroom floor for the bits of gold dust that fall between the cracks. It’s small mining — small mining. You’re too young a man to be panning memories, Adam. You should be getting yourself some new ones, so that the mining will be richer when you come to age” (p. 294)

© Rissponsible Living, 2015

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