The Book That Defined A Generation
June 19, 2010 § 1 Comment
“I believe there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in…continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too – in a net of good and evil.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden (Part 4, Chapter 4, page 391)
Steinbeck is the patron saint of the small people, the weak of mind, the frail of spirit, the homeless, the hopeless, the farm laborers, the small-townsfolk. He understands them, he sympathizes, and he labours heroically to force us, his readers, to crawl under the skin of his characters and walk about: I could never read a Steinbeck and not get involved.
East of Eden is not a raw and angry book, like The Grapes of Wrath was, or Of Mice and Men, or In Dubious Battle. I read those between the age of 12 and 15, and they have strongly influenced my sense of right and wrong ever since. Steinbeck had written them as a struggling author during the depression years. By the time he got around to writing East of Eden, he was 50 years old, an established author with plaudits and a Pulitzer under his belt, and at an age when a man tends to look back on his life’s achievements and reflect on his legacy. East of Eden is not angry – its awareness of right and wrong is as powerful but more nuanced: it is older, wiser, sadder but also more hopeful. This is Steinbeck’s attempt at writing an epic, at defining the human condition and the nature of sin, guilt, jealousy and choice; this is Steinbeck’s attempt to define himself.
At the same time, I suspect, East of Eden also attempts to be the definitive Great American Novel of an era, documenting as a backdrop, the young nation’s growing up pains and adolescent angst from the time of the Civil War (in which Adam Trask’s father serves) to the end of the First World War (in which Adam’s son serves). There was immigration from Ireland and China, young men went west in droves, they killed Indians and piled their bodies high; little towns sprung up, with train stations, high schools and whorehouses; the internal combustion engine was invented; a war broke out in Europe, causing young men to go to their death, bonds to be sold, prices to fluctuate and fortunes to be made and lost.
Is this, then, the War and Peace of that American generation? Perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn’t – Steinbeck personally thought it was his best, but many critics don’t agree – but it is unquestionably one heck of a story, like all the Steinbecks I’ve read. I’d last read him as a teenager, 26 years ago. Reading him again was like meeting an old best friend: the kind where you find he’s not changed a bit, and in some important ways nor have you, and you hit it off as if you’d never been away.