Photo: National Steinbeck Center
East of Eden: A Father's Story for His Sons
"I am choosing to write this book to my sons. They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them. It is not written for them to read now but when they are grown and the pains and joys have tousled them a little. And if the book is addressed to them, it is for a good reason. I want them to know how it was, I want to tell them directly, and perhaps by speaking directly to them I shall speak directly to other people. ... They have no background in the world of literature, they don't know the great stories of the world as we do. And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all—the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness. I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable—how neither can exist without the other and how out of their grouping creativeness is born. I shall tell them this story against the background of the county I grew up in and along the river I know and do not love very much. For I have discovered that there are other rivers. And this my boys will not know for a long time nor can they be told. ... And so I will start my book addressed to my boys. I think perhaps it is the only book I have ever written. I think there is only one book to a man. It is true that a man may change or be so warped that he becomes another man and has another book but I do not think that is so with me." — John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel
A Guide to the Real World
Although his sons, Thom and John, were just small boys when he wrote East of Eden, Steinbeck hoped that as they grew older, the novel would show them their roots in California's Salinas Valley and guide them through the troubles of the world. And so, one of the overarching themes of the novel is the relationship between fathers and sons. How each character in East of Eden deals with timshel ["thou mayest"], the ability to choose between good and evil, is also a driving force in the book. No topic is taboo in East of Eden. Sex, murder, sibling rivalry, infidelity, betrayal, love and greed are just some of the events that shape the characters' lives.
History and Scandal All in One
Throughout East of Eden, we follow the lives and times of two families from the Civil War to World War I. The Hamiltons—immigrants from Ireland who wander from the East coast to the Salinas Valley in search of a new Eden—are based on and named after Steinbeck's mother's family. The fictional Trask family hails from Connecticut and dramatizes the story of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck referred to the Trasks as his "symbol people"; it is no accident that members of the family have names beginning with "C" or "A." However, no member of the Trask family is simply a version of Cain or Abel; they share certain traits or circumstances and the reader must decide whom they resemble the most.
A Story that Stands the Test of Time
East of Eden was published for the first time by The Viking Press in September 1952—ten years before the writer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature—and it has never been out of print since. By November 1952, East of Eden was number one on the fiction best-seller list and the third-best-seller for the entire year.