Steinbeck hardly knew his grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, who died in 1904, when Steinbeck was two. "He died when I was quite young," Steinbeck wrote, "but it is remarkable how much I remember about him." Samuel was a dreamer, an inventor, an idealist, a maker. From those qualities, which in fact did help insure Hamilton family poverty, Steinbeck creates a legend, an heroic figure whose language is likened to music, whose stature is etched against the sky, whose wisdom runs as deep as the wells he digs. He taps ancient streams. Samuel brings into the book, as was Steinbeck's intention, "a great deal of laughter," of fun, which for Steinbeck was an essential quality of human experience (Journal 9). The real story of Sam Hamilton is perhaps less romantic. When he came to America from Ireland in 1846, he lived briefly in New York and then arrived in California in about 1850, right after the gold rush. He and Liza first settled in San Jose, where the family lived for nearly twenty years. Most of the children were born there. In 1871, Sam moved the family to Salinas, then to King City in 1873, where he did, in fact, settle on the bone-dry acres described in East of Eden.
Why Does Steinbeck Deepen His Nature?
Steinbeck uses Sam Hamilton as a kind of creative center: He's what Tom Joad (a character in The Grapes of Wrath) was for the 1950s, the Cold War era: a hero whose ideas and values endure in characters' memories after he dies. If Tom Joad's legacy is social engagement, Samuel's is a plumb line for individual ethical action.
Emotional Context: Steinbeck's Family Trauma
Why does Samuel die in 1911 (in the book) and not 1904? Perhaps Steinbeck shifted dates so that the great decline of the Hamilton family—the deaths of Una, Samuel, Dessie and Tom —occur in quick succession during years when Steinbeck's own family suffered greatly. (Dessie died in 1907, Tom in 1912.) Samuel's agony after Una's death suggests the Steinbeck family's own suffering in 1911, when Mr. Steinbeck lost his job at Sperry Flour Mill. From the ages of nine to18, John Steinbeck felt acutely his own family's loss of security, as his father floundered, trying to find a stable financial footing. Certainly much of Aron's humiliation at Adam's business failure and Cal's restlessness is grounded in Steinbeck's own painful memories of his teenage years.
Source: Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck (The Viking Press, Inc.,1969; Penguin Books, 1990)
Photo Credit: The Steinbeck House / Valley Guild