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