Your Guide to East of Eden
First published in 1952, John Steinbeck's best-seller East of Eden has never gone out of print. Find out why he wrote this novel for his sons.
Get to Know John Steinbeck
What makes John Steinbeck so fascinating? His quirky personality? His unique world view? Discover the man behind the book Oprah says might be the best novel she's ever read!
All in the Family
East of Eden is a novel of about three generations of two families who touch one another's lives. Meet the characters Steinbeck based on his real-life relatives and their fictional counterparts.
The Hamiltons | The Trasks | Fact vs. Fiction | The women of East of Eden
Good vs. Evil
This classic struggle is the central force of the novel. Learn more about its Biblical roots.
The Story of Cain and Abel | Timshel: Man's Ability to Choose
An Interview with Thom Steinbeck
Learn about John Steinbeck—the man, the writer, the father—through his son Thom's eyes.
The Salinas Valley
John Steinbeck once called East of Eden "a sort of autobiography of the Salinas Valley." Learn about the California landscape that served as an endless source of inspiration for Steinbeck.
More Works by John Steinbeck
Of John Steinbeck's thirty-four works, most are still in print, and his most popular works sell more than 700,000 copies every year. Together, they represent a positive, spirited, vivid, honest portrait of America in from the WWI through the Vietnam War. Browse his bookshelf.
"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.
Even though Steinbeck wrote East of Eden ostensibly for his sons, Thom and John IV, they supported their mother, Gwyn, when in 1964 she sued her famous ex-husband for additional child support.
[Source: John Steinbeck: A Biography (1994) by Jay Parini]
The Title: East of Eden
Steinbeck's inspiration for the novel comes from the Bible, the fourth chapter of the book of Genesis, verses one through sixteen, which recounts the story of Cain and Abel. The title, East of Eden, was chosen by Steinbeck from Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16.
Steinbeck on Steinbeck: Writing Trivia
Steinbeck kept track of things while writing East of Eden, and by his account, the novel took:
- 11 years of mental gestation
- One year of uninterrupted writing
- 25 dozen pencils
- Approximately three dozen reams of paper
- 350,000 words (before cutting)
- About 75,000 words in his work-in-progress journal
- And a rock-hard callus on the middle finger of the his right hand.
Timshel: 'Thou Mayest'
Here is the choice that the characters of East of Eden must face. It should be noted, however, that the Hebrew word is in fact neither "timshel" nor "tinshel" (as Steinbeck himself sometimes referred to it) but "timshol." Yet Steinbeck, who was himself accused of mistranslation, was correct in his interpretation.
East of Eden Translations
The novel East of Eden has been translated into many languages of the world, among them: Burmese, Chinese, Danish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish, Japanese, Norwegian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovene, and Spanish. Russian scholars are working on the Russian translation.
The Salad Bowl of the Nation
The Salinas Valley is now known as "The Salad Bowl of the Nation." One thousand trucks filled with produce leave it everyday.
Steinbeck returned to Salinas in February of 1948 to begin intensive research for what he considered would be his greatest book, East of Eden. During his stay in Monterey, CA he drove to Salinas and used the files of the local newspaper, the Salinas Index-Journal.The novel was completed in November of 1951.
Today, nearly four decades after his death, all of Steinbeck's novels are in print and they sell a combined total of more than 700,000 copies a year. (www.barnesandnoble.com)
The National Steinbeck Center has 100,000 visitors per year and cost $11 million to build. (www.americanwriters.org)