East of Eden & Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck
I’d read EoE before, but it was a long time ago, summer of ’92, I think. I picked up an already cheap Penguin at Book Warehouse for $1 because the back cover had been slashed when they opened the box. Anyhow, it was long enough that, while I remembered the general gist of the story, I was vague on the details. I’d been wanting to re-read it for a while, partly because I had the book playing a role in one of my stories and I wanted to make sure it would fit. And then last summer I found a copy of JoaN at The Book Shop and grabbed it, knowing immediately that reading them together would be the perfect way to re-visit EoE.
Of course, part of EoE is a modern version of Cain & Abel, but I’d forgotten how much of Steinbeck’s own family history was in it—if indeed I actually recognized it as such the first time I read it. There are really two separate story threads—the Trasks & the Hamiltons. And JoaN makes it clear that EoE was written in part as a letter to Steinbeck’s sons. Would a book like this get published today? (Would it have been published then if Steinbeck hadn’t already made a name for himself?) On one hand, the Hamilton part is superfluous—you’d still have a complete story without it (as in the movie). On the other hand, they’re the reason he’s telling the story. So.
I read the two books alternately, so I kept at approximately the same point in both throughout. “Approximately” because there were obviously changes between the first draft of EoE and the published version that meant the two books didn’t line up exactly.
Steinbeck wrote the journal on the left-hand pages of a notebook and the novel on the right-hand pages. The journal, written as a letter to his editor, was his warm-up for the day. One thing I never figured out— he writes throughout of having the pages typed and also sent to NY, to his editor. So was he ripping them out of the notebook at the end of each day? That doesn’t sound right. Maybe he just handed the notebook over to the typist, she typed fast so he could have it back by the next morning, and they sent the typed pages to the editor.
I was surprised by how fast he wrote this, his longest novel. Essentially the first draft was written Feb – Oct 1951. Nine months! So you’d think he was this perfect writer who sat down every day and wrote like a machine, right? Wrong. He was a huge procrastinator. For example, he wrote in pencil (crazy!) and he was completely anal-retentive about his pencils. They had to be a certain kind, he spent time sharpening them at the beginning of the day so he wouldn’t have to stop while writing, gave them to his kids when they got too short, etc.
And his journals were filled with same crap that goes through my head before I start writing. Which, honestly, is really comforting. There is, in fact, a point to the “pointless” blathering we writers do before getting down to “real” writing. The mundanity of life is important and so is explaining to yourself what you want to with your project. Of course, the flip side is that you actually do have to start working on your real project at some point.
As for the Steinbeck’s epic, I suppose I am a true “Cal” in that, not only do I sympathize with the cynical Cal, I can’t even imagine anyone identifying with the angelic Aron. But I suppose someone must.