Sixty years ago today, the movie adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel “East of Eden,” directed by Elia Kazan and starring James Dean, opened in theaters. To celebrate Steinbeck’s enduring storytelling, Susan Shillinglaw, Scholar-in-Residence at the National Steinbeck Center, takes a look at the author’s life and the creative process that led to his literary epic.
John Steinbeck had an uncomfortable relationship with the Central California town of his birth. “Salinas was never a pretty town,” he wrote in a 1955 essay. “It took a darkness from the swamps.” Steinbeck imbibed a bit of that gloom. He was a restless child and teen—probably a lot like Cal Trask from his novel East of Eden. Moody, unpredictable John felt detached from other Salinians. By age 14 he knew he wanted to be a writer, not a rancher.
And he knew that some day he would write the story of his home turf, as he admitted to a friend in a 1930 letter: “The novel of Salinas should be left for a few years yet because I hate too many people there. I would do them and their characters injustice.”
Such ragged emotions came from many hometown slights, real and imagined. His principled, quiet and honest father, John Ernst Steinbeck, had managed the Sperry Flour Mill in Salinas, and when the plant closed in 1911, Mr. Steinbeck was out of a job, “washed up” at age 48. John’s humiliation was not unlike that felt by Cal and Aron Trask when their father, Adam Trask, failed in his lettuce shipping venture. Young John keenly felt the gap between his middle-class family, fallen on hard times, and the wealthy landowners of the Salinas Valley—ranchers and shippers who made fortunes planting first grains and then sugar beets, lettuce, broccoli and strawberries in the rich land around Salinas.
Only when John went to Stanford University in 1919 did he feel that his family was free of the financial worries that had stamped his teen years. He spent six years at the University, dropping out frequently, however, to work in the fields. Steinbeck would often write about working people, those with skilled hands. All characters in Of Mice and Men, for example, are defined by what they do with their hands.
He was ever a restless man. After leaving Stanford in 1925, he went to New York City for a year and then came back to California. His first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), a romance about pirate Henry Morgan, was written and rewritten during frosty winters in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where he was a caretaker of a mountain estate, later working in a fish hatchery. In 1930, he married and moved with his wife Carol to the Steinbeck family’s summer cottage in Pacific Grove. There he composed stories set in California, stories of lonely ranchers and farmers, of men and women who dreamed about California’s fecund acres—and often failed to carve out the lives they envisioned. East of Eden would tap into that oft-told Steinbeck tale of disillusioned dreamers.
His first blockbuster was Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, a novel about Monterey’s paisanos—men who survived happily on the margins of the forest, drinking, talking, foraging. He followed that with three books that championed California farm laborers—his sympathies were ever with working people. In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) are among his finest novels, in large part because readers participate in the gritty lives and sharp disappointments of California’s bindlestiffs, striking workers and dispossessed farmers. Steinbeck’s is an empathetic vision.
In 1941 he wrote the book that was his own personal favorite, Sea of Cortez, an account of his 1940 voyage to the Sea of Cortez with his wife Carol, marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts, and crew. In this conversational text, Steinbeck’s traces ideas he and Ricketts discussed throughout the 1930s, often in Ricketts’s Cannery Row laboratory: group behavior of colonial animals and of humans; responses to crises in human and natural history; survivability of species. Those ideas appear throughout Steinbeck’s work, from the 1930s through the 1960s.
He came back to the Salinas novel in 1946, when he wanted to “stop everything to do a long novel that I have been working on the notes for a long time,” a book he then called “Salinas Valley.” The 1940s was a decade of upheaval for Steinbeck, as he shuttled back and forth between California and New York City. In 1943, he divorced Carol and married Gwyn Conger—a woman whose failures as a wife and committed partner are channeled into Steinbeck’s portrait of Kate in East of Eden. Certainly Gwyn, a lively and witty beauty whom Steinbeck met shortly after publication of The Grapes of Wrath, was no murderer, but her lies and deceptions were like the fictional Cathy/Kate’s, and the deep love that Steinbeck felt for Gwyn is not unlike Adam’s for Cathy. While John was married to Gwyn, he wrote Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1948), and The Wayward Bus (1947).
In 1948 he began serious research for East of Eden, reading old Salinas newspapers.
A crumbling marriage and a second divorce in 1948 stopped him cold. Remarriage restored his equanimity. In 1951, shortly after gracious Elaine Scott became his third and beloved wife, he sat down to write the novel so long considered, East of Eden.
By that point in his life, Salinas was a “remembered symphony” that language transformed into an epic saga about two Salinas Valley families. His plan was “write this book to my sons,” as he admits in Journal of a Novel, the marvelous companion to East of Eden. He intended to weave together several refrains: letters to his sons (that plan discarded); the history and ecology of place; stories about his mother, Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, and her large Irish family; and a “symbol story” of human’s sense of abandonment and need for love—a recasting of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. To convey the importance of water in the west, he considered using the Salinas River as the book’s central metaphor. The river of his home country was a “sometimes river,” the longest subterranean river west of the Mississippi. Sometimes it disappeared underground, sometimes it ran full: “February in Salinas is likely to be damp and cold and full of miseries,” he writes late in the novel. “The heaviest rains fall then, and if the river is going to rise, it rises then.” Like the river that rises and falls in wet years and dry years, goodness and evil ebb and flow in East of Eden—and all humans, Steinbeck suggests, have dark pools within them. His characters wrestle with the meaning of timshel, translated as “thou mayest.” All humans may choose how to negotiate the shoals.
With his epic complete, Steinbeck went abroad with Elaine. That would be a repeated pattern in the next decade, the 1950s, when he wrote numerous travel articles to help support trips to Europe. In 1959, he returned to America disillusioned with what he considered America’s moral lapses—as evident in the McCarthy trials and the quiz show scandals. He spent the last decade of his life writing three books about America and the common good: The Winter of Our Discontent (1961); Travels with Charley (1962) an account of his journey from Atlantic to Pacific and back; and a final book of essays, America and Americans (1966), a jeremiad about environmental waste, racial tensions, American values, and America’s promise. In 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. And in 1966 he traveled to Vietnam to see that war at close range. As Arthur Miller notes of his friend John Steinbeck, “Even when mistaken—as in my view he was when declaring support for Lyndon Johnson’s doomed Vietnam policies—the way he chose was far from easy. In a word, he was not outside the battle, safe in his fame, but in it to the end.”
East of Eden is an experimental book that captures Steinbeck’s wide vocal reach: his sturdy love of place; his fascination with the fictive process; his retelling of family stories; and his willingness to grapple with the full range of human experience—at its lowest ebb and swelling to startling acts of clarity and compassion.
For more information about John Steinbeck’s life and literature, visit the National Steinbeck Center. The National Steinbeck Center is located at One Main Street in Salinas, California, the birthplace of John Steinbeck. It is a museum and cultural institution with a mission to engage people in the exploration of culture, issues and the arts relevant to our times, inspired by the words of John Steinbeck. The Center offers multiple visitor experiences: the John Steinbeck Exhibition Hall and a variety of education and public programs.