Reading Notes – Steinbeck’s East of Eden
These reading posts have nothing to do with math–just my compulsion to write about and record things I’ve read. I finally got around to East of Eden in September; it was my uncle’s birthday gift to me in 8th grade. It was so great I feel I should’ve read it earlier, but then, I don’t think I would’ve appreciated much of it back then, before I paid very much attention to the ways authors use words to make images, and before I was interested in how memory is represented in fiction.
One of the most striking things here is how a simple story (the retelling of the Fall) is infused with every human emotion, and a panoply of characters. And yet none of the characters are quite real: They fit into archetypes and grotesques (Anderson’s kind), they have lives that we aren’t sure extend beyond the parts that the narrator recollects. And we’re not sure how the narrator, John Steinbeck, is getting all his information, or what is real and what is created, like Sam Hamilton’s flights of fancy or Adam Trask’s Cathy. Some characters, like Cathy/Kate, change lives quickly, yet never really change their character (deceptive, evil)–and still yet, we never come to understand a motivation behind Cathy’s actions in any normal psychological sense. We come to know Cathy, but we don’t understand her. Then there are other characters who we see over a lifetime, especially Adam, and that lifetime is entwined with the turning of the years in the West, and some greater sweep of history and generations. And though we see Adam discover a truth about Cathy, we see him go through many phases, he is suspended out of time, with Charles coming back to haunt his thoughts, with regrets about Cathy always near to him as he makes his new plans, bringing baggage into the West, to a country that is supposed to be all about progress forward. Sam Hamilton has an Irish past, but it doesn’t give him roots in the story–just that, an unknown past. And the conversations between Lee and Sam Hamilton, the philosophical debate they start among the rabbis about the interpretation of timshel (“thou mayest!”) have the feel of the most grounded, human conversations in the book, unencumbered by types and wild fancies.
The narrator is a mystery in another sense: he alternates between telling the story of the Trasks and the Hamiltons and making sweeping comments about the West and about good and evil, the nature of man. Like the omniscient narrator in Jones’ The Known World, he presents a full roster of all the characters in these people’s lives, and seems to know all of them. But he stays out of it too: his chapter openings alternate between things like, “Sam Hamilton rode back home in a night so flooded with moonlight that the hills took on the quality of the white and dusty moon” (174), and “When I said Cathy was a monster, it seemed to me that it was so. Now I have bent close with a glass over the small print of her and reread the footnotes, and I wonder if it was true” (184) and “A new country seems to follow a pattern. First come the openers, strong and brave and rather childlike…” (215) and “I have wondered why it is that some ppeopl.e are less affected and torn by the verities of life and death than others” (291) and “…I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one…Humans are caught…in a net of good and evil.” (411) For a while the story will settle down to the telling of everyday events, but then it’ll jump out of time to talk about good and evil. There’s little sense of place or groundedness: many places are in the story, but only as stories, memories, names.
I’d be inclined to pan Steinbeck’s characters as unrealistic–and yet he makes no claim for their realism. They create exaggerated versions of the worlds and life stories we all create for ourselves. The narrator says upfront that he depends on “memories which are hazy and mixed with fable” to tell of the Hamiltons.
I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down–not for the action or the characters, but the language and the fantasias of thought. Here’s a few:
“They loved to hear Samuel talk of the world and its thinking, of the poetry and philosohy that were going on outside the Salinas Valley. He had a rich deep voice, good both in song and in speech, and while he had no brogue there was a rise and a lilt and a cadence to his talk that made it sound sweet in the ears of hte taciturn farmers from the valley bottom.”
Also the characterizations: “The children came along as regularly as the years…Liza had a finely developed sense of sin.”
And the strange, disturbing, unreal spaces of childhood. Adam pleasing Alice Trask by leaving little gifts around the house, Charles taking the credit. The excesses of Cyrus Trask, Private Trask who wormed his way to army high command advisory with fabricated tales of heroism as a lowly private (it has certain resonances with my family life…) “In the total telling, it made him at once the most mobile and ubiquitous private in the history of warefare. It made it necessary for him to be in as many asfoujr places at once. But perhaps instinctively he did not tell those stories close to each other. Alice and the boys had a complete picture of him: a private soldier, and proud of it, who not only happened to be where every spectacular…action was taking place but who wandered freely into staff meetings…” (17) The moment “when a child first catches adults out…[and] his worldfalls into panic desolation….And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.”
Charles “put on paper many things he did not know about himself,” like many who could not speak.
“You can see how this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900. Another hundred years were ground up and churned, and what had happened was all muddied by the way folks wanted it to be–more rich and meaningful the farther back it was.”
“Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms…A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and sombre. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and plae. ANd then–the glory–so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world.” (131)
“Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him. It doesn’t matter that Cathy was what I have called a monster.”
And funny: “[Olive Hamilton’s] theology was a curious mixture of Irish fairies and an Old Testament Jehovah whom in her later life she confused with her father.” (149)
And lyricism all over, like this picture of the desert: “Samuel Hamilton rode back home in a night so flooded with moonlight that the hills took on the quality of the white and dusty moon. The trees and earth were moon-dry, silent and airless and dead. The shadows were black without shading and the open places white without color. Here and there Samuel could see secret movement, for the moon-feeders were at work–the dear which brose all night..The wind of the afternoon was gone and only a little breeze like a sigh was stirred by the restless thermals of the warm, dry hills.” Living houses, living places.
The normal events in family life, but magnified, made strange. Adam Trask not naing his babies for a year, Aron going off to college as the world is falling apart. “Doing the inevitable things” people do in wartime, yet everywhere, individual agency mixed in with the sweep of things, old threads picked up again, old events with undiminished power as the generations scroll on.
Anyway. A pretty remarkable book.