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For Fans of Steinbeck and East of Eden – Journal of a Novel

It’s not hard to find readers who think East of Eden is a masterpiece, and John Steinbeck’s finest work.

It’s just as easy to find critics who say that this multi-generational saga is a plotless, overlong, violent,  rambling mess, with heavy-handed symbolism and the worst kind of authorial self-indulgence.

Not that it matters, as all opinions are equally valid, but here’s where I stand:

Charles raised the match and peered around, and Adam could see the hatchet in his right hand–East of Eden, page 31

I was 21 years old, sitting on a bench at the Elko Dairy Queen when I read that line for the first time.  After the leisurely–some might say boring–introduction to California’s Salinas Valley, the sudden burst of violence chilled me.  It seriously comes out of nowhere, and given the relationship of the involved characters, it really freaked me out. I never forgot that scene.  And that’s what I always hope for in a book: something unforgettable.

When I finished the book I remember wondering what Steinbeck must be like, to spend so much time in such dark mental places.

Journal of a Novel – The East of Eden Letters is a book of letters that Steinbeck wrote to his editor while, surprise surprise, writing East of Eden.

Steinbeck had a large notebook.  On the left side he wrote the letters as a warmup to the day’s work. These letters are a window into the author’s struggles, insecurities, family life, and mentality while writing. On the right side of the notebook, when finished with the daily letter, he wrote the drafts that would become the novel.

A quick disclaimer–whether or not you’re the type of person who would enjoy this book, you’ll enjoy it more if you have a working knowledge of East of Eden.  There’s a lot going on in the novel, and reading about the author’s thought process while adding another level of allegory to a story you’re not even familiar with isn’t going to set your world ablaze with fun.

There are other books of Steinbeck’s letters that serve as better epistolary biographies.  Steinbeck: A Life in Letters is fantastic.

And there are, of course, straight-up biographies that will give you all the Steinbeck chronology you could ever want.

And while I’m thinking of it, Journal of a Novel isn’t necessarily that insightful if you are hoping to learn something about writing as a whole.  It’s most illuminating for anyone who wants to know who Steinbeck was while writing Eden, in his own words.

It’s not a book of the craft, and even it’s philosophizing on writing isn’t as illuminating as a book like Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, if only because there’s relatively little of it.  You’re as likely to be reading about one of his son’s emotional challenges as statements about An Author’s Life.

And Steinbeck freely admits in Journal that his method for writing and structuring East of Eden is a vast departure for him.

That isn’t to say I didn’t love this book.  I did.  I really loved it.  But I’ve read East of Eden many times, and it is my compulsion to return to it that made me want to learn more about its conception and growth.  I got everything I wanted out of Journal Of A Novel.

Are you a Steinbeck fan?  East of Eden?  Love it?  Hate it?

What’s your favorite?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Heather September 5, 2012, 6:46 am

    Cannery Row is still my all-time fave. That, and the shorter piece about the lady who comes to Doc’s place and locks eyes with the snake. So much emotional energy in those few, split seconds. Steinbeck is wonderful!

    • Josh Hanagarne September 5, 2012, 6:20 pm

      If the hobos at the library threw Cannery Row style parties for me, I’d feel a lot more charitable, a lot more often.

  • Daisy September 5, 2012, 3:30 pm

    This sounds fascinating! I should reread East of Eden, though. It’s been a long time since I read it.

  • Isaac September 8, 2012, 11:41 pm

    I read it about a year ago for the first time. One of the best classic lit books that I’ve ever read. Plotless, rambling, etc? Yup. Also a beautiful tale about the human condition.

    Lee’s part about “thou mayest” is a profoundly theological and philosophical point made in a wonderful story telling format. That part alone made the book worth reading. That and Samuel.

  • Drew September 10, 2012, 8:29 pm

    East of Eden, the Pearl, and Of Mice and Men are three of my favorite works of all time. Sam and Lee are two of the best characters in literature. Steinbeck was the KING of characters.