East of Eden | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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East of Eden | 10 Things You Didn't Know


John Steinbeck's East of Eden, published in 1952, is a work of American literature evocative of the landscape of California's Salinas Valley, a region popularized by the author that appears in many of his works. Chronicling two generations of settlers in the region, East of Eden presents a wide range of philosophical and theological questions.

Steinbeck's story features characters of great moral caliber, such as Adam, who refuses to accept his son's money. It also explores morally dubious characters, such as Cathy, who is described as having a "malformed soul." Steinbeck's theme of the duality between good and evil is seen most clearly through Cal and Aron, whose vastly different personalities clash as they vie for the common goal of winning their father's approval.

1. The first edition of East of Eden contained a notorious spelling error.

The first edition of only 1,500 copies, all of which were signed by Steinbeck, contained a spelling error that can be used to recognize the rare version. The word bite in the line "I remember holding the bite of a line while Tom drove pegs and braided a splice" was corrected in later printings to its proper spelling: bight.

2. Steinbeck considered East of Eden his greatest achievement.

Composed over the course of a year of "uninterrupted writing," Steinbeck considered the novel his magnum opus. Upon publication, he declared East of Eden "has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years." He added, "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this."

3. Steinbeck sent the manuscript for East of Eden to his publisher in a wooden box he carved himself.

Steinbeck's publisher and good friend Pascal Covici, whom Steinbeck called Pat, once asked him to craft a box as a gift. Steinbeck did just that and sent the manuscript for East of Eden to Pat in a hand-carved mahogany box for review. Steinbeck ended the accompanying letter to Pat by saying, "And still, the box is not full."

4. East of Eden initially received mixed reviews.

Steinbeck's novel was commercially successful and popular, but not all critics were enthusiastic about it. The New York Times featured a lukewarm review, calling it "clumsy in structure and defaced by excessive melodramatics and much cheap sensationalism" while still acknowledging it as "a serious and on the whole successful effort to grapple with a major theme." Some reviewers were far less kind, criticizing Steinbeck's overuse of the good-versus-evil theme. The critic Samuel F. Morse declared, "[Steinbeck] is, in a sense, more moralist than novelist."

5. East of Eden was banned—and burned—in the California county in which it is set.

Steinbeck's East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath were both banned in Kern County, California, in the Salinas Valley. The county took issue with East of Eden because of its representation of Cathy's prostitution and Steinbeck's use of profanity. Residents of Kern County declared the novel to be "misrepresentative" of their home and burned it publicly.

6. Steinbeck's character names in East of Eden are biblical allusions.

Steinbeck modeled his novel on the biblical story of Cain and Abel—the tragic story of two feuding brothers—and used the brothers Cal and Aron to contemporize and Americanize the ancient legend. He furthered the plot of rivalry between brothers by giving his main characters names that begin with either C or A. His name choices for Charles and Adam, Caleb and Aron, and Cathy and Abra reflect this pattern.

7. The film adaptation starring James Dean popularized East of Eden.

The eagerly awaited 1955 film adaptation of East of Eden created quite a buzz because of James Dean's role as Cal. This was one of Dean's earliest major roles in a film, but he was already popular enough so that the premieres were packed with teenagers awaiting his on-screen appearance. The director, Elia Kazan, noted that at one premiere, "The moment he came on the screen, they began to screech, they began to holler and yell," and "every move he made ... it was a landslide."

8. Steinbeck himself serves as the narrator in East of Eden.

Steinbeck modeled the Hamilton family after his maternal lineage (his family's surname actually went unchanged). He even went so far as to include himself, briefly, as a minor character in the Hamilton family, and he serves as the novel's narrator.

9. Steinbeck wrote East of Eden for his two sons.

Steinbeck's sons, Thom and John, were six and four when the novel was published. Steinbeck noted he wrote East of Eden to describe for them the details of California's Salinas Valley. Because the novel features two brothers at odds with each other, critics have speculated as to whether Cal and Aron were intended to be representative of the relationship between Steinbeck's own children.

10. Oprah Winfrey helped revitalize sales for East of Eden in 2003.

After Winfrey promoted the novel in her book club, claiming, "I think this may be the best book I've ever read," a paperback edition of East of Eden jumped from the number 2,356,000 spot on Amazon's book sales chart to number two within a day. This attention prompted Penguin, the copyright holders of Steinbeck's novel, to print nearly one million additional copies over the following year.

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