Escaping Eden

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden was published on this day in 1952. At the beginning of Journal of a Novel, his running commentary on the writing of East of Eden, Steinbeck describes his aim and his high hopes. It would be “the book I have always wanted and have worked and prayed to be able to write,” and because “there is only one book to a man,” it would be his last. It would be told in a double framework, the narrative interlaced with letters to Steinbeck’s two sons, Thom and John—a plan dropped after the first draft. It would be an autobiography ranging over three generations, a history of Salinas County, and the tale of “a universal family living next to a universal neighbor,” all of this set against a biblical pattern:

And so I will tell them [his sons] one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all—the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness. I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable—how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born.

As told in The Other Side of Eden, a 2001 memoir by John Steinbeck IV (completed by his wife after his sudden death), the two sons found the novel and subsequent movie a sour joke, having been abandoned by their divorced parents to live “like feral children in a maze of neglect.” What emerges most clearly from the son’s memoir is Steinbeck’s own duality as a parent, being excessively attentive at times but mostly too busy (or, allegedly, too drunk and drugged) to care. Instead of biblical wisdom, the legacy was dysfunction, substance abuse, and enduring bitterness:

Apparently he had gone out on a purposelessly suffered overdose of morphine; this before Dad or anybody else considered that it just might be important to say good-bye. Thom and I are to this very day left completely adrift about all of this, without any closure.… Thom is the only witness I have to the darkness that runs through our veins. Readers can find it in my father’s stories, but we live with it daily.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.