This September I decided to go back to some classic books that I’d never gotten to or read when I was too young to appreciate them. I finished up with John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and I was just absolutely blown away by the scope of it, and all of the aspects of life and humanity it covered. It’s somewhat biographical and somewhat the story of his hometown, in the Salinas Valley of California. It’s a parable loosely based on the Cain and Abel story from Genesis. It is his masterpiece and he said that his entire life and career up until that point were essentially a preparation to write it.
Steinbeck goes far beyond the story he’s telling to make plain some very important, universal truths…
On childhood and the loss of innocence:
When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. 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.
On the way time moves more swiftly in the absence of notable events (particularly apropos to this year in the stock market):
Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy – that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.
It’s amazing how fast this year passed, and nothing much of note took place in the investable markets worthy of pinning our memories to. We had to invent something – the Bitcoin coming-out party – in order to say that there was anything worthy of cataloging at all.
On the existence of monsters, or rather, of monstrous people we come across in our lives:
I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places. They are accidents and no one’s fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishments for concealed sins.
And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?
Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience. A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them. Sometimes when we are little we imagine how it would be to have wings, but there is no reason to suppose it is the same feeling birds have. No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.
I have found that the worst people I’ve met or seen in action were wholly unaware of what they were, or at least appeared so. Steinbeck’s premise that everyone is normal to himself nails it.
On the true story of mankind being an ongoing and omnipresent battle of Good versus Evil:
A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?
I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?
This chapter (34), two and half pages in total, contains one of the most apocryphal passages in the book – “I remember clearly the deaths of three men…” My best guess is that Steinbeck, writing in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, is referring to:
- Rockefeller or Carnegie as “the richest man of the century”
- William Randolph Hearst as “a man, smart as Satan, who, lacking some perception of human dignity and knowing all too well every aspect of human weakness and wickedness, used his special knowledge to warp men, to buy men, to bribe and threaten and seduce until he found himself in a position of great power.” Some have guessed Hitler for this one also.
- The third is most likely Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “whose effective life was devoted to making men brave and dignified and good in a time when they were poor and frightened and when ugly forces were loose in the world to utilize their fears.” That sounds like FDR leading us through first the Depression and then WWII. It couldn’t have been Churchill, who didn’t die until 1965, 13 years after the novel was published, but it may as well have been.
And finally, Steinbeck uses his Chinese immigrant servant / scholar character Lee to deliver this beautiful soliloquy on what it means to be American, and why the people of our land are set apart from those whose ancestors never came over from their home countries around the world:
We’re a violent people, Cal. Does it seem strange to you that I include myself? Maybe it’s true, that we are all descendants of the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers, and brawlers. But also the brave, and independent, and generous. If our ancestors hadn’t been that, they would’ve stayed in their home plots in the other world and starved over the squeezed-out soil.
Cal turned his head toward Lee, and his face had lost its tightness. He smiled, and Lee knew he had not fooled the boy entirely. Cal knew now it was a job—a well-done job—and he was grateful.
Lee went on, “That’s why I include myself. We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed—selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful—we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic—and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or the language of our culture? That’s what we are, Cal—all of us. You aren’t very different.
That’s about the best description of us I’ve ever read, from half a century ago but it could have been laid down this morning.
The book will blow you away in many ways. If you have some free time coming up this holiday season, I cannot recommend it enough.