I met Kurt a few weeks ago at my amazing Collegeville writing workshop. Kurt has the spiritual gift of editing (having both a keen eye and an enthusiasm for beauty) and it was such a pleasure to meet him. He encourages me to read well, to write "tight and bright" and I really resonated with his thoughts on Steinbeck here (about time for me to re-read ol' East of Eden).
The Book That Changed My Life
When I was 23, I moved back to the family farm in southern Alberta to help my mom and dad with the harvest. I was broke and depressed and the two-year MCC program I’d been counting on was cancelled because funding had been dropped. That summer someone had stolen my bike from outside my apartment and someone at work swiped my camera. Someone else dumped me because she recognized me as a half-hearted boyfriend and knew she deserved better. (Correct on both counts.) So I moved home for a couple months, and in the evenings I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
Steinbeck sets out to tell his own family’s history, but about eight pages in he gets sidetracked for about 535 tumbling pages and then, oops, he never gets back to what he supposedly set out to do. It’s moody, brooding, and dramatic, overwhelmingly masculine – very few women other than the nearly-silent Eliza and the shape-shifting, nearly-demonic Kate – and some of the characters seem more like caricatures than the more complex, layered flesh-and-blood humans you or I might be related to. It is not a perfect novel.
But East of Eden is a bold, ambitious modern midrash on Cain vs. Abel, touching on the timeless, perennial struggle of sons to honour their fathers without being damned to echo all of their shortcomings. The sins of the father run thick through the book, as in human history, and Steinbeck’s flawed novel proclaims a hard-won hope that even though inherited sin may be an unbearable yoke, even heavy yokes can be broken.
It’s nowhere near as iconic as his Pulitzer Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath: too subjective, too narrow, too intimate of a story. But where Grapes of Wrath weaves politics and parable into the tale of a family, thus narrating the experience of an entire generation, East of Eden reaches back to ancient, primordial myths and touches on a more universal, and much more personal story. James Joyce said that “In the particular is contained the universal,” and it is precisely because East of Eden is such an intimate, particular story that it rings true on such a fundamental level. “Here’s your box,” Steinbeck writes in the dedication, a note to Pascal Covici, his editor at Viking Press. “Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full.” How true. It is a sprawling book, full of sin and redemption, loss and hope, suffering and love, and soaring above it all, the great, terrifying gift of human responsibility – and yet there remains ample room for readers to find themselves. Forty-seven years after it was published, it was obvious to me as I read it: a story this personal is much, much bigger than the little box contained between its covers.
East of Eden touched me more deeply than I knew a novel was capable of. Broke, depressed, and heartbroken, I was highly sensitive to it’s high drama. And being home on the farm, practicing the simpler pace of farming – more demanding and more direct than any of my city jobs had been – clarified my own thoughts and feelings. Steinbeck’s book got into my bones; the mood and images stuck in my everyday imagination for months afterwards.
It’s rare that I re-read any books, especially novels. Having wasted too much of my youth in front of the television I spend a lot of time reading because I’m already so far behind. But I’ve read East of Eden three times now, and each time I’ve found it more surprising, refreshing, and moving than the last. I know I’m in the minority, but I consider it by far the better of Steinbeck’s two “big books.”
Kurt Armstrong is the author of Why Love Will Always Be A Poor Investment (Wipf & Stock) and has written for The Globe and Mail, Paste, Image, and Geez, among others. He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and works at Saint Margaret's Anglican Church.
Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series: