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June 5, 1990
Revised 6/95

John Steinbeck
East of Eden Notes
Compiled by Pauline Pearson

SALINAS -- John Steinbeck's East of Eden was published for the first time by Viking Press in September 1952, ten years before the writer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and has never been out of print since. In November 1952 East of Eden was number one on the fiction best-seller list.

In A Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letter, the writer's diary of East of Eden, Steinbeck calls the novel “...the story of my country and the story of me.” The book spans the history of the nation from the Civil War to World War I and tells the story of two American families, The Hamiltons, Steinbeck's matenal relatives, are the “Universal Family” and the fictional Trasks are the “Universal Neighbors.”

Steinbeck's inspiration for the novel comes from the Bible, the fourth chapter of the book of Genesis, verses one though sixteen, which recounts the story of Cain and Abel. The title, East of Eden, was chosen by Steinbeck from Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16.

The novel was originally addressed to Steinbeck's young sons, Thom and John IV (then 6 1/2 and 4 1/2 respectively). Steinbeck wanted to describe the Salinas Valley for them in detail: the sights, sounds, smells, and colors.

Steinbeck called East of Eden “a sort of autobiography of the Salinas Valley.”

East of Eden begins in 1862 and covers three generations and 56 years. The book ends in salinas, California, in 1918.

The theme of East of Eden: “All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.”

Steinbeck called this book “The big one as far as I'm concerned. Always before I held something back for later. Nothing is held back here.”

East of Eden is an allegorical/realistic novel, a daring combination of biography and fiction.

Steinbeck returned to Salinas in February of 1948 to begin intensive research for what he considered would be his greatest book, East of Eden. During his stay in Monterey, he drove to Salinas and used the files of the local newspaper, the Salinas Index-Journal. The novel was completed in November of 1951.

The work on East of Eden followed two blows, the death of Edward Ricketts, Steinbeck's best friend, known as “Doc” in his Cannery Row books, and the separation and divorce from his second wife, Gwyn.

Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, the posthumously published series of letters to Pascal Covici that accompanied the text of East of Eden, was published in 1969.

The book was written in part in New York City in a four-story brownstone house on Seventy Second Street. Steinbeck had an upstairs room for writing. The Steinbecks rented a Victorian two-story family beach house in Siasconset on Nantucket Island where the writer spent several months working on his novel.

Chapter 34 of the novel East of Eden was privately printed in 1952 with the title “What is the World's Story about?”

The novel East of Eden has been translated into many languages of the world, among them Burmese, Chinese, Danish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish, Japanese, Norwegian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovene, and Spanish. Russian scholars are working on the Russian translation.

The original manuscript of East of Eden is in the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Texas.

Steinbeck kept track of things while writing East of Eden, and this is the record:

Eleven years of mental gestation
One year of uninterrupted writing
25 dozen pencils
Approximately three dozen reams of paper
350,000 words (before cutting)
About 75,000 words in his work-in-progress journal
And a rock-hard callus on the middle finger of the writer's right hand.

Steinbeck's widow, Elaine, in looking back on the year that he worked on the book, said that his work on the novel affected him deeply. Perhaps the best way to put it would be to say that it was the last stage in putting himself back together after the years that had torn him apart.

As Steinbeck progressed through the early chapters, he noted that his voice would be more apparent in this book than in any other because he wanted it to contain everything he remembered to be true. He would be in this one and not “for one moment pretend not to be.”

Steinbeck states about East of Eden, “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years.” He further claimed, “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”

East of Eden became a best seller so it was a natural for the movies. East of Eden, the film, was directed and produced by Elia Kazan and starred James Dean as “Cal.” The film opens at approximately Chapter 37 in Part Four of the novel. The film, shot in part in Salinas, California, was finished and released in 1955. The film has now reached the stature of a classic.

East of Eden was adapted for television and presented on February 8, 9, and 11 in 1981 by ABC.

The Bantam paperback edition became a multimillion copy best seller that later scaled new heights on the strength of the James Dean movie version.

The musical version of East of Eden, “Here's Where I Belong,” opened March 3, 1968, at the Billy Rose Theater and closed after one showing.

East of Eden, a new adaptation for the stage, was performed at Steinbeck Festival XI and XV by The Western Stage Company of Hartnell College.

 


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