I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Steinbeck. I went through a major JS phase a few years back, where I read Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle, Cannery Row, and Tortilla Flat. I loved Grapes. It’s still one of the best novels I’ve ever read. And In Dubious Battle, while not actually a superior book to Grapes, is so fun: it’s like he turned the strike section in Grapes into an entire book.
But…Steinbeck is one of the most multivalent writers I’ve ever read. Half of his work is gritty realism, and the other half is sentimental romanticism. And after reading Tortilla Flat I was disgusted with the romantic side of him. That book is good. I mean it’s good Romanticism. But it’s also bad: it’s about these cheerful happy winos in Salinas who’re just so carefree and honest. I was shocked. I honestly have no idea how the mind that could conceive the bleak, harsh world of Grapes would also be capable of writing Tortilla Flat.
And I knew even that East of Eden would be more of the same. Just as Tortilla Flat is a take on King Arthur, East of Eden is a take on the Adam and Eve story. And I didn’t want that. At that point in my life, I was really into Emile Zola and Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis: people who told you how shitty the world was!
But now for some reason I’ve picked up East of Eden and it’s amazing. The narrative voice is so majestic and warm. It’s both very distant, giving you this magisterial view of history and the landscape, and very intimate: even the worst and most monstrous people in the book come in for a dollop of love and understanding.
I am still confused though by how Steinbeck could write two books that exist in such different worlds. In Grapes of Wrath, the big farmers collude with the government in order to keep their migrant labor underpaid and off-balance. Whereas in the first fifty pages of East of Eden, a kindly judge prevents a mentally ill man from being railroaded into a murder charge. That is not the kind of thing that would ever happen in Grapes!
Even in East of Eden (with the exception of the primary villainess) is so nice! Even the brothelkeepers have hearts of gold. The prostitutes, too, love their work and are just so happy for this easy lifestyle! And the Chinese servant who speaks in pidgin? Well of course he’s a well-educated guy, with a degree from UC-Berkeley, who maintains a kindly watch over his master’s children.
It really ought to sicken me, and on occasion it does, but most of the time I’m just really engaged. I like these people. I want them to triumph and to find happiness. I want this valley to burst into prosperity. I even want the villain to find some sort of peace. I really don’t get it, but for now I’m enjoying the feeling of being gripped by a book.