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John Steinbeck

I don't know why I picked up “East of Eden” the other day, an unconscious motivation perhaps. Consciously, I was weary of reading on my Kindle and longing for the sensory experience of paper, paper page turning, and heft. 601 pages of Penguin’s centennial edition—in celebration of Steinbeck’s birth—is heft. The design of the paperback cover echoes the original hardback edition: It has flaps, there is an evocative etching on the top of the cover, and the edges of the pages are scored. This creates an illusion of freshly cut pages, the obligation of the reader in the past. Once cut and turned, the pages feel “thumbed.”

But what about the story and the writing? Has it held up? Has it stood the test of time? Is it now a classic?

Like most American school children of my generation, I had read “Of Mice and Men” in school at an age when it would have meant absolutely nothing to me. I think this was true of many classics on the curriculum in those days. (The other that comes to mind is Wharton’s “Ethan Frome.”) I have no recollection of how the book was taught, what it was about, or the questions we were supposed to answer for homework. I thought it curious that my parents had “Cannery Row” on their shelves, but was not curious enough myself to pull it down. A yellow cover with blue lettering, I remember, and the fact that my mother had read it in one sitting. Much later, the year I got married, I read “Grapes of Wrath” as we traveled across the country and loved it. But I never returned to Steinbeck after that. So why now? A third into the book, and unable to put it down—the writing and the story both compelling—I went online to the Nobel Prize site to listen to Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Banquet Speech in which he says:

“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”

Inspiring thoughts for me as I have just published a novel—“What Returns to Us”—set in 1945, the beginning of the Atomic Age. I do feel, too strongly at times I know, that writers and artists have an obligation to tell the truth, to illuminate, and to write from the heart as well as the head.

“East of Eden” was published in 1952, soon after the end of World War II and the unleashing of America’s weapon of mass destruction, the atomic bomb. Steinbeck traces America’s history in this epic, beautifully written novel from the 19th century onward. It raises many questions about our frontier history, the loss of civility and a higher purpose, the origins of evil, and what it means to be human. The book is loaded with gorgeous descriptions, deep character portraits, humor, and compassion.

We can’t all be working on such a large canvas all the time, or even some of the time; that would be hubris. And we cannot sit down to write with the intention of creating the great American novel—Mailer’s ambition—or the great anything. Our writing lives are a daily practice, keen observation, and the quest for psychological and historical truths.
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