It couldn’t have been easy growing up as the son of literary giant John Steinbeck, particularly for the child who shared his father’s name. Despite John Steinbeck IV forging an impressive path as a writer on his own merits—after being drafted into the Vietnam War, he worked as a journalist and war correspondent, later writing about his own journeys with the Dalai Lama—the second son of California’s great novelist couldn’t escape his father’s shadow or his debilitating genes. In a proposal for a book of his own, the younger Steinbeck wrote: “Perhaps it is long past time when I should have expressed many of the feelings that tug at me due to the special circumstances of being my father’s son…. I have been challenged to puzzle out my own fate with a large degree of poetic insight.” “I inherited two life-threatening diseases from my parents. Due to hemochromatosis, a genetic iron retention disease, and alcoholism, I developed cirrhosis by the time I was thirty-four.”1
John Steinbeck passed down to his son the same traits that defined Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and so many of the great American writers: an addiction to alcohol and the courage to express pain in words.
It is through this prism that most readers interpret the literature of John Steinbeck: stories of the privileged and powerful abusing the underdogs of society. Even a cursory glance at The Pearl and its impoverished villagers diving deep into the ocean to make their living, or the Hispanic families in Tortilla Flat, shows how Steinbeck included passionate political appeals to help the poor and the outcast. Within his portfolio of societal concerns, though, religious liberty did not often rank as a high priority. Unlike the literature of other great American masters—Nathaniel Hawthorne assailing the nation’s Puritan heritage, Mark Twain satirizing Christian foolishness, or Harriet Beecher Stowe calling upon congregations to end slavery—Steinbeck did not direct his political literature and reformist message at the nation’s churches. But this is not to say that Steinbeck did not write great religious literature.
To focus only on Steinbeck’s political message and ignore his striking Christian symbolism is to ignore what makes so much of his writing timeless and universal. In his stories the calls for social justice are loud and frequent, but so are the biblical allegories. His masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, is an “odyssey of a people to the promised land (of California), finding trails, deserts, and crises of their faith along the way. . . . The theme of Cannery Row, of Doc’s friends preparing a surprise party to welcome him home, echoes the parable of the prodigal son. Of Mice and Men deliberately recalls the story of David and Jonathan, that other biblical tale of two inseparable men whose friendship ends in death.”2 It is within the author’s magnum opus that these religious themes shine the brightest. In East of Eden readers wrestle with such questions as “Am I destined to repeat the sins of our fathers?” “How can we break free from the cycle of sin?” and “What is the biblical source of our liberty and free will?”
In the journal he wrote alongside his epic novel, Steinbeck said of East of Eden, “This is my big book. And it has to be a big book, and because it is new in form although old in pace it has to be excellent in every detail.”3 With East of Eden Steinbeck set lofty goals, and while it had its critics, most readers found and continue to agree that he succeeded. The multigenerational family saga vibrantly reimagines the initial chapters of Genesis, recording the biblical struggle between good and evil in the agricultural microcosm of early-twentieth-century California.
Within East of Eden Steinbeck most closely examines the relationship between the warring sons of Adam and Eve, and uses their tale to reveal his greatest argument of all: that within each of us is a divinely placed opportunity to reject sin. He wrote the framework of the novel’s “roots from that powerful, profound and perplexing story in Genesis of Cain and Abel. This story with its implications has made a deeper mark in people than any other save possibly the story of the tree of life and original sin.”4 Steinbeck tackles humanity’s ability to overcome that sin within the pages of East of Eden, and he argues that the most important battlefield in the fight between good and evil occurs in man’s heart and mind. The story is so much more than a simplistic allegory. Steinbeck wrote in his journal that if it “were just a discussion of biblical lore, I would throw it out, but it is not. It is using the biblical story as the measure of ourselves.”5 Through its elucidation of Hebrew Scripture and poignant storytelling, East of Eden presents its case that freedom of conscience is not a recent political Creation, but has been with us since creation and is our greatest divinely granted attribute.
In other words, while other American authors may have tackled religious liberty directly, John Steinbeck in East of Eden demonstrates that religion can be the source of that liberty, and it all goes back to the very beginning.
If it weren’t already apparent that Steinbeck’s work hinged around an understanding of free will, one needs only to look at his personal life to see such self-determination. In his early years he forged a path that had others convinced he would be either famous or infamous. His mother, Olive, “pushed him to join church organizations, but he wasn’t very willing, and sometimes he would defy her and shout back. She often said that he would either go to the White House as president or go to jail.”
“He played throughout his writing life with the Christian notion of ‘fallen man.’”6 It is likely that he saw in himself many of the same religious failings as his paternal grandfather, John Adolph Grossteinbeck, a Lutheran cabinetmaker from Germany whose missionary attempt to convert Jews in Palestine ended in humiliation, violence, and the death of a brother-in-law. Despite those tragic tales, his “adventurous streak was greatly admired by his grandson John Steinbeck, who liked to work with a portrait of the fierce-looking John Adolph nearby.”7 His maternal grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, from Ballykelly in the north of Ireland, was also important for the author. As a figure of guidance and determination, he features prominently in East of Eden, which Steinbeck initially created “as a straightforward attempt to remember his past quite literally, to invoke the history of his family, and it tells us a lot about Steinbeck’s sense of his own origins.”8
Christianity was an important part of John’s family history and upbringing. From a young age and continuing throughout his life, “Steinbeck counted the Bible among his favorite books.” As a result some of his work has a sense of subtlety and youthful simplicity in its biblical allegories: “ The Red Pony achieves a brilliant rewriting of the first two chapters of Genesis from the perspective of a child, but the task is so delicately carried off that the readers are scarcely expected to notice it.”9 East of Eden, however, is much more adult in nature and overt in allegory.
Like many of his other works, East of Eden attracted attention from cultural conservatives who objected to the violence and sexual misconduct perpetrated by its antagonist, Cathy Ames. The biblical allusions within her story have been well documented: Cathy frames two boys for rape, manipulates an admirer into committing suicide, “incinerates her parents, beds down with her brother-in-law, shoots her husband, and abandons her children. Eve and Tamar and Delilah and Jezebel are rolled into one.”10
Most Steinbeck scholars maintain that the author’s marriage to his second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger, with whom Steinbeck had two sons, was the inspiration for his creation of Cathy, East of Eden’s “monster.” Not even the most critical of biographers could claim that Gwyn was quite like the fictional Cathy, yet one can see how Gwyn’s treatment of Steinbeck caused him to grow deeply resentful. According to Jay Parini, she was unfaithful in their marriage, jealous of his success, greedy in the divorce settlement, and petty in withholding access to their sons. In Steinbeck’s mind, “Cathy seemed to embody evil almost arbitrarily, much like Gwyn. She is the sinful wife who cannot curb her sexual instincts.”11
Weaving personal experience and fiction together with parts of his own family history, Steinbeck reveals the factual Hamiltons and creates the imaginary Trasks, producing a story of favorite children and sibling rivalries occurring over many decades of conflict and disappointment. He was so engrossed in the writing of the novel that, for a while, East of Eden replaced alcohol in his affections—a dependency he had developed to cope with the harsh reviews from the critics.
With the wise Chinese housekeeper Lee and the righteous Hamiltons largely playing foil to the novel’s other family dynasty, East of Eden begins with the sons of Cyrus Trask, a deceitful patriarch who does little to prevent the dysfunctional relationship between his sons Adam and Charles. After each boy gives their father a gift that echoes those that Cain and Abel offer as sacrifices to God in Genesis, Cyrus shows favoritism and initiates the first of two Edenic cycles within the novel. As the naive Adam falls in love with the villainous Cathy, Charles, the other son of Cyrus, develops a bitter resentment toward his brother Adam and becomes violent. Later chapters follow the sons of Adam and Cathy wondering what exactly went wrong in their family’s past to cause such subsequent unhappiness in their present. This new set of brothers, Caleb and Aron, whose names are yet another reminder of the Genesis account, fight not only each other but also Caleb’s sinful destiny. As Caleb tries to overcome his mark of Cain, he, along with Aron and a compassionate girl named Abra, must deal with the rediscovered existence of their monstrous mother, Cathy, whom Steinbeck called “a total representative of Satan.”12
It’s a tightly woven plot, and Steinbeck cleverly divides the Trask family by name, with characters representing the virtuous legacy of Abel starting with the same letter: Adam, Aron, and Abra. Conversely, he groups the spiritual descendants of the murderous Cain in a similar way: Cyrus, Charles, Cathy, and Caleb.
As the son of Adam and Cathy, and grandson of Cyrus, Caleb is the most complex and dynamic character in East of Eden. His is a struggle against inheriting the mark of Cain and the sins of his immediate ancestors: the lies of his grandfather Cyrus, the envious violence of his uncle Charles, and most important, the depravity of his mother, Cathy. To give a sense of the rebellious nature and internal struggle within the character of Caleb, filmmakers cast James Dean in this role, for the movie version of East of Eden in1955.
As to the outcome of whether Caleb can overcome his destiny of sin, and whether his free will is sufficient to defeat his tendency toward evil, those interested should read East of Eden for themselves.
It is important to see just how Steinbeck arrived at a scriptural understanding for the religious source of our liberty and some of the controversy surrounding it.
The entire novel hinges on an interpretation of Genesis 4:7 and the Hebrew word timshel, or timshol, which can mean either “thou shalt” or in some translations “thou mayest,” meaning “you can.” Since Steinbeck seemed especially interested in the Jewish scholarship, here is the verse from the Complete Jewish Bible: “Sin is crouching at the door—it wants you, but you can rule over it” (Genesis 4:7, CJB).13
For Steinbeck, the difference between “thou shalt” and “thou mayest” was vital. From this verse Steinbeck was to draw a clear conclusion that God gives each of us the choice to fight temptation, and not a demand. The differences in interpretation “mattered so much to Steinbeck that he had a considerable correspondence on the subject with his publisher, Pascal Covici. Before Steinbeck used it, Covici claims to have found the translation ‘Thou mayest’ in the Manchester version of the Douay-Rheims (1812) translation, based on the Vulgate, but Covici asked Steinbeck to check it, because he saw it may well be one of the most important mistranslations in the Old Testament.”14
Steinbeck wrote to Covici: “The King James says of sin crouching at the door, ‘Thou shalt rule over it.’ The American Standard says, ‘Do thou rule over it.’ Now this new translation says, ‘Thou mayest rule over it.’ This is the most vital difference. The first two are 1, a prophecy and 2, an order, but 3 is the offering of free will. Here is individual responsibility and the invention of conscience.”15
Serving as the lyrical cornerstone for East of Eden, the Hebrew word timshel and one possible corresponding English phrase “thou mayest” enter the novel through the wisdom of Lee, the Chinese housekeeper for the Trask family. He guides several characters along a path toward this scriptural understanding, and reveals the meaning of the phrase in an interaction with the fictional Adam Trask and the historical Samuel Hamilton: “Now, there are many millions in their… churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great,… for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”16 In the novel, timshel and “thou mayest” continue to make revelatory appearances until a deathbed climax at the very end, but even the author of these intricate plotlines couldn’t have prophesied just how much these concepts would impact his own offspring. Like the fictional Adam Trask, and Cyrus Trask before him, as well as the biblical parents Adam and Eve, on whom he based the characters, Steinbeck had two sons of his own. John Steinbeck IV, the war correspondent and traveling companion of the Dalai Lama, outlived his father. The author of East of Eden, the moving novel about passing down sins from parents to children, died in 1968 after the damage his addictions did to his own body, and he would never live to see his son’s hemochromatosis diagnosis in 1984, nor his articles on “the genetic aspects of alcoholism and the toll it takes on loved ones.” Had Steinbeck lived that long, no doubt, such revelations would have broken the great author’s heart, but unlike his completed best seller East of Eden, the Steinbeck family story had yet to be finished.
Even though the deck had been stacked against him before he was even born, his son’s quest for sobriety was successful. John Steinbeck IV wrote, “Fortunately, when I truly accepted my powerlessness over my disease, the drama was over, and I could begin to understand the source of some of the behaviors that had taken over my life.”17
The son of John Steinbeck may have credited Alcoholics Anonymous for his victory. There were probably important friends, family members, and sponsors who helped him along the way. One can’t help thinking, however, that given the opportunity to share the source of his triumph, John Steinbeck IV could have exclaimed, “Thou mayest.”
1 John Steinbeck lV and Nancy Steinbeck, The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Stenbeck, www.nancysteinbeck.com.
2 Martin Walker, America Reborn: A Twentieth-Century Narrative in Twenty-six Lives (New York: Knopf, 2000).
3 John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel; the East of Eden Letters (New York: Viking, 1969), Mar. 21.
4 Ibid. , May 22.
5 Ibid. , June 17.
6 Jay Parini, John Steinbeck: A Biography (New York: H. Holt, 1995).
7 Ibid .
8 Ibid .
9 David Wyatt, “Introduction to East of Eden,” in John Steinbeck, East of Eden (New York: Penguin, 1992).
10 Ibid .
11 Ibid .
13 Texts credited to CJB are from the Complete Jewish Bible. Copyright 1998 by David H. Stern. Published by Jewish New Testament Publication, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
14 Alec Gilmore, “John Steinbeck,” The Expository Times, 112, no. 6 (March 2001): 192-196.
15 John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel; the East of Eden Letters.
16 John Steinbeck, East of Eden.
17 John Steinbeck lV and Nancy Steinbeck.
Article Author: Martin Surridge
Martin Surridge has a background in teaching English. He is an associate editor of ReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent news Web site. He writes from Calhoun, Georgia.