John Steinbeck had been envisioning his plan for East of Eden well before he began work on it. One of his primary goals for the highly ambitious novel was to tell the story of his maternal family, the Hamiltons, for his two sons John and Thom. Steinbeck firmly believed this novel was his greatest work and that everything he had written before it was merely practice. Upon completing his manuscript, he wrote to a friend:
I finished my book a week ago. [. . .] Much the longest and surely the most difficult work I have ever done. . . . I have put all the things I have wanted to write all my life. This is “the book.” If it is not good I have fooled myself all the time. I don’t mean I will stop but this is a definite milestone and I feel released. Having done this I can do anything I want. Always I had this book waiting to be written. (qtd. in Benson 697)
Released in September of 1952, the reading public certainly confirmed the merits of Steinbeck’s masterpiece. East of Eden reached number one on the fiction bestseller list by November 1952 and Steinbeck fans were very passionate in their response to his novel. Steinbeck wrote to a friend saying, “I am getting flocks of letters [ . . .] People write as though it were their book. (qtd. in Benson 732)
Although the public embraced East of Eden, the literary critics found plenty to criticize, typical of the dichotomy between the public’s and the literary establishment’s reception of Steinbeck’s works. Though reviewers criticized the novel for being melodramatic, for its unrealistic characters and for what they considered major structural and narrative flaws, as biographer Jackson Benson notes, overall, “[. . .] whether positive or negative, most periodicals dealt with [East of Eden] as a serious major effort by a serious major author” (731). This is apparent in a New York Times review published in 1952, which asserts, “Clumsy in structure and defaced by excessive melodramatics and much cheap sensationalism though it is, ‘East of Eden’ is a serious and on the whole successful effort to grapple with a major theme” (“Books of the Times” 21).
Critics were both captivated and repelled by East of Eden’s themes and Steinbeck’s portrayal of violence and aberrant sexuality. One reviewer from The Washington Post praised the novel and defended Steinbeck’s compositional choices by comparing East of Eden to beloved classics revered by Western literary society: “There will be many who may be affronted by its brutality or who will find Steinbeck’s philosophy of life too strong for them. But many of the classical works of fiction, from ‘Don Quixote’ to Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones,’ aren’t coherent or artistically graceful” (“‘East of Eden’ Steinbeck’s Best” B6). The same review sums up the novel’s attraction despite noticeable flaws with: “But no one can doubt its merits as the work of a great storyteller. It compels and holds the reader’s fascinated attention from the first chapter to the last” (“‘East of Eden’ Steinbeck’s Best” B6).
Other reviewers were not so gracious. Samuel F. Morse from The Hartford Courant, labels Steinbeck a “moralist” as an insult and denies that the story’s thematic treatment of good and evil has any artistic merit. Morse asserts, “East of Eden reveals much more clearly than any of the other novels which have preceded it that John Steinbeck is a moralist. He is, in a sense, more moralist than novelist” (SM 18). Morse was not alone in his criticism, as others also suggested that Steinbeck’s portrayal of good and evil was oversimplified and exaggerated, especially as evil is represented in the odd and despicable character of Cathy Ames.
Besides attacking the novel’s themes, it construction has been criticized as well, particularly for lack of unity. Steinbeck opens the novel by attempting to weave together the stories of the fictional Trask family with the semi-biographical stories of the Hamilton family. However, many critics fail to see the relevance of the Hamilton family, except for perhaps the character of Samuel. In John Steinbeck’s Re-visioning of America, Louis Owens asserts that the Hamilton family stories “[. . .] contribute little or nothing to the central theme of the novel and [. . .] negate the possibility of unity in the work” (Owens 145).
Another major criticism of East of Eden is Steinbeck’s intrusive first person narrator, which appears inconsistently throughout the work. In his essay summarizing the critical response to East of Eden, scholar Richard Peterson notes, “Most of the attacks on East of Eden have focused on the first half of the novel. The structural imbalance between the Trask and the Hamilton sections, the shifting identity of the ‘I’ narrative voice, the heavy and obvious symbolism, and the unrealistic characterizations, all are prominent in the part of the novel dominated by Adam’s journeys and trials” (Peterson 77). Essentially, some critics have asserted that East of Eden would be more successful as two separate novels which deal with the Hamilton and Trask families respectively.
Ironically, it seems the very failings that irk literary critics the most are exactly what has continued to intrigue the reading public and contributed to the novel’s enduring success. Benson notes in his biography of Steinbeck:
Several of those aspects that had aroused the most criticism became, in an odd twist, the very things that many readers found the most engaging: the intrusions of the first-person perspective, directly or indirectly, which told the author’s family history; the character of Cathy (which, no matter how unbelievable, is unforgettable); and the blarney-philosophy of the Chinese houseboy Lee, which has become the particular target of academic sarcasm. (Benson 732)
Although about 50,000 copies of East of Eden are sold annually, the novel’s popularity experienced resurgence in 2003 after being named an Oprah’s Book Club pick. The novel shot to the second spot on the bestseller list again and has proven to remain highly popular with the reading public. On one book aficionado website alone, goodreads.com, East of Eden has been rated 64,954 times (as of 8/8/2011, receiving a 4.31 on a 5 point scale) and been reviewed by over 6,100 people. In turn, those reviews have solicited hundreds of both impassioned defenses and denunciations of the novel’s merits. Fans still write about this novel as though it were their own. Academics continue to study the novel as well producing scholarship on East of Eden covering a host of diverse subjects, from feminism and motherhood to postmodern narrative techniques. Whatever its compositional failings, the novel continues to affect people today, confirming a 1952 New York Times assertion that East of Eden is “a strange and original work of art” (“A Dark and Violent Steinbeck Novel” BR1).