Tag Archives: Pascal Covici

Steinbeck’s epistolatory 1951 journal of writing East of Eden

To make it through the posthumously published (1969) Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters one must be very interested in how John Steinbeck spent 1951 and/or in what he regarded (from before he started writing it) as his magnum opus, East of Eden, which was published in September 1952 and became a blockbuster (601 pages) best-seller. A decade later, the Swedish Academy gave him the Nobel Prize in literature (a choice bemoaned by many American critics, a group that had long been hostile to Steinbeck’s writing).

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While he was writing the book in New York City and on Long Island, Steinbeck wrote daily letters to his longtime editor, Pascal Covici, to “warm up.” That is, when he wrote about the book, it was mostly about what he planned to write on a particular day, not reflections on what he had written. (There are some postscripts about the day’s work that he hoped Covici would understand and like. I don’t understand how they could have been kept—on facing pages— in a notebook, since each week’s work was dispatched to Covici.

I also don’t understand how it is possible to use up 60 (#2 3/8 round) pencils a day, writing roughly 1500 words of novel and another 500 of epistles to his editor. He discarded a pencil as soon has he could fell the metal below/around the eraser, but that still seems like a lot of pencil to use up.

These puzzlements are part of the basis for my suspicions that the book is pervasively dishonest. He did edit the manuscript for publication, and purportedly did not think of publication, though I find it hard to believe that a professional writer who had published 22 books gave no thought to publishing anything of such length that he wrote. I also find it difficult to believe his frequent protestations that he was writing the book for himself and did not care if it were ever published. Is this credible from someone writing daily reports to his editor? Or trying to anticipate criticisms?

I also find it difficult to credit the perky cheerfulness. His third marriage seems to have been as happy as his second one was unhappy, and it is plausible that his wife Elaine told him she liked every single bit he read to her, knowing that he needed approval and encouragement not criticism however “constructive.” The journal periodically shows he was very, very sensitive to criticism—of which he got a great deal, being a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

I have no interested in what the weather was like where he was between 12 February and 1 November 1951. There is, btw, nothing of his view of the ending or having reached the end of the bulky book on which he had worked most every workday, writing about six hours a day, for eight and a half months. It is followed in the published book by a draft dedication of the book that argued with sales personnel, proofreaders, editors, and critics. That was wisely replaced by a more conventional and less loquacious dedication to Covici (who had died in 1964, so did not make the decision to publish the unedited stream of letters to him).

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There is little notice of the outside world, other than the weather and who was staying (notably his two young sons, warped by their mother, Gwyn). He went to the final National League playoff game with Bobby Thompson’s dramatic homerun and to the first World Series games, a crosstown series in which the Yankees beat the Giants. The parade for the cashiered General Douglas MacArthur stirred some fury (Steinbeck though MacArthur should not just be court-martialed for insubordination, but tried for treason; it was widely supposed at the time that MacArthur was going to run for president).

Along with many, many, many banalities, there are occasional nuggets of explication of Steinbeck’s intent. The story(/ies) seem to have been thought out before he began, though I doubt they flowed as smoothly as he pretended. For one thing, his plan to alternate the tale of the fratricidal Trasks with the economically unsuccessful Hamiltons (based on his mother’s family) dropped away. The Hamiltons were supposed (ca. 12 Feb.) to be the universal neighbors of the universal family (the Trasks). I’m not sure that Lee, the Chinese servant who mostly raised Aron and Cal was present in Steinbeck’s mind at the outset, though when he started writing about him, he claimed it had been. There is no doubt that Steinbeck was interested in Chinese in California, however.

There is also no question that Steinbeck saw Cathy/Kate as a monster from before her first appearance (27 March):

Cathy is a hustler, perhaps born, perhaps caused by accident, but Cathy is by nature a whore. She is also by profession a whore. Why Adam Trask should have fallen in lover with her is anybody’s guess but I think it was because he himself was trained to operate best under a harsh master and simply transferred that to a tough mistress.

If one can be born with a twisted and deformed face or body, one can surely also come into the world with a malformed soul.

Her life is one of revenge on other people because of a vague feeling of her own lack.

Steinbeck wanted the book to read like a history rather than like a novel (I’m not sure what he meant by that, and he did no elaborate). On 10 May he wrote that “the story comes to me as though I were reading it but not in final form. Then I must take the story I have heard in my ears and set it down.”

The plan to vary the A-C (Abel Cain) theme was also there before he started writing about Aron and Cal:

In the first part the burden was with Adam who was the Abel… The book was seen though his eyes and through his emotions. Charles was a dark principle who remained dark… Now in Part 3 I am going to try to do just the opposite. Caleb is my Cain principle. I am going to put the burden of experience through his eyes and his emotions… And since every man has Cain in him, he will be fully well understood. Part 3 is Caleb’s part.

The title shifted from Salinas Valley to My Valley to Cain Mark (a really bad title!) to the eventual (12 June) East of Eden to where Cain was banished after slaying Abel. Though he had had a string of memorable titles (The Pastures of Heaven, To A God Unknown), Of Mice and Men, In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath) he claimed not to be a “title man.” There is no mention of his having already used “valley” in The Long Valley, though he expressed concern that The Valley would be confused with How Green Was My Valley.

There is nothing about any editing of the manuscript which in the journal’s telling flowed smoothly in predetermined order through his #2 3/8 pencils. And it is generally difficult to be sure what in the published novel was being written (was going to be written!) on the day of a particular journal entry. Only if the journal was printed on the same alternating pages as the manuscript could a reader correlate the two texts. I don’t advocate doing this, since so much of the material in the journal is not about the novel (not to mention being of little interest!). I found Journal of a Novel close to insufferable (believing so little was accurate about his feelings), and skimmed many paragraphs about aches and pains and visitors and weather (I was interested in the maladjustments of his own young son (born in 1944 and 1946), but these were not detailed out of concern that they would read the journal when they grew up.)

©stephen O. Murray

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