Paul McCarthy, in his book John Steinbeck, tells us that "despite good sales, critics as a rule found serious flaws in the characterizations [and] thematic development" of East of Eden. Indeed, when one routes through the review literature surrounding the books publication, there is a definite critical frown surrounding the whole affair. While most reviewers laude Steinbeck's verbiage and descriptive power, there is a fair amount of ambivalence about the story-line itself and how successfully Steinbeck uses it. But the critical reception is only one half of the novel's receipt. It seems that McCarthy's comment ought to be reversed: despite the critics somewhat negative response, it had good sales! This curious fact leads us to ask just what gave East of Eden such popular success? What about the novel caused the public to defy the critics and turn out in droves to purchase the book? Why was East of Eden a bestseller? By the time of East of Eden's publication, Steinbeck had been publishing novels for 23 years. Some were bestsellers, and one of which (The Grapes of Wrath) was a wild bestseller and the subject of a critically acclaimed movie as well as numerous productions in other media. In other words, by the time Steinbeck published East of Eden, he was already an established author in the American pantheon. It is likely that a large portion of his book sales came from his fame as an author. But certainly that is not enough? While fame certainly plays a major role in the success of any mass market commodity, that commodity must still supply its audience with something of value.
The most obvious place to start, having moved beyond the author himself, is the content of the book. East of Eden is, as critics pointed out, quite a convoluted story. It traces the history of two families through several generations. In many ways, Steinbeck uses this wide time scale to examine various historical aspects of America: technological advances, wars, and political agendas, to name a few. But the thrust of the story is its allegorical reference to the Biblical myth of Cain and Abel.
Almost every character is a version of one or the other of these two brothers. Adam Trask, the first main character of the tale, is an Abel; his brother Charles is a Cain. Adam's twin sons carry this dichotomy into the next generation with Aaron being another Abel character and Caleb being a second Cain. With these two subsequent pairs of brothers, Steinbeck plays out the traditional struggle between good and evil. Steinbeck's take on the Biblical tale, however, is different. Levant explains Steinbeck's new interpretation:
"Cain murders Abel because he feels unloved and rejected by God; that is, he feels that he is evil by nature ? Abel does not murder because he feels loved and accepted by God. But his serenity precludes self-knowledge, he does not have to find good, as Cain may ? Cain's self-equated guilt and physical ugliness are the index of his humanity. Abel is too pure to be believably human."
Levant is right about Steinbeck's take. Adam and his son Aaron, the two Abels of Steinbeck's novel, are too good to be true. They are shallow characters who unerringly and unwittingly do the right thing. Their effortless and blasé good is almost insulting to the reader. Real people never have a natural moral perfection. Caleb, however, as the Cain of Adam's loins, is made to struggle for love, acceptance, and good. His battle to achieve some moral ground is indicative of the real persons struggle in the real world.
How might this new take on the classic story have contributed to East of Eden's success? To get a little perspective on the issue, I spent some time looking at bestseller's lists and advertisements in Publisher's Weekly and The New York Times Book Review from the weeks surrounding East of Eden's publication. What I found was rather revealing.
Assuming that we may determine popular trends from details about the book market, examining publication lists ought to give us some insight into what the public was looking for in 1952. Two major trends which immediately jump to one's attention are particularly relevant to the central theme of Steinbeck's East of Eden. Religious books by the score were published around this time. Indeed, the Holy Bible itself was the number one non-fiction bestseller of the year. In both Publisher's Weekly and NTBR, the Bible received full two page ads! (The importance of this is most revealed by the fact that most books get only one corner of a page. Even wildly popular contemporary authors like Steinbeck and Hemingway never got more than one page.) Other religious materials include titles like Religion and the Modern Mind, The Big Fisherman, Religion in the 20th Century, The Christian Reader, and Why I am a Christian. Given this market for religious literature, it doesn't seem so surprising that Steinbeck's Biblical allegory would be wildly popular.
There's more. A second trend which is easily identified from the publication lists is self-help books. Titles like Where to Find Opportunity Today, and How to Get the Breaks, were widespread and popular. How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying was on the bestseller list for over a month (Publisher's Weekly Sept.-Oct.) Numerous books about psychology, the dynamics of successful marriage, even books about getting dates were published in this time.
If we combine these two facets, the Biblical trend and the self-help trend, what do we get? I suggest that what we get is Steinbeck's new interpretation of the Cain and Abel myth. Steinbeck suggests that moral goodness is something to strive for, as Caleb must do in East of Eden. The natural goodness of Adam and Aaron is not what we experience, nor what we seek. Find your own salvation, Steinbeck says: a philosophy which nicely fuses the modern help yourself ideology with the Biblical ideology of moral fortitude.
This ?self-help-salvation' idea is directly found in East of Eden through the philosophical voice of Lee. He discusses, around the middle of the book, a curious passage from the Old Testament. After his punishment, Cain is told by God that he shall triumph over sin. The point of Lee's contention is in the "shall". The Hebrew word timshel, he says, is translated in one place as "thou shalt", in another as "do thou" and in the correct Hebrew as "thou mayest". Peter Lisca sums the argument: Steinbeck gives a "new translation of the Hebrew word timshel, which in the King James version reads as "thou shalt". He proposes that the word is more meaningfully ? rendered as "thou mayest", for this gives men responsible moral choice." In other words, if Cain is told he may overcome sin, he has a choice. He either may or may not. But if the old translation is right, "thou shalt," then it is promised to Cain that he will overcome sin and there is no responsibility to try.
Steinbeck effectively uses the Cain and Abel story to present morality as a self-responsibility. This taps into two popular trends in 1950's literature and may serve to explain some of the books popularity.
Along these lines, there is even more to be revealed by examining the publication trends surrounding the book. East of Eden, Steinbeck said, was originally to be a history of his own family. Indeed Samuel Hamilton and all his progeny are actually Steinbeck's relatives in Salinas Valley, California. In a way, the book is a biographical account of his family history. Event the fictional Trask family is presented in a biographical form as we trace three generations of them from the start of the novel to its end.
This biographical aspect was not an unknown style in 1952. Herbert Hoover, Adalai Stevenson, Anne Frank, Tallulah, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Elizabeth Barret Browning are some of the more notable subjects of biographies published within two weeks of East of Eden's September 1952 release date. If biographies were so popular, it would not be surprising that Steinbeck's multi-layered biographical tale would benefit from the trend.
Likewise, the popularity of books about sex may have lent a hand. While publishers were not pushing pornography, they were selling books like Glands, Sex, and Personality, Sexual Feelings in Married Men and Women, and The Sexually Adequate Male. With this sort of topic already on the rise, it couldn't have hurt Steinbeck's book sales that one of his main characters is a prostitute! Cathy, the pure but simple Adam's wife, and father of the brothers Aaron and Caleb, starts the novel as a prostitute and later become the madam of a whorehouse. The sexual relations in the book (both Cathy's and others) are sketched in some detail and certainly must have played upon the budding interest in reading about such topics.
As a final note on trends and popularity, Steinbeck also seems to have cashed in on the growing market of scientific books as well. Titles published in September of 1952 include Atomic Imperialism, Modern Science & Modern Man, and Man: The Chemical Machine. At several points throughout his book, Steinbeck draws upon the rising technology. The laying of train tracks, the use of trains for business, even the mystery of the Model-T Ford is incorporated into Adam Trask's world. It seems possible that the audiences proclivity to these popular themes may have influenced their reaction to Steinbeck's use of them. Hence enhancing the book's popularity. It seems even more likely that his is the case when we remember that the critics received Steinbeck's book rather poorly. They criticized his writing technique, the organization of the book and, in some cases, the storyline itself; but if the readers were attracted to the subject matter, these "literary" aspects might matter fairly little to them. Thus the critics might be overlooked in their dislike of Steinbeck' s narrative style, if the reader was attracted to his themes.