- East of Eden: New and Recent Essays by Michael J. Meyer and Henry Veggian
edited by Michael J. Meyer and Henry Veggian
New York: Rodopi Press, 2013. 299 pp. Cloth $90.45
From the publication of East of Eden in 1952 to the present, there has been much critical controversy about this novel’s autobiographical digressions, its narrative interweaving of two families, and the enigmatic Cathy/Kate Trask. While Steinbeck eschewed critics as a general rule, he may have been pleased that these discussions center around his story-crafting innovations, and he may have been amused by the longevity of the controversy. Old issues and new views are engaged in the 2013 collection titled East of Eden: New and Recent Essays, a project that Michael J. Meyer initiated and Henry Veggian completed after Meyer’s death. While most of the pieces acknowledge early criticisms, they challenge them from the vantage points of newer theoretical frameworks. The resulting volume makes for fascinating reading and brings convincing new insights to this novel.
Borrowing from Meyer’s seminal essay “Steinbeck’s Adaptation and Implementation of Musical Techniques,” Veggian’s introduction invokes music as an explanation for this collection. For the musical metaphor illuminates what Meyer and Veggian aim to achieve: a choral work of criticism that counters the current state of East of Eden studies. Veggian writes, “It is a novel whose early critical history often assembled a chorus; yet it has more recently attracted the solitary critic” (xi). Indeed, many of the essays can stand alone as a solo, or an aria. Some essayists harmonize with others as a duet or trio. And readers are invited to add their own voices: “Like the solitary critic, the reader always rejoins the chorus” (xii). Overall, Veggian hopes the collection will amplify or augment the notes Steinbeck so expertly plays for his readers. Included also is Veggian’s restrained, affectionate memorial for Meyer, a beloved teacher and scholar. In accord with Meyer’s wishes, Veggian provides helpful critical history and arranges the essays in such a way as to maximize the conversation, disagreement, and synthesis. In praise of his colleague, Veggian writes, “To that end, he worked to encourage a literary criticism that would listen as well as speak. The collection that follows does not now appear in Professor Meyer’s memory but with it, a living tribute to his work as a critic, editor and teacher” (xviii). Most of the essays, therefore, come together primarily around three common lines of inquiry concerning East of Eden: Steinbeck’s narrative technique and idiosyncrasies, Cathy Trask, and free will. [End Page 206]
Florian Schwieger and Jeremy S. Leatham address the view that East of Eden relies too much on allegorical underpinnings. Schwieger’s “‘Mapping the Land of Nod’: The Spatial Imagination of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden” looks at the meaningful spatial and temporal geography of locations and events in the novel, placing Steinbeck’s story against the backdrop of the narrative of American history, which he believes is a close parallel to the Cain and Abel story. He concludes that the biblical tale parallels the American Ur-narrative. Segmented by location, Schwieger’s essay visits key places in the novel, including the Trask house, Dessie’s shop, the whorehouses, and the schoolhouse, showing how each place becomes an important factor in Steinbeck’s Edenic myth-making process. Leatham’s “Out of Eden: Dualism, Conformity, and Inheritance in Steinbeck’s ‘Big Book’” also maintains that “the novel has roots in Genesis, but its allegory is organic and adaptable” (124).
In “Bio-Politics and the Institution of Literature: An Essay on East of Eden, Its Critics and Its Time,” Henry Veggian offers a moderated view between the formalists, who decry Steinbeck’s narrative idiosyncrasies, and the post- modernists, who cast it as a novel out of time or a harbinger of narrative techniques to come. Instead, Veggian states that the book ought to be read as an aesthetic product of its own times. Considering “biomorphic forms” in the architecture of the 1950s, Veggian correlates the popular aesthetic shape with the rhetorical shape of “modulation and...