- Editor’s Column
I. Remembering John Steinbeck’s Eldest Son, Thom
It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage. . . . Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. (115)—John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters
John Steinbeck considered East of Eden to be the most important book he had ever written. It is a book about love of family and, most especially, love for his two sons, Thom and John, Jr. In this book he left for them a record of all of his wisdom for living a good life, all of his love for them, all of his hope for their future. In Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters—daily letters to Pascal Covici written on facing pages with the manuscript of the novel—he stated his intention to write this book for his two young boys. Like every good parent, he had an eye to who they might become when they grew into manhood, and he was concerned for their future well-being. These intentions are doubly underscored as he stated with great deliberation that he has chosen to write this book specifically to them:
I am choosing to write this book to my sons. They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them. It is not written for them to read now but when they are grown and the pains and joys have tousled them a little. And if the book is addressed to them, it is for good reason. . . . I think it will be necessary to speak very straight and clearly and simply if I address my book to two little boys who will be men before they read my book. [End Page v] They have no background in the world of literature, they don’t know the great stories of the world as we do. And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all—the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness. . . . And so I will start my book addressed to my boys.(4–5)
As he takes on a father’s most important task—to leave an enduring legacy for his sons after he has gone—he determines to put his best efforts into this most important book, asking for Covici’s prayers as he endeavors to remember how it was to be a child. “I think adults forget about children,” Steinbeck notes, continuing,
They just literally do not remember how it was. I think I do remember and I am going to try very hard to remember more. . . . And now I would engage your prayers for me because I am going to try to go into the minds of children, but more than that. I am going to try to set down those minds on paper. . . . And these are not children as they are conceived by adults but children as they are to and among themselves. . . . And so I will set it down and I think it will be an unique record of the thinking of children.(149–50)
Toward the end of East of Eden, after he describes the death of the evil Kate, he tells Covici, “And now you see, Pat, that I had to put in that last chapter to the boys” (170, emphasis added). And in final comments, he writes, “My book is about good and evil” (181).
Thom Steinbeck was most fortunate to have had this father, whose love is forever preserved in the pages of his epic East of Eden—part novel, part history, part family lore, but most of all what Robert DeMott has called “a kind of ‘manner book,’ a guide to ethical conduct and moral deportment passed on from elders to children” (69). The cinematic conclusion of East of Eden telescopes on Cal’s receiving his dying father’s blessing. The scene enacts Steinbeck...