East of Eden was the “big” book that John Steinbeck had waited nearly all his life to write. It is somewhat autobiographical. In fact, he started writing it as a letter to his two sons, Thom and John. It is a big, rambling, flawed masterpiece. I say flawed because it is in serious need of an editor. The first third of the book is set up and a bit tedious, but after that reading it is a race to the end. There are some chapters that are wonderfully written, but which have nothing to do with the story.
Steinbeck once again employs his best friend and philosophical mentor, famed marine biologist Ed Ricketts, as a character in the book. He appears as the houseboy, Lee. The houseboy and Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather, engage in very interesting philosophical discussions in the book. These discussions volley one of the themes of the book back and forth, which is whether man is pre-destined or whether he has free will.
Chapter 34 of the book was printed separately by Valenti Angelo in an edition of 125 copies in 1952. It is beautifully written. It reminds us that there is only one story — the battle between good and evil.
Viking published the book in 1952. It is the source of the film version in which James Dean makes his first starring role. It is also the source for a television mini-series that starred Jane Seymour and was even made into a short-lived Broadway musical.
In 1955 when the film version was released, Viking decided to issue what is known as a photoplay edition, meaning a “film” version. In this case, the book was issued with a wrap-around band that promotes the Warner Bros. CinemaScope film that was directed by Elia Kazan. It notes that the film starred Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey and Burl Ives. The part of the wrap-around band that showed on the front of the book showed a picture of Dean and Harris looking longingly into each others’ eyes. The part of the band that showed along the book’s spine features a photo of Dean leaning against a post.
The book was offered at a special price — just $1.98 — instead of the $4.50 price of the original 1952 first edition. At $1.98, you should have bought as many as possible. The book was not recorded by the Goldstone & Payne bibliography. Neither was it listed in the famed Bradford Morrow catalogue. Copies bring a premium in today’s market.