This is the book John Steinbeck waited all his life to write. It’s a masterpiece — a flawed masterpiece to be sure, but it’s a masterpiece none the less.
There is so much going on in this book. There is some historical perspective available about life and economics during World War I. It’s also a generational story. For those who enjoy intellectual discussion, the by-play between the houseboy, Lee, and Samuel Hamilton, is simply wonderful. It becomes all the more interesting when you know that the houseboy Lee is actually Steinbeck’s best friend, philosophical mentor, and famed marine biologist Ed Ricketts. There is a Cain and Abel story at work. For those who collect books that are sources of films, East of Eden enjoyed being the first starring role of one James Dean. And there is considerable time given to the battle between good and evil. A hugely compelling theme is whether man is pre-destined or whether he has free will. I know several people whose lives have been changed, for the better, because they were freed from the belief there were predestined after reading East of Eden.
Flawed? You betcha. I like to say that the book is badly in need of an editor. It’s too long. The first third of the book is all set up and, frankly, a little boring. However, once you get through the set up, the book reads at an amazing speed and has a perfect ending. There are a couple of slips along the way. There is a very brief chapter on Steinbeck’s mother taking an airplane ride. It’s hilarious. It begs to be published separately. And it has no business being in the book. Chapter 34 has been published separately. It’s fantastic. It posits that there is only one story — the battle between good and evil. It is beautifully written, but I go back and forth on whether it should be in the book or not. Today it’s not. Ask me again tomorrow. Despite its flaws, it remains a masterpiece.
Let’s discuss the book. Viking published the book in 1952. The Goldstone & Payne (G&P) bibliography of Steinbeck cites the signed/limited edition as G&P A32a. There were 1,500 copies in the run with 750 slated for private distribution. The book came with a clear plastic dust jacket and a wood grained-patterned slipcase. The spine of the book often flakes off its color from the author/title/publisher panel. The dust jacket is prone to tearing and chipping. The slipcase is usually thrashed. Common, rather weary copies are available around $3,000 to $3,500 and they are worth every penny. If you want a perfect copy, expect to pay three times that amount. Such a copy would also be worth every penny.
The trade edition, meaning the one you could have purchased in a book store in 1952, is not hard to find. The bibliography cites it as G&P A32b. The print-run for the first edition was 110,000 copies. What is hard to find is a perfect copy. Like a perfect copy of the signed/limited edition, it should and does command a premium price. Ordinary copies should not, but that is not always the case. There is a second issue dust jacket. The first issue jacket has a photo of Steinbeck on the rear panel. The second issue jacket carries reviews of the book. There are some booksellers who still insist on calling their copy of the first edition as the “first issue.” Why? Well, the book has an error. On page 281, line 38, the word “bite” is used. It should have been “bight.” Some of the booksellers who point out this error and claim that their copy is therefore the first issue are simply copying the erroneous description of other booksellers. Others are simply unscrupulous marketers of books. Listen very closely. There is no second issue of the book. Every copy of every edition of this book until the 1955 Bantam Books edition has this error. Can you say caveat emptor?