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Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969)

by John Steinbeck

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4201046,676 (3.72)25
"Each working day from January 29 to November 1, 1951, John Steinbeck warmed up to the work of writing East of Eden with a letter to the late Pascal Covici, his friend and editor at The Viking Press. It was his way, he said, of 'getting my mental arm in shape to pitch a good game.' Steinbeck's letters were written on the left-hand pages of a notebook in which the facing pages would be filled with the text of East of Eden. They touched on many subjects--story arguments, trial flights of workmanship, concern for his sons. Part autobiography, part writer's workshop, these letters offer an illuminating perspective on Steinbeck's creative process, and a fascinating glimpse of Steinbeck, the private man."--Book description, Amazon.com.… (more)
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My primary interest in reading this was to get notes on his thoughts on Cain and Abel: I remember East of Eden as a modern midrash on the Bible story. Please ignore the rest of this if you're just looking for a review of the book in general.

Some quotes related to Cain and Abel and the Hebrew word, timshal, that I found by quickly scanning the pages:
"Now---it's framework roots from that pwerful, profound and perplexing story in Genesis of Cain and Abel. There is much of it that I don't understand. Furthermore it is very short, but this story with its implications has made a deeper mark in people than any other save possibly the story of the Tree of Life and original sin." [p. 90]
"The punishment of Cain is a strange and perplexing one. Out of Eve's sin came love and death. Cain invented murder and he is punished by life and protection." [p. 91]
"And if this were just a discussion of Biblical lore, I would throw it out but it is not It is using the Biblical story as a measure of ourselves." [pp. 104-5]
In discussing the translation of timshel in Gen. 4:7: "Your new translation of the story has one most important change. It is the third version. The King James says of sin crouching at the door, 'Thou shalt rule over it.' The American Standard says, 'Do thou rule over it.' Now this new translation says, 'Thou mayest rule over it.' This is the most vital difference. The first two are 1, a prophecy and 2. an order, but 3 is the offering of free will. Here is in'dividual responsibility and the invention of conscience. . . . because if it is incontrovertibly, 'thou mayest' . . . . it will turn out to be one of the most important mistranslations in the Old Testament." [pp. 108-9]
"May is a curious word in English. In the negative it is an order but in the positive it allows a choice." [p. 120]
"Don't forget that in the Jewish translation you sent, they did not think 'timshel' was a pure future tense. They translated it 'thou mayest.' . . . . Dr. Ginzberg,* dealing in theology, may have a slightly different attitude from that of a pure etymologist. We know that other translations were warped by what the translators wished to be there." (where the footnote explains "Covici had referred the question to Dr. Louis Ginzberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary.") [p. 122]
"Your last letter which suggests 'thou canst' moves even closer to free will than 'thou mayest.'" [p. 129]
  raizel | Apr 27, 2020 |
John Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel, published posthumously, consists of journal entries written in 1951 to his close friend and editor, Pascal Covici, as Steinbeck was writing his epic saga East of Eden. The book offers some fascinating insights into the author's crafting of the story, his daily writing process, and musings on life in general. But to get to these elements you have to sift through a lot of mundane material, such as his daily family issues, his mood each day, daily chores apart from writing, and so forth. That said, if you enjoyed East of Eden you will find that this book provides a unique look inside Steinbeck's mind, but you may also find yourself skimming quite a bit to get to those nuggets. ( )
  ghr4 | Apr 17, 2018 |
Such a great journal. I enjoyed every word. Steinbeck was certainly and interesting man. This book gives us an inside look at how he worked. Myself, not so much a plot-driven devotee, but Steinbeck clearly had a plan and he carried it out to perfection. I admire him for that and respect his process. ( )
  MSarki | Jan 23, 2016 |
I'm not a devotee of Steinbeck's work, though I have read several of his books over the years, but I have much respect for the man. My grandpa was an Okie who family ventured to California before the Great Depression fully struck, and was subject to a great deal of prejudice. Steinbeck stood up for the Okies and Arkies in a way that few did; for that, I am thankful.

It's been almost ten years since I read East of Eden. My memory of the book is sketchy, but even so, it was fascinating to read about the process behind the book. I love Steinbeck's honesty. As a writer, I am always amazed at the weird ideas people have about the process (that you only write when the mood strikes, that rough drafts are perfect, that it's easy). Steinbeck was already a successful writer as he began East of Eden, but that didn't take away from his terror. "There is nothing beyond this book--nothing follows it. It must contain all in the world I know and it must have everything in it of which I am capable--all styles, all technique, all poetry--and it must have in it a great deal of laughter."

The journal is highly readable. To me, it felt exactly like a modern author blog. He discusses the struggles in the daily writing--his hopes for the character development, the fact that his hand is callused from the pencil, his inability to write at all that day, the one time his beloved pencil sharpener actually started belching sparks and smoke--with other daily comments like a diary. He talks about going to plays and parties, his stepdaughter and young sons, and how he often needs to withdraw in order to write.

I noted dozens of inspirational quotes to type up and keep for my own future reference. When I'm feeling stressed and neurotic, it will be comforting to say, "I'm being just like Steinbeck." Good company, that. This is one of those writing books that most writers should read or keep handy, just to keep things in perspective. ( )
  ladycato | Oct 26, 2013 |

On every working day between 29 January and 1 November 1951, John Steinbeck wrote a letter to his close friend and editor at Viking Press, Pat Covici, before he began his work for the day on the manuscript of [b:East of Eden|4406|East of Eden|John Steinbeck|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1309212913s/4406.jpg|2574991]. The letters were written on the left-hand pages of the large notebook in which Steinbeck wrote - by hand, in pencil - the novel which meant most to him. Steinbeck told Covici that writing the letters was his way of "getting [his] mental arm in shape to pitch a good game".

Steinbeck's daily letters to Covici touch on a range of subjects. They describe what he intended to achieve on the day in question. They refer to his personal circumstances, in particular to his love for his third wife Elaine and his concerns regarding his young sons. The letters also describe Steinbeck's other projects: the gadgets he liked to invent, his woodwork projects (in particular a carved box he was making for Covici and in which he would ultimately give Covici the manuscript of the novel). However, the most signficant aspect of the work is the light that the letters throw on the process through which East of Eden was written, on Steinbeck's passionate devotion to the writing of the novel and on his own psychological make-up. As is fitting for a writer who was skilled at describing people and their environment, Steinbeck had insight into his thought processes and emotions. He unflinchingly described his bouts of depression and self-doubt, his periods of manic activity, the days when everything went well and the days when he had difficulty motivating himself to work.

While there is some repetition in the letters - there were days which were a lot like other days - the work is also full of insights into how Steinbeck felt, not just about the book, but about writing. For example, on 3 September 1951 he wrote:Writing is a very silly business at best. There is a certain ridiculousness about putting down a picture of life. And to add to the joke - one must withdraw from life in order to set down that picture. And third one must distort one's own way of life in order in some sense to simulate the normal in other lives. Having gone through all this nonsense, what emerges may well be the palest of reflections.... And the greatest foolishness of all lies in the fact that to do it at all, the writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true. If he does not, the work is not worth even what it might otherwise have been.
Steinbeck was not fond of professional literary critics, but he was aware that he could not control how readers would react to East of Eden, the novel which meant more to him that anything else he had written. On 10 October 1951, three weeks before he finished the manuscript, he wrote: In a short time [it] will be done and it will not be mine any more. Other people will take it over and own it and it will drift away from me as though I had never been a part of it. I dread that time because one can never pull back. [It's] like shouting good-bye to someone going off on a bus and no one can hear because of the roar of the motor.

I wish I had read this book around the same time as I listened to the audiobook of East of Eden last year, so that the details of the novel were clearer in my head. As I read, I occasionally re-read particular chapters of the novel in order to refresh my memory. However, I know that reading the novel and this book in conjunction with each other would have enriched my experience of both works. That said, I very much enjoyed the book. It is highly recommended for admirers of Steinbeck's writing in general and East of Eden in particular.

( )
  KimMR | Apr 2, 2013 |
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January 29, 1951 [Monday]  Dear Pat:  How did the time pass and how did it grow so late.
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"Each working day from January 29 to November 1, 1951, John Steinbeck warmed up to the work of writing East of Eden with a letter to the late Pascal Covici, his friend and editor at The Viking Press. It was his way, he said, of 'getting my mental arm in shape to pitch a good game.' Steinbeck's letters were written on the left-hand pages of a notebook in which the facing pages would be filled with the text of East of Eden. They touched on many subjects--story arguments, trial flights of workmanship, concern for his sons. Part autobiography, part writer's workshop, these letters offer an illuminating perspective on Steinbeck's creative process, and a fascinating glimpse of Steinbeck, the private man."--Book description, Amazon.com.

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