Why East of Eden won the Nobel Prize?
Fourteen chapters of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden still has me wondering why he won the Nobel Prize in 1962.
Sure, he’s considered an essential part of the American canon, but let’s face it: he was a bad writer. (To his credit, Steinbeck didn’t think he was very good either: when asked if he thought he deserved the Nobel Prize, he replied, "Frankly, no." And I don’t think he was being ironic or humble.) But East of Eden, for all its flaws–the awkward prose and the heavy-handed philosophizing–is both intimate and passionate; it’s a book Steinbeck wrote for himself, an epic that probably required every ounce of artistic strength to create. It’s an unself-conscious work in which Steinbeck, as an artist, bared his soul, a book where the story–a modern retelling of the Book of Genesis–serves as a vehicle for self-expression.
East of Eden shows us a man who rigorously defended his opinions, who abhorred injustice, who believed that people, even those we might call "monsters," are inherently good. Throughout the book, Steinbeck acknowledges that the world is changing, often for the worse ("It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken"), yet he clings to the conviction that a collective mindset can never replace the individual:
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.
I don’t exactly like East of Eden, but it’s hard not to respect an artist who truly had something to say.