There was a time when you could assume a lot about your readers. Although it was only a little more than a half century ago, John Steinbeck could assume a biblically literate readership. East of Eden is so thoroughly pervaded with, one might say interlarded with, the Bible that the key scene could have three men sitting up half the night discussing 16 verses of Genesis, and not one of them being a priest or preacher. The earnestness of their conversation is haunting in its intensity. You know the boys will be named Cain and Abel and that only one of them will come out of this alive. Okay, so they decide on Caleb and Aron, but you get the picture. Of course their father is Adam. Even the title of the book is drawn from the last words of the 16th verse.
Ironically, this biblically literate author is one of the most frequently banned from high schools. Some censors can’t get beyond thinking that being good is the same thing as being a realist. In East of Eden, characters are flawed, and they tramp out the course laid in the Bible with an unwitting solemnity. The entire book hinges on the ability to change one’s fate, and yet, the characters dutifully enact their parts. Those who watch over the morals of youth are bothered by an occasional word with four letters, which, I must say, Steinbeck uses with moderation. They mistake the packaging for the message.
But why should we care? Hasn’t the world moved on inexorably these past sixty years? It is the wisdom of Lee, the Chinese servant, who answers this. “Any writing that has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important.” This does not refer to the Bible alone—although at this juncture in the story it does—but it is a message that many who simply dismiss the Bible as just silly myths would do well to remember. Lee is a literate character who turns to Marcus Aurelius for comfort as well as other classics. Sometimes the Bible is regarded as so holy that we forget it too is a classic. Classics become what they are through the impact they have on innumerable people. East of Eden is considered a classic although the author walked this earth just half a century ago. And those who reject Steinbeck for their children would do well to read the Bible they would put back into schools in his place, if only to consider the irony.