Why John Steinbeck, Novel Writer, Still Rocks

James Ci, artist, self-portraitThe famous writers of romantic novels still believe in love at first sight. As a visual artist, I have a different perspective from the authors of books of like these. It usually takes at least a second date for me to fall in love with anything, even a novel writer. John Steinbeck was no exception. Three years ago I encountered him for the first time since high school on the shelf of a Goodwill store near my college campus. There it was, a dog-eared copy of East of Eden, waiting for me among castoffs from the authors of books about dating, dieting, and how to use a computer. I remembered reading the novel writer back in high school, so I thought I’d reintroduce myself to the author whose distinctive face presents little challenge for artists who like to  paint the famous writers in their particular line of work. I prefer to paint from life, as my self-portrait shown here shows. That’s probably why I fell in love with East of Eden.

The famous  writers of autobiographical works like East of Eden really open themselves up for inspection. Even a novel writer like Steinbeck, who disliked public exposure, seems to invite readers into his soul when he writes about his own life. Authors of books like Steinbeck’s The Pearl, the entry point into Steinbeck Land for middle school students, seem like easy enough reading when you’re only 14. Of Mice and Men, where the novel writer is less obvious, was a bit harder to understand when I read it in senior high. My reaction to East of Eden in my twenties was a much better experience. The current college crowd favors Fitzgerald and Palahniuk, authors of books worth reading I agree, but the famous writers of Fight Club and The Great Gatsby just don’t have Steinbeck’s depth. As a novel writer for unconventional readers like me, John Steinbeck still rocks where other authors just roll.

East of Eden grabbed me by the hair and shook me from page one. The story of Adam Trask is true fiction—specific to a man who never existed in history, yet symbolic of every sensitive person’s journey through the realities of life. Steinbeck’s unflinching portrayal of Adam’s loneliness and pain is, to me, a portrait of the artist as young man who grows old before my eyes. Adam may not be a hero in the classical sense, but he comes as close as a real human being can. Other authors of books about loss and sacrifice like Adam’s just aren’t as convincing. Real people struggle with daily failure, and Adam fails repeatedly, up until his final utterance—“timshel”—to his surviving son Caleb. After becoming so attached to East of Eden, I picked other books by the novel writer I’d now learned to love. To a God Unknown is probably my favorite, displacing placing Dostoyevsky’s The Devils as an existential portrayal of man at his most spiritual core. Joseph Wayne dies on a rock. Dostoyevsky’s Devils just roll.

James Ci About James Ci

James Ci is a visual artist living in North Carolina. He received his BFA degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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