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East of Eden

Steinbeck and friendship

Susan Shillinglaw

As he was writing East of Eden, Steinbeck also composed daily letters to his editor at Viking Press, Pascal Covici. It had long been his practice to write to an imagined audience, usually a friend, in the notebooks that he kept throughout his writing life. Pat Covici had been Steinbeck’s friend and loyal supporter since 1935, when he brought out Tortilla Flat from his own publishing house, Covici-Friede. When Covici became an editor for Viking Press in 1938, Pat Covici brought Steinbeck with him. “In my little life, which is about three-quarters done,” Covici wrote Steinbeck in 1941, “you are my rarest experience. Take that with all its implications, cynically as well, if you want to.” And when Covici died in 1964, Steinbeck wrote: “Pat Covici was much more than my friend. He was my editor. Only a writer can understand how a great editor is father, mother, teacher, personal devil and personal god. For thirty years, Pat was my collaborator and my conscience. He demanded of me more than I had and thereby caused me to be more than I should have been without him.” Pat was family.

Indeed, friendship is one of the most important themes in all of Steinbeck’s fiction. The books Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday, all set in Monterey, California, are about the friendship among bums and drifters. His best friend during the 1930s was Edward Ricketts, marine biologist, who possibly was a model for Lee in East of Eden—as well as Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, Slim in Of Mice and Men, and many other wise and compassionate characters in Steinbeck’s canon. Lee’s ability to listen nonjudgmentally, to analyze insightfully, and to gather about him most of the characters in the book—these were Ed’s qualities as well. Friendship, not marriage, was Steinbeck’s signature.


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