Book Review: To a God Unknown - John Steinbeck

In Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, Steinbeck wrote that reading books is like driving a wedge in your life. The larger the wedge, the harder it is for parts to come together once the wedge is removed. The longer the book, the harder it is to close the mental gap around it. Steinbeck wrote this for East of Eden - his magnum opus. Surprisingly, this happens even with Steinbeck’s much shorter books.

The character of Joseph Wayne is unforgettable. To a God Unknown is one of Steinbeck’s earliest novels (and perhaps his first critical success). Steinbeck’s later protagonists stand out like stars - solitary objects which keep an entire solar system in equilibrium. Warm, wise and life-giving but violently dangerous at the core. In Joseph Wayne, one can see Steinbeck developing the recipe for such men and women.

“I tell you this man is not a man, unless he is all men. The strength, the resistance, the long and stumbling thinking of all men, and all the joy and suffering, too, cancelling each other out and yet remaining in the contents. He is all these, a repository for a little piece of each man’s soul, and more than that, a symbol of the earth’s soul." _

There’s a lot of scholarship around Steinbeck and his work but I think his stories and their characters live in a shared universe. I think this is the book where that universe begins. My first Steinbeck book was East of Eden, almost six years ago. Since then I’ve been obsessively building a Steinbeck collection. After I’m done with it, I’m going to re-read East of Eden - and I might be able to connect the dots.

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