John Erskine, an author, educator, and musician, is now best known for having been the creator of Columbia University’s famous General Honors Course, which soon evolved into their Great Books curriculum and the idea of a canon. In his own written works, he would often take subjects from mythology, folklore, or epic
, and rework them into satirical pieces commenting on contemporary social mores and etiquette through the lens of a seemingly distant story. His novel Adam and Eve: Though He Knew Better
, published in 1927, follows this model. Taking as his basic premise the story of the Garden of Eden from the Book of Genesis in the Bible, Erskine retells the story of the first humans in Judeo-Christian mythology with a secular and satirical tone.
Broken into five sections, the novel expands on the Bible’s short account of the story of Adam by drawing on legends from Jewish folklore to describe not only his relationship with Eve but also with Lilith, who in the Talmud is Adam’s first wife.
The novel opens with the familiar story: God creates the Garden, populating it with all the animals, each of whom is given a mate. Then God creates Adam in his own image – that is, lonely, positioned above the animals, and unlike them, imbued with a soul. For God, this is a mark of honor and a fitting place for Adam to be. At first, Adam is in awe, spending his time discovering new things and being amazed. However, after a time, Adam feels himself to be not just alone, but lonely. He tries to make friends with the animals, but their natures are too different for them to be fulfilling companions.
To make Adam happy, God creates Lilith, who is in all ways Adam’s equal – but who is created without a soul. Still, to our contemporary sensibilities, Lilith seems great in many ways. She is independent, generous, and highly competent – she can build her own home, take care of herself, love Adam without being dependent on him or subservient to him. With her, Adam can have an egalitarian marriage filled with sexual exploration and free-spirited adventure. Though Adam is happy, he is concerned about Lilith’s missing soul – could God maybe give her one also?
However, God works in mysterious ways. In response to Adam’s request, he doesn’t just give Lilith a soul. Instead, He creates Eve, and then takes one soul and splits it – half for Eve, half for Lilith.
Eve is very different from Lilith, with all the worst stereotypical traits attributed to women. She is obviously dumber than Adam, doing things inefficiently and depending on him to rescue her from her own mistakes. She is also immune to logic and reason, relying on emotional manipulation to compel Adam to do whatever she wants. Finally, she refuses to accept the “state of nature” in which the residents of the Garden find themselves – instead, she prudishly insists that they have to stop living alongside the animals, and instead to domesticate themselves.
Adam comes off poorly as he is torn between the two women. On the one hand, he complains to Lilith about Eve and her superstitions, but on the other hand, he allows himself to be led away from the love of his life by his need to be a protector rather than an equal.
In the end, the novel traffics in an updated version of the virgin/whore dichotomy
that makes women into caricatures rather than fully dimensional beings. Here, one “whole” person (soul) is torn in two so that instead of a woman who embodies all the complexities of Lilith and Eve in one being, we get a Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario where Adam has to pick between all-freedom and all-civilization.
The contrast is so stark that contemporary reviewers couldn’t help but write about it at length. As a review in the New York Times
opined, “Lilith invented the double bed, Eve invented separate bedrooms. Lilith invented love; Eve invented marriage.”
Paradise ends when Eve demands that Adam wear clothes, otherwise “there can never be a settled home, nor sound society.” Her reforms also shame his previous relationship: “She was living with you and she wasn't your wife!” Adam so absorbs Eve’s message about his own superiority that when they have left the Garden and had their first child, he says, “Eve, I hope you don't mind my saying it so often, but I'm glad it wasn't a girl. After all, this is a man's world.”
In the end, the woman who bears children, keeps house, cooks, and makes clothes, wins out over her opposite. The story ends as Eve and Adam worry over their new son, Cain, whose reactions to his colicky crying humanize them from comically two-dimensional characters to the first in a chain of parents whose primary concern is the welfare of their children.