Although The Grapes of Wrath continues to be regarded as Steinbeck's major achievement, changing critical fashions have ensured that the novel's status remains uncertain. The novel's standing came under pressure as early as the decades immediately following its publication, as literary studies with the onset of the Cold War intensified a long-standing tendency in modem poetics to strip literary texts of social and political implications. It was not difficult to decontextualize most of the literature of earlier times, but because the thirties were part of living memory, and because so much of the decade's literature was politically left-wing, the need to depoliticize it was particularly urgent. Where critics could not manage that task, if only because social content was too firmly in the foreground to be obscured, they simply declared such literary works unworthy of serious attention. So strong were these pressures that one of the first critics to write a full-length study of Steinbeck, Harry T. Moore, later wrote an epilogue to the second edition of his book recanting his earlier approval.(1) Why he would have bothered to publish a second edition is unclear.
Recent criticism has done little to reverse the situation. Poststructuralist critics generally ignore, when they do not derogate, writers who presume to represent actual material conditions and social processes; accordingly a writer like Steinbeck, particularly the Steinbeck of In Dubious Battle or The Grapes of Wrath, has little to offer them. Even recent Marxist criticism has largely ignored Steinbeck. Eager to demonstrate its intellectual respectability, which apparently requires that in order to distance itself sufficiently from the Stalinist penchant for socialist realism it repudiate representation altogether, recent Marxist criticism, particularly that current which has responded to the powerful gravitational tug of poststructuralist theory, has generally shunned politically explicit literature. What all this has meant is that The Grapes of Wrath has been either ignored or disparaged.
Since what follows seeks to examine the interplay of politics and form in the novel and as a consequence of that endeavor points to certain unresolved or incompletely resolved formal problems raised by The Grapes of Wrath, I am concerned that my comments will seem to grant attention to the novel at the cost of issuing in yet another negative assessment. There are problems in The Grapes of Wrath, even large problems, but no more so than in any number of more politically conservative novels of the same period that have enjoyed critical esteem. Furthermore, David Craig and Michael Egan are surely correct in their view that Steinbeck is "incomparable at presenting [working people's] way of life, with an attention to people's manual skills and their self expression which is signally missing from nearly all literature to date," and that the "bulk of [The Grapes of Wrath] is unrivaled in Western literature for describing, dramatizing, and explaining a large sociohistorical process."(2) These are hardly insignificant achievements.
A substantial part of the novel's achievement lies in the way Steinbeck both renders such processes and simultaneously shields the novel from the abstraction and generalization such a description would seem to entail. Even in the interchapters, much of the purpose of which is to generalize the particular experiences of the Joads, the emphasis is on rendering process rather than abstractly describing it. And for the Joad family, socio-historical process is not something consciously perceived as trends and circumstances prevailing in the society in which they live--the Depression, the dustbowl in the southwest of the United States and the mass migration to California, the increasingly rapid transformation of American farming into the highly mechanized, capital-intensive agribusiness of today, and the like. Rather, such broader processes are experienced as daily pressures in their lives. …