The Critical Response to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

By Barbara A. Heavilin | Go to book overview

Steinbeck's Debt to Dos Passos

Barry G. Maine

A literary debt is something like the national debt: no one knows exactly how it is incurred, what it stands for, how it can be repaid, or if it means anything at all. Such is the nature of John Steinbeck's literary debt to John Dos Passos. Like all such debts, it is easier to describe a market influence than it is to pin down a specific borrowing. Dos Passos was at the center of the flowering of talent and experiment in American writing during the 1920s. His experiments with narrative form and technique, his ear for the American idiom, his mixing of fiction and non-fiction materials, and his wedding of private lives and public history have had a far-reaching impact upon American writing in the twentieth century. Jean-Paul Sartre has observed that it was Dos Passos and Hemingway who offered an alternative to analysis as a way of telling a story. 1 George Steiner, writing in the late 1960s, has suggested that because of his development of montage in narrative fiction, it is Dos Passos, not Hemingway, who "has been the principal American literary influence of the twentieth century." 2 Most recently Alfred Kazin, in his American Procession, claims that Dos Passos is a writer whom other American writers copy without realizing it. 3

In the early 1930s Dos Passos was hailed in America and abroad as the most promising writer of his generation by such critics as Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, and Horace Gregory. The political left hailed Dos Passos as the leading voice among proletarian writers in America. In 1938, the year before the publication of Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath, Dos Passos's

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