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

By Barbara A. Heavilin | Go to book overview

A Postmodern Steinbeck, or Rose of Sharon Meets Oedipa Maas

Chris Kocela

John Steinbeck has made his feelings clear with regard to the critical classification of his work. In his response to two mid-fifties articles on The Grapes of Wrath, he writes: "I don't think the Grapes of Wrath is obscure in what it tries to say. As to its classification and pickling, I have neither opinion nor interest. . . . Just read it, don't count it!" ( 1955, 53). If this injunction did little to slow the work of critics forty years ago, however, it will be heeded even less by those of us who have grown up alongside the nebulous cultural/theoretical phenomenon called "postmodernism." Postmodernist fiction has been defined in part by its fostering of reading strategies which deliberately subvert those institutionalized by modernist literature. 1 Even if one were now inclined to follow Steinbeck's advice, it is almost impossible to separate "reading" from "counting" in an age which must have the work of Steinbeck's generation bottled and labelled before it can "read" its own. From this postmodern vantage any reassessment of The Grapes of Wrath is doubly "pickled." Yet as I hope to demonstrate, a return to Steinbeck's best-known novel from the perspective of contemporary fiction theory vindicates aspects of its structure and characterization often criticized in the context of a strictly modernist canon.

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