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40 - Steinbeck and the proletarian novel

from PART THREE - MODERNISM AND BEYOND

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2011

Edited by
Edited in association with
Leonard Cassuto
Affiliation:
Fordham University, New York
Clare Virginia Eby
Affiliation:
University of Connecticut
Benjamin Reiss
Affiliation:
Emory University, Atlanta
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Summary

When John Steinbeck's masterwork The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, the Communist Party's Daily Worker applauded it beneath the headline, “The Grapes of Wrath is a Great Proletarian Novel.” The reviewer's uncritical admiration was effusive:

It is at once a monumental protest against the horrors of a profit system whose high priests oppose the New Deal, unionization, and relief, and an infinitely compassionate portrait of the masses who suffer under the system. But out of their suffering, Steinbeck shows, will grow a great movement to restore the land to the people … It is hard to think of a more satisfying proletarian novel in America.

A few weeks later, the Party-sponsored weekly magazine New Masses put forward a more systematic appraisal by Granville Hicks, a public member of the Party and author of the notable Marxist critical study The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War (1933; revised 1935). Hicks's verdict was identical:

Hitherto, whenever anybody asked us what we meant by proletarian literature, we had to say, “Well, it ought to have this quality that you find in so-and-so's work, and that quality so exemplified by the other fellow, and such-and-such found in somebody else” … We shan't have to offer that kind of composite illustration any more. We can now say, “Proletarian literature? Oh, that means a book like John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.”

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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