Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 July 2021
Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is a notoriously ambivalent book, seeming at once politically radical and conservative in its social vision. Rather than dismissing these contradictions, this chapter examines the work performed by literary vagueness as it relates to a crucial concept that runs through Steinbeck’s writing: the process of emergence, the formation of wholes from component parts, which we see in analyses of Steinbeck’s construction of character, his slow descriptions of people and things, and his metafictional self-consciousness of the act of writing. Turning to the social philosophy of the novel, the chapter relates its faltering quality of thought--its failed attempt to articulate its ideas--to a developing understanding of the public sphere defined by false opinions and vulnerable to propaganda. The novel’s vagueness, in which ideas are always emerging but never fully forming, explains the book’s appeal to different political viewpoints. The novel’s partial self-understanding also explains Steinbeck’s failure to imagine nonwhite laborers in the California fields, as well as the jarring quality of the book’s final scene, whose power to imagine a public relationship between strangers depends on its provocative incompletion.