The Man America Loves to Hate

Robert Gottlieb, writing in the New York Review of Books, uses the Library of America’s release of a collection of John Steinbeck‘s later writings to reassess his legacy. Gottlieb argues that much of Steinbeck’s work is actively awful, and that in the late-period stuff was among the worst offenders. But while the piece doesn’t quite state it as a theme, floating in there is an argument that the more journalistically Steinbeck behaved, the better he was. Gottlieb writes:

His finest work is almost always reportorial. Although he didn’t (as was frequently misreported) go to Oklahoma to observe the migrant Okies as they set out on their hegira to the West, he did spend weeks with them in California—on the road, in their camps. At first he was working as a journalist to air their desperate situation, but quickly he realized that here was the material for the major novel he felt ready to write….

The Grapes of Wrath is a vertiginous conjunction of sweeping, irresistible narrative and highfalutin theorizing. That readers in 1939 tolerated the latter is testimony to the power of the former—and to the readiness of America to be affected by the terrible story of the Joads. With the book’s overwhelming success—it was the best-selling novel of the year, won the Pulitzer Prize, etc.—and the further impact of John Ford’s impressive film version, which appeared in movie houses only months after the book’s publication, Steinbeck graduated from being an admired young writer to worldwide acceptance as a major figure in American literature.

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