The inspiration for this essay is two-fold. While preparing a course in U.S. literature and film, 1945-present, this past fall, I decided to begin the semester with Cannery Row. Admittedly, my choice was partially influenced by the novel's brevity: I didn't want half the students to drop the class once they saw the 400-plus pages of The Grapes of Wrath or nearly 600 pages of East of Eden on the shelves in the campus bookstore. However, I was also drawn to select the novel because of its emphasis on place. I wanted to begin the class in California, then move eastward towards the South during the civil rights era (with a foray into Asia during the Vietnam War), and then conclude in the Northeast for examinations of the Me Decade of the 1970s and Wall Street greed of the 1980s, followed with questions about the possibility of art in a post-9/11 world. One of the most appealing aspects of Cannery Row was its intense focus on place, that rarely moves beyond the few blocks of the title neighborhood. Because it was less-than-imposing in its length and since it fit my "reverse Manifest Destiny" approach, I thought the novel would get the class off to a fine beginning.
But I wasn't prepared for the students' overwhelmingly positive response to the book. Almost immediately, they came to class excited to discuss the novel and report how much they enjoyed Steinbeck's writing. In many ways, this exchange with students re-enacted the general fortunes of Steinbeck within the literary establishment. His popularity with these students echoed his popularity with readers at the time, while I, in the role of the literary establishment, worried that such widespread appeal [End Page 41] to students stemmed from the simple-mindedness of the work. The last assigned novel to which my students had responded so favorably was Uncle Tom's Cabin in an early American Literature course. Why did these two very different novels in particular strike such a chord with students?
Pursuing the answer to this question led to John Seelye's essay, "Come Back to the Boxcar, Leslie Honey: Or, Don't Cry for Me, Madonna, Just Pass the Milk" in Beyond Boundaries: Rereading John Steinbeck. Seelye challenges Leslie Fiedler's dismissal of The Grapes of Wrath as "maudlin, sentimental and overblown"—as "assuredly the greatest sentimental novel of protest of the twentieth century." In rebuttal, Seelye argues that Steinbeck employs elements of the sentimental novel dating back to the nineteenth century but "turns the sentimental mode back on itself" by diverting the plot away from any hopeful resolution to the plight of the Joads (Seelye 19-21; Fiedler 55). To further bolster his case, Seelye briefly examines The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men and In Dubious Battle to demonstrate Steinbeck's ability to use but not abuse what Jane Tompkins has termed "sentimental power" (Tompkins 124). Central to Seelye's argument about Steinbeck's use of sentiment is his contention that Steinbeck taps into the primary emotion of anger:
John Steinbeck's use of sentimentality is intrinsically and idiosyncratically all his own, at once revealing the warm and passionate heart of a man who was moved to anger and outrage by the suffering of his fellow human beings but who in creating the kind of fiction that would call attention to that suffering stopped well short of calling for revolution or even hopefully holding out for positive social change.(32)
According to Seelye, Steinbeck could not offer Stowe-like conclusions because of his deep-seated belief that life's randomness could not be overcome by faith in a supernatural power.
Although much of Seelye's argument is compelling, his defense of Steinbeck's uses of sentiment as an attempt to "masculinize" the genre of sentimental fiction, which ignores much of the genre's history and scholarship, side-steps important questions about gender. How would he respond, for example, to Jane Tompkins' claim that the sentimental novel's "chief characteristic is that it is...