The "thesis" book has been with us for decades, and it will continue to be with us as long as college and university presses exist. It has both virtues and flaws.
In John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America, Louis Owens' goal is admirable and large. He tells us in his Preface: "The aim of this study is to suggest that we need to take another and closer look at Steinbeck's fiction, and that such a scrutiny may show Steinbeck to be a craftsman and artist of the first rank in American literature." He divides his volume into three workable sections—The Mountains, The Valleys, The Sea—and proceeds to trace the following thesis:
Steinbeck's California fiction . . . represents a lifelong attempt to open this "new eye," to awaken America to the failure at the heart of the American Dream and provide an alternative to that dream. The "new seeing" Steinbeck proposed would exchange the myth of an American Eden, with its dangerous flaws, for the ideal of commitment—commitment to what Steinbeck called "the one inseparable unit man plus his environment."
Owens uses To a God Unknown (which he admits is not a strong novel) to show Steinbeck sounding his "great theme, the necessity for commitment—a theme that would be warped and woven through his life's work." In his analysis of various short stories and novels Owens really does not convince one that Steinbeck's great theme is "great." One reason for this is that he excludes so much that has to be considered—things like style, language, storytelling technique. One misses the individual and full experiences of Steinbeck's fictions, which are "flattened" because [End Page 745] they are primarily used to illustrate an overriding thesis. Owens gives high marks to The Grapes of Wrath, because in it Steinbeck "provided the most thorough evaluation and rejection of the American myth offered by any American writer." But he nowhere supplies the kind of proof that is needed to support this claim.
To further support his thesis, Owens relies too heavily on Steinbeck's letters, which explain and justify his literary practices. In his lifelong battle with critics, Steinbeck tried to be his own best critic. His literary letters are really "defensive," where he revealed ideals that he did not always translate into his realistic fiction. At the close of his volume, Owens says: "Steinbeck's fiction constitutes the most ambitious and thorough examination of the idea of American yet produced by any writer." But because Owens has not linked his thesis to so many other factors in Steinbeck's work and to American writing in general, he remains unconvincing.
John Conder, in Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase, locates a large problem at the outset: "It is now clear that no critical consensus exists to explain the commonly used term literary naturalism as distinct from literary realism in American fiction, and some background is necessary in order to understand the complexities of the problem raised by the term and the approach taken here to help resolve that problem." He finds limitations in the work of previous critics such as Charles Child Walcutt, Donald Pizer, and Edwin Cady. Then he sounds his thesis:
This book is written to urge that there does exist an important body of fiction, once called naturalistic, that docs indeed possess philosophic coherence, and that such coherence depends on the evolution of a concept questioning man's freedom. Even if the questioning leads to both determinism and freedom, no individual work studied here suffers from a logical contradiction as a result. On the contrary, when these seemingly irreconcilable opposites appear in a work, its inner coherence is...