Abstract

Suicides; domestic violence; lynching; botched abortions; fraternal beatings; heroes who boast about knocking people’s heads “plumb to squash” (The Grapes of Wrath, 28) merely a cursory glance at Steinbeck’s writing reveals the central presence of violence. Brutal force is never far from the surface of a Steinbeck story. Here I want to argue that there exists a deep tension between two different “presentations” of violence. One which naturalizes violence. The other according to which violence remains aberration, absolute wrong, that which should not be. These two presentations are in competition, vying with each other for control of his texts. You may share the academy’s historic disdain for Steinbeck’s style. Or you may agree with Kurt Vonnegut that “Holy smokes! Could he ever write!” (John Steinbeck: Centennial Reflections by American Writers 96). Either way, what is certain is that violence evokes some of his best writing.

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