Abstract

Steinbeck formulated his phalanx theory in 1933, in an atmosphere of social unease with the rise of fascism, communism, industrial unionism, and other mass movements. Though perhaps conceived originally as a scientific attempt to explain group behavior, Steinbeck's theory seems to stray (perhaps not intentionally) from scientific objectivity toward subjective sociological appraisal. As it is presented in his literature, I argue Steinbeck's phalanx theory must not be taken as science, but rather, as a model for understanding his exploration of collective behavior and human potential. This broadened concept of “phalanx potential,” as I call it, should be understood apart from mere extension of the original theory itself. I argue, in instances where Steinbeck's phalanx theory seems to fulfill its capacity as a creative force, the phalanx itself requires the efficacious leadership of a “collective individual.” That is, the success of Steinbeck's phalanx, paradoxically, relies on an individual, a remarkable “other,” simultaneously outside of, and within, the phalanx itself. While Steinbeck's earlier works, namely, “The Vigilante” and In Dubious Battle, present a critical view of the dangers and destructive possibilities unharnessed phalanxes present, his later works, namely, The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, offer a more redemptive and productive view on the potential of these collectives. I contend that the reason for this progression lies in Steinbeck's treatment of these unique “collective individuals,” and their ability to foster democratic, participatory communities.

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