Abstract

This article examines John Steinbeck’s transformation of the aesthetics of the American Sublime in twentieth-century America. In To a God Unknown (1933), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), East of Eden (1952), and Travels with Charley (1962), Steinbeck taps into the tradition of the sublime that Transcendentalism and the Hudson River School had adapted for American literature. The American Sublime functions in three dimensions, all of which Steinbeck uses: first, in the connotation that the natural space of the continent is nationalistically American; second, in socioeconomic developments that realize the nation’s potential in agricultural economy; and third, in visual tradition. Steinbeck’s sensitivity for this complex of ideas is evidenced in his reception of Emerson’s works in the 1930s. For his descriptions of Steinbeck country closely resemble the visual perspectives in which the Hudson River School portrayed the American Sublime. Steinbeck’s dismantling of this aesthetic is related to his ecological monism: It emphasizes the ultimate dependence of the American Sublime on natural realities and contradicts the economic rationalizations of Steinbeck country, which eventually divide into economic and social fragments in The Grapes of Wrath. By echoing the visual presentations and ideological directives of the most comprehensively conceptualized sublime in America from the nineteenth century and illustrating its defeat at the hands of a capitalized, displaced nation, Steinbeck’s treatment of the sublime also anticipates its discussion in postmodernism.

You do not currently have access to this content.