A Watery Mess

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Painful. Irrelevant. Disjointed. All thoughts that swirled through my mind as I struggled through "Turning wine into water: Water as privileged signifier in The Grapes of Wrath." Initially, I was shocked at the poor stylistic choices made by the author. Without previous explanation, he compared Jesus to two fictional characters as if they were equals, "At the dawn of the common era, John offered Jesus his baptism in the River Jordan. Two millennia later, Casy baptized Tom Joad in an irrigation ditch." Before this rash statement is made, there is no mention of Steinbeck or his novel The Grapes of Wrath. Only a few lines later the author shocks again with his statement that sounds like it was written by a seventh grader "I will argue that the Grapes of Wrath..." I was surprised that someone intelligent enough to compose the rest of the paper would think that such a simplistic thesis, written in first person would be appropriate for an academic article. My disappointment only increased as I read the paper. Either the author's thesis was not broad enough and he simply forgot to alter it or he simply forgot what he was writing about midway through the first page. The article simply ceases to discuss The Grapes of Wrath. Instead, Cassuto focuses on historical facts, Steinbeck's life, and even other works by Steinbeck such as Mice and Men. Much of his evidence evolves around setting or plot. Though quotes are included, they are not from Grapes of Wrath, but historical books. Before Cassuto hurls his paper into left field, however, he makes a valid point that is both non-obvious and provable (if one were to actually use the novel for evidence). Water, as the author states, acts as an "absent signifier" throughout Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Initially, Steinbeck creates the Joad family battling the hardships of thirst and drought. As Steinbeck draws his novel to a close, however, the Joad family is depicted as losing all touch with and concern for the health of the land as a flood threatens their survival. They are no longer tied to the land; "they have become components of the factory." Cassuto's point, however strong and interesting, is lost amid historical summaries, comparisons with other non essential works by Steinbeck, and a short biography of the author.

 

http://jerz.setonhill.edu/EL267/2009/03/academic_article/

2 Comments

The title of the essay does include The Grapes of Wrath, and since this is an academic essay, Cassito can assume that the only people who are reading it already have some knowledge of the novel (and the Bible), and are interested in learning more details about the connections.

I think you did a good job identifying the main points of the argument. Since The Grapes of Wrath is not a historical document, Cassuto compares this novel with other novels. That's actually a well-established technique in literary research. We can't put 50 authors in one room and 50 authors in other rooms and subject them to different environmental conditions and see how it affects their writing; so the way literary researchers test out their proposals is to see whether they apply specifically to one text, or whether they apply to multiple texts written by the same author / during the same time period / on the same subject.

Cassuto is not writing for beginners, so he doesn't stop to explain all his terms -- and the end result may be that his writing is more complex than it needs to be.

But that's really the whole reason I'm introducing a literary research article as an assigned reading, so that you will know what to expect to find when you do your literary research for the 2nd paper. Academic articles in any subject aren't known for being easy to comprehend at a first glance, particularly if you're not an expert in the field.

Bravo for persevering through the academic density of the piece, so that you can identify the points it makes.

Carlos Peredo said:

I had quite a bit of trouble with the article also. Dr. Jerz, thanks for helping us understand why he talked so much about Steinbeck and the other novels, it didn't make any sense to me at all.

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