Steinbeck's SWEET THURSDAY was a bestseller in 1954, but its' journey to the bestseller's list was not simple. There were many factors that contributed to its' success. First of all, Steinbeck had already made his mark on American literature with such politically charged works as GRAPES OF WRATH and TORTILLA FLAT. His name had immense selling power because of his reputation. SWEET THURSDAY was also a sequel to another bestseller, CANNERY ROW; whose characters were extremely endearing and charming enough to sustain another novel. So while this work of fiction had a lot of reasons for becoming a bestseller, it's still important to look at the context in which it was written. SWEET THURSDAY was an extreme departure from his earlier work. This novel is not politically charged, nor is it acknowledged as literary genius. In fact, it's Steinbeck's first funny and satirical novel, and many critics saw it as unworthy of being in the Steinbeck canon. Both contemporary and subsequent critics alike questioned its' literary merit. However, the novel can not be read in isolation of social events in America. In 1954, the United States was recovering from WWII. There was a sort of national exhaustion and need for spiritual revitalization that was evident in the types of books that were selling that year. Nonfiction grossly outsold fiction. There were three religious titles on the list and there were two cookbooks. SWEET THURSDAY was written at a time where small town life and a dignified character like Doc would appeal to a large market because of the international flux of the time. Steinbeck was not excluded from this category. He too felt many of the same pressures in 1954 and this novel was a reaction to it. So, SWEET THURSDAY was a typical bestseller in the sense that an accomplished author sold over 65,000 copies, but it was atypical in the sense that this work was not very well received and was a stylistic departure from earlier works.
SWEET THURSDAY was written at one of many turning points in Steinbeck's personal life and career. It reflects his mindset and experience. 1954 was a time of reflection for the author. He had evolved from a shy boy of Monterey County to a major American author with a Pulitzer. He started a national debate over America's responsibility for the rural men and women of the United States. He lived through two divorces, governmental suspicion of communist activity, a World War and public failures of his theatrical adaptations of his work. The slow-paced, lyrical narrative of SWEET THURSDAY was almost a literary sigh in the context of his chaotic personal and professional life. He returned to the common theme of small time life and gave the characters a quiet dignity. The setting, Monterey, was seemingly isolated from the rest of the world. The tragic aftermath of World War II was only hinted at with the closed canneries and brief, but fond references to men lost in battle. Steinbeck focused his attention on the town's ability to revitalize itself with the strength of character of its' citizens. It was a powerful and popular sentiment in America at the time. Steinbeck was coming to terms with his experiences and America was emotionally recuperating from losing fathers and sons and rebuilding their lives. Steinbeck's message that, "The common bonds of humanity and love [which] make goodness and happiness possible" (The New Republic, on back cover) helped to make this book a best seller.
Steinbeck wrote SWEET THURSDAY very late in his career and even late in his life. Steinbeck's career and personal life took many varied paths and his writing often mimicked his experience. SWEET THURSDAY was written in 1954 and the content and style was indicative of his mindset. By 1954, he had already established a name for himself in the literary community. Works like TORTILLA FLAT, IN DUBIOUS BATTLE, AND OF MICE AND MEN, written in 1935, 1936 and 1937 respectively established him as an outspoken supporter of the men and women of rural America. This was a subject close to his heart because while growing up as a privileged son of a County Treasurer in Monterey County California, he spent much of his young adult life working in beet fields, sugar refineries and fish hatcheries. His interest in higher education was limited because his only goal was to take courses to improve his writing. He had the aforementioned jobs while taking sporadic courses at Stanford. Steinbeck's most successful and debatably most poignant novel THE GRAPES OF WRATH, was written in 1939. It won the Pulitzer Prize and established him as a major American author while also centering him in a political controversy. The combination of accusations of his work being a type of Communist manifesto with a new invasive celebrity status took an emotional toll on Steinbeck. He spent time in Hollywood to help reproduce his novels for the big screen, he divorced his first wife and married a young singer named Gwyndolen Conger soon after. Steinbeck attempted to enter the Air Corps in 1943 but was refused on communist suspicions on the part of the U.S. government. So he went to Europe as a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune and was involved in undercover, foreign invasions. When he returned to the United States with his disturbing memories of war, he began to work on CANNERY ROW, which was published in 1945. It was an emotional depiction of characters in a small town during wartime. Critics saw it as a divergence of his earlier, hard-hitting narratives. It wasn't much later that Steinbeck experienced a mental breakdown as a result of a close friend and confidant, Ed Ricketts dying and his wife revealing her infidelity. Despite a successful third marriage, his writing career took another turn. He wanted to become a playwright but didn't experience any success with his theatrical projects. SWEET THURSDAY was unsuccessfully adapted to a musical in Rodgers-Hammerstein PIPE DREAM
SWEET THURSDAY had the backing of a very successful publishing company. Viking Press was known as a small quality house since its establishment in 1925. It survived the Depression and intentionally didn't expand during World War II so it could concentrate on having an exceptional list. By 1950, Viking was publishing about 60 general trade titles a year. Upton Sinclair, Carl Van Doren, and Rebecca West are a few of the authors involved with this company other than Steinbeck. The ad campaign for SWEET THURDAY was also extensive. Full or half page ads could be seen gracing the pages of The New York Times Book Review with bold lettering, flattering reviews and a mirror image of the cover art. Steinbeck's name is printed at the top as boldly as the title itself, because by this time the appearance of his name had selling power. Some variations between some of the ads include, "An Immediate Best-Seller" and "Hilarious Best-Seller". By using the original cover art in the ad campaign, the ads capture the quaint, lyrical nature of the novel. The wooden houses, the abandoned canneries and the empty train tracks evoke feelings of nostalgia and fatigue. These sentiments are closely related to the novel.
SWEET THURSDAY received very mixed reviews upon its publication in 1954. None of the critics were overwhelmingly supportive because even the positive remarks were words of mere vapid satisfaction as opposed to enthusiasm. Milton Rugoff reviewed the book for the New York Herald Tribune and wrote that it was part of, "The ancient and honorable tradition of low comedy with up-bubbling notes of rowdy humor, and the occasional broad satiric thrusts" (STEINBECK'S TYPEWRITER, pg. 291). There were some contemporary critics that were able to recognize and enjoy the quirkiness of the characters and the quaint nature of their dialogue. Some critics argued that while it was not a powerful book with loads of social criticism to unpack, it was a good story worthy of reading. However, the negative critiques of this novel were harsh. A review in Time Magazine dated June 14 in the year of the book's publication attacked it on many levels. It suggested that the plot was lacking and that the characters were outlandish and perhaps pointless. For instance, the madam Fauna was described as having, "Once masterminded a flourishing South American export trade in shrunken heads. She keeps a former competitor's noggin in a desk drawer to remind her of the good old days." He went on to sarcastically refer to Doc as "half Christ and half satyr", and Hazel as a "male deadbeat". These are not positive generalizations and not necessarily what one might expect in a story of an ordinary small town. SWEET THURSDAY is a novel where the reader is asked to look beyond the superficialities and oddities of the characters and see the innate human aspects of their character. Negative reviews argued that Steinbeck's technique wasn't good enough to allow them to make that leap. To some, "It reads like stuff that has been salvaged from the wastebasket" (Time, June 14, 1954 pg. 120). Another critic writes, "SWEET THURSDAY is intended to be- shouts aloud, in fact, that it will be- funny and vulgar and touching, and yet all for kicks; what it proves to be is labored, self-conscious, and drenched with artificial sunlight and good feeling" (The New Yorker, July 10, 1954, pg. 71). Many literary critics just didn't have faith in Steinbeck's ability to write an uplifting story in light of his previous works. He had already proven himself as a journalist and a social activist of sorts, and some found his attempt to write a novel with the sole purpose to evoke a smile, forced. Critics read the book with different intentions. The ones who expected a good story with wacky characters set in a small town, were not disappointed. However the ones who read SWEET THURSDAY with works like THE GRAPES OF WRATH in mind, were thoroughly disappointed because it lacked an intense social critique that Steinbeck had come to be known for. They were mistrustful of his attempt to entertain and it shows in their literary analysis. But whether or not a critic recommended this novel or not, it is safe to make the assumption that they would not rank SWEET THURSDAY above previous works like THE GRAPES OF WRATH, TORTILLA FLAT or OF MICE AND MEN in terms of style, technique or plot.
After spending five weeks on the Best-Seller's list 55,000 copies had been sold. About another 10,000 copies would sell in 1954 to make it the seventh best-selling fiction work of that year. SWEET THURSDAY was the only novel on the list that was not historical or a newly discovered author. Over half of the fiction list was composed of period pieces, but the real literary event of 1954 was that nonfiction outsold fiction for every spot on the list. Overall, nonfiction titles sold 1,600,000 copies more than fiction. There were three religious works on the list and two cookbooks. A major factor for SWEET THURSDAY being a part of such an eclectic list is the fact that it is a sequel. It is the continuation of CANNERY ROW and a postwar follow up on Doc. Doc is an intelligent and solitary man that is a living legend in his own town. He's seen as the master problem-solver because of his wise aura. Monterey would not be the same without his daily visit to the store for liquor or his odd scientific endeavors. The town watches as he becomes obsessed with his observation of Octopuses and they desperately want him to abandon his science and fall in love. Doc is a truly beloved character and those who read CANNERY ROW would read the sequel just to make sure that he did in fact survive the war and find a girl.
There is much debate over whether or not SWEET THURSDAY is worthy of its bestseller status. It has received very little attention in the decades following its release and literary critics seem almost apathetic. Hugh Holman, from The New Republic writes, "Everyone agrees that SWEET THURSDAY isn't among Steinbeck's premier efforts, but there has been so much disagreement over the locus of the book's apparent flaws, its numerous aporia, that even that minority cadre who have found the book worth attention, cannot agree on the basis of the attraction." There's a skepticism surrounding the literary worth of this novel. Even those who liked it can not explain the basis of their contentment because it doesn't leave a powerful impression like his other works. Oddly, it is a forgettable Steinbeck novel.
SWEET THURSDAY has a couple of things to offer its readers. It has a benevolent man named Doc, a charming story set in a small town, and an optimistic view of humanity. Both Steinbeck and the American public were recovering from the experiences of WWII while also bracing themselves for the sweeping social reforms to come when the book was published. The nation was in transition and the people were undoubtedly tired. SWEET THURSDAY, while it may not have a revolutionary tone or ingenious literary style like his previous works, serves its' purpose. It completes the saga of Doc from CANNERY ROW and it most importantly evokes a smile. Critics don't hail it as a masterpiece but their disapproval does not keep this simple story of a small town in California off of the bestsellers' list in 1954.