Sweet Thursday - Critical Reception
Sweet Thursday, a national bestseller in 1954, opened to mixed critical reviews like most of Steinbeck's works. While some critics deplored the raucous text for its abandonment of serious social commentary, others lamented the novel as simply a failed attempt to recapture "the satirical-burlesque mood" of earlier more successful comedies like Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row (Guzman 7). Rather than finding Sweet Thursday witty, critics found it vulgar and profane. Harvey Curtis Webster's 1954 commentary in the Saturday Review eloquently summarizes two various perspectives of the novel, which he argued were likely to circulate amongst the "intelligentsia" (11). While some, he asserts, will consider the love story sentimental, the characters flat, and the plot predictable, others will make the case that "Sweet Thursday's uninhibited gusto and [. . .] intentional exaggerations make good reading and good sense" (11). He was right.
While few critics deny the appeal of Steinbeck's humor and the entertainment value of the text, nearly every other feature of the novel comes under attack, from the narrator's propensity to philosophize, to the plot line and what one review calls the "weirdies" Steinbeck attempts to pass off as characters ("Back to Riff Raff" 120). A reviewer from the Times quips, "John Steinbeck respects the underdog, but he melts uncontrollably before the no-good, boozed up bum" ("Back to Riff Raff" 120). The glorification of booze and prostitution aside, Sweet Thursday continues Steinbeck's trend of championing marginalized members of what one reviewer dubs our "too-complex, often wildly hypocritical society" (Jackson 21). Steinbeck succeeds at using humor to mask criticism of middle-class consumerism, conventionality, and complacency and manages to make the lives of alcoholic vagrants and prostitutes seem not just normal, but somehow appealing.
In comparison to some of his better known works, Sweet Thursday receives little critical attention today. Nonetheless, fans of Steinbeck's humor will enjoy the hilarious arguments between Doc and Old Jingleballicks and Mack's simple and amusing philosophical view of life. Besides its humor, Sweet Thursday demonstrates Steinbeck's impressive knowledge of world culture and history. There are numerous references to cultural artifacts from both the East and West, which demonstrate Steinbeck's wide ranging interests in literature, art, science, and philosophy from across the globe.