Pastures of Heaven - Critical Reception
Though criticized for its "morbidity" of subject matter and "mood of pessimism," many critics praised The Pastures of Heaven upon its publication for its realism and especially its concreteness of language, character, and image (Brighouse 18). Anita Moffett of the New York Times Book Review commented in 1932, "Racy, realistically direct and caustically humorous, [Steinbeck's] writing is noteworthy for originality of phrase and images and a strongly poetic feeling" (16). The Chicago Daily Tribunereported, "The characters are as vitally real as your next door neighbor, and the style and presentation of the novel are restrained, compassionate, and compelling" (M.D. 15) Others noted, as is characteristic of much of Steinbeck's later and well known fiction, the importance of landscape in shaping the consciousness of his characters. Gerry Fitzgerald of the Los Angles Times wrote in 1932, "[The characters] are made to live and breathe and have their being in the little farms shrouded by lovely trees of abundant foliage: oft shut in their homes by depressing brick walls or rudely painted frames that once were stately trees of the valley" (B16).
Overall, The Pastures of Heaven has not drawn much attention from literary critics since its publication. Nonetheless, the work serves as an important early introduction to defining stylistic and thematic features of Steinbeck's fiction. The book's realistic depiction and clarity of character, theme, and landscape are recognizably Steinbeck, as is its subject matter. The text examines social ostracism of the mentally ill and other deviants who fail to subscribe to the confining strictures of conventional society. Biographer Jackson Benson explains how the text "[. . .] illustrates a favorite Steinbeck theme—the best among us (and the best in us) is often misunderstood and defeated by an insensitive society (209). Similarly, the text examines how we often defeat ourselves through self delusion and the refusal to see the reality of our own circumstances. The Pastures of Heaven also examines the issues of ancestry and primogeniture and the importance of landscape in shaping human consciousness. These themes are all present in the most popular works of Steinbeck's career including Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and East of Eden. Thus, The Pastures of Heaven is a useful place to start for a glimpse into a young Steinbeck's interest and understanding of the subject matter that would preoccupy him for his entire career.