In the New York Times, for instance, critic A.O. Scott has asked a cadre of successful artists to chime in on the issue. One idea that comes up a lot in their answers is that artists simply aren't free to decide on a dime to produce "topical" material. If their work is to have any depth, the mysterious vision that guides creation must lead them there. This is especially interesting when you note that the artists Scott approached are all celebrated for the social relevancy of their work.
Scott opens his essay by saying that he is still waiting for our Grapes of Wrath, meaning a new novel, film, or TV series that would “sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history.”
While many writers of the 1930s wrote specifically to the issues of their day, very little of their work has had lasting impact. If the The Grapes of Wrath remains so powerful, it’s because it lifts contemporary issues out of their time and raises them to the level of myth.
I submit that the great power of The Grapes of Wrath does not come from its topical relevancy, but rather from the way the Depression-era epic is told on the page. Which is to say that the prophetic power of the novel emanates from Steinbeck’s style—not from any message or moral. As E.M. Forster notes in Aspects of the Novel, prophecy does not concern the personal beliefs of the prophet. Rather, “prophecy is a tone of voice.”
Through the visionary use of symbols, The Grapes of Wrath superimposes the landscape of the American Dust Bowl onto the desolate mythological expanses of the Old Testament, thereby creating a setting that belongs to no time—and thus belongs to all times. It was by putting vision above the urge to report in the manner of a journalist, sociologist or activist, that Steinbeck succeeded in revealing the eternal that lay concealed in the present. It is because The Grapes of Wrath embodies a singular vision surpassing the personal opinions and convictions of its author that it can rightly be called a work of prophecy. In its pages, Steinbeck doesn't only bear witness to the injustices of his time: he bears witness to all of the injustices of the past, present, and future.
The preacher pretends to stand outside the world in order to pontificate about it. The prophet – and all of the greatest artists are prophets – “irradiates nature from within.” He knows, as Paul Klee put it, “that he is a creature on a star among stars.” This is what enables him to break through the outer situation and reach the eternal within. The result is work that will remain as socially relevant tomorrow as it is today.