Tuesday, May 26, 2020

In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck

Powder keg with a slow-burning fuse
Prior to his better-known rural epics The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck wrote another novel about California farm workers. In Dubious Battle, published in 1936, focuses on a strike by apple pickers in the (fictional) Torgas Valley. The story opens with a young man named Jim Nolan being interviewed for employment with the Party (assumed to be the Communist Party, but never stated outright). After he’s accepted for the job, a Party veteran named “Mac” McLeod takes Jim under his mentorial wing. Soon the pair are headed to Torgas, where they go undercover as fruit pickers in order to organize their fellow laborers to strike against the local Growers’ Association.

For a novel about labor unrest, this book proceeds in a surprisingly calm and deliberate manner. Don’t expect the fiery rhetoric, revolutionary call to arms, or romantic idealism of pro-socialist novels like Jack London’s The Iron Heel or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Steinbeck’s approach here is decidedly more sensitive and even pastoral. The bulk of the novel is occupied with depicting the working life of the fruit pickers and their daily activities in the strikers’ camp. Like Of Mice and Men, the largely dialogue-driven narrative often reads more like a play than a novel. The reader listens as Mac educates Jim on the values and methods of the Party, while Jim undergoes a coming-of-age epiphany in the development of his political ideals. Very little that could be considered action occurs until about four-fifths of the way through the book. As a result, the story feels far more drawn-out than it needs to be. In his 1938 collection The Long Valley, Steinbeck published a short story about party workers entitled “The Raid” that, in roughly twelve pages, creates a more powerful and moving statement on the class struggle than this entire novel.

Steinbeck’s biggest mistake was focusing too much on the Party activists at the expense of the workers themselves. Very few of the actual fruit pickers even have names in this book, and of those that do only a few amount to full-fledged characters. By inviting readers to identify with the strike organizers—Mac and Jim—rather than the strikers themselves, the reader never really gets invested in the workers’ plight. One doesn’t sympathize with these laborers the way one does in other novels of labor strife like Steinbeck’s own The Grapes of Wrath, Sinclair’s The Jungle, Frank Norris’s The Octopus, or Emile Zola’s Germinal. Even Steinbeck acknowledges that the workers here are often just pawns in Mac and Jim’s game. While the two Party men are primarily portrayed in a positive light, Steinbeck also points out how they use manipulative tactics to goad the workers into striking and violence, even though they know that innocent lives will be destroyed.

In the final fifty pages or so, Steinbeck finally turns up the tempo and cranks up the heat. In Dubious Battle never really stirs the soul to the same degree as any of the aforementioned novels, but in the end there’s just enough brutality and tragedy to inspire sympathy for these characters and indignation against social injustice. Oddly enough, this strangely picturesque and ambivalent depiction of Depression-era labor troubles is ultimately redeemed by sacrificial blood.

As the first book in Steinbeck’s unofficial Dustbowl trilogy, In Dubious Battle is not in the same league with the two masterpieces that followed, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Those interested in social realist novels of the early 20th century, however, while find it a worthwhile, if somewhat underwhelming, read.
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