IN DUBIOUS BATTLE
Born in Salinas, California, in 1902, john steinbeck grew up in a fertile agricultural valley about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast—and both valley and coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City and then as a caretaker for a Lake Tahoe estate, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929). After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California fictions, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and worked on short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938). Popular success and financial security came only with Tortilla Flat (1935), stories about Monterey’s paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-novelette The Moon Is Down (1942). Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1947), The Pearl (1947), A Russian Journal (1948), another experimental drama, Burning Bright (1950), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) preceded publication of the monumental East of Eden (1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history. The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books include Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), Once There Was a War (1958), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966), and the posthumously published Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969), Viva Zapata! (1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), and Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (1989). He died in 1968, having won a Nobel Prize in 1962.
WARREN FRENCH has been Honorary Professor of American Studies at the University College of Swansea, Wales, since retiring from Indiana University. He has published several books on John Steinbeck, including John Steinbeck Revisited, A Companion to “The Grapes of Wrath,” and A Filmguide to “The Grapes of Wrath.” He has also written The Social Novel at the End of an Era and The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, as well as essays on American literature and popular culture. He was awarded a D.H.L. from Ohio University.
In Dubious Battle
Introduction and Notes by
Though he detested publicity, John Steinbeck became one of the most controversial American writers from the Depression of the 1930s until his death in 1968, at the height of American involvement in Vietnam. In Dubious Battle, generally regarded as his first major novel, was the first to stir up the kind of controversy that his fiction would subsequently arouse over serious social and political issues. Because the background for this fifth published novel was a strike of migrant pickers in California’s apple orchards, it was assumed to be one of the “proletarian” novels of the period supporting radical causes if not actually promoting the changing line of the Communist Party. The powerful California growers’ associations that he attacked suspected him of being a card-carrying contributor to the “red conspiracy” that had been viewed as a threat to American traditions since World War I.
Steinbeck wrote to a friend, however, just after completing the novel, “I don’t like communists, either. I mean I dislike them as people. I rather imagine the apostles had the same waspish qualities and the New Testament is proof that they had equally bad manners”—an attitude that he maintained throughout his life.* Earlier he had written to another struggling novelist, George Albee: “I’m not interested in strikes as a means of raising men’s wages, and I’m not interested in ranting about justice and oppression, mere outcroppings which indicate the condition.…The book is brutal. I wanted to be merely a recording consciousness, judging nothing, simply putting down the thing.” Readers will discover that he could not maintain such a detached perspective; yet at a time when the world raged with fanatical struggles between “true believers,” he was successful in refusing to serve any organized party or special interest group and becoming an ideologue.
Ironically, the first controversy over In Dubious Battle was generated not by conservative critics who would later be outraged by The Grapes of Wrath but by a radical sympathizer in New York who almost destroyed the rewarding association that Steinbeck had just begun to enjoy with publisher Pascal Covici. Their collaboration looked to promise Steinbeck the security and recognition that he had been seeking since 1929.
Steinbeck had decided to become a professional writer when he entered high school at the age of fifteen in his home town of Salinas, California; but before he emerged from obscurity and attained international celebrity, he had to survive a long, frustrating apprenticeship. His first novel, Cup of Gold, a swashbuckling tale of the Spanish Main, was not published until he was twenty-seven—in October 1929, just weeks before the stock market crash brought on the Great Depression. Written in an affected style influenced by such now-forgotten favorites of the flamboyant 1920s as Donn-Byrne’s Messer Marco Polo, Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood and James Branch Cabell’s scandalous Jurgen, this historical romance enjoyed a modest, shortlived run, but it quickly disappeared from the market when the publisher became one of the many bankruptcy victims of the time. Steinbeck’s next two works—The Pastures of Heaven (1932), a story-cycle set in his native region of contemporary California, and a mystical fantasy called To a God Unknown (1933)—followed the same route, along with their publishers.
Steinbeck had completed a fourth novel, Tortilla Flat, which was circulating among publishers without success, and was already deeply engaged on another, which would become In Dubious Battle, when late in 1933, Ben Abramson, proprietor of Chicago’s Argus Bookshop and an enthusiastic advocate of Steinbeck’s work, pressed a copy of The Pastures of Heaven on Pascal Covici, partner in the New York publishing firm Covici-Friede, Inc. Covici, who had never before heard of Steinbeck, shared Abramson’s enthusiasm and sat up all night reading the ironic short-story cycle. He had Steinbeck’s agent send him the manuscript of Tortilla Flat and at once offered to publish this droll cycle of stories about Mexican-Americans leading a scandalously marginal life in the semi-wooded outskirts of Monterey, California. Covici took an option on Steinbeck’s future works and promised to reissue the earlier novels. At last, things seemed to have turned around for Steinbeck.
Unfortunately, the manuscript of In Dubious Battle arrived at Covici’s office while the publisher was out of town promoting Tortilla Flat. The manuscript fell into the hands of an editor with communist sympathies who rejected it because he considered the marxist ideology of the strike organizers inaccurate. He felt that Steinbeck did not know what he was talking about and that the novel would offend people at both ends of the political spectrum.
The rejection invalidated Steinbeck’s contract with Covici and infuriated the author, who wrote to his agent:
Between you and me I suspect a strong communist bias in that office, since the reasons given against the book are all those I have heard from communists of the intellectual bent and of the Jewish race.…My information for this book came mostly from Irish and Italian communists whose training was in the field, not in the drawing room. They don’t believe in ideologies and ideal tactics.
While Steinbeck felt only contempt for those he called New York “parlor pinks,” In Dubious Battle attracted a number of bids from other publishers. When an outraged Covici learned what had happened, he fired the editor and wrote to Steinbeck offering to publish the novel at once. The author decided to stay with Covici, and they worked together for the rest of Steinbeck’s life.
Steinbeck placed such great emphasis on his sources and the accuracy of their firsthand information because he had originally planned this book, based on the experiences of strike leader Pat Chambers, to be a first-person diary of a labor organizer working in the field. His literary agents, however, suggested that he use the material as the basis for a novel instead, as it would probably prove more popular with his new audience, as well as less likely to cause trouble with possibly offended parties on both sides of the disputes. Excited about the project, Steinbeck turned out 120,000 words in five months, beginning early in September 1934, only weeks after the notorious Bloody Thursday (mentioned several times in the text), July 5, 1934, when San Francisco police made international headlines by shooting two people and wounding many others in an effort to break up a longshoremen’s strike. The eyes of the world were on the turbulent scene in California for another reason: social-protest novelist Upton Sinclair was conducting a strident campaign for the state’s governorship based on his EPIC (End Poverty in California) share-the-wealth plan.
When In Dubious Battle was published in 1936, Steinbeck was surprised that this novel, which he had thought most readers would find objectionably grim and controversial, reached the best-seller lists. It also received surprisingly few hostile reviews from critics on either the political right or left. The most conspicuous exception to this favorable consensus was Mary McCarthy’s denunciation of the novel as “academic, wooden, inert” and of Steinbeck as “certainly no philosopher, sociologist, or strike technician.” She was then a recent Vassar graduate writing for The Nation and would not publish the first of her own chicly cynical satires until 1942; but her attitude started a feud that lasted the rest of Steinbeck’s life.
Despite the unforeseen success of the novel, Steinbeck remained annoyed that the interest in it was mostly political, as indeed he had predicted. Readers’ attention focused upon what the author considered “mere outcroppings”—like local strikes—rather than what he considered the underlying problems of human greed and inhumane behavior toward other humans as a result of lack of understanding. The situation in California, however, where entrenched interests looked upon themselves as defending the last frontier in “the land of opportunity,” seemed to a worried world to be verging on class warfare.
Steinbeck does not appear to have taken much interest in Upton Sinclair’s gubernatorial campaign, nor was he particularly familiar with the reformer’s many fictional exposés of corruption in American industry. Sinclair’s lurid but often pedestrianly written naturalism was probably the kind of “realism” that Steinbeck often objected to in letters to his friends during the 1930s, when he continued to speak of his own predilection for fantasy and the “metaphysical.” Steinbeck sought to probe beneath the superficialities of partisan contentiousness, but readers were moved by his emotionally powerful rendering of violent episodes in the world around them. Two such episodes evoked in the novel would still have been fresh in readers’ minds when it appeared.
The older and most fanatical characters in the novel, like old Joy, are surviving “Wobblies,” members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (or IWW), organized in 1905 when the craft-oriented American Federation of Labor seemed insufficiently concerned about unskilled manual laborers. Despite the IWW’s insistence that it was not a syndicalist organization advocating violent overthrow of governments, it was widely suspected of seeking to bring industry and government under workingmen’s control by revolutionary means if necessary. It grew rapidly in ten years and became a much-feared force, especially in the Pacific North-west lumber country; but the union quickly lost support when it militantly opposed American participation in World War I. It was almost destroyed by a wide-scale persecution beginning in 1922, when it became a special target of President Harding’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, and his campaign against a “red conspiracy.” Though widely outlawed, the IWW was still in operation throughout the 1930s; and parents, especially in rural western communities like the one in which Steinbeck grew up at the height of its activities, still evoked threats of “Wobblies” as bogeymen to control unruly children.
Of more immediate and even more frightening concern was the strike that had closed down the port of San Francisco in 1934. Organized by Harry Bridges, an Australian labor leader, it began on May 9 as a walkout by rank-and-file members of the International Longshoremen’s Association who were dissatisfied with their officers’ suspected collusion with employers. Other labor organizations joined in, threatening a general strike that might paralyze the city. On July 3 the police were ordered to try to infiltrate and secure the docks, in civic authorities’ anticipation that the national holiday the following day would create a lull that might lead to a gradual disintegration of the strike. On July 5—Bloody Thursday—however, the confrontation resumed with new vehemence. The police killed two protesters and wounded some seventy others at the scene.
The governor called out the National Guard the next day and appealed to the federal government to send in troops to protect property. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was on vacation at the time, bound for Hawaii on a U.S. Navy vessel; Secretary of State Cordell Hull had been left in charge in Washington. Hull panicked and decided to appeal to the president for an executive order to use federal troops. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, mindful of President Hoover’s order to General Douglas MacArthur in 1932 to fire on the war veteran bonus marchers in Washington, objected that this would be the worst possible course to follow. Through Roosevelt’s personal secretary, Perkins managed to get a message to the president, who agreed with her that the federal government should not become involved. After the events of Bloody Thursday, enthusiasm for the strike among groups that had been supporting the longshoremen waned, and the strike gradually disintegrated when the shippers, under local pressure, eventually agreed to the principal concessions that the union demanded.
The San Francisco strike is particularly important in understanding the communal tensions depicted in Steinbeck’s novel. The day the strike had begun in May, General Hugh Johnson, the director of Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, was the highest-ranking federal official in the city. He delivered an impassioned speech to a large audience at the University of California in Berkeley, in which he was widely interpreted as indicating that the federal government would in certain instances tolerate vigilante action. He denounced a general strike as a “threat to the community” and went on to say that if the government refused to intervene, the people had the right to take matters into their own hands. Steinbeck despaired that such action would mean the loss of responsible control over confrontations and a reversion to barbarism. In the novel he has Mac, the strike organizer, denounce vigilantes as “the dirtiest guys in any town.…They’re the same ones that lynch Negroes.…They like to hurt people, and they always give it a nice name, patriotism or protecting the constitution” (p. 131). The grim hopelessness of this scenario leads to the crucial question of just what his intentions were in wanting to serve as “a recording consciousness…simply putting down the thing.”
This seemingly apocalyptic pronouncement of the triumph of violence appears at odds with what he wrote to a friend who had praised the novel: “I still think that most ‘realistic’ writing is farther from the real than most honest fantasy. The Battle with its tricks to make a semblance of reality wasn’t very close.” At first “fantasy” seems to have been used here only to stress Steinbeck’s mixing incidents from strikes at different times and in different places and changing California’s geography in order to prevent his novel from being identified with any particular strike. More careful consideration of his other statements about the novel, however, suggests that his intention was to imagine a possibility rather than reflect a reality, moving already toward the cautionary mode that he would adopt in The Grapes of Wrath.
Although Steinbeck talked several times about “levels” of interest in his writing, he was more explicit than usual about his intentions in In Dubious Battle, explaining in a letter to a friend, “It has three layers. Surface story, group-psychological structure, and philosophical conclusion arrived at, not through statement, but only through structure.” He guessed that only the first would be perceived. In John Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America, Louis Owens provides a convenient summary of customary interpretations of Steinbeck’s statement:
The surface story is that of the strike and its ramifications, the group-psychological structure is found in the novel’s study of the phalanx…the philosophical conclusions arrived at through structure [regard] man’s need for commitment that reverberate[s] through all of Steinbeck’s fiction both before and after.
The novelist’s achievement is not so clearcut as this summary suggests, although Owens provides a useful plan for viewing the novel from its most universal level to its most specific. The “philosophical conclusions” usually provide the directing force behind Steinbeck’s fiction; and the increasing emphasis on them is a principal reason why later works like The Moon Is Down and Burning Bright lack the emotionally compelling storytelling of In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath: more attention is paid to dwelling on statement than contriving communicative structure.
Some critics, like Clifford Lewis, find that even in In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck failed to eliminate statement, though it is hard to agree that “Doc Burton’s psychological and philosophical theories nearly destroy the novel”: Steinbeck was right in thinking that most readers would not linger over them but would be drawn into the whirlpool created by the downward spiraling of the steadily accelerating narrative. Steinbeck’s shaping of Burton’s comments to the strike organizer Mac, especially in Chapter 8, however, shows how the author was able to avoid a commitment to any reductivist utopian scheme at a time when such causes were attracting many desperate converts:
Well, you say I don’t believe in the cause. That’s like not believing in the moon. There’ve been communes before, and there will be again. But you people have an idea that if you can establish the thing, the job’ll be done. Nothing stops, Mac. If you were able to put an idea into effect tomorrow, it would start changing right away. Establish a commune, and the same gradual flux will continue (p. 112).
Burton’s conclusion hits a reader with greater force than ever after the events of 1989 and 1990, when, half a century after the novel’s publication, previously inconceivable changes in the political structure of Europe exemplify the inescapable change he outlines. If anything weakens the novel, it is not Burton’s conventional theories of socio-political evolution but rather Steinbeck’s own dedication at the time he was writing to the “phalanx” theories that are expounded in his second “layer” not just by Doc, but London, Jim Nolan, and even old Joy. These are most succinctly summed up again by Doc in Chapter 8: “I want to watch these group-men, for they seem to me to be a new individual, not at all like single men. A man in a group isn’t himself at all: he’s a cell in an organism that isn’t like him any more than the cells in your body are like you” (p. 113).
Steinbeck had always been, as he wrote to a friend in 1933, “prone to the metaphysical.” After he met Joseph Campbell, the distinguished student of mythology, Steinbeck became obsessed with the theory of what he first called “phalanxes” in a letter to George Albee in 1933. He had, however, already explained the concept without using the term in a letter to his college friend Carleton Sheffield, stressing that the human race has “qualities which the individual lacks entirely,” using a questionable analogy to atoll-building coral “insects,” which retain their individual identities in an external communal construct like people living in an apartment building. Steinbeck argued that “the phalanx has emotions of which the unit man is incapable,” so that once he becomes part of “a moving phalanx, his nature changes, his habits, and his desires.”
The problem with applying this theory to the development of the strike in In Dubious Battle is that even after the organizers’ oratory has impressed the disgruntled migrant workers with the need for concerted action, the agitators must continually devise further means for maintaining the group’s commitment and preventing defections. New structures transcending individuals fail to establish themselves without constant rhetorical reinforcement, suggesting that mob action is the creation of the manipulators rather than the participants. No sense of amalgamation into the group supplants individual responses. Both the strikers and the growers’ troops are motivated by self-interest.
Joining the group does not alter the individual’s tendencies. It only provides a cover for an individual’s behaving in a manner that he would not have the nerve to initiate, a cover for relaxing his inhibitions.
Steinbeck most lucidly presents the feelings of a member of a lynch mob in a short story dating from the same period as In Dubious Battle, originally titled “The Lonesome Vigilante.” (It appears in The Long Valley as simply “The Vigilante,” and it is based on an actual event that occurred in San Jose, the home town of Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol.) After participating in a fatal lynching, a character named Mike is charged by his “thin, petulant wife” with having been with another woman. “By God, she was right,” he thinks to himself. “That’s exactly how I do feel.” Violence compensates for sexual frustration.
Steinbeck had picked up the phalanx theory from lectures he’d heard at Stanford on the writings of William Emerson Ritter, a professor of marine biology at the University of California at Berkeley. He evidently pursued Ritter’s writings, for the concept of the “phalanx” utilized in In Dubious Battle is developed principally in “The Organismal Conception: Its Place in Science and Its Bearing on Philosophy,” co-authored by Edna W. Barby (California Publications in Biology, 1931). Steinbeck’s attraction to these ideas appears to have been in some measure based upon his inability to accept violence as a conscious manifestation of an individual’s behavior. He clung to the theory that the human race is basically educable, and Ritter’s speculations provided him with a means of rationalizing behavior that he could not deal with as another’s deliberate choice.
Since Steinbeck’s choices were not objectively intellectual but compassionate (as critics have begun to recognize, his writings derive from a basically romantic temperament), he ran into perplexing problems when he had Doc Burton follow up his pronouncements about man’s hating himself with some observations about split personalities. The dynamic characters in this novel, however—and in most of his work through The Moon Is Down—are not the troubled products of splits in their own psyches but of their differences from others, often exacerbated by social prejudices.
The emotionally driving force of the narrative, however, distracts readers from what many of them, agreeing with Mac, would probably see as Burton’s “high-falutin’ ideas,” while the novel goes on about its own business, which Steinbeck manages masterfully through structure. In later works, however, his proclivity for shaky speculations like the phalanx theory was to cause serious problems, including charges that he was soft on the fascists in The Moon Is Down, though even in that work his underlying point is that the enslaved phalanxes manipulated by fanatical leaders will at length be defeated by enlightened individuals motivated by self-preservation and independence.
Under the pressure of his own experiences on the home front and briefly observing the battlefront during World War II, he gradually replaced emphasis upon the disastrous results of phalanx behavior as the “condition” shaping his fiction with a vision of redemption by a magnanimous and caring secular hero who achieves self-fulfillment, best embodied in the all-loving Doc of Cannery Row. It is likely, however, that Steinbeck could not have attained the rapport he did with international audiences during his greatest period without the inspiration he derived from a theory that enabled him to deal dispassionately with the horrors of mob behavior as a curable aberration, although he would frequently have to face charges of sentimentality from the more cynically minded.
The shakiness of both the group-psychological theory that influenced Steinbeck during the period and the philosophical conclusions that he reached suggests that—despite his disappointment—most readers responded to the “surface story,” trusting the tale rather than the teller. It is indeed this surface story that is the source of the novel’s power, although the nature of this story has often been overlooked by those who agree with James Woodress’s view that In Dubious Battle is “perhaps the best strike novel ever written.” The problem of interpretation begins with identifying the “dubious battle” of the title. Steinbeck prefaces the novel with a quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which the term is used to describe Satan’s revolt against God. The reference to Milton has led to a continuing outcropping of often contradictory explications that seek to point out analogies between the war in heaven and the strike in California and particularly between characters in the human and cosmic conflicts.
Much speculation of this sort has proved not just pointless but misleading in interpreting the novel because the only real similarity between the battles is that both are dubious not in the sense that the outcomes are in doubt but that they are unnecessary and unjustified. There is never any doubt about the outcome of either battle: the forces of God and the growers are overwhelming. What is pointed out, as shall be subsequently examined in more detail, is that there is no justification for either; what is in doubt is not who will win but why the opponents should ever have come to blows. When we look at this question, we see that there are no further exact parallels between the struggles. Steinbeck is not presuming to write a modern epic analogous to Milton’s but to borrow a memorable phrase for a title. Milton’s purpose was to justify the ways of God to man by showing the futility of resistance to His divine plan—the struggle with its foredoomed conclusion is over who will rule the creation. The struggle in Steinbeck’s novel is over how the profits from cultivating the fruits of the earth shall be shared by the participants in the process—an “out-cropping” of some underlying “condition” that, as Steinbeck specified in the letter quoted at the beginning of this discussion, did not interest him. What was the “condition” that concerned him and inspired the novel?
This key question about the novel has not been answered or even identified by Yale critic Harold Bloom, who in his introduction to a collection of essays about Steinbeck in his extensive series of “Modern Critical Views” writes that In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath constitute Steinbeck’s best work. He goes on to push James Woodress’s point about In Dubious Battle as a strike novel further than Woodress intended by pronouncing that it is “now quite certainly a period piece…of more interest to social historians than to literary critics”; but Bloom, the famed debunker of misreading, may be misreading himself when he brands the novel “social realism” rather than “honest fantasy,” as the author preferred to call it.
It is certainly a mistake to presume that the lasting merits of the novel rest in its depiction of a strike typical of the 1930s. One reason that conservative critics may not have been as outraged by this novel as by the romantic metaphysics of The Grapes of Wrath is that In Dubious Battle acknowledges the power of the Establishment that they supported. The novel can be read as a warning to those foolish enough to challenge the status quo. As has been pointed out, there is never any doubt about the outcome of this strike. Mac, the principal organizer, admits from the beginning that the situation is hopelessly stacked against the strikers because the growers are unusually well organized and have commanding resources at their disposal. Labor’s supporters could find little comfort in this novel that offers nothing of the “we shall overcome” tone of the “proletarian fiction” of the period, like Robert Cantwell’s The Land of Plenty, Albert Halper’s “Scab!” or Clara Weatherwax’s Marching, Marching.*
Yet Steinbeck is not “merely the recording consciousness” that he sought to be. Although he avoids authorial intrusions like some interchapters of The Grapes of Wrath, there are limits to the objective comprehensiveness of the narrative. We do not get to see all contenders from all points of view. The growers are represented on the scene only by the unctuous Mr. Bolter, who attempts to carry an olive branch into the enemy camp in Chapter 13. Bolter’s spiel suggests that there are factions and disagreements among the growers, as there are shown to be in the community; but readers learn of these only in his biased presentation. In order to maintain the point of view that shapes the novel, Steinbeck necessarily narrows his focus and avoids panoramic views of the battleground and battlers.
The book is dated only if one reads it as simply portraying what the author calls an “outcropping,” a situation in a particular time and place that is of fossilized interest to social historians. But what Steinbeck’s remarks about “honest fantasy” should help us see is that the novel is not rigorously documented social history but a work of art—a creative response to a “condition” that devalues and stifles self-fulfillment. He is interested in this specific scene not for its timely peculiarities but as a recurrence of conditions that have fomented disaster constantly throughout history and even in the myths of prehistory (hence the appropriation of Milton’s phrase).
But if this novel is not primarily the story of a dubious confrontation set against the wasteland background of the Depression of the 1930s; not a profound meditation on the differences between human beings operating as individuals or as group-creatures; not a confrontation between sympathetic individuals (like Doc Burton and the strike leaders) about quotidian realities continuing to evolve when intellectual abstractions tend toward petrifaction; nor an earthbound analogy to Milton’s Paradise Lost, what indeed is it about? What exactly is the “battle” of central concern? What is “dubious” about it? And who is involved “in” it?
An answer worth pondering arises from the encompassing structure of the narrative that is so obvious that it is usually overlooked. From the curt, defeatist opening sentence, “At last it was evening,” to the false rhetoric of the uncompleted final exclamation, “He didn’t want nothing for himself—,” the focus is relentlessly on Jim Nolan as he moves from the oncoming darkness of twilight San Jose to a faceless darkness in the bloody fields where he rots with the fallen fruits. Jim is scarcely ever out of the reader’s sight during the last nine days of his life as he moves inexorably from the only lighted office in a decaying building where he is recruited for the Party to the “almost complete darkness of the woods” where he is lured by trickery to die for the Cause. This night journey is illuminated not by a searchlight cutting through the heart of darkness to provide a panoramic montage of horrors, but rather by a vivid spotlight that follows a single figure on a constantly accelerating journey to disaster, against a background of flames that assault the skies from the deplorable destruction of houses and barns, emblems of the “civilization” of those who created them.
At the center of every scene is Jim Nolan and, most important, what he sees and learns and suffers. Preserving this intense focus is the reason why there are no scenes of the growers’ councils to which he could not be privy: we see them, as we see everything and everyone else, only as Nolan does. Years earlier, when Steinbeck was writing one of his finest works, The Red Pony, in 1930, he described in a letter to George Albee his creative process: “The whole thing is as simply told as though it came out of [Jody Tiflin’s] mind although there is no going into the boy’s mind. It is an attempt to make the reader create the boy’s mind for himself.”
Writing In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck was employing the same process in creating an older youth who was going through the same kind of formative experiences. It is important to note that the effort in both examples is not to lead readers to identify with the boy—as many do with Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, for example, or Dean Moriarity in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—but to observe his behavior as one might an actual acquaintance’s and learn from it. A secret of Steinbeck’s technique in his greatest work is his ability to avoid telling readers what they should feel and to make them participate in discovering the characters’ feelings by collaborating with the author in creating them. He sought—as he often argued—to promote understanding through his work, not to provide sentimental self-gratification.
In Dubious Battle is not an anatomy of a 1930s strike—which, however well executed, would be of increasingly antiquarian value—nor a metaphysical exploration of an individual’s relationship to a group that absorbed and changed him, nor an antipastoral analogy to a cosmic epic. It is, rather, a Bildungsroman, a term borrowed from the German, as the usual literal English equivalent, “novel of education,” is too specific and limited at times to apply to a work portraying every aspect of the maturing of a young person, including the development of a personal point of view—what might be called a philosophy of life.
This process of maturing usually takes years, but Jim Nolan is on a crash course. He has made a late start, characteristic of much American youth; and he must respond quickly to the urgent pressures upon him. When we meet him in his twilit room, he is confused and dejected, without any sense of purpose; eight days later he has developed self-confidence and discovered the latent cunning that enables him to make a bid to take command of a deteriorating situation. He has made remarkable progress, proving himself an apt and resourceful student who quickly develops leadership abilities. Steinbeck is especially concerned to create a figure who is gifted and quick-witted, but whose innate qualities have been scorned by an apathetic, self-seeking society, resentful of upstarts.
As the earlier comparison with Jody Tiflin in The Red Pony suggests, Jim is not the first such promising youth to figure prominently in Steinbeck’s fiction. He has much in common with the Welsh farmboy who becomes Sir Henry Morgan in Cup of Gold, Joseph Wayne who turns into the rain to save his people in To a God Unknown, Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, and the Mexican peasant in Viva Zapata! who becomes in spirit a “leader of the people.” Not all such characters are wantonly destroyed. Sometimes sacrifice of the individual to some larger good is necessary, as in To a God Unknown, The Grapes of Wrath (in which Jim Casy’s death inspires Tom Joad), and The Moon Is Down. Sometimes the individual survives, as in Cup of Gold, The Red Pony, and Of Mice and Men; but the maturing process requires the loss of naive optimism. Tortilla Flat is a world-weary anti -Bildungsroman, in which Danny is doomed because he cannot mature. Tom Joad is Steinbeck’s only character to move from violently selfish immaturity to compassionate maturity without losing a naive faith or his life before the action ends.
The focal characters who do mature—even if they do not survive—in all of Steinbeck’s fiction through The Grapes of Wrath also pass through a pattern of experiences that resemble his own as a struggling writer. The novels are in no way specifically autobiographical, like those of his contemporary Thomas Wolfe. And Steinbeck was too secretive to wish to transform himself into a legend like Jack Kerouac, who admired Wolfe; but his early works all trace histories of characters with ambitious dreams who consider themselves unappreciated and rejected by a decadent society.
Steinbeck certainly did not share Jim Nolan’s aspirations to become a labor organizer by committing himself to some abstract cause beyond himself, but he did seek to influence readers’ attitudes through his fiction. He shunned commitments because ultimately he believed in himself and his talent, although it was many years before he could display this self-confidence publicly. Ironically, his fiction declined in public esteem when he began to cast his alter egos in the role of savior, as in The Wayward Bus.
The power of his early works lies in his ability to infuse his characters with dreams resembling his own in intensity, although he avoided the familiar portrayal of a young writer’s struggle for success. Through his portrayal of Jim Nolan’s self-discovery of his leadership capabilities in In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck is making a case for the recognition of his own talent. Although he had become a nationally known success before the novel was published, he had written it when he considered himself a failure, when he could conceive of Jim Nolan’s faceless doom as possibly his own. Small wonder at the violence of his outrage over the interference of a New York “parlor pink” who threatened to jeopardize his career just when it seemed to be taking off.
As Steinbeck perceived the “battle” of the novel’s title, it is dubious not because the outcome is uncertain—his mood when he was writing it was too alienated to render plausible any fate for Jim but the one the author elected—but rather because it was the kind of struggle that should never have occurred at all. It was similar to Milton’s war in heaven because there should have been no occasion for conflict; but there the similarity ends, for Steinbeck was not trying to justify God’s ways to man but to call for an end to man’s inhumanity to man. Steinbeck’s aim in writing In Dubious Battle had been to promote understanding, though he probably had little hope of doing so and resorted to shock tactics to try to shake people out of their complacent self-seeking by portraying its consequences.
The difference between the motives and tactics of the two sides in the strike depicted may at first seem clearcut; but in the long run both are determined upon the triumph of their particular program, and they are not concerned about the means—including exploiting people—that they use to achieve their ends. Both are insensitive to the isolated dreamer like Doc Burton who seeks only to ameliorate people’s situations, not to impose systems upon them. In an ideal situation, Jim Nolan would have been guided but not indoctrinated by Doc Burton. Instead, when his talents were recognized, he was exploited by the side he chose to support and destroyed vengefully by the one he opposed.
Steinbeck’s concern was with self-realization, not just for himself, but for others, through mutual understanding. The abortive novel “L’Affaire Lettuceberg,” which Steinbeck wrote after In Dubious Battle, was, on the basis of what little we know of it, an attack upon the leading citizens of his home town of Salinas for using the vigilantes he detested to break up a local lettuce strike. In the long run, he decided that he would only create new conflicts by direct intervention; he chose rather to destroy the draft of “L’Affaire Lettuceberg” and supplant it with The Grapes of Wrath, in which Tom Joad, who, after a painful struggle has finally learned to devote himself to trying to make people understand each other, chooses to do so by encouraging them from a distance rather than provoking hostilities.
Wherever there was open warfare between implacable forces that could not see beyond narrow self-interest, Steinbeck perceived the result could only be irreparable loss and a triumph for those who mistook victory for permanent peace. He aimed to promote an understanding of the necessity for orderly, rational change and the use of the talents of the gifted in facilitating the effort—as Doc Burton in this novel wished—“to see the whole picture,” so that there might be an end to dubious battles and a more consecrated effort toward constructive change.
* Most quotations from John Steinbeck’s letters are derived from more complete texts in Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, editors, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (New York: Viking Press, 1975). Additional material from personal letters may be found in Jackson J. Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (New York: Viking Press, 1984).
* Examples of this genre are collected in Granville Hicks, editor, Proletarian Literature in the United States (New York, 1936); for an evaluation of the contents, see David G. Pugh, “Reading the Proletarians—Thirty Years Later,” in The Thirties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French (Deland, Fla., 1967), 89–95.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Astro, Richard. John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973.
Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer New York: Viking Press, 1984.
Bernstein, Irving: Turbulent Years: A History of American Labor, 1933–1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
Fontenrose, Joseph. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963.
French, Warren. John Steinbeck. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961.
——. John Steinbeck Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
Levant, Howard. The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974.
Lisca, Peter. The Wide World of John Steinbeck. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958.
Martin, George. Madam Secretary: Frances Perkins. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
Owens, Louis. John Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Shimomura, Noboru K. A Study of John Steinbeck: Mysticism in His Novels. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1982.
Woodress, James. “John Steinbeck: Hostage to Fortune.” South Atlantic Quarterly 63 (Summer 1964), 385–92.
A Note on the Text
The Penguin Classics edition of In Dubious Battle reproduces the original text of the novel, published in 1936 by Covici-Friede, Inc.
In Dubious Battle
Innumerable force of Spirits armed,
That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power opposed
In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
At last it was evening. The lights in the street outside came on, and the Neon restaurant sign on the corner jerked on and off, exploding its hard red light in the air. Into Jim Nolan’s room the sign threw a soft red light. For two hours Jim had been sitting in a small, hard rocking-chair, his feet up on the white bedspread. Now that it was quite dark, he brought his feet down to the floor and slapped the sleeping legs. For a moment he sat quietly while waves of itching rolled up and down his calves; then he stood up and reached for the unshaded light. The furnished room lighted up—the big white bed with its chalk-white spread, the golden-oak bureau, the clean red carpet worn through to a brown warp.
Jim stepped to the washstand in the corner and washed his hands and combed water through his hair with his fingers. Looking into the mirror fastened across the corner of the room above the washstand, he peered into his own small grey eyes for a moment. From an inside pocket he took a comb fitted with a pocket clip and combed his straight brown hair, and parted it neatly on the side. He wore a dark suit and a grey flannel shirt, open at the throat. With a towel he dried the soap and dropped the thin bar into a paper bag that stood open on the bed. A Gillette razor was in the bag, four pairs of new socks and another grey flannel shirt. He glanced about the room and then twisted the mouth of the bag closed. For a moment more he looked casually into the mirror, then turned off the light and went out the door.
He walked down narrow, uncarpeted stairs and knocked at a door beside the front entrance. It opened a little. A woman looked at him and then opened the door wider—a large blonde woman with a dark mole beside her mouth.
She smiled at him. “Mis-ter Nolan,” she said.
“I’m going away,” said Jim.
“But you’ll be back, you’ll want me to hold your room?”
“No. I’ve got to go away for good. I got a letter telling me.”
“You didn’t get no letters here,” said the woman suspiciously.
“No, where I work. I won’t be back. I’m paid a week in advance.”
Her smile faded slowly. Her expression seemed to slip toward anger without any great change. “You should of give me a week’s notice,” she said sharply. “That’s the rule. I got to keep that advance because you didn’t give me no notice.”
“I know,” Jim said. “That’s all right. I didn’t know how long I could stay.”
The smile was back on the landlady’s face. “You been a good quiet roomer,” she said, “even if you ain’t been here long. If you’re ever around again, come right straight here. I’ll find a place for you. I got sailors that come to me every time they’re in port. And I find room for them. They wouldn’t go no place else.”
“I’ll remember, Mrs. Meer. I left the key in the door.”
“Light turned out?”
“Well, I won’t go up till tomorrow morning. Will you come in and have a little nip?”
“No, thank you. I’ve got to be going.”
Her eyes narrowed wisely. “You ain’t in trouble? I could maybe help you.”
“No,” Jim said. “Nobody’s after me. I’m just taking a new job. Well, good night, Mrs. Meer.”
She held out a powdered hand. Jim shifted his paper bag and took her hand for a moment, and felt the soft flesh give under his fingers.
“Don’t forget,” she said. “I can always find room. People come back to me year after year, sailors and drummers.”
“I’ll remember. Good night.”
She looked after him until he was out the front door and down the cement steps to the sidewalk.
He walked to the corner and looked at the clock in a jeweller’s window—seven-thirty. He set out walking rapidly eastward, through a district of department stores and specialty shops, and then through the wholesale produce district, quiet now in the evening, the narrow streets deserted, the depot entrances closed with wooden bars and wire netting. He came at last to an old street of three-storey brick buildings. Pawn-shops and second-hand tool dealers occupied the ground floors, while failing dentists and lawyers had offices in the upper two flights. Jim looked at each doorway until he found the number he wanted. He went in a dark entrance and climbed the narrow stairs, rubber-treaded, the edges guarded with strips of brass. A little night light burned at the head of the steps, but only one door in the long hall showed a light through its frosted glass. Jim walked to it, looked at the “Sixteen” on the glass, and knocked.
A sharp voice called, “Come in.”
Jim opened the door and stepped into a small, bare office containing a desk, a metal filing cabinet, an army cot and two straight chairs. On the desk sat an electric cooking plate, on which a little tin coffee-pot bubbled and steamed. A man looked solemnly over the desk at Jim. He glanced at a card in front of him. “Jim Nolan?” he asked.
“Yes.” Jim looked closely at him, a small man, neatly dressed in a dark suit. His thick hair was combed straight down on each side from the top in a vain attempt to cover a white scar half an inch wide that lay horizontally over the right ear. The eyes were sharp and black, quick nervous eyes that moved constantly about—from Jim to the card, and up to a wall calendar, and to an alarm clock, and back to Jim. The nose was large, thick at the bridge and narrow at the point. The mouth might at one time have been full and soft, but habitual muscular tension had drawn it close and made a deep line on each lip. Although the man could not have been over forty, his face bore heavy parenthetical lines of resistance to attack. His hands were as nervous as his eyes, large hands, almost too big for his body, long fingers with spatulate ends and flat, thick nails. The hands moved about on the desk like the exploring hands of a blind man, feeling the edges of paper, following the corner of the desk, touching in turn each button on his vest. The right hand went to the electric plate and pulled out the plug.
Jim closed the door quietly and stepped to the desk. “I was told to come here,” he said.
Suddenly the man stood up and pushed his right hand across. “I’m Harry Nilson. I have your application here.” Jim shook hands. “Sit down, Jim.” The nervous voice was soft, but made soft by an effort.
Jim pulled the extra chair close and sat down by the desk. Harry opened a desk drawer, took out an open can of milk, the holes plugged with matches, a cup of sugar and two thick mugs. “Will you have a cup of coffee?”
“Sure,” said Jim.
Nilson poured the black coffee into the mugs. He said, “Now here’s the way we work on applications, Jim. Your card went in to the membership committee. I have to talk to you and make a report. The committee passes on the report and then the membership votes on you. So you see, if I question you pretty deep, I just have to.” He poured milk into his coffee, and then he looked up, and his eyes smiled for a second.
“Sure, I know,” said Jim. “I’ve heard you’re more select than the Union League Club.”1
“By God, we have to be!” He shoved the sugar bowl at Jim, then suddenly, “Why do you want to join the Party?”
Jim stirred his coffee. His face wrinkled up in concentration. He looked down into his lap. “Well—I could give you a lot of little reasons. Mainly, it’s this: My whole family has been ruined by this system. My old man, my father, was slugged so much in labor trouble that he went punch-drunk. He got an idea that he’d like to dynamite a slaughter-house where he used to work. Well, he caught a charge of buckshot in the chest from a riot gun.”
Harry interrupted, “Was your father Roy Nolan?”
“Yeah. Killed three years ago.”
“Jesus!” Harry said. “He had a reputation for being the toughest mug in the country. I’ve heard he could lick five cops with his bare hands.”
Jim grinned. “I guess he could, but every time he went out he met six. He always got the hell beat out of him. He used to come home all covered with blood. He’d sit beside the cook stove. We had to let him alone then. Couldn’t even speak to him or he’d cry. When my mother washed him later, he’d whine like a dog.” He paused. “You know he was a sticker in the slaughter-house. Used to drink warm blood to keep up his strength.”
Nilson looked quickly at him, and then away. He bent the corner of the application card and creased it down with his thumb nail. “Your mother is alive?” he asked softly.
Jim’s eyes narrowed. “She died a month ago,” he said. “I was in jail. Thirty days for vagrancy. Word came in she was dying. They let me go home with a cop. There wasn’t anything the matter with her. She wouldn’t talk at all. She was a Catholic, only my old man wouldn’t let her go to church. He hated churches. She just stared at me. I asked her if she wanted a priest, but she didn’t answer me, just stared. ’Bout four o’clock in the morning she died. Didn’t seem like dying at all. I didn’t go to the funeral. I guess they would’ve let me. I didn’t want to. I guess she just didn’t want to live. I guess she didn’t care if she went to hell, either.”
Harry started nervously. “Drink your coffee and have some more. You act half asleep. You don’t take anything, do you?”
“You mean dope? No, I don’t even drink.”
Nilson pulled out a piece of paper and made a few notes on it. “How’d you happen to get vagged?”
Jim said fiercely, “I worked in Tulman’s Department Store. Head of the wrapping department. I was out to a picture show one night, and coming home I saw a crowd in Lincoln Square. I stopped to see what it was all about. There was a guy in the middle of the park talking. I climbed up on the pedestal of that statue of Senator Morgan so I could see better. And then I heard the sirens. I was watching the riot squad come in from the other side. Well, a squad came up from behind, too. Cop slugged me from behind, right in the back of the neck. When I came to I was already booked for vagrancy. I was rum-dum for a long time. Got hit right here.” Jim put his fingers on the back of his neck at the base of his skull. “Well, I told ’em I wasn’t a vagrant and had a job, and told ’em to call up Mr. Webb, he’s manager at Tulman’s. So they did. Webb asked where I was picked up, and the sergeant said ‘at a radical meeting,’ and then Webb said he never heard of me. So I got the rap.”
Nilson plugged in the hot plate again. The coffee started rumbling in the pot. “You look half drunk, Jim. What’s the matter with you?”
“I don’t know. I feel dead. Everything in the past is gone. I checked out of my rooming house before I came here. I still had a week paid for. I don’t want to go back to any of it again. I want to be finished with it.”
Nilson poured the coffee cups full. “Look, Jim, I want to give you a picture of what it’s like to be a Party member. You’ll get a chance to vote on every decision, but once the vote’s in, you’ll have to obey. When we have money we try to give field workers twenty dollars a month to eat on. I don’t remember a time when we ever had the money. Now listen to the work: In the field you’ll have to work alongside the men, and you’ll have to do the Party work after that, sometimes sixteen, eighteen hours a day. You’ll have to get your food where you can. Do you think you could do that?”
Nilson touched the desk here and there with his fingertips. “Even the people you’re trying to help will hate you most of the time. Do you know that?”
“Well, why do you want to join, then?”
Jim’s grey eyes half closed in perplexity. At last he said, “In the jail there were some Party men. They talked to me. Everything’s been a mess, all my life. Their lives weren’t messes. They were working toward something. I want to work toward something. I feel dead. I thought I might get alive again.”
Nilson nodded. “I see. You’re God-damn right I see. How long did you go to school?”
“Second year in high-school. Then I went to work.”
“But you talk as though you had more school than that.”
Jim smiled. “I’ve read a lot. My old man didn’t want me to read. He said I’d desert my own people. But I read anyway. One day I met a man in the park. He made lists of things for me to read. Oh, I’ve read a hell of a lot. He made lists like Plato’s Republic, and the Utopia, and Bellamy, and like Herodotus and Gibbon and Macaulay and Carlyle and Prescott, and like Spinoza and Hegel and Kant and Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. He even made me read Das Kapital.2 He was a crank, he said. He said he wanted to know things without believing them. He liked to group books that all aimed in the same direction.”
Harry Nilson was quiet for a while. Then he said, “You see why we have to be so careful. We only have two punishments, reprimand and expulsion. You’ve got to want to belong to the Party pretty badly. I’m going to recommend you, ’cause I think you’re a good man; you might get voted down, though.”
“Thanks,” said Jim.
“Now listen, have you any relatives who might suffer if you use your right name?”
“I’ve an uncle, Theodore Nolan. He’s a mechanic. Nolan’s an awful common name.”
“Yeah, I guess it is common. Have you any money?”
“About three dollars. I had some, but I spent it for the funeral.”
“Well, where you going to stay?”
“I don’t know. I cut off from everything. I wanted to start new. I didn’t want to have anything hanging over.”
Nilson looked around at the cot. “I live in this office,” he said. “I eat and sleep and work here. If you want to sleep on the floor, you can stay here for a few days.”
Jim smiled with pleasure. “I’d like that. The bunks in jail weren’t any softer than your floor.”
“Well, have you had any dinner?”
“No. I forgot it.”
Nilson spoke irritably. “If you think I’m chiseling, go ahead,” he said. “I haven’t any money. You have three dollars.”
Jim laughed. “Come on, we’ll get dried herrings and cheese and bread. And we’ll get stuff for a stew tomorrow. I can make a pretty good stew.”
Harry Nilson poured the last of the coffee into the mugs. “You’re waking up, Jim. You’re looking better. But you don’t know what you’re getting into. I can tell you about it, but it won’t mean anything until you go through it.”
Jim looked evenly at him. “Did you ever work at a job where, when you got enough skill to get a raise in pay, you were fired and a new man put in? Did you ever work in a place where they talked about loyalty to the firm, and loyalty meant spying on the people around you? Hell, I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“Nothing except hatred,” Harry said quietly. “You’re going to be surprised when you see that you stop hating people. I don’t know why it is, but that’s what usually happens.”
All during the day Jim had been restive. Harry Nilson, working on a long report, had turned on him several times in exasperation. “Look,” he said finally, “you can go down to the spot alone if you want. There’s no reason why you can’t. But in an hour I’ll go down with you. I’ve got to finish this thing.”
“I wonder if I ought to change my name,” said Jim. “I wonder if changing your name would have any effect on you.”