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In Dubious Battle – John Steinbeck

 

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Posted October 14, 2016 by

In Dubious Battle – John Steinbeck – 1936

Posted by Dave on 3/1/2003, 7:08:42

This evening I sit here by candlelight and think about the book.

I will kick off this discussion now, and if any have not yet finished the book, well, it may be better for you to not read any of these comments just yet.

In Dubious Battle is such an intense read, that I feel I don’t know where to start. I made copious notes as I read the book. Now, my thoughts are awhirl!

Perhaps I will start by looking at Steinbeck’s comments (quoted in the Introduction) where he said that the book has three layers:

1. The surface story (the strike and its ramifications).

2. Group-psychological structure. (the “phalanx” theory, or as I interpret it, the theory that the group or mob will do things that the individual would never do).

3. Philosophical conclusion arrived at. (this is open to the interpretation of the reader).

In typical modesty, Steinbeck felt that only the first item would be perceived, but I believe he succeeded on all three counts.

Firstly, I felt that the book “as story” was brilliant… that Steinbeck really brought across to the reader the frustration felt on both sides of the strike. Those of the orchard-owners/townsfolk/law-enforcers, and of course, the workers/strikers themselves. It was a book that never lagged in its pace, and the dialogue was very… “hearable.” As though Steinbeck only recorded what he actually overheard! I believed in the story. I sympathized with the struggle for the most part… (more on this later).

Secondly, the group-psychological (phalanx) stuff.

Nobody said it better than Mac (p.323) when he said that the mob “is a big animal. It’s different from the men in it.”

And Jim claimed that when he was in the crowd, and pursuing the “Ideal”… he felt that he was “more than myself” (p.260).

Doc Burton says “Group men are always getting some kind of infection” (p.150). And “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” (to Mac).

Now, I must say a word here about this phalanx thing. The potential for great good and also for great evil (or bad) is an attribute of any MOB, or group. Things can be achieved by the group that cannot be achieved by the individual. Remember where someone in the story said that ten men combined had the physical strength of twelve individual men? There’s much to be said for this.

But I am not so sure that I agree entirely with the whole PREMISE of what Mac (and subsequently Jim Nolan also) were trying to achieve here initially (forgive my grammar, it’s atrocious I know). But, what I mean is that I’m not sure I agree with the mission of inciting these men to strike in the first place.

Of course, the issue is that injustice is being committed, and some ORGANIZATION and some understood and accepted HIERARCHY is needed for anything to GET DONE ABOUT IT.

The disenfranchised workers need to BECOME a phalanx, or the individuals (among them) are going to continue to suffer.

Thus, Mac feels strongly that he needs to manipulate… to CREATE the strike itself.

But all the while, I could not help but think of the analogy of deliberately seducing a man with an undercover prostitute… and then arresting him because the plot worked! In other words, the man would not have sought her services on his own, if left on his own! Is this fair? Someone sets the trap, and someone falls in. But what if the trap was never set?

Is it RIGHT to incite these poor men towards the strike?

I don’t know, I don’t know… please help me on this, I’m still not sure.

One thing is clear though, in Mac’s system, he has taken it upon himself to be absolutely sure of what is CAUSING the “infection” Doc referred to.

He says on page 161… “Doc was right about the infection, but that infection is invested capital.”

And this sort of brings us to Steinbeck’s third layer.

The philosophical conclusion, or premise.

Probably one of the most important statements in the book comes from Mac, when he says “Revolution and communism will cure social injustice.” (p.150).

A big part of how we FEEL about In Dubious Battle may depend on whether we agree or disagree with that statement.

I tend to disagree with it, simply because, in my opinion, it’s not “invested capital” that is the infection (and there IS an infection, to be sure)… but it is rather, HUMAN GREED.

The author brilliantly touches on this in the conversation with Jim and Doc Burton on page 259. There, Jim says “We don’t hate ourselves, we hate the invested capital that keeps us down.”

And then Doc answers “The other side is made of men, Jim, men like you. Man hates himself.”

This is the philosophical conclusion that I choose to take from Steinbeck’s book… and as I mentioned above…. THERE ARE OTHER CONCLUSIONS… as equally valid. That is the BEAUTY of the structure! (Remember, Steinbeck said that this third layer is built of a “philosophical conclusion arrived at, not by statement, but only through structure.” (p.xv). It is a testimony to Steinbeck’s well-roundedness that he throws Doc Burton into this story at all, because I believe Steinbeck would NOT have agreed with the good Doc!

But, this is the realm of geniuses we’re talking about here! And Steinbeck is one!

My own feeling? In a nutshell, no matter what system is in place (communism, capitalism, etc.) we will always have the disenfranchised (the robbed) among us. Economic injustice ought to be fought against at all levels, but not with the goal in mind that their exists some IDEOLOGY that will eradicate it.

Injustice re-emerges!

Not because of invested capital, but because of human greed!

We might buy into revolutionary solutions (like Mac did) if we were unacquainted with the insights of Alexis de Toqueville, the 19th Century French journalist and social critic, who explained that every violent revolution necessarily results in tyranny. De Tocqueville explained that if the revolution succeeds, those who have won must suppress and control by military means those who have opposed it. The loyalists to the old regime must flee for their lives. This is true whether it be the Cuban Revolution causing refugees to escape to Florida, or the American Revolution, which caused loyalists to flee to New Brunswick and Bermuda. Over an extended period of time restrictive measures may be relaxed, but often a whole generation must pass away for that to happen. On the other hand, tyranny will also be necessitated should the revolution fail. The ruling elite will have to use military violence to put the unruly dissenters back in their place and keep them there (this was already happening in the strikers’ camp… ie., Mac’s scathing speeches, and London knocking the living hell out of Burke).

Communism (Marxism), as I understand it, believes that the state always serves the interests of those who control the means of production and who own the wealth. The golden rule of Marxism could well be stated, “Those who have the gold, rule.”

We who live in a democratic capitalistic social system may attempt to argue against this Marxist cynicism, but we have a difficult time doing so, because so much of what he said is TRUE.

As Marx saw it though (as did the “leaders” in this story) it was the “system” rather than inherent human tendency toward greed that made people exploit one another. So, it was Marx’s well-intentioned hope that the state would wither away following the creation of a socialist system. (I can imagine the main characters in this story sitting around the campfire with their beans and rancid coffee doing the same)… but, history SEEMS to tell us that these hopes were not realized in nations of the socialist bloc. Instead, the governments of these countries became (and become) increasingly bloated bureaucracies, primarily committed to their own perpetuation rather than to serving the general public.

Why?

Doc says, because “Man hates himself.”

I truly enjoyed In Dubious Battle because the book made me think and re-think about some of these deep type of issues. And I will never stop thinking about them I guess.

I want to be clear that I am a very non-political type of person when it comes down to it… and so I will never argue a single point I’ve made above. They are complete OPINION, and maybe even radically misinformed.

I would rather have you believe I’m an idiot than argue with you.

I don’t think this book is a political book, making a point… or some kind of grandiose statement of how the world ought to turn… in fact, the greatest thing about the book is that the conflict is not really resolved (or “solved”) in the end. No one is right!

Just like the real world.

Tragedy mixed up with everything beautiful.

It’s significant, in this sense, to note that the word “Dubious” in the title was meant to describe a battle “that should never have occurred at all.” (from the Introduction, p.xxvii).

I promised once to keep my opening comments brief…. and look how I’ve disappointed you all!

I would rate this book as 4.5 hearts!

~~

Posted by Lale on 3/1/2003, 13:43:10

Very briefly for now:

1. I loved the book. Powerful ending. Steinbeck always manages to come up with strong endings. I had read three other books by Steinbeck (I intend to read all 25 of his books) and each of those three had had a bigger impact on me, therefore I will not give this book 5 stars. I rate it at 4 only in comparison to Steinbeck’s other books. Still, a magnificient story.

2. A society has two choices: Right to strike or no right to strike. I prefer to live in a society that has a right to strike. But you cannot do it halfways. A right to strike means that the powers will have to play it straight. You cannot say that there is a right to strike and then

– lie to the media and manipulate the public opinion against the strikers,

– shoot at picketers,

– harm their sympathizers (burn their businesses, barns and crops),

– take away their doctor (and then maybe torture him to get information from him to set a trap against the agitators),

– cut off their food supply.

If there is a right to strike then there is a right to strike. All parties have to play it by the rule.

More later,

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Suat on 3/1/2003, 16:21:42

Who am I to critique great John Steinbeck? I have read many of his books and loved them all, and this book “In Dubious Battle” is no exception.

The first chapter was brilliant, a vintage Steinbeck; it captivated me and I couldn’t put the book down until I reached the end. And what an end it was: so powerful, so sad, so human. The story-telling was brilliant, as always.

Was everything perfect in between? No, not for a Steinbeck novel.

I found the main characters shallow (with the exception of London). They act and talk like actors who memorized their part in a play but unable to penetrate the essence of their roles, resulting the characters of one dimension, like caricatures or puppets. With these tight strings, Mac, Jim and Doc always found themselves repeating the same sentences, cliches over an over again during their apolitical tirades. London was the only character in the book, who managed to break his chains, displayed some actions that were not expected from his former self, hence showed some development throughout the story.

The novel would have been better without the non-ideological monologues (presented as dialogues), but I believe, this structure was quite common at the time of writing and Steinbeck could not save himself from that affliction.

I would give three and a half hearts as the over all score.

 ~~

Posted by Moana Evans on 3/1/2003, 21:34:28

posted by suat:

: The novel would have been better without the

: non-ideological monologues (presented as dialogues),

I agree with you there. In most Steinbeck that I have read, he uses the actions of the characters to show their ideological positions, not dialogue that weighs the story down with its heavy-handedness. Parallels with The Grapes of Wrath are inevitable – the subjects of the books are so much the same – but here I felt less sympathy with the strikers because they were being manipulated by Mac and Jim. They themselves did not feel real to me, not purposeful enough. Jim spends the first half of the book following Mac around and saying how wonderful it makes him feel to belong to something bigger than just the individual. The ideas of the main characters were repeated to the point of frustration, at least for me.

One question: What purpose did the character of Doc serve? I couldn’t think of any reason he should be there, aside from helping along some minor plot complications. His point of view was what I thought the reader should be thinking (questioning particular tenets of Mac’s ideology, etc). A Greek chorus of some kind? He doesn’t seem like a real person.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 4/1/2003, 2:30:40

: enough. Jim spends the first half of the book

: following Mac around and saying how wonderful it

: makes him feel to belong to something bigger than

Yes, it was a little annoying. And the way they always called one another “Mac” and “Jim” at the beginning of each sentence, like used-car-salesmen. There was way too much repetition and lecture disguised in dialogue. Grapes of Wrath, written 3 years later, is much more comfortable, natural and fluid in dialogues.

: One question: What purpose did the character of Doc

: serve? I couldn’t think of any reason he should be

: there, aside from helping along some minor plot

: complications.

They trapped Mac and Jim at the very end by using Doc. As I understand it, they captured him, tortured him and learned from him the names of the two “reds” and that they were in London’s tent. Then they sent the young boy with the “I found an injured man, he says he is a doctor” story. So, not that minor.

: particular tenets of Mac’s ideology, etc). A Greek

: chorus of some kind? He doesn’t seem like a real

: person.

This is a very interesting point. Possible. He was playing the Devil’s Advocate to Mac and Jim.

By the way, we must remember that Mac and Jim did not really start this strike. They went there with every intention of stimulating and giving a push to a strike but it happened all on its own.

I loved the story. These people had nothing to lose. They were already not earning enough to buy decent food when their rates were cut. They were angry. Mac and Jim only had the chance to talk to a few men. Old Dan’s falling from a broken ladder provided the necessary push.

As the Turkish proverb says: “one eats and another looks on, that’s the cause for all hell to break loose.”

I was very impressed by the description of the Bolter character, the new president of the Fruit Growers’ Association. His smile and insincerity disgusted me.

“… If we pay anymore, we lose money.

Jim said, ‘The reason they can’t pay the raise is because that’d mean we win the strike; and if we did that, a lot of other poor devils’d go on strike. Isn’t that it, mister?’

Bolter’s smile remained. ‘I thought from the first you deserved a raise … I’m going to offer you twenty cents, and no questions and no grudges. And we’ll expect you back at work tomorrow morning.'”

And then when he sees the refusal:

“… All of us are in the same boat. Times are hard. We’re all trying to get along, and we’ve got to help each other.”

Yeah, right. The man who had just offered twenty cents now raises it a little more:

“Bolter looked very sad. ‘Will you accept half?'”

I found this scene brilliant.

Lale

Posted by Christopher on 4/1/2003, 5:15:48

I’ve been promising Lale for over a year that I would participate in her on-line book club and so I write today hoping that she holds no grudges for my procrastination (and she wont – Lale’s far too worldly and refined to hold grudges!). I also wish to say hello to everyone who reads and writes at readliterature: I’ve been secretly perusing the message board for months so its natural that I know a little more about you than you know about me. Not to worry – I had none of the intentions of Sauron’s evil eye; if I had I doubt Lale would ever have entrusted her cat to my care. Cats are a big deal in Lale’s world, as is good food. Unfortunately, she didn’t find either in Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle.

This novel surprised me. I had no idea that I was launching into a detailed analysis of the tactics of communist revolution. All of the main ingredients were there: oppressive working conditions, powerful men protecting their business “interests”, a dissatisfied working contingent, a (somewhat) organized grassroots “party”, the violent revolutionary (Mac), the “Leader” (London), the intellectual fellow-traveler (Doc) and a host of other sympathizers more or less committed to the cause. Of all the Steinbeck novels that I have read no other is so topical in its content nor so firmly rooted in a particular place and time. Where novels such as Of Mice and Men arguably transcend their own narrative and offer an element of timeless universality, In Dubious Battle is inextricably bound to the 1930s, to the combat against fascism, to naive faith in Soviet policies and the success of the worker’s movement.

Coming from the pen of such an American author, this is a profoundly anti-American work particularly when considered from the vantage point of a contemporary political world dominated by “democratically elected” Leaders whose pockets are bloated by the generous tax write-offs of multi-billion dollar corporations. Something tells me that high-school students in the Mid-West don’t have to write character studies of figures like Jim or Doc. Orwell’s Animal Farm is famous because of its brilliant critique of the Marxist system; In Dubious Battle was unknown to me a month ago no doubt because of the empathy Steinbeck held for that very same system. Politics are at the very heart of this novel, and politics have most certainly contributed to this work’s marginal status within Steinbeck’s own literary canon.

That said, what of the novel itself? In many ways I agree with Suat: I also found much of the dialogue repetitive and cliched. Character development is necessarily stifled due to Steinbeck’s evident desire to have his characters adhere to systematic “archetypes”. As a result none of the characters seem to be imbued with the mysterious, ineffable light of the truly human. As Suat mentioned: they act like puppets against the volatile backdrop of an amorphous, anonymous “mob”. I couldn’t help feeling that Steinbeck wanted his novel to adhere to a doctrine (in many ways, the book could be confused with documentary non-fiction). In the end, however, I couldn’t deny that the rigidity of the doctrine lent a certain amount of inflexibility to the narrative. The strike, and the tactics implemented to see it through, had to follow their natural and somewhat predictable path. The imagination of the individual was superceded by the action of the group.

And that brings me to what I feel was one of the great strengths of the novel: that Steinbeck’s narrative style is actually a reflection (translation ?) of the political doctrine he sets out to depict. People (or characters) are only important in as much as they fulfill a particular role within the revolutionary combat (or narrative). Their imaginations or their personal identities matter only so much as they help further the cause. We know nothing of the personal history of Mac, Doc or Jim. Only the old man, Dan, has a story to tell about himself – his experience as a top-faller – not surprisingly he is one of the first to be sacrificed to the cause. The new order won’t be built on nostalgia and sentiment!

Jim, of course, is the key to this design. He appears on the stage entirely lost – he comes from an abyss and as he follows Mac around (a little bit ridiculously, I agree) he slowly grows in stature into the most convinced member of the group. As the strike unfolds before us, Jim stands as a symbol of those who could truly benefit from the strike and ultimate revolution. I see him as an individual that symbolizes the struggles of the nameless masses. It is interesting that in the first chapter Jim says how he has read everything from Plato to Spinoza to Marx: it is as if he carries the weight of Western civilization on his shoulders (like the masses) but still wishes to transform the world order into something completely new. He’s a fascinating if somewhat hollow character.

OK: I’m being horribly long-winded for a first-timer.

One last thought: what about the depiction of Lisa? Now that was brutal! Reduced to making babies and covering up her shoulders – not much of a place for her in the new order!

A very interesting read. 3 hearts.

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 4/1/2003, 19:13:40

Dear Friends,

This is my good friend Christopher (not to be confused with our Chris Green). Christopher is a Newfie (Newfoundlander), a Parisian and a Montrealer, all at the same time. Remember the National Library we read about in detail in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz? Christopher has spent many many long days in that library, researching some obscure French composers. He is a musicologist and a terrific piano player. He also devours books. Big Proust fan.

: One last thought: what about the depiction of Lisa? Now that

: was brutal! Reduced to making babies and covering up her

: shoulders – not much of a place for her in the new order!

I know!!! And everyone knows that 1789 belongs to women 😉 If Lisa could offer some wisdom to Jim or to Doc when she was sitting there and listening to their conversations, it would have been a nice touch.

The sexual innuendo around Lisa was a little bizarre. I didn’t know what to make of it. I wished Steinbeck didn’t do that.

Lale

 ~~

Posted by len. on 6/1/2003, 20:11:50

Lale writes:

>Christopher has spent many many long days in that library, researching some obscure French composers.

Hmm, obscure French composers? How obscure?

len (lover of French music).

 ~~

Posted by len on 10/1/2003, 21:02:18

Christopher asks me:

>I’ve spent a fair amount of time doing research on Koechlin. I am now involved in a research project that deals with a number of composers like Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, Auric, etc.

I know them all. Poulenc is far and away my favorite. And Germaine Taillefaire, who deserves much wider recognition. As does Louise Farrenc, from an earlier era.

>my project doesn’t really touch on the 20s. Any favorites in there?

French composers from the ’20s? I’m not good with dates…

OK, looked some things up. Les Six were named as such in 1920. Ravel was only 45 by then, Roussel was 51. Widor (who shares my birthday) was 76, Vierne 50. Debussy was two years dead. Faure was 75, Dukas 55, Ibert only 30, Varese 37, d’Indy 69, Saint-Saens 85, Tournemire 50. Jehan Alain was only 9, Messiaen 12, Durufle 18.

And a lot of much earlier composers, Rameau, the Couperins, Charpentier, Boismortier, Lassus, Leclair, Lully, Machaut, Marais…

An awful lot of very good music by the French!

len.

 ~~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 4/1/2003, 10:59:30

The opening of this book is like a classic black and white movie scene: a man in a seedy hotel room, a flickering neonlight. The scene is so evocatively rendered that you immediately see it before you. This goes for the whole book. It’s a very long time ago since I had read a Steinbeck novel and at the time I wasn’t a discerning enough reader to notice how well Steinbeck writes, how expressive and at the same time how economical. If you pay no attention to his style you won’t even notice it, it’s that effortless, unobtrusive and unpretentious. Which is as it should be for Steinbeck is first and foremost a storyteller.

The doctor was for me the most fascinating character in the novel, first because he is ambiguous and second because his comments are the most interesting and thought-provoking of all. He presents himself as a cynical outsider who says he is just on the inside because he wants to observe, but no cynical observer would devote himself so disinterestedly to those strikers. He must care somehow, but does not want to admit it, because the rational scientist’s outlook tells him that a mob is something that can easily get out of control and will then do things he would never approve of. The doctor in him, however, just wants to alleviate suffering and follow his heart. Because he is torn between these two impulses his observations are neither those of an ideologist with a one-track mind nor those of a greedy orchard-owner who only cares for profit and nothing for the wellfare of his workers. He questions the strikers’ actions, but does not have the answer. Instead he does the best he can to help, because no one else will.

So far for my brief comments. Probably more later. Number of hearts: 3.5 to 4 overall, but 4.5 for excellent readability

 ~~

Posted by Suat on 4/1/2003, 14:23:59

Anna wrote:

: The opening of this book is like a classic black and

: white movie scene: a man in a seedy hotel room, a

: flickering neonlight. The scene is so evocatively

: rendered that you immediately see it before you.

Exactly my sentiments. More specifically, I thought of the opening scene of Jim Jarmush’s “Stranger Than Paradise” and even wondered whether he was inspired by this book.

Posted by Dave on 4/1/2003, 15:00:23

Moana asked the question and then Lale answered it well… Doc served the purpose of (probably) providing information after his abduction, and also in becoming a sacrifice (maybe a martyr) for the Cause, and yet the interesting thing is that he once said, “I don’t believe in the cause, but I believe in men.”

Then, secondly he was, as Lale said, the Devil’s Advocate to the ideas of Mac, Jim, and to a lesser extent, London. Always providing that opposing view to things. Doc was unique in the novel in that he was in favor of the strike, but opposed to the violent means of attaining the goals. He provided that counterpoint, believing that “you can only build a violent thing with violence.” (p.259).

It’s neat to see how many different ways we readers MEET with the same book.

Moana Evans felt that the presence of Doc in the story was superfluous and that he didn’t “seem like a real person.” Yet I felt that he was essential to the story and that his views were a needed presence in the book. I agree with the statement “His point of view was what I thought the reader should be thinking (questioning particular tenets of Mac’s ideology, etc).”

I agree with Anna that Doc was “the most fascinating character in the novel, first because he is ambiguous and second because his comments are the most interesting and thought-provoking of all.”

We needed Doc, or else the book would not have had any “high-falutin’ ideas” in it!

Almost everyone has commented that the dialogue was wooden, or predictable or one-dimensional. And yet, I liked the raw language, felt that I was listening in on unrehearsed activity as it would happen and sound…. the back-and-forthness that doesn’t lose me, as can happen with lesser writers.

But it is true that the characters themselves often seem a bit one-dimensional, or as Chris perfectly said it… like “systematic archetypes.”

I would have liked to see Jim Nolan wobble a bit. Vacillate, or whatever. Would someone who had only so recently joined up with “the cause” be this inexorably committed? And relentless, even in the face of the violent lengths that such commitment calls for?

I would have liked to see him DOUBT a bit more.

From reading the comments here, and from re-thinking a few things about the book, I will ammend my heartrate to ****four**** hearts overall. Maybe even just a tad less. Based firstly on the fact that I realized I would probably never want to RE-READ it, and secondly… my previous 4.5 hearts is dangerously too close to the five hearts I reserve for East of Eden, my current benchmark masterpiece in the Steinbeck canon.

 ~~

Posted by Christopher on 4/1/2003, 20:24:36

Dave said:

“Doc was unique in the novel in that he was in favor of the strike, but opposed to the violent means of attaining the goals. He provided that counterpoint, believing that “you can only build a violent thing with violence.” (p.259).”

I absolutely agree. I think that Steinbeck was trying to depict Doc as a left-wing intellectual who is sympathetic yet critical towards communism (I couldn’t help thinking about and comparing him to Gide). Furthermore, he is also a political pacifist in the tradition of Gandhi. In the 30s there were many intellectuals flirting with communism: perhaps Doc embodies the opinions and voice of Steinbeck himself?

 ~~

Posted by Dave on 5/1/2003, 5:04:49

Hi Christopher:

Until I read Lale’s message above, I thought you were “Chris”… our old friend Chris. (Hence, I was referring to you as Chris). Now I know. Nice to meet you.

Thinking about your comments:

You mentioned Gandhi. I too, thought of Gandhi, and also Dr. Martin Luther King when I was listening to Doc in the book! Gide I am not familiar with.

About this comment: “perhaps Doc embodies the opinions and voice of Steinbeck himself?”

I did some investigating, and I would say that it’s hard to pinpoint Steinbeck’s own beliefs exactly.

I found a letter, written by Steinbeck to a Mavis McIntosh, where he says of In Dubious Battle, “I guess it is a brutal book, more brutal because there is no author’s moral point of view.”

So, it doesn’t seem that he was “grinding an axe” (so to say) with the book. Nor writing a Manifesto.

In another letter, to his editor Elizabeth Otis, he says of I.D.B.: “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. They do what they can under the circumstances.”

There is some really interesting stuff in another letter to Mavis McIntosh. Apparently J.S. was having some trouble with his publisher (Covici)… they felt the book was too controversial etc.

Steinbeck says:

“Does no one in the world want to see and judge this thing coldly? Answering the complaint that the ideology is incorrect, this is the silliest of criticism. There are as many communist systems as there are communists. It should be obvious from the book that not only is this true, but that the ideologies change to fit the situation. In this book I was making nothing up. In any statement by one of the protagonists I have simply used statements I have heard used. Answering the second criticism that the book would be attacked by both sides, I thoroughly anticipated such attack in trying to do an unbiased book. And if attack has ever hurt the sale of a book I have yet to hear of it.

That is the trouble with the damned people of both sides. They postulate either an ideal communist or a thoroughly damnable communist and neither side is willing to suspect that the communist is a human, subject to the weaknesses of humans. I am not angry in the least. But the blank wall of stupid refusal even to look at the thing without colored glasses of some kind gives me a feeling of overwhelming weariness and a desire to run away and let them tear their stupid selves to pieces. If the fools would only change the name from Communist to, say, American Liberal Party, their principles would probably be embraced overnight.”

I think it’s significant, his words “in trying to do an unbiased book.”

Doc (in my opinion) was necessary in this respect. Was he the voice of Steinbeck?

I’m not sure, but I tend to NOT think so. But, as I said in earlier comments, Doc is a sign of Steinbeck’s well-roundedness in this novel. One thing we can be sure of… Doc (and Doc’s views) existed in Steinbeck’s imagination as a valid counterpoint to thoroughgoing communism as envisioned by Mac and Jim. I say “valid” because Steinbeck portrayed him not as a misinformed wandering meta-physician (a.k.a. nutball), but as a real man committed to public welfare… yet, as someone privy to realities unrecognized by those with a more polarized practical (pragmatic) nature. Or, as you said Christopher… an “intellectual.”

One thing clear about Mac, Jim, and London. These men were NOT intellectually inclined!

Was Steinbeck intellectually inclined?

Of course.

So…. maybe Doc WAS J.S’s mouthpiece after all!

But, to draw that kind of a conclusion, based on these… hints, would seem to suggest that to think “communistly” means one cannot also be an intellectual, and this would be in error. We would be doing that thing that he condemned in the letter above, postulating the ideal communist, in an either/or kind of way.

So, we will never know, and Steinbeck apparently wanted it that way.

Posted by Dave on 6/1/2003, 3:27:08

I did a lot more research about Steinbeck today. It seems that my statement above “So, we will never know, and Steinbeck apparently wanted it that way” is not exactly true at all.

Steinbeck was quite clear about his views.

In 1936, Mary McCarthy wrote a scathing review of In Dubious Battle in a magazine called “The Nation.” She called I.D.B. an “academic, wooden, inert” novel. And she criticized what she felt were Steinbeck’s political views. He had been labelled a communist.

So, six months later, he submitted a rebuttal which was published in the same magazine.

He called his essay “Dubious Battle In California” and it was mainly a survey of the history of California’s migrant worker problem. (He had personally done a tour of the labor camps in the intervening six months)!

In this essay, it is clear that while Steinbeck sympathized with the migrants and, to some extent, with unionization, he opposed communism.

Steinbeck maintained his opinions on the subject throughout his life, which can be seen in an article called “I Am A Revolutionary” first published in “Le Figaro” magazine in 1954. I looked up this one page article. It’s amazing. The gist of it is that he opposed communism because it dampened individual creativity, stifled initiative, and fostered lies to achieve its ends.

He stated that, in his opinion, communism succeeded only in destroying the individual’s freedom.

Here is a key paragraph:

“They have had to hunt down and eliminate everyone with the slightest revolutionary tendency, even those who helped accomplish their own. Where they have absolute power they have established the most reactionary governments in the world, governments so fearful of revolt that they must make every man an informer against his fellows, and layer their society with secret police. And like most insecure organizations, they must constantly enlarge to cover the fact that they are unsound. Any other group following their pattern they would call imperialistic.”

He chose to think of himself as a “very dangerous revolutionary” saying:

“Herein is my revolt. I believe in and will fight for the right of the individual to function as an individual without pressure from any direction.”

 ~~

Posted by Christopher on 10/1/2003, 0:11:37

Dave said:

Steinbeck maintained his opinions on the subject throughout his life, which can be seen in an article called “I Am A Revolutionary” first published in “Le Figaro” magazine in 1954. I looked up this one page article. It’s amazing. The gist of it is that he opposed communism because it dampened individual creativity, stifled initiative, and fostered lies to achieve its ends.

You’ve found very interesting documents! What you say about Steinbeck’s attitude reminds me of what Andre Gide said in 1937 when he returned from the U.S.S.R. completely disillusioned about communist society. If you are interested read “Return to the U.S.S.R.” for a fascinating picture of what life there was like and how Gide felt that it hampered individual creativity. Before 1937, Gide was one of the most prominent communist sympathizers from the intellectual left in France. This novel changed many people’s sympathies away from communism. I wonder if Steinbeck read it in the interim between In Dubiouys Battke and his article for the Figaro in the 50s?

Christopher

 ~~

Posted by Moana Evans on 6/1/2003, 22:09:02

Reading over these reviews, I think that perhaps the reason I felt Doc to be somewhat superfluous (if not to certain plot points, at least in ideology) was because his attitude to the strikers was very close to my own views. The errors he points out in Mac and Jim’s thinking, his opposition to violence as a means of negotiation, etc, were all things that I viewed as important from the outset. I see that if other readers were not so inclined, there would be a need for such an “observer” to express this point of view. I see Doc as somewhat of a humanist – “I believe in men” – rather than a communist sympathizer. It is this love for fellow men that gives him the reason he needs to stay and help, even if he does not believe in the cause itself.

One more thing, unrelated, that I found interesting: The book opens with a passage from Paradise Lost. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the setting of this story be an apple orchard. By refusing to pick the apples from the tree, the strikers reject that sin inherent in the corrupt system of employers. This makes the story a bit more of a clear case of good vs evil, which of course it isn’t, but I do think that the setting emphasizes the battle between strikers and employers as more universal than previously thought. Any takers?

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Posted by Lale on 7/1/2003, 0:00:00

: The book opens with a passage from Paradise Lost.

: It is perhaps fitting, then, that the setting of

: this story be an apple orchard. By refusing to pick

: the apples from the tree, the strikers reject that

: sin inherent in the corrupt system of employers.

Hats off to you Moana. This is a very good find. Steinbeck loves symbolisms.

The violence thing all boils down to the “does the end justify the means?” question.

Sartre – Yes.

Camus – No.

For us non-activists, it is hard to accept any kind of violence. And even activists such as Mac did not really promote violence. They were only piling up stones to protect themselves and using the torn body of Joy for propaganda (who had already died for the cause). The only violence happened when Sam burned the house of a land owner and Mac/London did not discourage him. He might have done it anyway, even if they did discourage him. He had been in strikes before, he had been used and abused before, he had suffered before, he was now a mad man. His act was individual.

The acts of the vigilantes (supported by the land owners) were violent. Burning Al’s diner and burning Al’s father’s barn were violent. Killing Joy was violent.

What I am trying to say is Mac and Jim, and the strikers didn’t do anything violent except for Sam’s action.

But even if they did … It comes down to the means/end formula. When you are fighting for an ideology, it is war, and some things have to be done to achieve the end. If the land owners are ripping labourers off year-in and year-out, then what is a couple of broken windows?

I am sure you have heard this example before: Imagine two families arriving at Sunnylurnia. One family, maybe because of luck, or with violence, take all the goodies, the fertile land, the mine, what have you. They use every means (weapons) to protect what they have obtained. Then they say to the other family “Look here, stealing is wrong. If you steal our chickens we will put you in jail.”

I couldn’t tell the story very well but you get the point. It is ok for landowners to put people to work for a loaf of bread a day, but it is not ok for the labourers to strike and to picket.

Wrt to Dave’s comments earlier: No, Steinbeck was not a communist, he always said that he was not. He observed. Just as any other smart observer would see, he saw things. He also had the talent to put it on paper. You don’t have to be a communist to see what is wrong. “In Dubious Battle” is the story of something wrong. It is obvious which side Steinbeck was on. He was as objective as he could be.

A semi-related article. This was big news here in Paris and I couldn’t help making a connection:

CNN.COM

McDonald’s attacker freed from jail

August 1, 2002 Posted: 10:40 AM EDT (1440 GMT)

Jose Bove leaves prison 24 pounds thinner after a four-week hunger strike

PARIS, France — A radical French sheep farmer who attacked a McDonald’s restaurant has been released for good behaviour halfway through his jail sentence.

French environmental activist Jose Bove was released from prison on Thursday after serving just 40 days of his three-month jail sentence in a prison in Villeneuve-les-Maguelon, in southern France.

Bove, who had previously served 19 days in jail during the investigation of his case, was greeted by about 600 of his supporters on his release.

The head of the radical Confederation Paysanne farmers’ union thanked his supporters and said: “Our struggle is just starting. We must denounce the arbitrary actions of the government that puts trade union leaders into jail.

“Prison is abominable, but I was here for all of you, so that helped me,” he added.

Bove, who has been attending civil rights and anti-globalisation protests around the world, was jailed for smashing a half-built McDonald’s in 1999 using farm equipment in a protest against U.S. trade policy.

He tried to justify the McDonald’s attack by saying the action had been legal and necessary in response to punitive U.S. taxes on Roquefort cheese and other European farm goods.

At his release Bove said: “The World Trade Organization had just ordered Europe to accept hormone-treated beef. It was illegal, but when legality is illegitimate, it’s legitimate to move into illegality.”

‘Symbolic figure’

The nine other activists involved in the attack were convicted in March 2001, but Bove was the only one jailed. This was decided as Bove acted as leader of the campaign against what he calls “foul food” — genetically modified crops and fast food.

His long track of destroying fields of genetically modified crops means that Bove still could end up in prison on charges for earlier cases.

His lawyer, Francois Roux said: “Prison still awaits Jose if the appeals court does not throw out another sentence of 14 months he has, and he still faces another trial on September 17.”

Before Bove’s sentencing members of his Confederation Paysanne trade union met representatives of France’s highest-profile anti-globalisation group, Attac, to discuss how to mobilise public opinion in support of Bove.

“By targeting from the outset a symbolic figure of the social movement, before the new parliament even meets, the government is signaling its intention of violating union freedoms and blocking debate,” Confederation Paysanne said.

In February justice officials feared that Bove’s fate could become an electoral issue, and would not enforce the three-month sentence until the second round of legislative elections ended two months of voting for president and parliament.

After his release Bove joined his supporters for a huge picnic near the prison, to discuss genetically modified food.

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Posted by Dave on 7/1/2003, 7:19:36

: The book opens with a passage from Paradise Lost.

: It is perhaps fitting, then, that the setting of

: this story be an apple orchard. By refusing to pick

: the apples from the tree, the strikers reject that

: sin inherent in the corrupt system of employers.

That IS a neat connection to make there. Steinbeck certainly loves the symbolism, and does not shy away from putting it right into his titles and naming of his characters. I think offhand of “East of Eden” taken from the book of Genesis, and “To A God Unknown” borrowed from the Vedic hymn. “Grapes of Wrath” from the hymn etc. These three books all have characters that can be likened to biblical counterparts.

Speculating on these kind of things, and reading more and more about Steinbeck only makes me share Lale’s goal of wanting to read ALL of his works. All of them.

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