John Steinbeck - In Dubious Battle
At the end of the first chapter of John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, Jim Nolan says to Harry, the man who is in the process of accepting his application into the Communist Party of America, “Did you ever work at a job where, when you got enough skill to get a rise 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?” From the start, a tone has been set, a gauntlet thrown down, and a new phase of Steinbeck's career has begun.
The strike novel was an increasingly common sub-genre in the 1930s as the Great Depression continued and working men found themselves either without a job, or paid so low that it didn't matter much that they were working at all. A man could move his family across several states because he had heard of good jobs, only to find out that the farm owners had reduced the amount they were paying until the wages were so low he couldn't support his family. But what was he to do? Move back?
The novel opens with Jim Nolan applying to join the Communist Party. He has lost everything, his job, his mother, and even his will to live. He says that while he was in gaol for vagrancy he met some Party men, “They talked to me. Everything's been a mess, all my life. Their lives weren't messes. They were working towards something. I want to work towards something. I feel dead. I thought I might get alive again.” He sees a great purpose in the Communist Party, something he can devote himself to. As he often says, he just “wants to be used” by them.
Pretty soon Jim is introduced to other Party members, and the basic outline of what they do is explained. A large part of their job involves talking with working men, stirring up anti-capitalist sentiment, and handing out leaflets. Where things really get exciting – and where Jim desperately desires to be – are during the times when a strike seems imminent. In those cases the Party will send off an experienced man to stoke the fires. Mac is one such expert and, after a little convincing, he takes Jim along with him to assist in a fruit-picking strike. Mac and Jim arrive at the workers 'jungle', a loose collection of tents, trucks, cars and trails where they live and eat, and through fortuitous circumstances come to be trusted by the workers' unofficial leader, London, and pretty soon the strike is on.
The vast majority of the novel is taken up with dialogue between the primary characters as they worry away at the problems presented during the strike. Mac is a committed Party man, experienced and enthusiastic, and able to talk to anyone in their language. He is able to gain the trust of important men quickly, but he never loses sight of the fact that this is but one strike among many, and that everything can and should be used as a weapon against the capitalists. Sickness in the 'jungle'? Use it against the capitalists. A man is shot and killed? Use his body against the capitalists. The strike has a chance to turn ugly and violent, and might result in the death of many of the workers? That's okay, because in the end it will hurt the capitalists even more. Mac is a strong representation of the Party's beliefs, and he acts as both a positive and negative portrayal of their goals and desires. Everything, for him, comes back to how it will help the cause. Because of this, he doesn't see men as men but as tools to be used. He is a carpenter and they are his nails. He tells Jim, “There's no better way to make men part of a movement than to have them give something to it”, and by this he means money, time, blood, their lives – whatever it takes.
Steinbeck works hard to have the reader sympathise with the workers. And, given the conditions they were living in, and what they were expected to survive on, this is not difficult. The capitalists are never really shown beyond their ability to rustle up police protection and violence, which makes them very much a straw man designed to be demolished. Steinbeck isn't waging a fair fight, but then that isn't really the point.
What is, then? Jim. He is the outsider drawn inward, which means he is us – our eyes and our ears and our thoughts. He questions everyone, but mostly Mac, and by his questioning we learn of labour conditions and the Party's stance on America. For the first two thirds of the novel this works well, although we aren't often given a chance to learn of Jim's thoughts. If he doesn't speak them, we don't know them. This keeps the reader at something of a distance, which isn't too much of a problem (though it is a fault) until the last third, when Jim reaches an epiphany that we haven't really followed, and becomes almost prophetic in his ability and knowledge of the Party. Jim takes on qualities that weren't present before, and that directly contradict his status as 'our' eyes and ears, and this is a failing of the novel. He ceases to be a person and starts to function purely as the cause. He tells Mac that, “I wanted you to use me. You wouldn't because you got to like me too well. That was wrong. Then I got hurt. And sitting here waiting, I got to know my power. I'm stronger than you, Mac. I'm stronger than anything in the world, because I'm going in a straight line.” The relentless build-up of the novel virtually requires this sort of escalation, but Steinbeck fudges the progression. The battle is for Jim, and the battle is won – but one can't help but think that Steinbeck cheated in the fight.
The men of the strike are drawn well. Steinbeck was interested in showing the real way men spoke and, while he thankfully didn't use dialect, the vocabulary and grammar of his characters are slim and, to my reading, accurate. Because so much of the novel is dialogue, it is critical for Steinbeck to get it right, and he has. London, Mac and the rest are of roughly the same level of education, but their speech is varied enough that you can believe they are individuals. Toward the end of the novel as the strike heats up and violence becomes commonplace, the workers fuse together to create a sort of animal, a mob that is less under the control of Mac, Jim and London than they would like. But, the grooming they have done throughout the novel has helped, and some of their goals are achieved. Mac acknowledges that strikes often culminate in mob action, and when that happens, they can't be controlled and they don't always do what you like. But it is the work of the men, and they can be proud of themselves for doing something together, and they can understand that collective achievement is possible.
For a novel like In Dubious Battle to follow only a year after the picaresque, fanciful, and somewhat minor Tortilla Flat is a curiosity, to say the least. This novel is virtually humourless, and is relentlessly focused on its goal of exploring the psychology of the strike. It is clear that Steinbeck habours a great love for the common man, and wishes to see him receive his due. These striking men, though ill-educated and violent, though they want nothing more than meat in their belly and a woman to come home to, though they cheat and steal and lie and fight, they are men and they are proud, and Steinbeck loves them for that.
---The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights
---To a God Unknown
List of American authors under review