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Book by Steinbeck, John; John Steinbeck (Author)
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John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California, in 1902, grew up in a fertile agricultural valley, about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast. Both the valley and the 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, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929).
After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California books, 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). The Grapes of Wrath won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 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 (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).
Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, and, in 1964, he was presented with the United States Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Steinbeck died in New York in 1968. Today, more than thirty years after his death, he remains one of America's greatest writers and cultural figures.
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 th...
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