John Steinbeck was one of the great observers of humanity. Writing non-fiction based on his experiences in various parts of the US and the world, the overwhelming majority of his novels likewise present people and situations in a wholly realistic manner. Forever with an eye to the common man, much of his Depression era fiction examines the civil strife sweeping the land; seemingly everything was scarce for the majority of the population. But with harvest time came an opportunity, albeit temporary, for migrant workers to collect the bounty of the season, that is, if farmers and owners were willing to pay fair wages for the work. In almost every way a precursor to The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s 1936 novel In Dubious Battle examines the human side of labor strikes in the 1930s in both leftist and realist tones.
In Dubious Battle (title taken from Paradise Lost) is the story of Jim Nolan, a young man with no direction in life, and Mac, an experienced communist agitator. Knowing the owners have banded together to lower wages, at the outset of the novel the pair arrive in a valley filled with apple orchards ripe for the picking and workers upset at having their pay reduced. Slowly but confidently organizing the men and their families into a strike, events soon begin bouncing back and forth between the owners and workers as anger, scabs, and local political interests take over. Escalating into a clash of violent proportions, the lives of Jim and Mac end up changed forever.
The Grapes of Wrath indirectly presents the state of labor and economics in the 1930s via the very personal story of the Joads. In Dubious Battle has the same aim, but presents the theme in direct, situational terms. This is not to say Steinbeck refrains from involving the reader in the lives of Jim, Mac, and the others, rather the curtains are pulled further back to reveal the stage and larger cast of characters upon which labor strikes of the 1930s happened. The coordination of and reaction to a strike highly complex, Steinbeck brings all of his real life experiences living and talking with migrant fruit workers in California in the 1930s, to bear upon the narrative, rendering a story that is both affective and authentic feeling.
In Dubious Battle often possesses more the feel of a work of journalism than literary fiction. The men’s feelings, the posturing, the threats tossed back and forth, and the violence that erupts are all powerfully real but laid out in plain, direct terms. The text is thus not the best of Steinbeck’s writing from a prose perspective. The looming strike a great tension builder, Steinbeck does, however, wholly capitalize on the stages of the social phenomenon, both subtle and overt, for literary effect. Mac’s talk may at times be more archetypal than mimetic, the situations he comments upon nevertheless come straight from the pages of history.
In Dubious Battle thus makes an interesting counter-point to many of the dystopian novels produced around the time the book was published warning of the dangers of socialism/communism. Like The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck presents matters from the common man’s perspective, allowing theory to fall where it will. Rather than bandy about ideas, the facts of people’s lives are laid bare on the page for the reader to see and contextualize. In short, the novel is heavily politicized from a quotidian man point of view, and given the realism of the presentation, makes matters difficult for proponents of capitalism to dispute, theory the only option.
In the end, In Dubious Battle is a polarized view of the labor situation in America during the Depression. Damning capitalism, Steinbeck presents his leftist views via the situation. What makes this approach difficult to fault is the realism underpinning events as they pan out. Not painting the strikers as angels void of fault, their narrow view motivates the story as much as the greed of the orchard owners. The novel thus possesses strong impact despite being propaganda and is worth reading for anyone interested in the lesser known of Steinbeck’s works, socialist fiction, or just a human tale of labor strikes in the 1930s.