Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Forgotten Books: In Dubious Battle

It's bracing to remember, in this time when mega-corporations control our lives, to recall a time when people fought back against those who enslaved them.

In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck, a novel I prefer to the preachy and over-calculated Grapes of Wrath, is set in a tiny California town where apple pickers are angry at the growers' association for cutting wages by fifteen cents. The year is 1936 and the forces of the rich and powerful are at war with the powerless workers. Mac and Jim are the lead characters and it is Mac who takes Jim to a meeting of the Communist Party, which wants to convince the workers to strike. They are joined by Doc Burton, a medical man who keeps the worker camp clean so that the cops can't close the place down because of sanitation violations.

Steinbeck's passion can be found on every page, in every detail. The camp and its people are depicted realistically. Steinbeck is not writing a tract. Some of the workers are here just to make trouble; others are stalking horses for the Communists. Others for the growers' association. The poverty, the despair and above all the rage are palpable. As is the sorrow.

For me Jim is the most interesting character in the book because he changes over the course of his experiences. He begins to see that the concept of "the working man's friend" is a lie. The Communists exploit the workers just as the Capitalists do. Doc has his vision of how things should be; Mac believes in political movements; but Jim finds no comfort. The misery he has seen in his years seems a brutal and irrefutable fact of life.

Steinbeck was long ago judged as second-tier to his enemy Hemingway. I never quite knew why. Good as he was, Hemingway could not have painted on a canvas this large and done it with such grace and power. You'll never forget the people you meet here.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I read all of Steinbeck forty years ago and loved every one of them. You are so right about a broader canvas. Got it for Friday.

Charlieopera said...

Will read pronto. I'm a Steinbeck worshipper ... can't really pick between the two, although I prefer Grapes to anything of Hems.

But I have not read this one yet, Ed. Will do.

Anonymous said...

Ed, you ever notice that most of the -isms start out pretty well, at least as pure ideas; Marxism, Capitalism, Socialism and some of the various Religion-isms. But they go right off the tracks when too many people get involved and the original message gets filtered through the most deadly -ism of all, egoism.
Terry Butler

Richard Robinson said...

Great pick.

It's been a long time since I read this one, but my memory of it matches your comments, Ed. I was on a Steinbeck kick and read this, GRAPES, CANNERY ROW, MICE AND MEN, TORTILLA FLATS, all of them, even TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY. I liked them all, though I think CANNERY and FLATS are my favorites.