Saturday, April 21, 2012

Forgotten Books: In Dubious Battle

Ed here: Given what's happening to unions ever since Ronnie came into office it's necessary to remind ourselves of how hard fought it was to create unions in the first place. And how there never would have been a sizable middle class without them. Steinbeck's novel is as angry and vital as ever.

Forgotten Books: In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck

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.


KateH said...

Steinbeck wrote about actual people, while Hemingway wrote about people wishing to be more than they really were. Those who think Hemingway a better writer may be wishing it so.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Steinbeck was one of my favorites. I knew what he was saying much more clearly than with Hemmingway--not that is necessarily a good thing. But for me it was.

Anonymous said...

Steinbeck was always one of my absolute favorites.

Ed, I discovered today we are related, I am Mary Gorman's granddaughter.