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In Dubious Battle (Penguin Classics) Paperback – May 30, 2006
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About the Author
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.
Top Customer Reviews
Second, he weaves a picturesque and spellbinding story with this ability to animate scenes with his words. He truly captures the idea of "suspension of disbelief;" the reader has no doubt he/she is reading about real places and people.
Last and most important, Steinbeck turns the tables on the reader in the last paragraph of the book. While this book may superficially appear to be a scathing commentary on the ruthlessness of unchecked capitalism, its really a singular question on human nature, regardless of the dominant socio-economic system, be it capitalism or communism. The reader must make up his/her mind at the end on which is the worse crime: exploitation of the masses for profit or exploitation of the masses for personal power and position, especially at the expense of a friend and allie.
One of the most powerful books I have read in such a few number of pages.
Contrary to French's convoluted claims, the novel is first and foremost a careful study of various aspects of worker/capital confrontation, played out in the form a depression era fruit pickers' strike. Steinbeck uses his two main characters, Mac and Jim - two 'communist agitators' who are instrumental in whipping up sentiments of resistance among the workers - to offer a 'big picture' perspective of the organizational aspects of the confrontation. The bulk of the novel explores tactics, with many of the typical property owner ploys and worker counterploys represented, and it attempts to dissect and explain the vicissitudes of worker morale (and, to a lesser extent, to explore the psychology of those acting on the side of the forces of repression). The specifics may be dated, but anyone involved in social struggles today will immediately recognize most of the tactics and the psychology. I am thinking less of contemporary strikes in North America, which have generally evolved into less violent confrontations, and more of struggles where people are still fighting to gain the power of solidarity. Worker struggles in the third world come to mind, but also the larger struggle to establish unity against the neoliberal agenda. Participants in recent 'antiglobalization' protests, for instance, will see many familiar elements in "In Dubious Battle" .
French's contention that "In Dubious Battle" is a 'bildungsroman' is also pretty far off the mark. It is true that Jim, undergoing his apprenticeship as an organizer/agitator, is revealed to be a natural tactician. But generally the characters remain constants throughout the novel. I would agree with other commentators here who have complained that the personalities are somewhat stiff - ceratinly, that is, in comparison with the depth with which Steinbeck usually imbues his characters.
Steinbeck is only minimally concerned with 'character development' in this novel. He is more concerned with the ways in which broad social solidarity develops, and also with some of the concomitant tactical and moral issues. Steinbeck shows strikers resorting to violence, and yet he describes the overall situation accurately enough to make the reader fully aware that, faced with an enemy which has overwhelming control over property and legal apparatus, these are very often the only means for workers to trigger awareness of the need for larger solidarity.
French claims that the battle "is dubious not because the outcome is uncertain... but rather because it was the kind of struggle that should never have occurred at all." This, in my mind, totally misses the point. Steinbeck clearly recognizes that the battle *must* be fought for workers to improve their lot. The failure of the apple pickers' strike is certain, but just as certain is the fact that it will pull workers together in future and discourage the growers from being quite as mercilessly exploitative. The "dubious" part has to do with the means by which the battle is fought, and particularly the tendency to sacrifice individuals and small groups unscrupulously to a larger cause. Doc Burton is the only character who fully grasps the implications of this; namely, that the ultimate goal towards which Mac and the 'reds' are fighting - i.e. a classless (and non-violent) society - is undermined by the means which they are using.
For those who are new to Steinbeck and are looking primarily for a good read, I wouldn't recommend this as a starting point. "The Grapes of Wrath" offers a much more moving evocation of exploitation and discrimination. "In Dubious Battle" has its fair share of excitement, but it is a primarily a practical (and consequently more prosaic) analysis of the realities of fighting exploitation .