Travels with Steinbeck

bksstein010417I read John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle this week.  This 1936 novel about labor organizers among apple pickers is believed to be the prelude to Steinbeck’s 1940 Pulitzer Prize winning The Grapes of Wrath.

In Dubious Battle is one of several Steinbeck books that my mother collected before her marriage.  Mama was a would-be novelist who never wrote.  I never even saw her read a novel, but her collection of 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s books showed she read fiction in her younger days.

My mother, who was a self-described “lunatic fringe, radical right-wing extremist,” was a member at one point of the John Birch Society.  She was–like many of her Depression-spawned generation–terrified of Communism.  John Steinbeck, who was an admitted Communist sympathizer, was suspect because of it.

In Dubious Battle opens with a man, John Nolan, moving out of his paid-for, rented room a week early, telling his landlady he is taking a new job and doesn’t know where it will lead him.  He ends up joining with Mac, a Party (although Communism is never specifically claimed) organizer, to incite apple pickers to strike for promised wages.  Before they traveled, the migrant pickers had been promised double what the growers were now willing to pay.

The novel proceeds to describe the organization Mac directed to help the strikers win promised wages.  The growers are heavily organized and have the sheriff and vigilantes on their side. Mac believes the strikers will have to fight to achieve their ends, but the men are afraid of the bosses and reluctant to challenge the opposing side’s guns.

Steinbeck, as usual, tells a gripping story in short, easy-to-read sentences.  His characters are streamlined but pack a powerful punch.  The denouement is chilling but typical of Steinbeck’s style.

I read thinking how little we’ve changed since then.  Today’s resentment toward immigrants is much like yesterday’s prejudice against migrant workers.  Sympathy ran with the perpetrators of injustice, who could buy, con, bribe, threaten, or force their way. Sigmund Freud called it “identification with the aggressor,” those who become what they hate in order to win. It struck me as irrational that the owners would prefer to throw apples away to increase prices than to pay their pickers a living wage, so they could afford to buy the apples they picked.

In Dubious Battle reminds me of Studs Terkel’s nonfiction work about the Depression, Hard Times.  Terkel mentioned, too, that the corporations were pouring milk into sewers and slaughtering piglets to increase prices, while babies were starving and dying of rickets.

Steinbeck’s purpose, through the organizer Mac, was to teach the strikers to work together.  He did it through the Party, but the cooperative idea transcends politics.  To organize for a common cause makes sense, but in In Dubious Battle, we see the owners had a stronger common cause than the workers.  That they aligned along the lines of injustice and immorality pave the way for movements like Communism, which promises to right the wrong but fails through its methods of force and deceit.


8 thoughts on “Travels with Steinbeck

    1. katharineotto Post author

      It seems so senseless. There seems to be a prejudice against labor dating back at least to the European aristocracy, and profit skimmers have more social status than those who do the work. But to destroy products (especially food) in order to raise prices seems backwards. What a waste, especially when people are starving.

      1. katharineotto Post author

        Short-term profits, but long-term loss. That’s the bitter irony of social injustice. At what cost come the profits, if they are seasoned with mutual antipathy?

  1. feistyfroggy

    I recently read a book called Diet for a Dead Planet: How the Food Industry is Killing Us. It is a nonfiction book, but talks about many of the same things you just read about–killing livestock to drive up prices while people were starving in the midst of the Depression. It also directly addresses the idea mentioned by Rosaliene Bacchus that “profits trump people.” This book will be talked about in my next post on Jan. 20th.

    It is amazing that the more things change, the more they stay the same (to use an overused cliche).

    1. katharineotto Post author

      I’m not so sure things will stay the same. That may be why people are so afraid of Trump. Uncontrollable and unpredictable.

      For all its problems, the internet could herald a “revolution in consciousness,” in which people are forced to see the results of widespread injustice and betrayal by those who presumed to know best. Maybe human nature doesn’t change, but we take for granted the monumental changes that have happened in our culture just since the Industrial Revolution began, and especially since the computer age got going. More and more people (especially women) are coming into their own and noting they can’t wait for others to effect positive change. We may see the blossoming of unprecedented maturity in our species.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      I thought about “In Dubious Battle” today, while reading an article about how Boeing workers in the South Carolina plant rejected unionization. The article didn’t say why they rejected the union. I wonder if Boeing pays them so well they don’t feel they need representation. It was a different situation when Steinbeck wrote his novels.


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