In Dubious Battle

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In Dubious Battle
InDubiousBattle.jpg
First edition
Author John Steinbeck
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Covici-Friede
Publication date
1936
Media type Print (Hardback and Paperback)
Pages 270
Preceded by Tortilla Flat
Followed by Of Mice and Men

In Dubious Battle is a novel by John Steinbeck, written in 1936. The central figure of the story is an activist for "the Party" (possibly the American Communist Party or the Industrial Workers of the World, although it is never specifically named in the novel) who is organizing a major strike by fruit pickers, seeking thus to attract followers to his cause.

Prior to publication, Steinbeck wrote in a letter:

This is the first time I have felt that I could take the time to write and also that I had anything to say to anything except my manuscript book. You remember that I had an idea that I was going to write the autobiography of a Communist. ... There lay the trouble. I had planned to write a journalistic account of a strike. But as I thought of it as fiction the thing got bigger and bigger. It couldn't be that. I've been living with this thing for some time now. I don't know how much I have got over, but I have used a small strike in an orchard valley as the symbol of man's eternal, bitter warfare with himself.[1]

Explanation of the novel's title[edit]

The title is a reference to a passage from John Milton's Paradise Lost:

Innumerable force of Spirits armed,
That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power opposed
In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?[2]

Plot summary[edit]

In Dubious Battle deals with a fruit-workers' strike in a California valley and the attempts of communists to organize, lead, and provide for the striking pickers.

Characters[edit]

  • Doc Burton – A doctor who, despite his skepticism of leftist views, works in the strikers' camp, ensuring that it cannot be disbanded on the basis of a lack of sanitation.
  • Jim Nolan– New member of the "Party," whose political development is one of the book's central themes. His father was a Communist himself, and was legendary as one who fought.
  • London – the second, but more significant, elected leader of the striking workers
  • Mrs. Meer – Jim's landlady
  • Harry Nilson – Party official who initiates Jim's application process for the Party
  • Roy Nolan – Jim's father (killed three years earlier)
  • Mr. Webb – Manager at Tulman's Department Store, where Jim worked who denies knowing Jim when he hears he is a radical.
  • May Nolan – Jim's older sister who mysteriously disappears at a young age
  • Mac McLeod – Party organizer and Jim's mentor. He becomes the main driver of the plot after taking Jim under his wing.
  • Dick Halsing – "pretty boy" party member in charge of soliciting Party sympathizers for donations
  • Joy – naive, possibly brain-damaged from police brutality, aggressive party member; World War I veteran
  • Alfred Anderson – Owner/operator of Al's Lunch Wagon; Communist sympathizer and son of a small farmer.
  • Sam – "lean-face", a picker
  • Lisa – London's daughter-in-law who is assisted by Mac when in labor
  • Dan – an old picker whose fall from a rotten ladder initially causes the other workers to take strike action
  • Dakin – leader of pickers at the Hunter place
  • Alla – Dakin's wife
  • Jerry – a picker at Hunter's who favors strike
  • Al Anderson – Alfred's father, small farm owner, proud of his dogs
  • Burke – Dakin's assistant
  • Albert Johnson – truck owner
  • Bolter – President of the Fruitgrower's Association who attempts to negotiate with the strikers

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

On publication, New York Times reviewer Fred T. March compared it to the "genial gusto" of the "picaresque" Tortilla Flat. He commented that "You would never know that In Dubious Battle was by the same John Steinbeck if the publishers did not tell you so." He called it "courageous and desperately honest," "the best labor and strike novel to come out of our contemporary economic and social unrest," and "such a novel as Sinclair Lewis at his best might have done had he gone on with his projected labor novel..."

In 1943, with Steinbeck now famous, Carlos Baker "revalued" the novel. He opened by saying "Among Steinbeck's best novels, the least known is probably In Dubious Battle." Steinbeck, he said, "is supremely interested in what happens to men's minds and hearts when they function, not as responsible, self-governing individuals, but as members of a group.... Biologists have a word for this very important problem; the call it bionomics, or ecology." He said that "Steinbeck's bionomic interest is visible in all that he has done, from Tortilla Flat, in the middle Thirties, through his semi-biological Sea of Cortez, to his latest communiqués as a war correspondent in England." He characterized In Dubious Battle as "an attempt to study a typical mid-depression strike in bionomic terms."

In 1958, critic Alfred Kazin referred to In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath as "his most powerful books," contrasting them with Cannery Row and The Wayward Bus. President Barack Obama told the New York Times that it was his favorite book by Steinbeck.[3]

The novel likely recounts a fruit worker strike that occurred in Tulare County, California.[4]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]