Book Review: In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck

I’ve always been a big John Steinbeck fan. So I was pretty excited when I picked up In Dubious Battle from my library. It’s not one of Steinbeck’s most famous books, but it’s written with the same energy and zeal of all the other books I love by him. 

In Dubious Battle was published in 1936, a year before Of Mice and Men and three years before the classic The Grapes of Wrath. The book feels like a preview to Grapes of Wrath and all of the social commentary Steinbeck makes in it.

In Dubious Battle is the story about a strike by apple pickers in a California valley. The driving force behind the strike are two activists for “The Party,” which Steinbeck never names, though it seems obvious it’s a Communist group.

I won’t get into the all of the details of the book, but I do recommend it. I’ve heard it called the best book ever written about a labor strike. What interested me most was the comments attributed to Steinbeck in the book’s introduction. Steinbeck tries not to take sides in the book – he’s quoted as saying (and I’m paraphrasing) he simply wanted to give a journalistic account of some of the labor strikes he’d seen in California during the Depression era.

What’s clear from reading the book is that Steinbeck had a pretty realistic view of the situation and, perhaps, of the capitalist system as a whole. He’s not cheering for the communist activists to win. He simply puts down what would likely happen if a group of workers tried to take on the “powers that be.”

And the result is not good. The strike is crushed, the main character is killed, and lives are destroyed. You can’t beat City Hall, right?

The book’s title comes from a line in John Milton’s Paradise Lost that goes like this:

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?

Steinbeck explains the link between Paradise Lost and the idea for his book in the introduction. In Paradise Lost, war wages between God and the Devil, and it’s evidently apparent the forces of good will prevail.

The opposite applies in In Dubious Battle. War wages between the workingman and the owners of the apple orchards. It’s apparent as the story goes on that the workers will not win. They’re fighting an uphill battle against the owners who, as one character repeatedly says, are “damn organized.”

The owners have the the force of law behind them, they have the police, they have the might. The workers fight with rocks in their hands. It’s a dubious battle they will lose.

Like I mentioned, you can see a similar theme in Grapes of Wrath. In that book, the Joad family and the other “Okies” are in a similar uphill battle, as they trek across the country and try to survive against the forces of Mother Nature and the changing agricultural industry.

It’s grim Americana in Steinbeck’s world. But that’s what I love about his work.

(Cover photo from Wikimedia Commons – Photo of John Steinbeck from 1930)

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