Published in 1936, John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle reads like a snapshot from the period in American history during which workers were perhaps at their lowest point ever. They were suffering greatly because of low wages, an overabundance of unemployed workers willing to work for next-to-nothing wages, and employers who were only too happy to take advantage of the tragic economic situation of the day. But by actively recruiting workers, union organizers were placing their own lives and those of the workers in jeopardy. The battle was on, dubious though it may have been.
And along came John Steinbeck to tell the world about it because as he said in his 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech:
“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”
And, perhaps more in this novel than in anything Steinbeck had written previously, In Dubious Battle does precisely that.
To his credit, Steinbeck exposes both sides for what they are. On the one hand, employers (fruit growers in this case) are shown as exploiters of the working poor, commonly hiring desperate workers and then callously tossing them away in favor of cheaper labor as soon as the opportunity presents itself to do so. On the other, union organizers are exposed as the Communist tools they are, men even willing to get workers killed or maimed if that will somehow advance “the Cause.” In fact, the organizers hope to provoke deadly violence directed at workers in order to fire up the men enough to keep them walking the picket lines.
The book’s two main characters are Mac and Jim. When Mac, a veteran union organizer, senses something special in new recruit Jim, he decides to bring him to the apple orchards where fruit pickers are facing an devastating cut in their daily wages. Jim is a true apostle of the cause and, as Mac teaches him the organizing techniques that work best, Jim aches to be more directly in the cause - and constantly implores Mac to “use him.” At one point, after suffering an injury that leaves him somewhat out of his head, Jim somehow manages to take over the strike, a change that makes Mac very nervous:
Jim said softly, “I wanted you to use me. You wouldn’t because you got to like me to well.” He stood up and walked to a box and sat down on it. “That was wrong. Then I got hurt. And sitting here waiting, I got to know my power. I’m stronger than you, Mac. I’m stronger than anything in the world, because I’m going in a straight line. You and all the rest have to think of women and tobacco and liquor and keeping warm and fed.” His eyes were as cold as wet river stones. “I wanted to be used. Now I’ll use you, Mac. I’ll use myself and you. I tell you, I feel there’s strength in me.”
In Dubious Battle may not be one of John Steinbeck’s most popular or highly acclaimed novels, but it is a powerful one, one that deserves to be read today because it offers such a clear look into America’s not too distant past.