John Steinbeck saw a fair amount of misery in his lifetime. It wasn't anything personal: he grew up in an affluent family, spent six years—count 'em—half-heartedly not getting a degree from Stanford, and had a pretty good life in general.
Nope, that misery had everything to do with 1930s America.
Steinbeck watched as desperate migrants poured into his home state of California, looking for shelter and work after the Dust Bowl gobbled up their farms and their independence. So this is where his famous novel The Grapes of Wrath comes in, right?
Wrong. Before we ever get Steinbeck's 1940 classic portrayal of migrant misery, In Dubious Battle gave America a glimpse of the poverty and injustice living right in the heart of the lushest and richest lands in the country. It opened a lot of eyes—and created a lot of enemies for Steinbeck.
In In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck does his best to offer an impartial take on the struggle between organized labor and Big Ag (that's "corporate agriculture" to you and me), which was already around in the 1930s. Steinbeck first thought he would write the story as a piece of journalism, but his publisher encouraged him to go the novel route. The result is a fictional story that refuses—for the most part—to give us any easy answers about a real and persistent social problem.
Steinbeck kind of botches the impartiality experiment—readers clearly sympathize with Communist agitators Mac and Jim, and with the oppressed workers they try to organize. If you hate the thuggery of the Growers' Association, well—okay. You've got the right idea.
Yet Steinbeck doesn't let either side off the hook. Everyone is out to manipulate the workers (and public opinion), and the whole "man's inhumanity to man" thing rears its ugly head on both sides of the aisle.
The tragedy at the core of the work has nothing to do with the fate of individual characters; it's the sense that all this suffering will have happened for nothing. That's likely the clearest reason Steinbeck had for bearing witness to it in his writing. And it's scary to think about it, but hey, has that much changed since the 1930s? We've still got all of these problems. How are we supposed to face them?
Don't worry, Shmoopers. Steinbeck's got a few ideas, and we're here to get you through them.
If you've ever seen Dorothea Lange's famous portrait of a migrant mother and her children, your consciousness has already been shaped by the history of labor struggles in the United States.
And what do we mean by that, you rightly ask?
Well, it's kind of like this. If you've ever had an elderly relative who wouldn't let you throw out so much as a spoonful of peas, you're part of the legacy of the Depression era and the hardships that displaced millions of rural workers between 1930 and 1940. The Depression affected pretty much everyone, and we haven't forgotten about it even decades later.
Steinbeck doesn't just involve us in the suffering of the migrant workers in this novel; he also presents a huge dilemma to the average American living in relative comfort. Do we extend a hand to those millions pouring over the border to a land of plenty? Or do we close the borders in an attempt to save jobs and preserve our own interests?
And hey, folks, this stuff is still a pretty big deal. Think much has changed since the 1930s? The details may be different, but we've still got our 1%, our disgruntled workers, our squeezed middle class, and our young-ish people trying to figure out how to live meaningful lives and make things better. As Steinbeck shows, the situation is pretty complicated, and no one's a saint—but the problems are real, and they've got to be faced.
It might be time to ask, What Would Steinbeck Do?
Shmoop It Up
Check out our awesome pages on John Steinbeck.
A Nobel Guy
Yep, Steinbeck won the big one.
Steinbeck for Posterity
The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California (Steinbeck's birthplace) boasts a museum with exhibits dedicated to art, literature, agriculture, and history. The website provides biographical information and synopses of Steinbeck's major works.
In Dubious Battle's on the silver screen, directed by James Franco (who also plays Mac), with Nat Wolff as Jim, Robert Duvall as Bolter, Ed Harris as Joy, and Selena Gomez as Lisa.
Wobblies! (The Movie)
You know you're curious about the Wobblies.
An Interview... Sort of
Writers at The Paris Review really wanted to interview Steinbeck, who wasn't too keen on the idea—until the end of his life. By that time, Steinbeck was too sick to participate in an interview, so the editors of the literary magazine pieced together Steinbeck's thoughts on writing from his diaries and other works.
Take His Writing Advice. Or Leave It.
Here are six writing tips straight from Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck. They seem completely reasonable, even though Steinbeck doesn't really think that writing advice amounts to anything.
Follow the Money
A contract signed by Steinbeck that gives the rights to The Grapes of Wrath to 20th Century Fox goes for a tidy sum at auction.
Steinbeck: Voice of America
The BBC takes us on a road trip across Steinbeck country in this documentary, which focuses primarily on the Grapes of Wrath. But don't lose heart: In Dubious Battle has a cameo, and there's a lot of info here that will help you envision the landscape and hardships that shaped Steinbeck's writing.
Larger Than Life
BBC Radio presents a short biography on John Steinbeck, including interviews with those who knew him well.
Steinbeck speaks briefly about the anger that motivated him to write about the plight of poor workers during the Depression.
The View from Across the Pond
British trade unionist Sir Brendan Barber chooses John Steinbeck as his "Great Life" and chats about his encounters with Steinbeck's work in his life and career. The interview begins at the 1:15 marker.
Nobel Laureate, Fielding Questions
Steinbeck answers questions from eager reporters right after he's won the Nobel Prize.
Here's a PBS slideshow of images of the Salinas Valley, the geographical model for Steinbeck's Torgas Valley. You'll find pictures of the fields and workers that Steinbeck would have seen himself alongside images of migrant workers in the Valley today.
Library of Congress Images
This collection of photos taken by Dorothea Lange of migrant workers in Imperial Valley, California will give you sense of the living conditions of the workers we see in In Dubious Battle.