Great books withstand second readings; ambitious books are often flawed. In Dubious Battle is both great and flawed. At first reading a decade ago, I was impressed by its acute analysis of group psychology, and its inexorable crescendo of tragedy. At second reading, Battle’s mob psychology proves incomplete and indirect: the mob’s enthusiasm wavers too frequently and without explanation; these waxings and wanings occur largely offpage, narrated in conversation between the main characters, rather than being dramatised onpage. The contingencies of labour and capital are addressed largely in sloganlike generalisations: “They [the owners of the big orchards] got this valley organised.” But Battle’s nuanced characterisations, and its absolute commitment to an honest examination of the energies and lassitudes of the human spirit, withstand a second reading.
This first instalment in Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl trilogy addresses, in the context of a single strike, the dynamics of labour and the mechanics of power. Battle follows young Jim Nolan, whose working-class family has been ruined by labour troubles. Knowing the risks are high and the pay nonexistent, Jim becomes a full-time communist party-worker. Veteran agitator Mac mentors Jim on their first assignment together: orchestrating a strike in Torgas Valley, where the hourly wages of migrant apple-pickers have been lowered drastically and without warning. Launching the strike proves tricky, maintaining it even trickier: these workers take exploitation for granted. The strike leaders scrounge for food and lodging, and struggle to stay one step ahead of legal trouble; the capitalist orchard-owners lowball the strikers, and spread lies to cut off their resources; vigilantes who’ve been taught that communism is the devil’s credo perpetrate violence; working families struggle to maintain faith in their cause; and spies infiltrate the strikers’ camp. Battle is a gripping human drama capturing, in the microcosm of a strikers’ camp, the apparently irreconcilable interests that separate man from man, and class from class.
Battle paints compelling portraits of its main characters. Young Jim, thoughtful and observant, is here because he believes he has nothing to lose. In theory, he understands that the larger cause must always take precedence, and that no victory – against such deeply vested interests – is possible without individual sacrifice; but in practice, he keeps worrying about compromising sympathisers and strikers. Battle is the story of Jim’s transformation from a romantic ideologue to a pragmatist willing to do whatever’s necessary. This transformation occurs abruptly, via a mysticised transient psychotic episode possibly precipitated by exhaustion. In more lucid moments, Jim makes himself indispensable to Mac, a coldheaded organiser who’s ready to sacrifice himself, or any mere individual, to the cause. Mac is no sociopath: he takes steps to protect his associates from needless danger, and feels remorse when friends or collaborators lose life or property in the cause. But Mac is ready to leverage any setback as a tool in his fight; in the uneven battle he’s fighting, he has no other option; softheartedness and sentiment are handicaps that the man working for the working man cannot afford.
Battle captures the dialects and personalities of its characters with a sensitive ear. Doc Burton, a physician and a cultured man, attributes his motives for offering his services pro bono to his scientific bent: he observes humans just as another scientist might observe ants. Mac fluidly adopts the verbal idiosyncrasies of whoever he’s speaking to, lies glibly, and gets unerringly to everyone’s soft spot: e.g. Mr. Anderson senior’s dogs. Old Dan, a former “top-falling” logger, warns the young men that it’s useless to agitate, then revels in the role he inadvertently plays in triggering events.
Battle’s description is competent, setting the stage with a few bare details. “The bright, hard stars were out, not many of them, but sharp and penetrating in the cold night sky. From the rooms nearby came the rise and fall of many voices talking, with now and then a single voice breaking clear.” “The candle and the dawn fought each other, so that together they made less light than either would have made alone.”
Steinbeck romanticises neither the strike nor the strikers. From the start, the strike’s prospects are poor: Mac keeps reminding protégé Jim, and official strike-leader London, that they shouldn’t expect much here; their goal is to instil a spirit of groupwork that can produce minor victories elsewhere. Faced with want, the strikers rise to nobility only rarely. Deprived of their daily wages, men sell their souls to the orchard-owners: they undermine morale, and poison their fellow-strikers’ minds against their communist leaders. Material wants keep the working men and women mired in profligacy, lust, infighting, and insatiable hunger, unable to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Meanwhile, the strike’s day-to-day work consists of such inglorious activities as disinfecting open-air toilets, stomaching undercooked meat, and persuading appointed guards to perform their roles. Not even the sympathisers, who stay offpage, and send the strikers food and supplies, escape untarnished: charismatic party-worker Dick literally charms the pants off potential donors. Mac faces all these difficulties matter-of-factly: “After all, you can’t blame the guys much if they sell out. We got to be clever and mean and quick.”
Battle’s action is punctuated by lyrical reflections on human nature and typology. Doc Burton reprimands Mac for being so practical that he paradoxically risks defeating his own practical goals: “You practical men always lead other practical men with stomachs. And something always gets out of hand… In all history there are no men who have come to such wild-eyed confusion and bewilderment as practical men leading practical men with stomachs.” Jim reflects that he’s never had time to sit down and take stock of the world: “I never had time to look at things. I never looked how leaves come out. I never looked at the way things happen. This morning there was a whole line of ants on the floor of the tent. I couldn’t watch them. I was thinking of something else. Some time I’d like to sit all day and look at bugs, and never think of anything else.”
Long after Battle’s uneven plot, and ambitious but indirect depiction of mob psychology, fade from memory, its poignant observations on the human condition remain with the reader.
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