Colotti 1 Austin Colotti ENG395 Curtin 4 December 2020 John Steinbeck's Doubts about Capitalism and the "Collective" in the First Third of the Dust Bowl Trilogy: In Dubious Battle Not long after John Steinbeck published his novel, In Dubious Battle , in 1936, a review in the New York Times realistically, the best labor and strike novel to come out of our contemporary economic and The Gra pes of Wrath novels and is regarded as one of the best works of proletariat literature to emerge from his time. Jackson out the critical review Steinbeck received, and in their research, they found that one scholar, evidence which suggest that the strike Steinbeck dramatizes in his novel could have actually Steinbeck to his editors at the time, which spoke of communist labor organizers Steinbeck kept clos valley In Dubious Battle depicts could have actually taken place, but Steinbeck responds to Moore in a letter and quickly denies his findings. First, he denies an y claims that he is a socialist. Then, he stresses that In Dubious Battle Steinbeck denies that the two ex
Colotti 2 about revealing his sources suggests that he, like many Americans during the 1930s, was cautious of being branded as a communist, and claims that his intent for the novel was for it to present his own personal theory on how the individual loses himself when organized into a collective. In Dubious Battle frames the exploitation of the American laborer within capitalism as an already existing condition and uses this reality as a driving motive tha t questions both the morality and the desires of those participating in the strike, as well as acting as a vessel in which Steinbeck presents his own unique commentary on the dangers of collectivism. It should be noted, however, that Steinbeck himself was not a socialist. In his article, Fascist unwillingness to be labeled as a socialist , as key clarifiers of his intentions for In Dubious Battle . Williams found that S While he sympathized with the American Communists' goal to alleviate the laboring class of their systematic shackles, he did not trust those who organized under an ideology, as the Party did not seem to care as much as he did about these dangerous emotion Fascist leaning political group he exposed himself to under one titled signified goal, and by doing so, contextualizes the various diverging ideological perspectives within I n Dubious Battle . Jim Nolan represents both the process, and the outcome Steinbeck fears about collectivism, but he also represents a purposefully easy to relate to mind, which during the course of the novel changes. At the beginning of the novel, Jim has nothing. With no home and hardly any belongings, Jim walks into the small office of the local American Communist Party
Colotti 3 if he can register as a member of the party. Jim tells Harry that he wants to join because he has nothing left to keep him from doing so. His father was shot in a riot by a police officer, and his mother died while Jim was in jail for vagrancy. Nilson empathizes with Jim, but presses his inte ntions for joining further, leading Jim to say: work toward something. I feel dead. While Steinbeck had written to many of his colleagues and editors about his theory of collectivism, he never intended to present it as theory. Benson and Loftis had found that his rite a philosophical dissertation on his theory, but to think it through and vehicle, and his transformation from an un radicalized individual to a collectivized radical is the road Steinbeck wants his readers to follow. However, as a labor strike novel, this path can be interpreted differently. Jim tells Harry that h e feels dead, and that joining the party will make than he thinks. Harry asks Jim if he is educated. Jim tells Harry that while he only finished two years of high school, he is very well read thanks to an unnamed man he met in a park. Jim Bellamy, and like Herodotus and Gibbon and Macaulay and Carlyle and Prescott, and l ike Spinoza and Hegel and Kant and Nietzsche and Schopenhauer . He even made me read Das Kapital
Colotti 4 Firstly, Jim has received a mostly classical education, which most educated Americans but more importantly, most educated radicals at the time would have received. Secondly, Jim has already been geared towards radicalizing. The order and pairing in which Steinbeck lists out his sively gets more radical until ending with the the nature of his place in society. However, under the novel's framework, as the protagonist of a proletarian text, Jim can also be read as a bright, young mind who is exhausted from capitalist exploitation and wants to do something about it. Yet when discussing the theme of exp loitation, especially in regard to a proletarian novel, In Dubious Battle falls in the canon. In her book, Radical Representations , Barbara Foley collects and examines the prevalent proletarian fiction novels which emerged during the 1930s. Foley finds in her novel that many of the writers and critics who were expanding the proletarian genre and without resolution whether proletariat What Foley d iscovers is that during this time, those who were pioneering this new wave of proletarian fiction placed a vast amount of importance on who the voice behind a text was, and that beyond all else, a proletarian text should reflect an accurate representation of the working class. However, there is a third clause, which at the time seemed to have made determining a text signaled
Colotti 5 the strong if not theoretically unspecified Under this socially accepted, but theoretically vague clause, the final absolute function of a proletarian text during th e 1930s was that a proletarian text should come from a proletarian perspective, accurately present the proletarian condition, and inspire the working class to rise up against the oppressive capitalist structure. In Dubious Battle only fulfills one of these clauses and does so on a very clever technicality. Ultimately, Steinbeck is not a proletarian writer, and therefore cannot truthfully possess an authentic proletarian voice. However, this did not stop him from creating one. Benson and Loftis find that as workers and their problems when he worked as a laborer and straw boss in the fields for the (196). While his exposure was ne ver intended to help him with In Dubious Battle specifically, Benson and Loftis explain that a change in his aspirations as a writer guided him towards his power for him to achieve canonical fame, his work must stem from reality , so when he decided to use a labor strike as the framework for his theory, he determined that the presentation of his characters must be authentic in order for his novel to hold meaning. Realism, then, is a crucial component of what makes In Dubious Battl e such a compelling narrative, but also as John F. Lavelle writes in his book, Blue Collar Theoretically , when understood as a genre convention of proletarian literature, realism allows non gh
Colotti 6 of the economic conditions at the time. In short, invoking realism in a text, allowed authors like Steinbeck to participate in the genre in a way which wa s class conscious without being class dependent. organizers gave him the authentic proletarian voice needed for In Dubious Battle . Through a series of discreet socia l connections Steinbeck came into contact with Carl Williams and Cecil McKiddy, two labor organizers who were on the run after participating in a cotton strike down south. Steinbeck became fascinated with these men, and he saw an opportunity to help both h imself and the two poor communists he was hosting. Benson and Loftis discovered that about the strike leader Pat Chambers, he would write a first person narrative f rom Chambers point of view for Steinbeck and contained in it a well of knowledge on how labor strikes were conducted. Specifically, about how to organize the workers, establish a camp, and maintain a strike from start to finish. The language of the diary, as Benson and Loftis describe it, was also written in the colloquial tongue of the migrant worker. t the strongest socialist voice in his novel, Mac. Not long after joining the Party, Harry takes Jim to a man named Mac, a veteran labor organizer planning to lead a strike in the Torgas Valley. Hearing word that the Growers Association will be cutting the already low wages of the migrant workers coming in to work, Mac sees an opportunity to strike in the making. Taking Jim along as his apprentice, the two travel to the Torgas valley by train. Once the two have arrived, Mac finds a lunch wagon owned by a Pa rty sympathizer named Al Anderson who points the two towards
Colotti 7 where the migrant workers are camped out. When the two arrive at the camp, Mac quickly gets Mac tells needs, but Mac convinces him that he is a better fit. After the midwife is forced out of the situation, Mac organizes the workers, who work in perfect unison to deliver the child. After the ordeal is done, Jim was surprised that Mac possessed any medical training. Mac responds, saying only thing I knew was that it was a good (Steinbeck 60). organizer. safety, but rather that the act allowed him to gain the workers' trust. This is not the only time ild, Mac takes Jim along with convince his father to allow the strikers to camp on Anderson's privately owned apple orchard. At first, Mr. Anderson is hesitant, seeing how his neighbors (the other landowners) would not take kindly to him hosting a gang of strikers. Mac quickly disarms the old man with a convincing speech: Hunter, Gillr ay, Martin. Who holds your paper? Torgas Finance Company. Who owns Torgas Finance Company? Hunter, Gillray, Martin. Have they been squeezing you? You know God damn well that they have. How long you going to last? Maybe one year; and
Colotti 8 then Torgas Finance tak es your place. Is that straight? Now suppose you got a crop out with no labor charges; suppose you sold it on a rising market? Could you clear out your top of, but it also depicts his mastery of Marxist ideology and how to weaponize it. Mac calls to attention the lack of power Mr. Anderson has in the Valley, and how susceptible he is to the Growers Association. What Mac is doing is using the Marxists def inition of exploitation and presenting it in terms a landowner could understand. Under the Marxist definition, exploitation refers to the appropriation of the working classes' value by capitalists. Capitalists need laborers to work and provide them with ca pital. Under capitalism, the one who earns the majority of the profit yielded from the capital worked is the one who owns the land, not the laborer working it. Under the Marxist lens however, the true value of a product is not the product itself but within the laborers who made it. Mr. Anderson sees the value of his land as something which will provide for him, but Mac flips the tables on him, and shows how in actuality, Mr. Anderson is merely just another provider for the larger capitalists in the valley. while his land provides him with capital, the majority of that capital goes directly into the pockets of those above him, simply because they wish it so. but it is not the only ideological voice in the novel. Once Mac gets land to build the strikers camp on, he is quick to fill it with everything they need. One of these necessities comes in the form of a doctor, named Doc Burton. While Burton himself sympa thizes with the Party, he is not a socialist, and acts as the second ideological perspective Jim Nolan comes in contact with. As the events of the strike unfold, Burton makes a comment to Mac on how he acts around the laborers in the camp. He tells Mac
Colotti 9 th with results. In order for the strike to be succe distinguishes himself away from Burton, saying that he is different from the doctor. Here, organize the gr oup, and while everything the strikers are doing are ultimately geared towards the benefit of everyone, Mac makes a distinction as to how that will be carried out. Taking the role of leader, he has his own set of responsibilities that are separate from the responsibilities also separate Mac from the group as well, and manifests in the texts through his intentions. To Mac, cracking a couple of e ggs to make an omelet is par for the course . Burton, however, sees these eggs as what they really are; human lives which are not to be played with. While both Burton and Mac want the strikers to succeed, there are constant disagreements on methodology b etween the two. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck establishes an ongoing conversation between the three ideological perspectives within In Dubious Battle . The first is Jim, a young man convinced he has nothing left to lose, the second is Mac, a result orien ted Marxist, and the final is Doc Burton, a humanist. During the events of the strike, Jim takes a bullet wound to his shoulder. As it heals, the Doc is persistent with Jim, stressing that he needs to be careful. Jim tells the doctor that he bout the pain, and the doctor quickly responds by telling Jim he was afraid he
Colotti 10 ctor's comments something -(Steinbeck 207). strike, Doc Burton warns him that following that feeling wil desperate need Jim possesses to become more than just himself is dangerous. This sentiment acts as a marker for where which the ide ologies shared by Mac, Jim, and Doc Burton, start to diverge. As a humanist, Burton places the value of human life above all else. Mac is organizing a strike to spark a revolution, in hopes of making all human lives equal, however in order to do so, the va lue Burton holds so highly, must be put to the side. Yet in the middle of these two ideologies, stands Jim, an impressionable, bright young mind who just wants to get involved with something bigger than himself. Throughout the novel, Mac denies Jim the opp that is to say that Jim wants some autonomy, or a way in which he as an individual can help the how collectivism strips away individua lity. Towards the end of the novel, after seeing Mr.
Colotti 11 (Steinbeck 263). the novel, his radicalization blooms in full color. Taking control of the strike by force, Jim turns me too well. That was wrong. Then I got hurt. And sitting here waiting, I got to know my power. I am stronger than you, Mac. I am stronger than The power that Jim is referring to can be inferred as his own individual power, but from what he has learned from Mac, what he is actually referring to is the ability to harnes s the collective power of the group and exploit it in a way which will preserve the strike. It is at this point in the novel, however, that the only way to preserve the strike, is to respond to Anderson's house burning down with more violence. Mac tells Ji (Steinbeck 283). Jim now possesses within him, the fear of collectivizing which Steinbeck wants him. He only sees the strike. However, he is not a true socialist, not in the same sense that Mac is, because unlike Jim, Mac sees the bigger picture. Mac sees the strike as a cog in a larger machine. To Mac, the strike represents a chance to spark change across the nation, but to Jim, the strike is an act of revenge. In Dubious Battle stands as a proletarian novel i n the least conventional of terms, but still manages to function as an authentically realistic depiction of how the laborer is subjected to exploitation. Through portraying his own personal theory, Steinbeck creates a
Colotti 12 commentary on collectivism that is sep arate from socialism. The violence he fears of collectivism does not stem from any specific ideology, but rather how adhering so strongly to Without approving or condemning the socialist movement, Steinbeck is able to question the methodology of the Party, and by doing so, Steinbeck calls attention to the dangerous and corrupting potential group collectivism holds.
Colotti 13 Work Cited American Literature , vol. 52, no. 2, 1980, p. 194., doi:10.2307/2924812. Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929 1941 . Duke University Press, 2012. Lavelle, John F. Blue Collar, Theoretically: a Post Marxist Approach to Working Class Literature . McFarland & Company, 2012. Steinbeck, John. In Dubious Battle . Penguin, 1986. Williams, Cha American Studies , vol. 53, no. 4, 2014, pp. 49 71., doi:10.1353/ams.2014.0169.