In Dubious Battle

In Dubious Battle

infobox Book |
name = In Dubious Battle
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = First edition cover
author = John Steinbeck
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Novels
publisher = Covici-Friede
release_date = 1936
media_type = Print (Hardback and Paperback)
pages =
isbn = ISBN 1-135-11919-8
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"In Dubious Battle" is a novel by John Steinbeck, written in 1936. The central figure of the story is an activist for "the Party" (the American Communist Party, although it is never specifically named in the novel) who is organizing a major strike by the workers, seeking thus to attract followers to his cause. In Steinbeck's obituary, the "New York Times" said that "Although the writer's sympathies were clearly with the strikers... he pictured them as exploited both by the capitalists and the Communists."

Prior to publication, Steinbeck wrote in a letter:

"The what is usually called vulgar. I have worked along with working stiffs and I have rarely heard a sentence that had not some bit of profanity in it. And in books I am sick of the noble working man talking very like a junior college professor. [The novel] is not controversial enough to draw the support of either the labor or the capital side although either may draw controversial conclusions from it, I suppose." [Course notes from a Cal Poly English course [] ]

Explanation of the novel's title

The title is a reference to a passage from Milton's "Paradise Lost":

"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."

Plot summary

"In Dubious Battle" deals with a fruit strike in a California valley and the attempts of radical leaders to organize, lead, and provide for the striking pickers. Perhaps the most important, although not the central, character is Doc Burton, who helps the strikers and is concerned with seeing things as they exist, without labels of good and bad attached.

Characters in "In Dubious Battle"

*Doc Burton – A doctor who, despite his skepticism of leftist views, works in the strikers' camp, ensuring that it cannot be disbanded on the basis of a lack of sanitation.
*Jim Nolan– New member of the "Party", whose political development is one of the book's central themes.
*Mac – Long-standing member of the "Party".
*London – the second, but more significant elected leader of the striking workers
*Mrs. Meer – Jim's landlady
*Harry Nilson – Party official
*Roy Nolan – Jim's father (killed three years earlier)
*Mr. Webb – Manager at Tulman's Department Store, where Jim worked
*May Nolan – Jim's older sister
*Mac McLeod – Party organizer
*Dick Halsing – "pretty boy" party member
*Joy – insane, aggressive party member
*Alfred Anderson – Owner/operator of Al's Lunch Wagon
*Sam – "lean-face", a picker
*Lisa – London's daughter-in-law
*Dan – an old picker, one-time top-faller
*Dakin – leader of pickers at the Hunter place
*Alla – Dakin's wife
*Jerry – a picker at Hunter's who favors strike
*Al Anderson – Alfred's father, small farm owner
*Burke – Dakin's assistant
*Albert Johnson – truck owner
*Bolter – President of the Fruitgrower's Association

Literary significance & criticism

On publication, "New York Times" reviewer Fred T. March compared it to the "genial gusto" of the "picaresque" "Tortilla Flat". He commented that "You would never know that "In Dubious Battle" was by the same John Steinbeck if the publishers did not tell you so." He called it "courageous and desperately honest," "the best labor and strike novel to come out of our contemporary economic and social unrest," and "such a novel as Sinclair Lewis at his best might have done had he gone on with his projected labor novel..."

In 1943, with Steinbeck now famous, Carlos Baker "revalued" the novel. He opened by saying "Among Steinbeck's best novels, the least known is probably "In Dubious Battle." Steinbeck, he said, "is supremely interested in what happens to men's minds and hearts when they function, not as responsible, self-governing individuals, but as members of a group.... Biologists have a word for this very important problem; the call it bionomics, or ecology." He said that "Steinbeck's bionomic interest is visible in all that he has done, from "Tortilla Flat", in the middle Thirties, though his semi-biological "Sea of Cortez," to his latest communiqués as a war correspondent in England." He characterized "In Dubious Battle" as "an attempt to study a typical mid-depression strike in bionomic terms."

In 1958, critic Alfred Kazin referred to "In Dubious Battle" and "The Grapes of Wrath" as "his most powerful books," contrasting them with "Cannery Row" and "The Wayward Bus" which, he said, "contain many pleasant things" but "are not in the same class."



*"In Dubious Battle" and Other Recent Works of Fiction," Fred T. March, New York Times, February 2, 1936, p. BR7
*"In Dubious Battle" Revalued," Carlos Baker, July 25, 1943, p. BR4
*"The Unhappy Man from Happy Valley," Alfred Kazin, New York Times, May 4, 1958 p. BR1

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  • Dubious — Du bi*ous, a. [L. dubius, dubiosus, fr. duo two. See {Two}, and cf. {Doubt}.] 1. Doubtful or not settled in opinion; being in doubt; wavering or fluctuating; undetermined. Dubious policy. Sir T. Scott. [1913 Webster] A dubious, agitated state of… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • dubious — [do͞o′bē əs, dyo͞o′bē əs] adj. [L dubiosus, doubtful < dubius, doubting, uncertain < du < or akin to duo, TWO + IE base * bhu , *bheu , to BE] 1. causing doubt; ambiguous; vague [a dubious remark] 2. feeling doubt; hesitating; skeptical… …   English World dictionary

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