Notes on Realism
As we discuss In Dubious Battle we’ll necessarily come up against the notion (the aesthetic ideology) of Realism. The diegesis of Steinbeck’s novel is one that we can immediately recognize as ‘real’ in terms of its characters and locales. IDB represents the world in a way that seems to be transparent and intelligible, an “obvious” “reflection” of reality as we know it. This response on our part, of course, is the product of lifelong conditioning which encourages us to confuse causes and their effects. What do these markings on paper have to do with the world we think we know? To what extent is our sense of the novel’s “truth”, its veracity, a product of prior knowledge of the Great Depression?
Those are deeper questions that bear some scrutiny and we will have to confront them in some form as we attempt to master the novel’s content. In other words, our conversations about this work will address both the “what-said” and the “how-said”– those two dimensions of signification that are impossible to separate.
Realism presents itself as an uncomplicated and straightforward method of description, a series of pictures of a familiar world– not unlike photographs. As such it effaces its own textuality, the linguistic materials that go into Steinbeck’s production of an orchard workers’ strike in California. Perhaps it’s easiest to grasp this double gesture of revelation and concealment if we think about documentary film as a model. The documentary film seems to show us the world without mediation, as directly accessible to our experience. Yet the apparatus of film-making, in terms of both physical tools and discursive methods, intercedes between the text and the audience. The camera, sound equipment, editing, framing, etc.– all of the artistry and artifice of making a movie go into the representation of a subject that to the unsophisticated viewer seems merely, naturally given.
Realism of the sort practiced by Steinbeck in In Dubious Battle might also go by the name of Naturalism. The difference between these two genres is somewhat narrow: Naturalism tends to treat life in its grittier aspects; its characters are generally working class or underclass; human existence is often portrayed as overdetermined by social and natural forces which are ultimately beyond any control. So, for instance, another great novel of California, McTeague, written by Frank Norris at the turn into the 20th century, takes as its subject the bestial Mac, an uncredentialed, sadistic dentist whose inner tendencies toward cruelty and brutishness are inexorably fulfilled. Norris’s novel suggests the fundamental inalterabilty of human nature, a situation in which destiny is enmeshed in biology, one where the social environment degrades those consigned to it and every existential trajectory is charted in advance.
Not so in In Dubious Battle. Though the novel displays some traits of Naturalism its title connotes the possibility at least of struggle against fate. By now, of course, we all know where that title comes from: Milton’s Paradise Lost, the story of how the Devil rebelled against God and was
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire
Satan, as a literary character, has long been portrayed as a symbol of insurgency, and Paradise Lost was in a sense as much about the right of English subjects to depose the King during the Revolution of 1644 as it was an effort to write a Christian myth in the Greek epic manner. Here, then, is a contradiction: the revolt against the master is viewed with sympathy, but the facts of that uprising– its execution, its inversion of a divine order– risked terrifying consequences.
Here is Satan’s first soliliquy in Paradise Lost, from which the title of Steinbeck’s book is taken:
“If thou beest he—but Oh how fallen! how changed
From him!—who, in the happy realms of light,
Clothed with transcendent brightness, didst outshine
Myriads, though bright—if he whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the glorious enterprise,
Joined with me once, now misery hath joined
In equal ruin; into what pit thou seest
From what highth fallen: so much the stronger proved
He with his thunder: and till then who knew
The force of those dire arms? Yet not for those,
Nor what the potent Victor in his rage
Can else inflict, do I repent, or change,
Though changed in outward lustre, that fixed mind,
And high disdain from sense of injured merit,
That with the Mightiest raised me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along
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. What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome.
That glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power
Who, from the terror of this arm, so late
Doubted his empire—that were low indeed;
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since, by fate, the strength of Gods,
And this empyreal substance, cannot fail;
Since, through experience of this great event,
In arms not worse, in foresight much advanced,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal war,
Irreconcilable to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs’, and in the excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven.”
I read an essay once that called Steinbeck an ‘apple pie radical’. Cute. But maybe he seems insuficiently proletarian because John’s working a populist-agrarian trope: dispossession from the land resonates at a heavy symbolic level– the first humans cast out, the Hebrew tribes in exodus from pharaoh, etc.
It also occurs to me that maybe we could use a working list of names to describe the period in which In Dubious Battle transpires:
the Great Depression [like the Great War? What does it mean to call a historical conjucture Great?]
the “age of the CIO” [from Michael Denning’s Cultural Front, foregrounding the lived experiences and relationships of workers, their alliances and allegiances]
“Fordist modernism” [another Denning-ism. as a heuristic, as a problematic, as a way of thinking about history and culture, it encourages us to link cultural production and consumption and the meanings that erupt from the practices these terms imply. The dialectic this linkage produces allows us to consider the signifying practices of everyday life together with what is more obviously ‘cultural’: literature, music, film, etc. ]
the interwar period [periodizing by wars reproduces the logic of mainstream historiography?]
hard times [which is appealingly colloquial, gritty and direct, yet carries with it the risks of romanticism]
the Jazz Age [do we automatically associate this term with F. Scott Fitzgerald, bootleg hootch, and The Cotton Club? What are the benefits/limits of emphasizing a leading form of a period’s cultural production? For me, this term resonates with a kind of midcentury urban negritude, the adaptation of largely rural “Negro” folkways to a highly stratified urban environment. Richard Wright is an obvious candidate here, but also, essentially, Claude McKay, whose West Indian origins, communist fellow-travelling and Harlem Renaissance ties make him a seminal figure of 20th century US fiction (see Home to Harlem, Banjo, Banana Bottom). We could mention Zora Neale Hurston too, especially her ethnographies of the South, Haiti, and Jamaica and the links they reveal between modernism/primitivism. Or Bessie Smith, Aime Cesaire, Oscar Micheaux, Prez, et al.]
Finally, here are some notes for a lecture on the Depression I once gave at Scotts Valley High. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it might be helpful in locating IDB in its cultural/historical context.
The American Dream and the Great Depression
Seeds of the Dream
The American Dream is as old as America, which is to say the United States, which, in the scheme of things, hasn’t been around that long. We might push back in time to the period prior to the United States when North America was a system of colonies under the French, British, Dutch, and Spanish to find the seed of this dream, its undeveloped beginnings. Going back to the opening of the western hemisphere to European colonialism means the 15th century– still not very long ago in terms of the span of human culture (which, some say, is about 100,000 years old). This period– the late 15th and early 16th centuries– is potentially important for our purposes because it witnessed two crucial events: the birth of a new economic system– capitalism— and, with it, the beginnings of modernity. That’s too big a task for today. Nor is there time to discuss a significant change within capitalism that is connected to the American Dream that occured roughly 200 years after the western hemisphere was colonized and has been called “the rise of the bourgeoisie.” We must set aside those questions for now, because our focus is fairly specific: the American Dream and its relationship to the Great Depression.