In Dubious Battle

In Dubious Battle

First edition
Author John Steinbeck
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Covici-Friede
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 270
Preceded by Tortilla Flat
Followed by Of Mice and Men

In Dubious Battle is a novel by John Steinbeck, written in 1936. The central figure of the story is an activist for "the Party" (possibly the American Communist Party or the Industrial Workers of the World, although it is never specifically named in the novel) who is organizing a major strike by fruit pickers, seeking thus to attract followers to his cause.

Prior to publication, Steinbeck wrote in a letter:

This is the first time I have felt that I could take the time to write and also that I had anything to say to anything except my manuscript book. You remember that I had an idea that I was going to write the autobiography of a Communist ... There lay the trouble. I had planned to write a journalistic account of a strike. But as I thought of it as fiction the thing got bigger and bigger. It couldn't be that. I've been living with this thing for some time now. I don't know how much I have got over, but I have used a small strike in an orchard valley as the symbol of man's eternal, bitter warfare with himself.[1]

Explanation of the novel's title

The title is a reference to a passage from John 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. 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?[2]

Plot summary

In Dubious Battle deals with a fruit-workers' strike in a California valley and the attempts of communists to organize, lead, and provide for the striking pickers.


Literary significance and 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, through 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. President Barack Obama told the New York Times that it was his favorite book by Steinbeck.[3]

The novel likely recounts a fruit worker strike that occurred in Tulare County, California.[4]

Film adaption

On January 30, 2015, it was announced that James Franco would direct and star in the film.[5] The screenplay was written by Matt Rager and will be produced by AMBI Productions, Rabbit Bandini Productions, and That's Hollywood Productions.[6] The film stars Nat Wolff in the lead role, along with Josh Hutcherson, Bryan Cranston, Robert Duvall, Ed Harris, Selena Gomez, and others. Principal photography began on March 19, 2015[7] in Atlanta[8] and Bostwick, Georgia.[9] Additional footage was shot in orchards West of Yakima, Washington September 27 & 28, 2015.[10]

See also


  1. "Course notes from a Cal Poly English course". Archived from the original on May 12, 2015.
  2. Ed Stephan. "Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle".
  3. "Barack Obama's Favorite Books".
  4. "In Dubious Battle: Setting". Martha Heasly Cox Center. Archived from the original on November 3, 2013.
  5. Mike Fleming Jr. (January 30, 2015). "Steinbeck's 'In Dubious Battle' Helmed By James Franco With Strong Cast – Berlin". Retrieved March 31, 2015.
  6. Justin Kroll (January 30, 2015). "James Franco Assembles Cast for Adaptation of 'In Dubious Battle'". Variety. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
  7. Jennifer Brett (March 19, 2015). "James Franco on the set of "In Dubious Battle"". Retrieved March 31, 2015.
  8. Anita Busch (March 17, 2015). "John Savage Joins James Franco's 'In Dubious Battle'". Retrieved March 31, 2015.
  9. "'Putting Steinbeck on screen is TOUGH!' James Franco admits he's finding directing In Dubious Battle a challenge". Daily Mail. March 21, 2015. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
  10. Chey Scott (September 16, 2015). "Want to be in a James Franco movie? Head to Yakima". Retrieved September 16, 2015.


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