In between the more famous Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck published what may be viewed as a trial run for his famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath. In Dubious Battle is also set in California and is also concerned with migrant workers and capitalist exploitation. Whereas Steinbeck’s broad, sprawling masterpiece has the story of a family at its heart, however, In Dubious Battle is intensely focused on the politics of disruption.
The story of a labor organizer named Mac and the young man he takes under his wing is really a story about tactical strategy for planning and carrying through a workers’ strike against capitalist owners of apple orchards in California’s fictional Torgas valley. A common assumption is that the labor strike portrayed in the novel was inspired by a similar incident involving a peach orchard in the real California county of Tulare.
The labor organization for which Mac is working is never directly identified and so could just as easily be the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) as the American Communist Party, but that did not stop its critics from stridently working to paint Steinbeck as a communist. The concerted detachment from placing the revolutionary intent of his characters within any specific ideological group belies such an assumption. Steinbeck’s canon continually points to his belief in the power of individuals when they form into collective unit rather than any particular system, and that is true of In Dubious Battle as well.
In 2008, Barack Obama included In Dubious Battle on a list of his most significance and influential books. A 2016 film adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel was directed by James Franco, starring himself in the role of Mac alongside a cast that also included Bryan Cranston, Robert Duvall, and Ed Harris.