Was it all for nothing?

“They’d drive you nuts,” said Mac. “Men are bad enough, but the bugs’d drive you nuts.” (327)
– John Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle

DSCI0013Jim looked evenly at him. “Did you ever work at a job where, when you got enough skill to get a raise in pay, you were fired and a new man put in? Did you ever work at a place where they talked about loyalty to the firm, and loyalty meant spying on the people around you? Hell, I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“Nothing except hatred,” Harry said quietly. “You’re going to be surprised when you see that you stop hating people. I don’t know why that is, but that’s what usually happens.” (12)

A few weeks back, probably more but no matter, I was having a fun discussion with my comrade blogger Tocksin. We were talking about Steinbeck and he mentioned that Steinbeck had written his books at a “fourth grade level,” as he had wanted them to be completely accessible to the masses. I have a son in the fourth grade, I didn’t think my boy would get through a Steinbeck novel, but I wondered if he would listen to one read aloud to him. Tocksin suggested that I read In Dubious Battle to him, and as I am highly susceptible to suggestion, I did.

Mac said sharply, “You think we’re too important, and this little bang-up is too important. If the thing blew up right now it’d be worth it. A lot of the guys’ve been believing this crap about the noble American workingman, an’ the partnership of capital and labor. A lot of them are straight now. They know how much capital thinks of ’em, and how quick capital would poison ’em like a bunch of ants.” (321)

My son really seemed to enjoy it. He liked the somewhat coarse language and tough talk, and after a few primers on geo-politics, political systems, and a brief history of worker’s rights, he got into the drama of the apple orchard strike. I think he liked the idea of a huge campout, and he bore  the protracted discussions of how to keep people engaged in a fight and the morals of instigating and agitating for a higher cause admirably well.

His knuckles were white, where he gasped the rail. “Comrades! He didn’t want nothing for himself—” (343)

Last night we came to the final chapter. We had a bet going on how it would end: would the strikers high tail it, or would they stay and fight for their rights? As I read, he snuggled close to me and every four pages or so I would ask the little head tucked between my arm and body, “Are you still awake?” “Yes!” he would assure me with a small measure of offense. In the end we both lost the bet, because Steinbeck does not finish that particular question, but those painful, frightening questions like:  was it worth it? was it all for nothing?- those are the questions that haunt.  What was it all for? Why did we ever start? I looked down at my son, and — heard him softly snoring.

“But do you think they’ve got brains enough to see it?”
“Not brains, Jim. It don’t take brains. After it’s all over the thing’ll go on working down inside of ’em. They’ll know it without thinking it out.” (322)

I think that’s true. We can’t know what sticks in our guts, or in our hearts. Perhaps it helps to be awake, but even so, it’s in there- and my dramatic retelling at the breakfast table was…entertaining as well. We can’t really see what the seeds we sow today will grow up to be, but all these sweet moments, and the hard ones too- they work down inside of us.


13 responses to “Was it all for nothing?

  1. Man, Jessica, you have made that book come alive for me once again. Make me wanna grab it up: Steinbeck socially engages us to the larger cause that is man in relationship with other human beings; his words have created a social conscience much like John Muir’s words have created a environmental consciousness. Bravo.

  2. I just mentioned Steinbeck in reference to Emil Nolde, as an artist who ranged widely and was criticised for being uncategorisable. I think his strength is in not having a spare word, and his language is so visual, so probably works for kids with the concentration of a goldfish. I have a book of quotes when I read, but with his books I want to copy the whole thing out. Another thoughtful post. Cheers!

  3. They’ll know it without thinking it out. To write something so pure to describe something so indescribable. Makes me want to stop writing in the face of such purity. By mornings light, we’ll see.

  4. sorry I’m late to the party, but the notion of knowing a thing, by osmosis, ‘without thinking it out’, I think is so much a part of our learning. Immeasurable and indefinable. We all accumulate a patina of knowing, of perception.
    I’m pretty sure most of my writing comes out of that kind of learning.
    Steinbeck unveils us to ourselves, with his lean language.

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