A conversation at a New Year's Eve dinner party led me to last week's review of the Cream Albert Hall DVD, which I was told should not be missed. On the same occasion, someone else was speaking so eloquently and enthusiastically about Zadie Smith's new novel, On Beauty, that I made up my mind to look for it. Then I ran into an old friend who was excited about having discovered John Steinbeck, of all people. I asked him which of Steinbeck's works had first engaged his interest. "The Moon is Down," he said. "It's about a failed occupation." His tone suggested that this small novel from 1942, published a few months after America entered the war, could be read in the context of the problems plaguing the American occupation of Iraq.
On Beauty lost me around page 53. Something has to keep you reading the characters, the style, the concept, which in this case would depend to some extent on whether or not you're interested in the way Zadie Smith uses E.M. Forster's Howard's End as a sort of template. I gave up in spite of some nice writing because I had trouble believing in the characters and the situation, and the dialogue seemed contrived and unfocused.
In The Moon is Down, which is available in numerous editions including the Library of America's second Steinbeck volume, the dialogue is no less contrived in its way and sometimes downright unbelievable, and the characters are flat, but the situation itself is focused because the author is compelled by a mission directly related to a world at war. What kept me reading was not just the situation of the occupied country but the situation Steinbeck himself was dealing with, his task as a writer attempting to produce something of more consequence than a piece of fiction. To put it more grandly than he would have expressed it, he wants to change the world, or to at least to inform the way people think about such things as war and occupation and resistance. It's safe to say Zadie Smith did not intend to change the world when she wrote On Beauty. But then neither did Steinbeck when he wrote Cannery Row, which has a vivid sense of place and a style and flavor all its own. It's hard to believe the same man wrote The Moon is Down. It's the difference between a labor of love and a high-stakes political assignment.
In The Grapes of Wrath, which came out in 1939, Steinbeck did it all. His ambition may not have been to change the world, but his novel had an impact on the fabric of his time far greater than any comparable work by Hemingway or Faulkner, both of whom are rightly considered greater writers. The Grapes of Wrath was a prodigious work driven by compassion and outrage on a theme controversial enough to subject the author to hate mail and death threats. It also brought him extraordinary critical acclaim and popular success. Published three years later, The Moon is Down was presented as a venture into unfamiliar territory; according to the jacket copy on the original 1942 edition, "For the first time since he wrote his first novel twelve years ago Steinbeck has gone outside of America for his setting." In fact, he'd wanted to set it in America. The project originated as a play and had, for all purposes, been commissioned by the U.S. government through the F.I.S. (Foreign Information Service), its purpose to counteract German propaganda. Steinbeck actually completed a version set in an American city under German occupation, but when he handed it in, the F.I.S. was not comfortable with a story that necessarily admitted the possibility that America could be defeated and occupied.
Steinbeck's response was to shift the setting to an unnamed town in a northern European country generally assumed to be Norway or Denmark. Once again, however, the author resisted becoming a mere propagandist churning out a tract in the guise of fiction. Instead of resorting to the stock evil-Nazi formula Hollywood had already been blitzing the American public with, Steinbeck found a way to make the story at once topical and timeless. Instead of typecasting the invaders as Hollywood Germans he gave no name to their country and gave the characters odd, distinctly unGermanic names like Tonder and Prackle. What most upset the powers that be, including numerous critics and reviewers, was that he depicted the invaders as sensitive human beings, not grotesque evildoers decked out in swastikas, clicking their heels, and shouting "Heil Hitler!" You could even say that this fictional occupying force was well-meaning; they wanted to "make nice," and while they may not have expected children to strew flowers at their feet, they were deluded enough to think that they and the people they had conquered so swiftly (sound familiar?) could get along fine as long as the miners kept mining the coal needed to fuel the homeland's war machine (or, if it had been a nameless country in the Middle East, as long as the oil fields kept pumping). There were references to an out-of-touch "leader" in the capital and hints that the war news was being given a relentlessly positive spin.
The Moon is Down can be read in a single sitting. The narrative suggests an author with no interest in fashioning a style other than through his determination to keep the prose simple and clear; as a result, he sometimes comes off sounding simplistic and naive. One of the criticisms levelled against him at the time was that he'd written something with "a fairy tale atmosphere" instead of a serious work about a deadly serious enemy. In fact, he knew a good deal more about the situation than his critics gave him credit for. When President Roosevelt enlisted him to help with an agency that eventually became the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services), Steinbeck had the opportunity to talk with refugees from occupied nations who told him numerous stories of clandestine resistance operations. Just as he'd empathized with the plight of the tenant farmers in Oklahoma, he was able to empathize with the plight of people at the mercy of an occupying force. But instead of responding with the passion that informs The Grapes of Wrath, he channeled his empathy into a restrained, dispassionate narrative.
Today the phrase "fog of war" has surfaced as a metaphor for the residual chaos giving cover to corruption, deceit, incompetence, and the abuse of power (most recently in relation to the muddled response to Katrina). Thanks to the fog of war, critical reaction to The Moon is Down stopped just short of accusing the author of treason (again, it's hard not to see a contemporary parallel here). Reviewers who loved The Grapes of Wrath and wanted another big book on a big issue were disappointed. And reviewers who had once slammed the author for being a glorified propagandist slammed him now for failing to deliver a solid piece of morale-building American propaganda. He was chastised for giving comfort to the enemy as well as for encouraging what was assumed would be a futile and fatal resistance by the people who were actually living under German occupation. Steinbeck biographers like Jay Parini and Jackson J. Benson both make clear how seriously he took these slurs on his patriotism when he knew that he had only been doing his best to serve his country in a way that did not compromise his integrity as a writer. It should be noted that the so-called "common readers" at home and abroad had no problem with these issues. Steinbeck's "fairy tale" would become an even bigger best-seller than The Grapes of Wrath had been.
The Moon is Down has little merit as literature. It would be wrong to even speak of it in the same breath with The Great Gatsby or The Sound and the Fury, let alone The Grapes of Wrath. Any one of Hemingway's best stories is superior to it, as Steinbeck himself would have been the first to admit. When the fog of World War II cleared, however, this very small novel looked like something greater than a mere book. Underground movements throughout Europe had printed it, passed it from hand to hand, and found hope and inspiration in its celebration of the ideals of freedom, humanity, solidarity, and subtly sustained resistance. Apparently the Germans killed people who were caught with it in their possession. When Steinbeck visited Denmark and Norway, he was greeted as a war hero. According to a Copenhagen newspaper, "all Denmark" was at his feet. The King of Norway awarded him that country's Liberty Cross for writing The Moon is Down, something that had previously been given only to resistance heroes.
It's hard not to admire that sort of accomplishment, hard not to wish for a writer or poet gifted or committed enough to produce work that would give hope and moral sustenance to the victims of an occupation or a totalitarian government or the sort of shadow occupation that can take place even in a democratic country.
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