A Two-Part Essay

In 1942 in California, John Steinbeck wrote a novel called The Moon is Down. Meanwhile, World War II raged in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific.

1942 was a dark year. The Reich was rising. Storm troopers under the command of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party had captured and now controlled Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland, Belgium, Norway, France, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Greece. A little Jewish girl in the Netherlands called Anne Frank started a diary. That summer she would go into hiding with her family while Jews all over Europe would be deported to concentration camps. At Auschwitz, Nazis began gassing the prisoners.

The first American troops arrived in Europe in January. German subs attacked the coastline of North America from Canada down to Mexico. Japan was busy taking over the Pacific. In April they would conquer the Philippines and instigate the Bataan Death March. Japanese subs attacked Australia and islands all over the Pacific.

People were desperate. The outcome of the war was unclear.

John Steinbeck was 40 years old. By 1943 he would be a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, but in ‘42 he contributed to the war effort by writing a propaganda novel, one intended to give hope to the people of occupied Europe.

In The Moon is Down, an unnamed little European town is captured in a nearly bloodless coup by an invading force, and now the people must endure occupation. Resistance is futile, the new leaders tell them. We can all live pleasantly together if you just follow our rules. But of course the people are not happy to have their guns seized, to have their homes occupied, to be forced to work in a coal mine for the new commanders, and to face imprisonment or death for failing to follow orders. They think of themselves as free men, and they resent their captors.

What makes this novel interesting and different from most propaganda is that the occupying force are portrayed as real people, not all of whom buy into what they’re doing. In particular, Captain Lanser of the invading force has his doubts. He has lived through war before and he knows that there can be no bloodless occupation of a country, no suppression of a free people without revolt. He can see the difficulty that will come, and he is tired, and he is frustrated, and he tries to be fair and kind to the townspeople, but ultimately he sees himself as a cog in a machine that is orchestrated by The Leader. He must do as The Leader wills. His duty comes first, regardless of his personal moral standards. He has never been free.

And so he watches without surprise or horror as the townspeople implement their resistance, picking off armed troops one at a time with stones or fists, sabotaging rails and bridges, and performing their required work in the coal mine slowly and badly.

His troops become discouraged. They never feel safe. They receive no human warmth from the townspeople. They know they are hated and they want to go home.

And all the time the Captain must press on because The Leader wills it. He knows his effort is fruitless, that it is a waste of lives on both sides, and yet he cannot leave. He has no power. He is required to occupy the town.

In the final scene, the town Mayor and Doctor are arrested and held hostage, to be executed if another act of sabotage is committed. They know the sabotage will happen and that they will be executed, and while they’re not happy about it, they are resigned to it. They also know that without their leadership the resistance will continue under new leaders, and when those are executed, new leaders, and so forth until the end. It is a fundamental difference between them and their occupiers, who are dependent on a handful of men in leadership position: if those leaders were gone, the occupiers would not know what to do. But free men will rise and lead themselves.

In an interesting little speech, the Mayor remembers back 46 years to his time in school with the Doctor and how they had to memorize Plato’s Apology, the defense that Socrates gave to the senate at Athens when he was condemned to death for treason. The Mayor stumbles over the words as he recalls the speech, and Captain Lanser of the occupying force corrects him, for he, too, memorized Plato in his youth. But the former feels the speech as a free man and the latter only hears it as pretty, meaningless words.

As Captain Lanser tries to convince the Mayor to rein in his people — as though the Mayor had the power to do so — explosions are heard outside. The sabotage has begun again. The Mayor voluntarily leaves with a soldier to face his execution. He pauses to quote Socrates’ final words to his old friend, the words Socrates spoke right before he drank the hemlock.

In the doorway he turned back to Doctor Winter. “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius,” he said tenderly. “Will you remember to pay the debt?”

Winter closed his eyes for a moment before he answered, “The debt shall be paid.”

[The Mayor] chuckled then. “I remembered that one. I didn’t forget that one.” He put his hand on Prackle’s arm, and the lieutenant flinched away from him.

And Winter nodded slowly. “Yes, you remembered. The debt shall be paid.”

The reaction to Steinbeck’s novel was immediate and powerful. The Nazis banned it, and Mussolini proscribed death to any Italians who possessed it. In occupied France and Norway, it became a rallying point for the underground resistance, who translated and distributed it all over Europe. It became the best-known work of American literature in Soviet Russia during the war.  In 1943 it was made into a movie. After the war Europeans commented that they couldn’t believe Steinbeck was able to write so realistically about their experience. It was as though he had been there.

I have recently and coincidentally read this and another novel published in 1942, and I’m struck by how the war influenced both writers and led them to opposite conclusions about the nature of man.

In 1962 Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his speech he said, “I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

Next up, a novel by a writer who did not believe in the perfectibility of man: The Once and Future King by Mr. T. H. White.

Categories: Brain Workouts

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