Considered his first major work, In Dubious Battle (1936) garnered John Steinbeck serious and positive critical attention and provided the reading public with a foretaste of the philosophical speculations about group behavior, social inequality, and human rights that would characterize many of his later well-known works. Loosely based on historical events from peach and cotton strikes in California in 1933, especially the Pixley Cotton Strike, which took place about 50 miles north of Bakersfield, California, In Dubious Battle follows Jim Nolan on a quick and intense journey of maturation as he becomes impassioned with the labor cause, serves a brief apprenticeship in the fields, and then dies a violent death. Jim's corpse is then utilized as a slain, sacrificial lamb by his mentor Mac to unify the disheartened workers in hopes that they will rally one more time in support of the already doomed strike.
The novel's dark ironies and cynical portrayal of capitalism, patriotism, and vigilante violence call into question many traditional American values and suggest there is something fundamentally wrong with an economic system that starves and oppresses its labor. At the same time, the novel's portrayal of the questionable motives of Party members, alluding to the Communist Party in America in the 1930s, leaves readers to ponder whether any just solution to labor problems actually exists. Like later more famous Steinbeck novels, such as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle dramatizes humanity's capacity for great moral fortitude and justice in addition to shameful and selfish greed, suspicion, and violence.
In Dubious Battle was first published by Covici Friede in 1936.