Louis Owens and John Steinbeck's Ghosts

A mystery solved with the help of a professor and a mobster's musician

Once the strike was over, however, the organizers faced severe consequences. One of them ended up hiding out in an attic in Seaside, California, just a few miles from Monterey. Steinbeck heard about it and visited the man in his hiding place, asking him about the details of the strike. And that's when he began taking notes for the book that would become In Dubious Battle.

In the actual strike, 75 percent of the thousands of pickers who had walked off their jobs had been Mexican nationals or Mexican-Americans. Many others were black. But in Steinbeck's novel, published in 1936, all of the workers portrayed in any detail were white Okies. Why did the man who had used Mexican characters in nearly all of his previous books erase Mexicans from the first book he published as a well-known author?

Louis suggested that I learn the actual history of the 1933 strike in minute detail. He also suggested a great resource: the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

Louis Owens  won the American Book Award in 1997 for his novel Nightland.
Louis Owens won the American Book Award in 1997 for his novel Nightland.
Tony and Virginia swore that Lucky Luciano took in  one of their nightclub shows.
Tony and Virginia swore that Lucky Luciano took in one of their nightclub shows.


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LOUIS OWENS, 1948-2002

  • His Wikipedia page
  • A beautiful description of Owens, written by one of his best friends, former San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Glen Martin
  • An excellent, lengthy interview with Owens conducted by Western Washington University professor John Purdy

    The Novels

  • Wolfsong, 1995
  • The Sharpest Sight, 1995
  • Bone Game, 1996
  • Nightland, 1996
  • Dark River, 1999
  • For months, I gathered what material I could at the UC Santa Cruz collections, but I also took the school's jitney service over to Berkeley and spent hours in the Bancroft Library. I pored over its archives of even the smallest San Joaquin Valley newspapers—every little town had them—and mined them for day-by-day developments of the strike.

    It was in the small farm town of Pixley, for example, about two weeks into the shutdown, that the most harrowing event of the strike occurred. The organizers, who included a man named Pat Chambers and a woman named Carolyn Decker, had called for a meeting at a hall in town. So many strikers showed up, however, that many were unable to get inside. As the crowd tried to get word of what was going on in the meeting, someone managed to snap a couple of stunning photographs: About a dozen farmers with rifles in their hands were sneaking up on the Mexican workers.

    The farmers opened fire on the unarmed crowd. Miraculously, only two men were killed; several other people were injured, including a woman. The gunmen then jumped into their cars and sped away, but were almost immediately pulled over by California Highway Patrol officers who had actually witnessed the attack (the farmers' weapons were literally still smoking). The officers took the rifles and then told the men to go on home.

    It was "justice," California style. But if the shooting went unpunished, it was still a pivotal event, because it shifted public opinion. Until that time, newspapers had sympathized with the farmers and blithely printed racist condemnations of the striking "trash." But after the two people were killed in Pixley and another man was shot dead in Arvin, the public started to have second thoughts. Federal officials showed up and began leaning on both sides to settle (to the consternation of the Communist organizers, who could see they were winning and resented the interference). The final agreement, however, did guarantee substantial raises for workers.

    If they weren't entirely satisfied, Chambers and Decker still considered the event a major success; in real life, neither one was anything like the cynical, manipulative organizer in Steinbeck's novel. But that wasn't the only detail of the strike that Steinbeck changed in the book.

    Louis complained that one of the things Steinbeck rarely got credit for was his experimentation (not an assessment, by the way, that you hear from the legions of litterateurs who roll their eyes at Steinbeck's Nobel Prize). Louis and others had already written that Steinbeck's experiment in In Dubious Battle was to examine what happens to a group of people when a mob mentality takes over. Steinbeck called it the idea of the "phalanx," and the details of the strike were, Louis believed, of secondary importance to what he really wanted to portray: the mob as a living organism.

    Looking carefully at the details of the strike that Steinbeck had used and those he'd thrown away, one can see that most fit a pattern of foregrounding the "phalanx" phenomenon. Making the workers all one ethnicity made sense in a couple of ways—not only was it easier to consider groupthink among a homogenous group, but by 1936, when the book was published, many more white Okies had poured into California as a result of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. You could argue that Steinbeck wasn't only "whitewashing" the details of the strike in his novel to keep his theme pure, but also to reflect the times.

    Other things, however, weren't so easy to reconcile—in particular, some troubling remarks that the author had made in newspaper articles at about the same time. More than once, Steinbeck made the point that it was time for the larger public to pay more attention to the plight of farm workers for the very reason that so many of them were now white. As he put it, "their blood was strong"; democracy, he argued, came more "naturally" to the white farm worker, who wasn't going to put up with the kind of treatment that earlier workers had.

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