Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Moon Is Down

Being stuck in an airport for most of Sunday gave me a chance to catch up with some reading. I finished Mathias Sandorf, of course. I read Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, which I think MrsD had recommended; some of the story was familiar, so I suppose I may have read it years and years ago, if I hadn't picked up parts of it from some other source. And I read John Steinbeck's The Moon Is Down, which was quite excellent. The title comes from Macbeth (Act II, Scene I):

BANQUO: How goes the night, boy?

FLEANCE: The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.

BANQUO: And she goes down at twelve.

FLEANCE: I take't, 'tis later, sir.

John Steinbeck had been worried about the extent of Nazi propagandistic efforts, and he wrote the work, which was published in 1942, as his contribution to countering it. He originally wrote it as set in America; since it describes a military occupation of a small coal town, and the war was not going all that well (the Germans were still expanding and the U.S. had not yet won any significant victories against Japan), this went down very badly with the people he was trying to get interested in the book, so he rewrote it to take place in a generic and unnamed country, one that has a lot in common with Norway or Denmark. He wrote it in tandem with a screenplay version, and the play debuted shortly after the book came out.

Both the book and the play, and the movie that followed them, did reasonably well. But Steinbeck was blindsided by the very, very harsh criticisms he received from some quarters. One of the interesting aspects of Steinbeck's propaganda piece is that much of the story is told from the point of view of the occupiers -- obviously, strongly hinted to be German, although they are not explicitly identified as such. And they are presented quite sympathetically. Colonel Lanser, who is in charge, has fought in war before; he has to keep the coal flowing, but is pessimistic about the prospects of the occupation. The captains are mostly idealistic young men who would rather be going to dances with young women and who have no desire to cause problems with the townspeople. Some of them have a mental breakdown from the stress of living in a community that actively hates them. They are normal people, not melodramatic villains. Although there were many who did defend him, and vehemently, Steinbeck was savaged by pundits, critics, and fellow authors claiming he was soft on fascism. It made him quite bitter, actually.

But these criticisms were the usual soft-handed posturings of the literati, the pretenses of intellectuals and chatterers at being fighters for justice. In occupied Europe, the Nazis were desperately trying to stamp out the little book, which was spreading like wildfire. The thousands of copies smuggled into Norway from Sweden caught the attention of the Quisling government; as the war was ending, a legal edition came out and sold twenty thousand copies before the occupation had even officially ended. A bookstore owner in Copenhagen who lived literally under the Gestapo offices mimeographed a never-ending stream of disguised Danish editions, which were then bought by students, who distributed them throughout the resistance. It has ever since been a well known book in Denmark. Similar stories could be told of the Netherlands or France and elswhere. Its circulation was very wide, although it is sometimes difficult to trace because so much of it was clandestine.

Steinbeck's little book touched a chord that none of the other Allied propaganda could -- and part of it was that the occupiers in the book were not cartoonish villains. To people who were actually resisting the Germans, propagandists who wrote their Germans with melodramatic wickedness were obviously just writing propaganda to write propaganda, were obviously, with whatever good intentions they might have had, just making things up. But Steinbeck -- the story he wrote was very much like their story, quiet people trying not to fall apart while under the military heel, dealing with soldiers, some of whom were indeed obviously awful, but many of whom were just like themselves, could well have been good neighbors in another time, and yet were clearly, undeniably, to-the-death enemies, the lonely and homesick boys you might have to stab in the back or blow up today, or who tomorrow might get an order to shoot you. And Steinbeck had captured an idea that resonated with the experience of the occupied populations of places like Norway and Denmark: that the occupiers were in reality less free than the occupied, and could never win as long as the occupied refused to be crushed.

It's not a difficult read at all, and I recommend it heartily.


John Steinbeck, The Moon Is Down, Introduction by Donald V. Coers, Penguin (New York: 1995).

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