On this date in 1942, John Steinbeck’s short wartime novel The Moon Is Down, was published.
Composed quickly in late 1941, the work is set in an unnamed foreign country—one that looks an awful lot like Norway, that is suddenly invaded by an unnamed army—one that looks an awful lot like Germany’s. Steinbeck’s purpose was to write about “the experiences of the occupied,” and in so doing, provide “a blueprint, setting forth . . . what could be done” to resist, to fight back. In this Steinbeck succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. One scholar later wrote that Steinbeck’s novel was
“the most powerful piece of propaganda ever written to help a small democratic country resist totalitarian aggression and occupation.”
An article I have written about Steinbeck and The Moon Is Down will be published in the Summer 2022 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. It is not my intent here to revisit or describe all the details of the forthcoming article—for that you’ll just have to read the piece when it comes out! (I promise to make it available to you as soon as it is published.)
Rather, here I would like to discuss a number of interesting parallels between Odd Nansen and John Steinbeck, beyond the novel’s obvious setting in Norway.
To begin with, Odd Nansen and John Steinbeck were contemporaries. Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California on February 27, 1902—less than three months after Nansen’s birth on December 6, 1901.
Both men were extraordinarily generous. According to Tom Buergenthal, Nansen donated the proceeds of the German translation of his diary to a fund set up to help German refugees. Steinbeck likewise signed over the prize money from his 1940 Pulitzer Prize (for The Grapes of Wrath) to a friend to allow him to quit his day job and complete a novel he was working on (unfortunately, the novel was never published). Even earlier, Steinbeck had agreed to the re-publication of a series of articles on migrant workers in California’s Central Valley on the condition that all proceeds go to migrant-worker relief. Finally, in 1942 he gave all royalties from Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team, a book he wrote about the U.S. Army Air Force, to the Air Forces Aid Society Trust Fund. The movie rights alone fetched $250,000. (Steinbeck did not feel he should profit from the war effort.)
A key plot development in The Moon Is Down is the delivery, via miniature parachutes, of explosives to the local inhabitants. This sets off a wave of sabotage throughout the countryside. The resulting chaos in turn leads to the arrest of the local magistrate, one Mayor Orden, the hero of the novel, as a “hostage.” Similarly, it was in retaliation for British commando raids in late December 1941 (Operations Anklet and Archery) that Odd Nansen was arrested as a “hostage” on January 13, 1942. Fortunately for us, Odd Nansen did not meet the fate of Orden, who is executed in the closing pages of the novel as a sacrifice to the ongoing sabotage.
Finally, Odd Nansen and John Steinbeck seemed to share the same personal philosophy. Just before being led to his execution, Mayor Orden reflects back on his school days with his close friend, Dr. Winter. At his graduation Orden had recited an excerpt from Plato’s Apology, an account of Socrates’s trial in 399 B.C. for heresy. At one point Socrates, who is also facing imminent death, remarks:
“Someone will say, ‘And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end?’ To him I may fairly answer: ‘There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether what he is doing is right or wrong.’”
Eighty years later, Steinbeck’s novel is as relevant today as when it was first written.
Dedicated to the courageous Ukrainians in their fight to “resist totalitarian aggression and occupation.”