Posts tagged Socrates

The Moon Is Down Turns 80 Years Young

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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.”

A Tale of Two Offices

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In my previous blog about my recent trip to Norway, I described my visit to the former home of Vidkun Quisling, where I viewed his private office while he was Minister-President (1942-45).

What I didn’t mention was that I had a much more enjoyable visit to Odd Nansen’s private home and office as well.  After the war, Nansen designed a new home for his growing family, located just a stone’s throw from Fridtjof Nansen’s home, Polhøgda, where he had previously lived following his father’s death.

Odd Nansen’s home

The house has long since passed out of the Nansen family and into private hands, but Preben Johannessen, son-in-law of my dear friend Marit, offered to approach the current owner and neighbor (Preben and Marit’s daughter Anne live almost adjacent to the house) and explain that a visitor from America was very desirous of seeing Odd Nansen’s handiwork.  The neighbor kindly agreed, and the day following my presentation in Oslo, Marit, Anne, Preben and I were given a guided tour of the home.

It was fascinating to view the architectural details Odd Nansen built into his new home, many of which remain unchanged over 70 years later.  These include a cozy, wood-fired sauna near the master bedroom, and ceiling panels in the dining room hand painted by Nansen himself.

Dining Room ceiling painted by Odd Nansen

The pièce de résistance was of course Odd Nansen’s study, occupying the highest room in the entire house, complete with specially built drawers to hold his architectural drawings.  The original, hand-drawn architectural renderings of his home were still there, available for viewing.  As Nansen completed his house plans around the same time as he published From Day to Day, he must have been a very busy man indeed.

Odd Nansen’s architectural plans

Seeing the offices of Odd Nansen and Vidkun Quisling on back-to-back days got me to thinking about the two men.

Quisling and Nansen were near contemporaries of each other (Quisling was 14 years Nansen’s senior).  Both men had close relationships with the great Fridtjof Nansen—Odd as his son, and Quisling as his key assistant, coordinating famine relief for Fridtjof in Soviet Russia in the early 1920s, as well as later projects in Armenia.

Both men showed considerable talent early in their careers.  Odd Nansen entered an architectural contest in 1930 (age 29) and placed third among 254 submissions, many by the leading U.S. architects of the day, including the son of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Quisling graduated first in his class from Norway’s military academy with the highest grades ever awarded up to that time.

By the 1930s, both men began to make important career decisions which would shape the future direction of their lives.

In 1933, Quisling, motivated by a mystic ideology called Universism, hatred of Communism, and perhaps most importantly, impressed by Adolf Hitler’s recent meteoric rise to Chancellor of Germany, formed the Nasjonal Samling (National Unity) Party, known by its initials, NSNS was a fascist knock-off of the Nazi Party, complete with its own Nordic flags, an SA-like paramilitary equivalent (the Hirden), etc.  It garnered little popular support, and never attracted more than 2% of Norway’s voters. Nevertheless, by 1942 Quisling was riding high in Nazi-occupied Norway, having just been appointed its Minister-President.

In 1936, Odd Nansen, on the other hand, formed Nansenhjelpen at the behest of several prominent Norwegians.  At significant cost to his career and family, he helped stateless refugees in central Europe obtain visas to Norway.  He was, a contemporary wrote, “mindful of the fact that he was the bearer of the Nansen name.” Despite daunting obstacles, Nansenhjelpen succeeded in bringing approximately 260 such refugees to Norway before the outbreak of World War II.

These choices put Nansen and Quisling on a collision course that resulted in Nansen’s arrest in January 1942.  In his diary entry for July 24, 1942, Nansen writes: “That confirms what I have believed all the time . . .  Quisling is behind my arrest.”  It looked for all the world that Quisling had made the better choice, Nansen the wrong one.

I am currently working on an article about The Moon is Down, a novel written by John Steinbeck in 1942.  The action is located in a small town in an unnamed country (that looks suspiciously like Norway) which is occupied by an unnamed foreign army (that looks suspiciously like the German Army).  At the novel’s climax, the town’s mayor, held (like Nansen) as a hostage, realizes he is to be executed in retaliation for ongoing sabotage.  He reminisces with his closest friend, the town doctor, about their school days, when together they studied SocratesApology.  The mayor recalls a particularly pertinent part of Socrates’ speech while he was on trial for his life, when Socrates recalls a question directed to him, and his answer:

“Do you feel no compunction, Socrates, at having followed a line of action which puts you in danger of the death penalty?’

I might fairly reply to him, ‘You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action–that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one.”

Odd Nansen lived beyond the biblical three-score and ten years, earning the respect and admiration of his many friends and diary readers.  He died of natural causes on June 26, 1973, age 71.

Vidkun Quisling was executed by firing squad, following a trial for treason, on October 24, 1945, age 58.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • February 26, 2023: Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, NJ
  • May 15, 2023: Polhogda, Lysaker, Norway
  • * = Virtual

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"Tim...gave a terriffic presentation [at the Norwegian Nobel Institute]."

- Anne Ellingsen, author of Odd Nansen: Arvtageren

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