The Moon is Down – Steinbeck’s most important novel?

With the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath today, Donald V. Coers shares the truly remarkable history of John Steinbeck‘s forgotten classic The Moon is Down - the novel which inspired the European resistance during WWII.


The Moon is Down

By the summer of 1940, a little more than a year after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, the Nazis had engulfed much of Europe. John Steinbeck was by then a world-class author. He was also both a clear-eyed political realist who understood that U.S. involvement in the war was inevitable, and a patriot eager to contribute to the Allies’ cause. That spring he had been in Mexico writing the screenplay for The Forgotten Village, and he had been troubled because it seemed to him that in Latin America the Nazis were outclassing the Allies in propaganda. He was so concerned, in fact, that on June 26, four days after France signed an armistice with Germany, he met with President Roosevelt to discuss the problem. There is no record to indicate that the president took any advice Steinbeck may have offered, but the writer’s enthusiasm for fighting fascism was not dampened. Over the next two or three years he served voluntarily in several of the government intelligence and information agencies created between 1940 and 1942.

Two of the organizations Steinbeck worked for were precursors of the CIA: the Office of Coordinator of information (COI) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Both were headed by Colonel William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, a Republican New York lawyer who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during the First World War. Despite his political conservatism, Donovan was an open-minded administrator who encouraged fresh ideas and was willing to employ unorthodox techniques and other people to achieve his goals. He was also particularly interested in civilian morale and, consequently, in propaganda.

While Steinbeck was working for the COl, probably in midsummer of 1941, he and Donovan discussed the idea that Steinbeck might write a work of propaganda. At the same time, Steinbeck’s duties at COl brought him into contact with displaced citizens from the recently occupied countries of Europe, among them Norway and Denmark (invaded in April of 1940), and France, Belgium, and the Netherlands (overrun in May and June). The refugees intrigued Steinbeck with stories about the activities of underground resistance movements in their native lands. Over twenty years later Steinbeck recounted in an article entitled “Reflections on a Lunar Eclipse” how the exiles’ information helped him decide what kind of propaganda he would write.

The experiences of the victim nations, while they differed in some degree with national psychologies, had many in common. At the time of invasion there had been confusion; in some of the nations there were secret Nazi parties, there were spies and turncoats. [The Norwegian Nazi, Vidkun] Quisling has left his name as a synonym for traitor. Then there were collaborators, some moved by fear and others simply for advancement and profit. Finally there were the restrictive measures of the Germans, their harsh demands and savage punishments. All of these factors had to be correlated and understood before an underground movement could form and begin to take action.

By September 1941 Steinbeck had decided to write a work of fiction using what he had learned about the psychological effects of enemy occupation upon the populace of conquered nations. Because he “did not believe people are very different in essentials,” he originally set his story in America:

I wrote my fictional account about a medium-sized American town with its countryside of a kind I knew well. There would be collaborators certainly. Don’t forget the Bund meetings in our cities, the pro-German broadcasts before the war and the kind of man who loves any success: “Mussolini made the trains run on time.” “Hitler saved Germany from communism.” It was not beyond reason that our town would have its cowards, its citizens who sold out for profit. But under this, I did and do believe, would be the hard core that could not be defeated. And so I wrote my account basing its fiction on facts extracted from towns already under the Nazi heel.

Steinbeck submitted his “fictional account” for approval to another of Donovan’s agencies, the Foreign Information Service. Officials there rejected it because they feared that postulating an American defeat might be demoralizing. Steinbeck’s refugee friends, certain that his story would boost morale in their already occupied homelands, urged him to circumvent official objections by shifting the setting. He took their advice and placed the story in an unnamed country, “cold and stern like Norway, cunning and implacable like Denmark, reasonable like France.”

Steinbeck finished his revised version just in time for Pearl Harbor, and Viking Press published it as a short novel, The Moon is Down, in early March of 1942. The next month it played on Broadway, and a year later premiered as a movie. Its title comes from the beginning of act 2 of Macbeth. Just before Banquo and Fleance encounter Macbeth on his way to murder Duncan, Banquo asks his son, “How goes the night, boy?” Fleance replies, “The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.” foreshadowing the descent of evil on the kingdom. Steinbeck’s allusion suggests that the Nazis had brought a similar spiritual darkness to Europe.

But Steinbeck’s method was subtler than that of the overcooked rant customarily served up in this country at the time.

The Moon is Down appeared in bookstores during the bleakest days of the war for the United States. While Americans reeled from Pearl Harbor, the Japanese overran much of Southeast Asia and seized strategic islands dotting vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean until they were poised within striking distance of the northern coast of Australia. The Doolittle raids, America’s first flicker of hope, were still a month away, and it would be three months before the first Japanese defeat, the Battle of Midway. The picture looked equally grim for America’s allies in Europe. Hitler’s crushing offenses continued unchecked, and the first shots in the watershed Battle of Stalingrad would not be fired for another nine or ten months. As U.S. factories frenetically retooled from consumer goods to war material, German U-boats lurked along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, sinking Allied ships faster than they could be replaced and threatening supply lines to Britain. The Allies’ great fear in March 1942 was that they might not be able to hold out long enough for American troops and industrial might to help reverse the course of the war.

Understandably, when The Moon is Down came out late that dreary winter, the critics were more interested in predicting its potential as propaganda than in weighing its merits as literature. But Steinbeck’s method was subtler than that of the overcooked rant customarily served up in this country at the time. His anonymous setting, for instance, is simply a peace-loving country, very much like Norway, which is invaded suddenly and without provocation by a much stronger neighbor, very much like Gennany. To be sure, Steinbeck leaves no doubt whom he has in mind. Officers in the invading army allude to “the Leader” of their homeland and to his bringing a “new order” to Europe. There is a reference to the Leader’s country’s having fought Belgium and France twenty years earlier- an unsubtle reminder of Germany’s repeat performance in the European theater. Beyond such hints, Steinbeck refused to adopt the contemporary Teutonic stereotypes. There are no heel-clicking Huns, no depraved, monocled intellectuals, no thundering sieg heils in his fable-like tale. Instead, Steinbeck depicts his putative Germans as human beings with normal feelings. They offer the citizens of the conquered country justifications for their invasion. They plead for understanding. They miss their families. They want their victims to accept them. Yet nothing can disguise their theft of freedom, and eventually the local patriots’ desire to regain it impels them to resist. The militarily superior invaders retaliate, but the impression remains that ultimately the patriots will prevail because a society of free individuals is stronger in the long run than a totalitarian power dependent on herd men. In the mayor’s words, ” It is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.”

Steinbeck’s affirmative, toned-down approach to propaganda in The Moon is Down touched off the fiercest literary battle of the Second World War. Many critics liked the novel but some did not and their number included. such formidable names as Clifton Fadiman and James Thurber. In effect, the detractors accused Steinbeck of naïveté. The creator of the savvy, muscular realism of The Grapes of Wrath was now being soft on the Nazis by depicting them as human beings and by infusing his story with a fuzzy, fairy-tale atmosphere. Doubtless well-intentioned but poorly conceived, Steinbeck’s propaganda would surely demoralize the victims of Nazi aggression in occupied Europe-the very people he wanted to help. The proper way to raise a fighting spirit among a brutalized populace, one critic intoned, was with hard-hitting hype bearing a tide like “Guts in the Mud,” not with “soft and dreamy” stuff like The Moon Is Down. The controversy raged for months in major newspapers and magazines-most prominently The New York Times, the Herald Tribune, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and the Saturday Review. To be sure, The Moon is Down had its defenders. In fact, more critics praised than criticized it. But the attacks blindsided Steinbeck. For years he had been praised as a skilled artist with socially enlightened views – a proletarian writer with polish. Suddenly he found himself savaged for a well-meaning contribution to the war effort. The criticism was corrosive, calling into question not only his artistic instincts, but, far worse, his political acumen, his credentials as an antifascist, and his very patriotism. Steinbeck was wounded, and his wounds were still tender over ten years later when he referred sarcastically to his detractors, chiefly Fadiman and Thurber, in an essay entitled “My Short Novels.”

The war came on, and I wrote The Moon is Down as a kind of celebration of the durability of democracy. I couldn’t conceive that the book would be denounced. I had written of Germans as men, not supermen, and this was considered a very weak attitude to take. I couldn’t make much sense out of this, and it seems absurd now that we know the Germans were men and thus fallible, even defeatable. It was said that I didn’t know anything about war, and this was perfectly true, though how Park Avenue commandos found me out I can’t conceive.

The Nazis certainly did not think the novel treated them favorably… mere possession of it meant an automatic death sentence.

The debate died long before the war ended, and after the war the political and philosophical issues it had spawned were moot. There were early indications that, as Steinbeck had intended, The Moon is Down had found a receptive audience in Nazi-occupied Europe. King Haakon VII gave him a medal honoring the novel’s influence in Norway, and European scholars occasionally mentioned its wartime popularity, but for nearly a half century the supporting details remained scattered and anecdotal. No one knew how effective Steinbeck’s contribution had been. Over the last few years new evidence has emerged that documents the extraordinarily positive reception of The Moon is Down in Nazi-occupied Western Europe, and confirms the novel’s success as propaganda. Throughout Norway, Denmark, Holland, and France, it was translated, printed on clandestine presses, and distributed, sometimes under the very nose of the Gestapo. The underground operations involved lawyers, book dealers, retired military personnel, housewives, businesspeople, students, and teachers who took great risks to disseminate The Moon is Down because it spoke so directly to them and to their situation and so persuasively supported their cause. Their explanations of its effectiveness are remarkably similar. Somehow an author living thousands of miles away in a land of peace sensed precisely how they felt as victims of Nazi aggression. It never occurred to them that the novel was sympathetic to their enemy. In fact, they regarded it as far more effective than the prevailing formula propaganda, which struck them as comical because it was so absurdly exaggerated. And the Nazis certainly did not think the novel treated them favorably. They banned it wherever they were in control. A member of the resistance in Italy reported that mere possession of it meant an automatic death sentence.

In spite of the Nazis’ efforts to suppress The Moon is Down, hundreds of thousands of copies of the Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, and French clandestine editions circulated during the occupation. It was easily the most popular work of propaganda in occupied Western Europe. The efforts put forth by the resistance and by ordinary citizens to distribute the novel within their respective countries, and the risks they took in doing so, bear witness to the importance they attached to it.

Vidkun Quisling

The Norwegian Nazi puppet Minister-President, Vidkun Quisling.

The illegal Norwegian-language edition of The Moon is Down was translated in Sweden by a forty-year-old exile named Nils Lie. Before the invasion of his homeland, Lie had been chief consultant for Gyldendal Publishers. Gyldendal had brought out translations of Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath in 1938, 1939, and 1940, respectively. Late in 1942, several thousand copies of Lie’s translation of The Moon is Down were printed by Swedish press on tissue-thin paper, bound with soft covers, and smuggled into Norway. Some were spirited across isolated points along the thousand-mile border between Sweden and Norway, and a few were dropped from airplanes, but the bulk were cached in luggage carried by regular rail lines. Most of the small, easily concealed pamphlet editions got past the control stations; apparently, a few did not, because officials in the Nazi puppet government in Norway were almost immediately aware of the existence of the special translation. They were so uneasy about its possible effects on the Norwegian people that, in December, when thirty-six copies were confiscated in courier luggage shipped to Oslo from Sweden, six were sent immediately to the head of the state police and to the president of the puppet government himself – the infamous Quisling. Thousands of unconfiscated copies were delivered by the Norwegian resistance to reliable citizens, who passed them along to friends. Frits von der Lippe, a wartime employee at Gyldendal in Oslo, related nearly forty years later how he became a typical “distributor” of the novel:

An astonishing thing happened [to me] in 1943. In the middle of the day in Oslo’s main thoroughfare, Karl Johan Street, among uniformed people and civilians who might be dangerous, a man came up on the side of me and said, whispering. “Follow me. I have something for you. Something you shall distribute.” I knew the face, but not the name. I said to him, “Why here, now?” He said, “I came this morning, and I leave tonight, when I have delivered what I have in the suitcase.” “Back to Sweden?” I said. “Yes.” Then we went from Karl Johan over to Stortengade, the next street, and went into a house with an elevator with seven stops and traveled up and down, up and down, until we were alone. Then this man gave me four or five packages and said, “Go straight home.” And he put me out on the fifth stop and went down the elevator, and I’ve not seen him since. I went home and opened up one of the small packages and found the small copies of Natt uten måne! [the Norwegian tide of The Moon Is Down].

Such was the popularity of The Moon is Down in Norway during the occupation that in the middle of June of 1945, just five weeks after the liberation, a new legal edition was in bookstores. At that time in Norway an average printing for a novel was between one thousand and two thousand copies. The Moon is Down came out in two printings of ten thousand copies each, both of which quickly sold out. The play version was performed immediately after the Oslo national theater reopened, only four months after the liberation. A Norwegian critic hailed The Moon is Down as “the epic of the Norwegian underground.”

A uniquely qualified witness to the novel’s effectiveness as propaganda in Norway was William Colby, later director of the Central Intelligence Agency under two presidents, Nixon and Ford. One of the few Americans on the scene during the occupation, Colby served during the early spring of 1945 in a special operations unit of ski paratroopers attached to the Office of Strategic Services. He had read The Moon is Down three years earlier and was “tremendously impressed” by how well Steinbeck had captured the Norwegian national mood.

In occupied Denmark, the first illegal Danish-language edition of The Moon is Down was translated by two young law students, Jorgen Jacobsen and Paul Lang. They had received a copy of the American edition shortly before Christmas of 1942, along with a request for a Danish translation from a student resistance group known simply as the Danish Students. Its members hoped that distribution of the novel in Denmark would ·embolden the resistance movement there. Jacobsen and Lang completed their translation in one week. They worked day and night with a concise Oxford English Dictionary in one hand and a glass of beer in the other, glancing over their shoulders for the Gestapo. An anonymous comrade in the Danish Students delivered it to another member for printing. A short time after that, other printers with connections to the student resistance were assembling separate clandestine editions of Jacobsen and Lang’s translation. Perhaps the most productive of these printers was Mogens Staffeldt, a Copenhagen bookseller then in his late twenties who had been involved in resistance activities from the day the Germans invaded his country. Staffeldt hocked his life insurance policy to buy the mimeograph machine he used to crank out copies of The Moon is Down in his bookstore. That bookstore, located on the town square, was on the bottom floor of the building which housed Gestapo headquarters for Copenhagen. But the steady traffic of Gestapo entering and leaving the building twenty-four hours a day failed to slow Staffeldt’s operations. At the time, the Nazis regarded Denmark as a “model protectorate” and were eager to mollify its citizenry. Staffeldt turned that attitude to his advantage. On several occasions when loyal Danish students came to his bookstore to pick up disguised bundles of The Moon is Down and other forbidden titles for delivery to various distribution centers, Staffeldt stepped out of his store, summoned passing Gestapo officers, and enlisted their aid in loading the anti-Nazi literature. “Don’t just stand there,” he would scold; “help these kids!” The enemy’s secret police invariably responded by scrambling about in unwitting service to the Danish resistance.

Staffeldt alone mimeographed fifteen thousand copies of The Moon is Down. The Danish students delivered them to reliable contacts in other bookshops or in large businesses such as banks or shipping firms. These contacts in turn sold them to trusted customers or employees. The proceeds went to the resistance. Eventually the translation was in such demand that many citizens retyped it and ran off new mimeograph editions for further circulation among their friends. Each mimeograph master yielded a limited number of copies, so the entire novel had to be retyped again and again. Later in the occupation another Danish translation with a different title appeared. It too was widely distributed.

Each mimeograph master yielded a limited number of copies, so the entire novel had to be retyped again and again

As in Norway, the appeal of The Moon is Down in occupied Denmark was attested to after the war ended by the immediate publication of a regular trade edition. The first run was of five thousand copies. That was followed by a second printing of eight thousand copies in 1961, a third of ten thousand in 1962, and additional printings in 1974, 1976, and 1980 – remarkable quantities for a country whose population today is only five million.

The illegal Dutch-language version of The Moon is Down was prepared by Ferdinand Sterneberg, who was a forty-three year-old actor living in Amsterdam when the Nazis overran his country in May of 1940. Early in 1944 a friend with ties to an underground publishing firm known as De Bizige Bij (the Busy Bee) brought him an English-language edition and asked him to translate it. Sterneberg, a longtime admirer of Steinbeck, agreed. The Busy Bee edition came out later that year in a run of over one thousand copies. These sold at a high price – today roughly equivalent to between two and three hundred dollars apiece – because the proceeds were directed to a resistance organization providing relief for actors and actresses thrown out of work for refusing to join the Nazi-sponsored cultural guild.

Sterneberg, who used the nom de guerre Tjebbo Hemelrijk, also prepared a Dutch-language stage version of The Moon is Down, from which he gave dramatic readings in Amsterdam, in The Hague, and in the countryside. According to Sterneberg, he presented his one-man show to audiences of between twenty-five and fifty people, whom he always prepared for the possibility of a Gestapo raid. Immediately before and after these readings Sterneberg and his friends sold copies of his translation. After more than fifty performances he was forced to quit. He had been hiding in his apartment two Jewish friends, a brother and sister. They lived with him throughout the occupation, and escaped discovery during those years only because of meticulous precautions. “Untrustworthy” neighbours lived in the apartment below, so Sterneberg’s friends could not move around, use the bathroom, draw water, or even talk when he was gone. Sterneberg could not in good conscience continue leaving them in such danger and discomfort for the long periods of absence his readings required.

After the war Sterneberg and his fellow actors gave many performances of the dramatic version of The Moon is Down. The Busy Bee also brought out a new edition of the novel. Ironically, because the publishers had access to better quality paper during the war than immediately following the liberation, the new edition was inferior to the one published secretly during the occupation. Several fine Dutch editions have been published since.

The French clandestine edition of The Moon is Down was released in February 1944, six months before the liberation of Paris. Its printing of fifteen hundred copies was the largest of the entire war undertaken by a Parisian underground press aptly named Editions de Minuit (Midnight Editions). The translation was by Yvonne Paraf, young woman who had adopted the nom de guerre Yvonne Desvignes. She was a childhood friend of the printer for Midnight Editions. Paraf worked from an English-language edition of The Moon is Down published two years earlier in Sweden. She knew that a French translation had already been published in Switzerland in 1943, but she and other members of the French resistance wanted a new one, because Swiss officials had censored passages that might have offended the Germans. The Swiss had deleted Steinbeck’s references to England, to the war in Russia, and to the occupation of Belgium by the invading army of the same country that had occupied it twenty years previously, all of which served indirectly to identify the unnamed country to which that army belonged. At that time the Swiss felt vulnerable to German invasion and were trying hard to avoid displeasing their powerful neighbor.

In France, as in Denmark and Holland, sales of illegal editions of The Moon is Down helped fund the resistance. The money earned by Paraf’s translation was turned over to the National Committee of Writers, which used it to support the tunilies of patriotic printers and typographers shot or deported by the Nazis. According to the French patriotic press, the impact of The Moon is Down in occupied France was “immense and incontestable.” Immediately after liberation, Midnight Editions published the novel in a volume identical in every detail to the clandestine version. It was included, in fact, as one of several works in a special collection constituting Midnight Editions’ first public issue. The single printing of The Moon is Down was of 5,325 numbered copies.

The Moon is Down also enjoyed unusual popularity in European countries that escaped German occupation. The expurgated French-language Swiss edition mentioned earlier was published in Lausanne in 1943 by Marguerat. A German-language Swiss edition appeared in Zurich the same year, published by Humanitas Verlag. Theaters in Basel performed the play version to enthusiastic audiences, and then the Schauspielhaus in Zurich produced a highly acclaimed run of approximately two hundred performances. In England, Heinemann published its first edition of the novel in 1942, following with a so-called “Middle East Edition” the next year. The English Theater Guild published the dramatic version in 1943, the same year the play opened at London’s Whitehall Theatre. The Swedes brought out two editions in 1942 besides the one intended for distribution by the resistance in Norway: a Swedish translation published by Bonniers and an English-language version printed by the Continental Book Company – the edition Paraf used for her French translation. Soviet magazines serialized two different Russian translations of the novel in 1943: a complete version published in Znamya, and excerpts in Ogonyok. Despite the virtually unanimous disapproval of Soviet critics, who regarded it as vague and unrealistic, The Moon is Down was the best-known work of American literature in the Soviet Union during the war.

There is also evidence that the novel was distributed within the Axis itself. During a visit to Florence more than a decade after the war ended, Steinbeck was approached by an Italian who had opposed Mussolini. He had translated The Moon is Down, mimeographed five hundred copies, and then circulated them among fellow members of the resistance. They had been in great demand.

The Nazis were not the only fascists against whom The Moon is Down served effectively as propaganda. Far to the east, a well-known Chinese professor of literature, Chien Gochuen; had obtained a copy of an English edition through the office of the British press attache in Chongqing, China’s wartime capital. Chien recognized immediately its potential propaganda value for his country, much of it then occupied by the Japanese. He completed his translation in 1942, and beginning early the next year it ran as installments under Chien’s nom de guerre, Ch’in Ko Chuan, in the first seven issues of New China magazine. Ten thousand copies of each of those issues were published – a remarkable number given the formidable wartime shortages in China. Shortly after the last of the installments appeared, the publishers compiled them in a single edition for circulation throughout China. Forty years later, a spokesman for the book company that published New China magazine remembered that the Chinese people were encouraged by “the patriotic eagerness of [Steinbeck's] characters to resist their conquerors.”

Today, at a half century’s distance from the controversy ignited by the publication of The Moon is Down, it is clear that Fadiman, Thurber, and other critics who had prophesied its failure as propaganda were entirely wrong. Evidence of its success in Nazi-occupied Europe and in China is compelling: the dedication of those who translated, printed, and distributed it at considerable risk; the impressive number of editions and copies published – during the occupation, on makeshift machinery and under taxing conditions, as well as after the war by recently liberated publishing houses; and the accounts of former members of the resistance and others who witnessed firsthand the force of its ideas.

But beyond the obvious conclusion that Steinbeck was right and his critics wrong about what would constitute effective propaganda, several questions arise. Why were the hostile American critics so mistaken, and how do we account for the difference between their reaction and that of the Europeans? Why did the American detractors fail to appreciate what so appealed to the Europeans? And finally, what does the stunning wartime European reception of The Moon is Down tell us about the genius of John Steinbeck?

The French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre offers a theory that probably accounts for the critics’ divergence of opinion. In his postwar essay What Is Literature? he contends that we can have no true understanding of a literary work unless we know who an author is writing for. To illustrate his point, Sartre recalls a wartime literary controversy similar to that surrounding The Moon is Down. Another highly popular work of anti-Nazi fiction published in France during the war was a short novel entitled The Silence of the Sea, written by Jean Bruller, a member of the French resistance better known by his nom de guerre, Vercors. Like Steinbeck, Bruller portrayed the Gemans as human beings, often intelligent, if misguided, and frequently polite and likable. The Silence of the Sea succeeded as propaganda within occupied France, but it found a hostile audience in French men and women living abroad, many of whom in fact accused Bruller of collaboration. Sartte’s explanation for the mixed reception is that Bruller was writing for compatriots living under the Nazis. He was among them, sharing their feeling and the routines of their existence. He realized that to stereotype all Germans as ogres would have been laughable to those who had daily contact with the enemy and who knew better.

Few literary works in our time have demonstrated so triumphantly the power of ideas in the face of cold steel and brute force

Like Bruller, Steinbeck revealed in his approach to propaganda not only a shrewd psychological perception of what would work and what would not, but also a respect for his European audience. The crude oversimplifications of most propaganda are, after all, patronizing. There is no such condescension in Steinbeck’s approach. But Steinbeck’s understanding of what would appeal to a European audience under the unusual conditions of the day is all the more remarkable because, unlike Bruller, who had the advantage of being on the scene and of writing about people he knew well, Steinbeck was a foreigner living thousands of miles away. Steinbeck’s own explanation for the perceptiveness that made his propaganda so effective is simple. During his visit to Norway in 1946 to receive King Haakon’s medal, he was asked on several occasions how he knew so well what the resistance there was doing. His answer was, “I put myself in your place and thought what I would do.” That reply explains more than the success of The Moon is Down in occupied Europe; it reminds us what readers of Steinbeck all over the world had already recognized as among the writer’s major attributes: his sure sense of audience, and his empathy with the oppressed. European partisans who ran considerable risk to publish and distribute The Moon is Down because they believed it would help their cause agreed about the source of its power: a Danish publisher ascribed it to “Steinbeck’s sincere sentiment … a human quality which penetrates”; a Norwegian reviewer to his ability to capture “our feelings … our problems, our hopes, our sorrows”; the Dutch translator to Steinbeck’s insight, “especially into [our] reaction against the ones who took over the country”; and the French translator to the author’s masterful understanding. All are acknowledgments of the sympathy and the social intuition that John Steinbeck had already demonstrated in works of the middle and late 1930s, most notably Of Mice and Men, In Dubious Battle, and The Grapes of Wrath. The success of The Moon is Down as propaganda, then, underscores Steinbeck’s signal literary strengths.

Most works of propaganda do not survive the crises that produce them. The Moon is Down is an exception. Since 1945 it has appeared in at least ninety-two editions in the United States, England, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain. Mexico, Hungary, France, Belgium. Turkey, Germany, Switzerland, pre-Communist Mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, Egypt, Sweden, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Korea, India, Greece, Iran, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Burma. The novel’s endurance suggests that while The Moon is Down may have been conceived, written, and used as propaganda, it is probably best described as a work of literature that served as propaganda. Judged by purely artistic standards, it is not among the author’s best efforts. Scholars and reviewers have most frequently criticized its wooden characters and transparent didacticism, flaws characteristic of novels of ideas. But few literary works in our time have demonstrated so triumphantly the power of ideas in the face of cold steel and brute force, and few have spoken so reassuringly to so many people of different countries and cultures. Against the fiercest assault on freedom during this century, John Steinbeck calmly reaffirmed in The Moon is Down the bedrock principles of democracy: the worth of the individual, and the power deriving from free citizens sharing common commitments.


Donald V. Coers, Taken from the Penguin edition of The Moon is Down


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