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Campus Classics

Oct-Nov 2009

For each Penguin Classics Newsletter we invite a professor to share an experience of teaching with a Penguin Classic. Richard Haw shares his experience of teaching John Steinbeck's The Moon Is Down in his course "The Second World War: History and Culture" at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

When it comes to the literature of the Second World War, The Moon Is Down is a difficult book to classify, and thus a wonderful book to teach. Steinbeck wrote the novella during the height of the conflict, and designed it explicitly as propaganda (Steinbeck was working for the US Office of Coordinator of Information at the time). Most propaganda doesn't make it onto college syllabi, of course, and for good reason. But this is different: as propaganda, it was awful. Or so Steinbeck's American critics thought at the time. Europeans living under Hitler's iron heel thought differently: they loved it, as have most of my students.

Those that hated the book thought it soft on the Nazis not sufficiently vicious nor harsh enough on the enemy but of course there are no Nazis per se in The Moon Is Down, nor Germans, Jews, or Europeans, and neither are there any place names or nations mentioned. Needless to say, the book certainly is about the Nazi occupation of Europe, but the lack of details lends the novella the quality of a fable or parable. The Moon Is Down is not so much about specifics but about situations, about cultural contact, occupation, political legitimacy and profound social turmoil. These and not the particulars of war itself (although, of course, the mundane details of occupation provide an interesting contrast to the blood and guts of fighting) were the elements that most intrigued and fascinated my students.

Obviously, the issue of occupation is current, and my students picked up the parallels with Iraq way before I had chance to introduce them myself (it helps that the occupying force in The Moon Is Down are there specifically to mine the town's rich coal reserves). And again, the question (or nature) of propaganda comes into play. Surprisingly, the occupiers are decidedly not demons, and neither are they overtly odious nor especially cruel. They are patriotic soldiers sent by their government to perform a task, and they attempt to carry out this task without undue force or malice, albeit unquestioningly. That they are hated so entirely by the townspeople fundamentally baffles the occupiers, and this fact helps provide a window into Steinbeck's main subject: the psychology of occupation, in regards to both residents and the occupying force. And the issue stretches further than mere war: as my students pointed out, the psychology of occupation presented by Steinbeck is often very similar to the psychology of colonial subjects, making the novella curiously related to issues of empire and imperialism.

The Moon Is Down is also, fundamentally, a book about the modern world. The occupiers are a "time-minded people": efficient, organized, corporate. And the occupying soldiers come to resemble nothing so much as modern office workers. The villagers, by contrast, move to the rhythms of nature and rural life, which makes them unfit for the rigors of organized war, but strangely good at resistance and disruption. They rebel against orders, but also against the idea of order itself. All of which, ultimately, helps explain a fundamental dichotomy of war, as seen by Steinbeck: while a well-organized, well-oiled fighting machine sows chaos and destruction, a rag-tag bunch of unruly civilians work to restore order. Ultimately, it seems, one needs an awful lot of order to create disorder, and an equal amount of mayhem to return.

Richard Haw Associate Professor
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York
Course: The Second World War: History and Culture